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Surfing the Waves
Depression, Bipolar, Ptsd and being Sober

Being sober, I still deal with the effects of being PTSD Bipolar Depressive, only without the chemicals to numb the pain. I used to be so embarrassed of my diagnoses until I realized a very simple truth; there is a part of my brain chemistry that is missing and I have to take medication for it. Only then, can I begin the kind of spiritual work needed in my recovery. Also, having worked with PTSD specialists over the past five years, in addition to having the tools for living from a 12 step program, I also have a whole other set of coping skills to help me get through life.

Someone once asked me what it feels like to be PTSD Bipolar Depressive: I explained it as going to the doctor and the nurse asks you to describe your pain level 1-10. I only have two settings: 0 and 1,000. Finding middle ground is not possible, we deal with extremes of emotions. But on the plus side, we feel deeply, we are empaths, we are compassionate at the very best descriptions of the words. We can “feel” with people and that is something I’m really grateful to have.

Depression can swiftly overtake me like the tide rolling in, its current pulling me out to sea. It is like drowning, like suffocating beneath the surface as the world goes on above you. The water muffles sound and slows your movements. There is only darkness below, and it threatens to swallow you whole. You feel the fluid rush between your fingers as you try to fight towards the surface. You long to breathe again, to hoist this heavy weight off your chest, alleviate this pressure in your lungs. Sometimes you want to give up, perhaps growing too tired or coming to a standstill. Eventually you will break through, surfacing, and gasping fresh air. You look around and see the water shimmering in the sun, the sky, blue. The water level gets lower and you pull yourself up, clothes heavy, then drying, and you start to feel lighter. Who knows how long you’ve been under. You only see that everything has passed you by. Your scenery has changed.

This is how depression feels for me, this episodic drowning, resurfacing and dragging myself back to shore only to get swept out again. It feels hopeless knowing it would happen again. While my bipolar diagnosis initially brought relief — a dawning of truth explaining what I’d endured for so long — as soon as depression moved in I started to lose hope. The only hope I did have was that it would end — each episode, that is — the nature of bipolar disorder being that these cycles come and go and eventually I’d move on to the next one or, God willing, stability. I will admit that sometimes I secretly hoped for mania, which is also dark and destructive but still held some distorted joy to me, however dysfunctional that may be. But depression? That, I feared. Because though it ends, it feels like forever.

But, I started to fight. I decided I would do all I could to try to ride out the waves of depression instead of drowning in them.
How do you cope with the sea of depression, fight against the tide so you do not get lost at sea?

I’ve learned to be aware, and to try to prepare for it, much like gathering supplies to weather out an incoming storm. I do all that I can to try to reduce the damage it can cause. I used to be caught off guard and overwhelmed by depression, but the wisdom my diagnosis brought, along with some hard work and treatment, gave me the insight to try to foresee, lessen and, at times, avoid the tidal wave that is depression. At the very least, I’ve been able to avoid the catastrophic levels of damage I once endured.

Usually, there are signs. My signs differ from yours. Mine include struggling with everyday activities such as getting out of bed, showering or getting outside to do a workout. I start to procrastinate or let responsibilities slide. Others may experience different warning signs, such as nagging feelings of sadness, or a disinterest in normal activities. Whatever these symptoms may be, they may start to happen before depression fully sets in. I’ve learned to watch for them. I track my mood and log my symptoms, and when I start to see those telltale signs, I know I need to call my doctor and make necessary medication adjustments and discuss coping skills in therapy. I’ve decided that I don’t just want to let the depression happen; I want to attack it. That doesn’t mean I don’t get depressed or that I control this illness; it means I’m learning to live with it instead of it living my life for me.

Sometimes lifestyle changes can help in addition to medication and treatment. Examples of this include physical activity, diet and sleep hygiene. I struggle with getting a good night’s rest, only able to sleep 2-4 hours at a time. I crave sleep because sleep is important for stability. I exercise regularly and it has become part of my routine, making it something I’m less likely to skip out on. I set goals. I make my bed each day so that I cannot crawl back in it and hide from the world. I take breaks. I reach out for help when I need it.

It may be that depression comes and overwhelms you, and if that happens, don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. Know that you can fight, and know that it will end. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, even when it seems like you’ve been drowning forever, you will surface. You will feel the sun against your skin again, see the light of day and walk the beautiful shore, watching the ocean cast a jagged line against it when it is day again instead of dark, unending night.

For this post I selected a meditative work by John Luther Adams. His work, “Become Ocean” (Also check out “Become Desert”) serves as a perfect doorway to the peace of mind I seek when I’m overwhelmed with depression. This music reminds me of the push and pull of gravitational forces I have no control over, my best reaction is no reaction at all, to “surf the waves” as they come.

In certain ways, Adams’ piece is as much a seascape as Debussy’s work, “La Mer,” in its rolling waves of sound curling up and out, building to climaxes and receding, and at the end not so much subsuming everything else. Its final silence is deafening!!!! But minimalist fans of composers like Philip Glass and John Adams (no relation) like me, will find a home in John Luther Adams’ work, too. Become Ocean ushers you in and swallows you up. It’s gorgeous, darkly beautiful and ultimately unsettling.

Adams famously builds his music into unusual structures. “Become Ocean” — which juxtaposes three mini-orchestras within the larger ensemble — Adams submerges listeners in surges of sound masses that carry us out further and further from our own personal worlds. Let go, Let be….. and finally….

Let in. The music calms me and that is what music can do if you let it wash over you.

I am sending out loving kindness to those open to receive it.

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