Let's drop the myth that you can empty your mind - that only happens when you're dead. But rather than run from or repress the critical voices (and we all have them, not just one in four but all of us), you learn to watch your thoughts, rather than getting trapped by their demands. The greatest liberation of my life was learning that thoughts aren't facts; they come and go, some are heavy, some light but always changing and you don't have to cling onto any particular one if you choose not to. It's like having a radio on in another room, you can listen or not. Those of us with depression or even those who suffer from anxiety or stress, in order to avoid those accompanying critical thoughts, make ourselves incredibly busy (sometimes doing things that don't need to be done) but no matter how many triathlons you run, those thoughts will come back and bite you when you finally hang up your gym shoes, which you eventually will; we'll all have to hang up our gym shoes someday.
When I had my third child in 1993 the kindest act anyone ever did for me was give what I had a name; clinical depression. Finally I knew I wasn't crazy, I had a disease, which hopefully could be treated. Of course, I embraced medication even though I believe it's archaic but it's all we've got. Medication isn't foolproof, if it was, everyone on an anti-depressant would never have it again despite cramming themselves with multiple pills (I take so many I crunch when I walk). In the end you don't even need a trigger to fall back into depression. You can analyse as much as you want, when this beast jumps on your back, you're helpless. After the last bout, six years ago when I had a hard time leaving a chair for three months, fearful of everything, even the shower, I thought 'I'm going to take this seriously and research what's out there to help me get early warnings, to hear the pitter patter before the tsunami crashes over and breaks me, the way animals have their ears to the ground before an earthquake'. I wanted that. I decided I would learn what really goes on in the brain and return to school.
So I manically investigated the latest research on the brain and found out that mindfulness and cognitive therapy had the best results for preventing relapse. I chose mindfulness. I wish the choices were between mindfulness and knitting, it would have been easier to explain to friends but mindfulness won out. I was reticent about doing something that sounded like I'd have to put a bindhi on my head while sitting on a mountain, listening to sitar. But I said 'put the sarcasm aside Ruby; study this'.
I hunted down Mark Williams, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy who taught me an eight-week course. I thought this was sensational and I wanted to learn more on how it was affecting my brain. He said unfortunately I'd have to go to Oxford and get a masters; I have the drive of a rottweiler so entered those hallowed halls in 2010 and graduated last September. The other students were already professionals, serious grown up people who looked at me like they were having an encounter with a third kind but God dammit I was there. I learnt how the brain works, and how mindfulness can help us corral the multitude of voices that are the internal soundtrack to our busy lives.
What those of us with depression usually do when the voices are particularly critical is we give ourselves a hard time. We get angry at ourselves for having the voices so it's like sending in a second arrow. Pain is painful but suffering is optional. I know it seems counter-intuitive but only if you look directly into the eye of the storm, you'll know it's time to batten down the hatches, try and de-busy-fy.
Cancel the dinner parties, no one's going to care and you hate those people anyway. About a year ago I heard the early warnings: I'd wake up terrified so I'd start my day with an insane 'to do' list; 'buy lamp, get toothpaste, learn Spanish' with more urgency than Obama finding out if North Korea is hiding missiles. Because I could spot I was in trouble, I immediately cancelled everything, checked into a retreat that costs £29 a night, turned off the lights, didn't read or watch TV and after about four days the cortisol and adrenaline lowered because I didn't feed the animal. The depression passed; I dodged the bullets.
Mindfulness isn't for everyone, we all are as different as fingerprints and have to find our own way of breaking bad habits that can seriously damage our health. For me having a means of tuning into my mind, checking the weather conditions and spotting if a storm is coming has saved my life.
I'm talking about the brain and mindfulness on my Sane New World tour all across the UK until the end of May.
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