I looked at the clock. It was quarter to three in the afternoon and it was time to pick up my kids from school. I peeled myself from the couch and donned oversized black boots and a brown winter coat, even though it was fall, because the long coat covered my pajamas. Breathe, Gillian. You can do this.
For most women, stepping out of the house to get their kids from school isn't daunting. But for a person who fights depression, for me in a depressive episode, it may as well be climbing Mount Everest. My struggles with mood date back to my childhood but were exacerbated after the birth of my children. Postpartum depression gave way to major depressive disorder—a severe, oftentimes episodic depression that affected functionality in my everyday life.
Depression, a damaging illness frequently unacknowledged in families, communities, and faith circles, proves to be a vicious opponent in my life. Much like any other illness, I must actively participate in the pursuit of health. I labor to relieve symptoms and try to keep episodes fewer, farther apart, and shorter with the help of Jesus, a cognitive behavioral therapist, my family, and medication. I pray for health, but realize my depression is one battle I will likely fight for the rest of my life.
About a year ago, I started utilizing a tool called "catching thoughts," an adaptation I derived from a concept known in psychotherapy as "mindfulness." My therapist told me about the practice, rooted in Buddhism, during a session. Knowing that I am a Christian and would be uncomfortable with an exercise from another faith, she explained it in terms of therapeutic relief. "Mindfulness is simply a practice to be in the here and now instead of letting destructive thoughts take over," she said.
Oh yes, destructive thoughts. She must be talking about some of my old favorites, like you are a horrible mom, or you have no idea what you are doing. Both intrigued and afraid, I leaned forward on the couch as she continued. "Gillian, it's simple, really. You narrate your surroundings out loud in an attempt to ignore your negative thoughts." The word "narrate" appealed to the writer in me. She continued, "The next time you find yourself buried under circular, unhealthy thoughts, if you can, start talking about the things you see around you. See if that helps."
I didn't want to try mindfulness. I feared the Buddhist connection, and, to be honest, the whole thing sounded a little silly. I already struggled with mental illness. I didn't want to get caught talking to myself too. But destructive, catastrophic rumination is a major issue in my depression. Sometimes I feel like my mind is on a tilt-a-whirl of negativity, and no amount of prayer, medication, or warm baths seems to bring relief.
A few days later when I was alone in the house with fear pounding against my temples, I tried it. "I am sitting on the smooth, cool brown leather couch. I hear a truck pass by on the street. Footsteps climb up the stairs outside my window. I look. The mailman has delivered the mail. He whistles as he descends back down the staircase." My pulse slowed. My breath evened out. Stunned, I realized that as I talked about what was happening around me, the destructive thoughts dissipated.
Later that day, I told my husband about catching my thoughts and he reminded me of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 10:5, telling us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." "I don't see how saying out loud what you see around you as a way to calm down is bad," my husband said. "Just commit it to God. Ask Jesus to meet you there."
So I did. I practiced catching my thoughts whenever I found myself careening to an unhealthy place inside me. Sometimes I narrated to Jesus and then asked him to set me firm on the true foundation of life—that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and loved, and valued enough that he exchanged his life for mine. I imagined myself crumbling up a bad thought like it is an old, dirty shirt. "Here you go," I said and handed it over to Christ.
Depression comes and goes in my life. But I continue. On good days, I practice living without depression. On bad days, I work to live with it. On horrible days, I take a nap and wait for it to pass. I'm a pilot checking her gauges, making sure the engine turns on and the air pressure is okay. Sometimes my tools do the trick, and the slippery cliff that drops off into a pit of depression is evaded. I imagine myself flying up and away from pending anguish. Other times, though, I crash. But with God's help, I'm attempting to fly.
So I opened our front door, stepped out, and asked God to join me. I can do this. I will pick up my kids from school, I thought. I started to speak: "I'm walking down the street. The wind is cool on my cheek. My feet crunch fallen leaves. The sky is gray. I hear someone hammering at the construction site near our house. A blue truck drives by." I narrate all the way to my kids' school, under my breath so no one else will hear. My spinning thoughts ceased. My breath slowed back to a normal cadence. Thoughts like you are a terrible mom, what mother freaks out about picking her kids up from school? are replaced with, that car is a pretty shade of red, or my left knee just popped. I narrated the way the trees waved in the breeze. I noticed God's Creation all around me. I breathed. I paid attention to my steps and solidified my thoughts. Then I arrived. "Thank you, God, for all of this. Just, thanks," I whispered.
Gillian Marchenko is the author of Sun Shine Down and is currently writing a memoir about depression. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four girls.