Friday 23 September 2016 12.00 BST
I’d been running from or fighting my depression for two and a half years, and neither approach had worked. Relentlessly dogged by self-punishing thoughts, heavy, tensed-up limbs, heart palpitations and a churning gut, I’d done everything I could to shake myself clear of the continuing hell of daily existence.
Tell us about a time you faced your fear
New job? Tick. Therapy? Been there. Move house? Done that. Medication? Script after script. Nothing I tried would shift the unholy mix of gloom and panic that had engulfed me a few weeks before my 28th birthday.
I couldn’t understand it. What was I doing wrong that kept me in this state, when my life (good education, good prospects, supportive family and friends) looked so privileged, on the surface?
What I needed to learn was that it was the very resistance to unpleasant thoughts and sensations that kept them going. While a series of stressful life events – relationship break-up, buying a first property, realizing I was in the wrong career – had triggered this episode, I had a much longer-standing and deeply rooted pattern of trying to battle or escape from difficult feelings. Reacting to anxiety as if it was a predator about to eat me was spectacularly maladaptive – the more I tried to fight or flee, the more agitated and exhausted I became.
At some level, I knew I couldn’t get away from myself – as the saying goes, wherever I went, there I was. And I’m relieved to say that although tempting at times, I didn’t seem capable of overt self-harm – taking the struggle with self to extreme. But what to do instead? I had little idea.
Through my endless self-help reading, I’d come across meditation, of course. I’d even tried it for a few minutes, now and then, but soon leapt up in horror when my experience was nothing like the Buddha-like peace I hoped would ensue. Still, there was something about mindfulness that made sense to me – if I could find friendly terms with the present, might that at least be a way to cope when life wouldn’t bend to my plans?
Facing my fear: I was molested as a child. Would my own kids judge me for it?
Finally, rather than reading about the meditative life, I sought out practical instruction. This was vital – my teacher knew to start me slowly (mindful tea-drinking, some short periods of sitting quietly each day) and offered reassurance that the torrent of thoughts and emotions I encountered was nothing unusual. The key was in how I related with them – rather than trying to stop or get rid of them, I began to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, letting go of the desperate desire for something, anything, better to happen. This felt profoundly counter-intuitive, and yet somehow freeing.
Gradually, I worked up to longer sessions – 10 to 15 minutes a day. I didn’t feel better yet – my psychic patterns of aggression and avoidance were strongly ingrained. But a shift was happening, and the next time I collapsed in an anxious frenzy, I called in sick, stayed at home and gave myself up to acceptance. I felt the feelings, let the thoughts trundle through, and did my best to stay present and patient, despite the urge to scream. Ten days later, lying in the bath one Friday morning, the symptoms of depression passed. For the first time in nearly three years, I felt happy.
This was no quick fix. I’ve experienced many relapses over the years, but over time they’ve diminished in length and power, and my life has moved in the direction of peace. I believe this stems, in no small part, from a sustained commitment to meditation, which has taught me to greet pleasure and pain with something more like equanimity. It’s helped me understand the habits that lead to suffering, as well as offering a means to untangle from them.
I’ve become more able to withstand and work gently with the symptoms of low mood and panic that come to walk with me, sometimes. Responding to the calls of body and mind, I’ve been able to make a series of major life changes that once seemed entirely out of reach.
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t thought it possible that the way through my psychic torment was to turn kindly towards it, with stillness and a smile. And yet the rewards of making and remaking that turn, difficult though it is, have gone way beyond my wildest hopes back then.