Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Call of the Red-winged Blackbird

I have read a lot about depression. I have personal experience with it, both as a counselor/social worker, and from my own diagnosis.  The information can be confusing, to say the least, but here I am adding my voice, for what it’s worth.

I want to share just a little from my personal experience, starting with today.  Today I would say I felt moderately depressed; on a scale of one to ten (ten being the worst) I was probably at a seven.  I have been unemployed for almost a year, I’m in my 50’s, my face is not the face of the young girl I identify with, and I live alone.  Most of the time I am content with myself and my life, but sometimes all the negatives crash in.  Still. I got myself to apply for a job online, take care of some personal business, and decided I had to get out of the house. Today was a sunny, cool and breezy spring day.   After going to the store I went to a nearby nature center.  I live in a major city but am fortunate to be a short drive from several nature centers, parks, and forest preserves.

When I pulled into the parking lot I was going to sit in the car and let myself cry and feel sorry for myself, just for a little bit.  But hearing the birds, seeing the fresh green of new leaves just opening, and feeling the sunshine changed my mood. I got out of the car, started walking, and I heard it.   It’s a melodic two note sound; a low ”tooo “ followed by a high “weet” --  a haunting sound.  I looked up and there he was in a tree, a red-winged blackbird. And instantly I felt joy, and all the sadness and hopelessness was temporarily forgotten.

What a relief. 

I went for a walk.  I saw a mother and her young son, and as I walked by them something flew over my head. “It’s a butterfly” the boy said, and tried to follow it.   I saw trees with white blossoms, some with pink and white ones, and one with deep pink flowers.  In the pond, geese were sticking their rear ends up as they searched for food underwater.  And I said a little prayer of thanks for nature, and for being able to easily experience these things. 

“Mindfulness’ is a big catchphrase these days.  It annoys the heck out of me; these popular phrases usually do.  I remember when everyone was using the term “cutting edge”- it made me want to cut something.  And lately everyone is saying they are “down with that”. But I digress.

What does mindfulness mean? Well as far as I can tell, it basically means paying attention – to what is around one, and to what is inside.   This is not a bad thing, not at all; in fact I’m in favor of it. I have personally learned to take stock of what I am feeling, to sit with that feeling, and to acknowledge it.  As far as the outside, I do tend to notice and appreciate my surroundings, and I’m often slow and mindful as I perform a task (though sometimes I am just slow).  But in my opinion, mindfulness doesn’t always make one feel better.  What if there are car alarms going off?  What if I have a cold and my nose is running?  I can certainly notice those things, but paying attention to them is likely to make me feel worse.

When I’m out in nature, it’s easy to be mindful of every little thing – the butterflies and geese, the reeds moving in the water, the call of the blackbird.  Out in nature, paying attention comes, well, naturally.  Yet I find myself thinking how odd it is to say “out in nature”, or when people say they “like nature”, as if it’s a specific category in life.  Nature IS life.  It’s what we come from, where we go to, are a part of.   We have taken nature and put it into a category, into “centers” to “preserve” it.  It reminds me of the science fiction movie “Silent Running” where the last of the forests on earth were put into domes and sent into space, to be preserved for the future. 

Perhaps I am exaggerating, since I live in an urban area.   I know many areas of our country, our planet, are more “natural”.  Still, few areas are unchanged by man.  For myself, I prefer natural nature to a manicured lawn and a nice garden in the suburbs (not that I would reject living that way, if given the chance).  I prefer the wild.  It invigorates my soul, it washes away sadness, doubt, despair, and anxiety – it puts me directly in touch with a power greater than myself. 

I believe that one major reason for the rise in depression diagnoses is this loss of connection to the natural world. I believe it is one reason so many people are so devoted to their pets. Being around animals is a great way to connect with the natural world. Even if they are domesticated, animals all have some wildness in them, and it is a proven fact that pets help people with depression.  

Almost any kind of connection is good for people with depression (unless it is abusive).

More people are living alone than ever before. I am one of them.  Most of the time I do not feel lonely, because I have my pets, because I have a good support system of friends and family, and because I have somehow, after years of therapy and support groups and medication (and I still make use of some of these) I have gotten in touch with a sense that I am ‘part of’ a larger whole and therefore not alone.  I am one of many struggling with isolation, unemployment, debt, trouble getting motivated, and many more challenging human situations.  In my previous employment, before I was laid off I talked to people every day that were poor, chronically depressed, and isolated from society. I was able to lift their spirits a little bit, just by being there to listen and to understand.

Now, I see I did not write about depression, not really.  I wanted to discuss the issues of medication vs. no medication, the complexities of western culture, the need for ‘talk therapy’ (which is often more about being heard by another human being than anything else) and more.  But all I can really say is what has helped me. All of the above and more have helped. Yet I can’t help but think about that blackbird with its little spot of red on the wing, and how I knew when I heard his song that spring was truly here, and it was like coming home.   And I hope everyone can find a red-winged blackbird to call them home.

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