Sometimes I Forget to Remember

It has been tough couple of months. Not only have I had to fight through the usual seasonal transition to the early darkness of fall but I have been facing a number of additional stressors that have allowed my depression to do more than lurk in the back of my mind.

All the while, I have been forgetting the lessons I learned while in therapy so many years ago.

My psychotherapy involved a combination of humanistic and cognitive-behavioral techniques and lasted a little less than a year.  The humanistic elements focused on my desperately low self-esteem and bizarrely distorted self-image.  We also worked to unpack the effect of growing up depressed on my identity and my well-cultivated ability to “pass” for normal and therefore engage in a lot of self-protective lying.  The bulk of my treatment was the work I did using cognitive-behavioral therapy, however. I read among other things Dr. David Burns Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (it was the 90’s so it was relatively newer at the time) and diligently worked through the exercises. My therapist trusted me to work on the cognitive aspects of my depression on my own while we used our sessions to work through my other challenges.  I routinely shared with her what I was working on with CBT and she provided a number of critical suggestions along the way.

The focus of my CBT work was on identifying and then challenging my deeply embedded negative thoughts.  While the medication I had been prescribed (Prozac had just come out and I was one of the early adopters) had the surprisingly immediate effect of lowering the volume of my negative thoughts, I needed to learn to fight off those thoughts and recalibrate my thinking. The meds didn’t give me more energy or make me happier.  They just quieted down the negative self-talk so that I could focus on what I needed to do which was train my brain to first with great effort and later more automatically reject those thoughts. The behavioral part of CBT for me focused mainly on my tendency to isolate and to engage in a number of physically self-destructive behaviors.  My therapist worked with me to reduce my use of both of these maladaptive coping strategies. I won’t go any further describing CBT. Others have done so far more thoroughly.

Back to my fall.  Since the end of the spring semester of 2011, I feel like I’ve been lashed to a treadmill with a mind of its own.  Home, work, kids, horses, family, work, work, and more work.  Did I mention work?  Basically, work has been incredibly stressful. Add to that the fact that I’m getting older and my body has been letting me down. A lot. Oh and I have two daughters, 9 and 13 so there’s way too much drama around here. Then there’s the bloody economy and politics…

There just doesn’t seem to be an end to the list of stressors.

With all of this, I have been neglecting to stay on top of my thinking. As a result, I’ve started to backslide which is dangerous for me.

What I’ve decided to do for tonight was prompted by a conversation I just had with my 9-year-old. She slid onto my lap while I was working and said, “Mom, I’m having a sad feeling and I don’t know why.” After we chatted about that a bit I challenged her to list 10 things that make her feel good about herself. At first, she gave me the same horrified look my undergraduates give me when I assign them a paper of over 5 pages.  She said that there was no way she could do that. So I started her off with the fact that she has a whip smart sense of humor that routinely sends us into fits of laughter.  She agreed she was proud of that. Then I threw out her story writing ability. She agreed that she was proud of that.  Then I suggested that she showed remarkable empathy and caring when interacting with a child with a developmental disability recently.  She agreed that she could be proud about that. After a while, we got to 10 and just kept going.  She was up to 24 when I kissed her good night. I asked her how she was feeling and she said the sad feeling was gone.  I asked if she thought she could use that practice when she felt sad in the future and she said that she would try.

What can I put on a list of things to be proud of doing lately?

Of course, the first things that pop into my head are the things I have failed to accomplish such as the research article that I have yet to finish nearly three years after starting it, my seemingly unending supply of temper flare ups, my inability to focus on anything for longer than 10 minutes without taking a walk or getting a snack, the perpetually filthy state of my home, the fact that I have virtually no Christmas shopping done… You get the point.

So, what am I proud of doing lately?

1. I am proud that I stayed true to my values in an extraordinarily difficult and painful situation with a friend. While the friendship is now in jeopardy and may be over (a fact that makes me incredibly sad since friends who get you are really hard to find), I feel good that I didn’t compromise what I felt I needed to do and say for myself and the other people involved.

2. I started this blog as my stigma buster project for the year. I don’t have much of a following or much time to write but one of my posts was reposted on a UK site.

3. I designed a web page for our local NAMI affiliate including learning all about domain names and hosting. 

4. I helped bring about our affiliate’s first successful awareness walk. I am especially proud of the support given to me by my family.

5. My daughters trust me enough to tell me anything and allow me to guide them through their challenges.

6. I worked with my family to design and build an 8 foot by 8 foot horse shoe for a photo backdrop for the Stark County Fair. There is still silver paint on my favorite shoes from that endeavor.

7. I am proud of how my mini garden turned out this summer. I loved getting complements as it continued to grow and change across the season.

8. I am becoming proud of my ability to write.

9. I can park a horse trailer (although I do a lot better if nobody is watching).

10. Goldie Hawn responded to my Tweet tonight about bringing MindUp to college (ok that one’s really lame).

Recalling successes and reminding myself of my competencies helps me to refute and deflect the negative thoughts that are the stock in trade of my depression. While it may not be the best example of a cognitive therapy technique, the exercise of making this list has been a simple and valuable way of helping me to get back on track.


About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on December 6, 2011, in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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