Imagine you had to take a five-year-old with ADHD with you everywhere you went: to work, in the shower, to the grocery, on your run, out with friends. He was always anxious to leave and get back to his xbox at home. On the way to the store, he’d ask, “How long is this going to take?” As soon as you put one bag of produce into your cart, he’d say, “Can we go home now?”
It’s like that with my death thoughts.
They aren’t necessarily suicidal ideations. There is no plan of action. Just an urgency to be relieved of the chronic pain I feel, a rush to get somewhere that doesn’t require so much effort to get through a day or an hour.
I’ve had this five-year-old following me my whole life, although there have been periods where he occupies himself nicely and isn’t too much of a nuisance. Ever since last summer, though, the bugger has been jacked up on gummy bears. “When can we go? When can we go? I don’t want to stay!” He doesn’t care if I’m in the middle of something. He doesn’t care about anything but getting home, or somewhere other than where he is.
This last past weekend was especially frustrating.
My husband and I were having dinner with friends, without the kids, which we do maybe two or three times a year. It was a beautiful night, we were sitting on Spa Creek which leads into the Chesapeake Bay—a spectacular view. I was trying my best to engage in the conversation, but all I could hear was, “How long? How long until I get to die?” I knew that everything about this moment should have brought me joy, but I just couldn’t feel it. There was nothing there. I was homesick and wanted to get somewhere that I didn’t have to fight my thoughts so hard.
“Listen to her story,” I’d instruct myself.
“Forty-five more years until a natural death?” he’d ask.
“Lean in and concentrate on what she is saying.”
“But no one has lived to be older than 84 in our family so maybe you only have 41 more years.”
The problem with reading oodles of self-help books is that you think you know exactly what you should be doing to relieve yourself of depression and anxiety. For example, the book “Buddha’s Brain” explains the neuroscience behind happiness. Because the brain is plastic, we have the capability to carve neural passageways with our thoughts that will relieve us from despair. We just have to do our best to retrain all the negativity. By thinking good and positive thoughts, we reshape the circuits of our brain.
So when I’m eating or showering or running or working and I hear the repetitive death thoughts, I try my very best to become the Buddha and let them go, while thinking of something positive, firing as many neurons as I can so that they wire together and become part of my memory. According to the authors, “this rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your new brain, to gradually shift the emotional shadings of your interior landscape.”
Inadvertently, however, I’m feeding my homesick five-year-old another case of gummy bears that makes him more obnoxious than ever. Because the more death thoughts I get, the more I blame myself for them. Applying the logic of this book, you could make the argument that I am creating the death thoughts by cultivating a breeding ground for them. So while I sit there pretending to be having a nice dinner, I’m trying to rework the neural passageways and feel terribly responsible for my depression. The self-bashing goes on for about an hour and a half as we sit there. I make sure to laugh every three minutes or so, enough to seem engaged in what I’m supposed to be doing.
I have always felt terribly guilty about these thoughts. They are a source of great shame for me because I know I am so very blessed. Every day I scribble plenty of things in my gratitude journal. Intellectually I register all things considered good and I thank God for them, but the emotion is inaccessible. I see my ten-year-old hold a lemonade stand with tips going to the SPCA and I smile, but the joy is not there. And the more I try to force it, the faster it escapes. There’s a fried nerve somewhere, and the neurons can’t make it into my heart. This not being able to feel joy makes me hate myself. Because it feels like I’m throwing God’s gift to me back in his face like a spoiled brat, saying I don’t want it. Of course I want it. I just can’t let him know how much I want it because that part of me is, well, occupied by a busy five-year-old.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a deacon from our church. I shared with him an article I wrote about how I envy elderly people because they are closer to the end.
“Is that horrible? Depressing? Am I a bad person? Am I going to hell?” I asked him. I wanted absolution.
“No, not at all,” he replied. “I know several people who feel the same way.”
“If not feeling joy produces guilt and feelings of failure, then maybe we have turned the experience of joy into an obligation,” wrote a very wise man on the online depression support group I participate in. I didn’t even realize the boatload of self-blame that was going on in my noggin—the pressure I was putting on myself to operate like a Buddhist monk without a psychiatric diagnosis and cure myself of my illness—until I described my intense guilt this past weekend to these seasoned warriors who have fought similar battles.
I told the group that by repeating a Buddhist aspiration, “May my life be of benefit to all beings,” that Tara Brach mentions in her book “Radical Acceptance” (which is basically the same sentiment I express when praying the Prayer of St. Francis several times a day), I feel relieved of the pressure to enjoy life. According to this wisdom, I don’t have to feel or enjoy, or form any positive neural passageway. I just have to be of benefit to someone somehow. That, more than any other nugget I’ve gleaned in the 10 self-help books I’ve read this month, quiets the five-year-old.
They got it. They understood exactly what I was struggling with, which is why I think anyone who has conversations like this in their noggin needs a support group or people in their life who understand what it’s like to be having one conversation with a friend at dinner while conducting another one with the ADHD five-year-old inside your head that is incapable of joy.
One woman in the group said to me, “Here is another prayer Tara Brach shares in that book: ‘May I love and accept myself just as I am.’”
I suppose that even includes the homesick little boy and his gummy bears.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.