On Losing Self-Blame and the Pressure to Feel Joy

HP Love 2Imagine 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.

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10 thoughts on “On Losing Self-Blame and the Pressure to Feel Joy

  1. Why do depress people blame there parents & family for there depression? I would do any thing to help my child feel better. But after I am done talking I die a thousand deaths. How can I help?
    How do I not break in million bits myself now?

  2. Oh Therese, I hear you! Even though I feel I’m way beyond those suicidal inclinations, I do have the daily battle raging inside. I fight with the voices, lacking concentration on the blessings from God. My precious daughter gave in to those voices and took the easy way. Adding to my guilt is that I did into recognize her inner demons, so similar to mine. I wasn’t there to help her in her fight. So…the voices get stronger!

  3. Dear Therese,
    So beautifully written. You spoke gently but directly to my heart. Thank you for confiding such intimate and profound feelings. Please write more on this topic to help guide me through this boundless morass.

  4. and i thought i was the only one feeling this way. wow, if i were a writer, those words could be mine.
    there is no joy. Thank you for your bravery and openness, it helps us/me.

  5. “May my life be of benefit to all beings.” Perfect … It reminds me of something that one of my longtime, beloved friends told me recently: “In your vulnerability is your calling.” That knocked my socks off! Our lives being of benefit to other beings takes the onus off the showy “joy” that we’re pressured to evidence — the “glee club” cheer that only exhausts us. It is a heartbreaking experience to be dogged by death thoughts when all around us is balmy beauty … Don’t we feel like the most mutilated of freaks in these moments! ~ I do my best to reframe the death thoughts into “memento mori” moments — to allow the closing in of mortality-awareness (I’m in my mid-50s) to thrust me into whatever bliss is present — to BE there, to ground the memory of bliss somehow for future reference … One of the ways I save myself from premature annihilation is to remember these moments when all seems bleak — We so often speak of aftermaths, and usually in the context of some horror or trauma — but “aftermath” also applies to the goodness that has flowed through us — I remember the smallest details: a certain July meadow near my grandfather’s farm; the undulating muscles of a pony’s galloping back under my eight-year-old thighs; a sublime summer afternoon passed on a dock with my two best friends — the one day in my adult life when I dared to lie naked in the sun; a melting embrace of pure cherishment with my once-husband in a shower … on and on, through and through, these memories remain as pure presence and proof of what has been and what remains now no matter what. The paradox of absence as presence … Memories like this save my life when my own suicidal five-year-old (for I did want to die at five) begs to yank open a major artery and be done with it all. To have lived through such moments of pervasive bliss and to draw forth the sensory memory of them … Every day, they save my life. ~ And Therese, your life is of benefit to so many beings. Death thoughts and all. You open a depth and breadth of dialogue — transparency — that we all can relate with. You bring the ‘mysterium tremens’ into ordinary realms — grocery stores, backyard and bayside gatherings, gummy bears, lemonade stands. We’re all there.

  6. Therese, your article describes exactly what happens when I am sitting with others. There is this inner WWE fight going on with me trying to focus on the conversation and the other fighter convincing me that it would be better to go back home and not have to work so hard at just enjoying a dinner with others. You give me hope that I will endure although that fight may still be going on in my mind.

  7. I don’t know how to thank you for this. This is me -my brain as well. It is torturous. I am so glad I found you. I am part of your FB page as well. Hugs, Claire

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