Have you noticed how many people use the words "think" and "feel" interchangeably? One of the things I had to learn in therapy is that the two aren't the same, but your thoughts affect your feelings, and your feelings affect your thoughts. If you're depressed, you need to know how to deal with both.
As an example, suppose Joan has just learned that she's not going to get the promotion she expected. How does she feel? Disappointed, certainly--perhaps even devastated. Maybe she's even angry. These are her feelings.
Now suppose her husband, Keith, promised to call her at noon to find out about her promotion, and he doesn't call. What will Joan think? Because she's in a negative state of mind, she may very well think, "He doesn't really care. He doesn't appreciate how important that promotion was to me. He probably didn't even remember that I was going to hear about it this morning!" These are her thoughts. But are they valid, factual thoughts--or are they being distorted by her feelings?
If Joan stops at this point and reminds herself that as a rule, Keith is a thoughtful, caring man, and it would be unlike him simply to forget what is important to her, she would still feel disappointed, but she'd have a more realistic view of the situation and wouldn't be angry at her husband.
On the other hand, what if she doesn't stop and analyze her thoughts? When Keith finally does reach her and tries to explain that a client called just before noon with an emergency, and Keith had to spend a half hour on the phone working the problem out, Joan might not even listen to him. She might even snap at him, displacing her angry feelings about the lost promotion onto poor Keith, who doesn't understand what's going on.
Not only can feelings be distorted by thoughts, but unclear thoughts can lead to invalid feelings. For example, let's suppose Jim is trying to repair a piece of machinery, and he believe he knows how to do so. But after a couple of hours, the machine still doesn't work, and Jim doesn't understand why. Jim experiences feelings of disappointment and frustration. He thinks, "I failed." That thought leads him to feel bad about himself. If Jim has a habit of thinking this way, the thought "I failed" soon becomes "I'm a failure."
Now let's look at Jim's twin brother, Tim, who is faced with the same situation. When, after working on it for a couple of hours, the machine still isn't working, Tim also feels disappointed and frustrated. He thinks, "Well, that didn't work! I'll have to try something else." He doesn't feel bad about himself, and he'll keep trying different methods until he finds one that works. Why the different responses from the two brothers? Notice that Jim interpreted the situation personally.
Over the years, I've met quite a few people who suffer from depression, and one thing I noticed is that they often blamed themselves when things went bad, even though they'd done nothing wrong. In particular, I remember a conversation with a woman who suffered from depression and had witnessed her father being injured in a bicycle accident. "It was awful," she said. "I felt so guilty!"
I was surprised and pointed out that while I understood that it was distressing to see her father injured, she hadn't caused the accident, and there was nothing she could have done to prevent it, so guilt was inappropriate.
"I know," she replied, "but I was there. I felt I should have done something!" Her feeling was not uncommon--in fact, it was a version of survivor guilt, often a factor in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was still an invalid feeling, and she needed to see it as such. It can take a lot of work to unlearn the pattern of unfairly blaming yourself--sometimes therapy is necessary. But if it results in a happier you, it's worth it!
A friend told me, "I feel as if I'm invisible. There are so many family pictures of my older sister as a child and so few of me. People call me by her name. It's as if nobody knows who I am!"
She's not alone in feeling this way. Over the years, I've encountered many people who feel overshadowed by a family member--parent, sibling, or well-known relative. Second and later-born children seldom get as much notice as the first-born, simply because their parents' time and attention is now divided. Anyone who has a sibling who is a star athlete or gifted student--or parents who are highly successful--has a tough act to follow. The thing to remember is that you don't have to follow in anybody's footsteps. Unfortunately, we live in an age when celebrity is worshipped, and many people will do anything for attention, often making others feel left out or ignored. But getting attention from others doesn't make you great; greatness comes from within.
In January of 1982, a plane carrying 79 people plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D. C. and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge. The impact killed 73 of the people on board, and six survivors ended up in the icy water. A police helicopter lowered two lifelines, and one man, Arland Williams, who was partially trapped in the wreckage, repeatedly caught one line and passed it to others until he was the only one left in the water. But before he could be rescued, the wreckage shifted, pulling him under the water to his death.
Afterward, reporters interviewed several people who had known Williams to find out more about this remarkable man. Interestingly, they all said pretty much the same thing: "He was just an average Joe." No one saw the greatness in him, but Arland Williams didn't suddenly develop a heroic character in the last moments of his life; it was already there, even if no one saw it before.
Few of us will have the opportunity to save a person's life, but we all can build that kind of character by practicing small acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness and selflessness. That's how we become heroes, and a hero is a hero even if no one notices.
m At one point in my therapy, my psychiatrist asked me whether I ever thought about suicide, I replied that there were times when I could think of nothing else.
"Have you ever attempted it?" he asked.
"It would devastate my family. I can't do that to them."
I had seen surviving families of suicides, witnessed the agony they went through, wondering if they did or said something that triggered the fatal event, berating themselves for not realizing the seriousness of the situation, even when a professional therapist had also missed the signs. No matter how miserable I was, I wouldn't end my pain--couldn't end it--because I cared.
Years later, I saw a wonderful demonstration of how caring about someone or something can get a person through deep depression. My father had died unexpectedly, and my 89-year-old mother was despondent. After 64 years of marriage, her world had collapsed, and her life was suddenly empty. She woke up crying every morning, and despite the efforts of her four children, she lost interest in everything. Then one day my sister said, "Maybe she needs a pet."
Mom had had small dogs for many years when we were younger, and it seemed like a good idea at first, but we realized she was no longer able to walk a dog, and too frail to be out in bad weather. She was never a cat person, so that wouldn't work, either. Finally my sister came up with the solution.
Mom's face lit up when the four of us presented her with a large cage, complete with all the accouterments needed to care for a songbird, and a bright yellow young canary whom she promptly named Petey. My sister put on a CD of classical music and Petey went to work, singing his heart out. When we all applauded at the end of the piece, Petey flapped his wings and bobbed his little head in response.
From that day forward, there was a change in Mom. She still woke up crying every morning for several months, but now she didn't linger in bed. The first thing she did each day was to clean Petey's cage, give him a small tub of water for his bath, clean drinking water, fresh seed, and a crisp piece of lettuce, for which he'd thank her by gently pecking on her finger. We also noticed something touching: whenever Mom entered the room, Petey greeted her with a song--which he did for no one else--and brought a smile to her face.
As time went by, Mom began to enjoy taking care of her flowers, watching her TV programs, sewing and knitting and getting back into social activities.
Caring had brought healing.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.