Mindful Behaviorist – Sunday afternoon depression – An ACT story

Depression and Acceptance and Commitment TherapyI no longer cook often for my whole family.  Bereavement, and my adult daughters moving away, has taken away a role I loved.

Like everyone, I am most prone to feel the ache of loss when I am not working and have nothing in particular to do.  That used to make Sunday afternoons hard.

My fallback position when in distress has always been to look for the answer through reading.  It didn’t help.  I would think about the past, and begin to feel worse and worse.

There is a wonderful YouTube video by Joe Oliver (based on a metaphor by Russ Harris) called “Demons on the Boat” which you can watch lower on this page.  It’s a cute cartoon about a man who has demons in the hold of his sailboat.  He makes a deal with them to leave him alone, but whenever he tries to sail to shore, they come up on the deck and abuse and intimidate him.

Now I was not trying to “sail to shore” on those Sunday afternoons.  It was more that lack of structure in my day had stopped avoidance from working.  My “demons” were out in full force, and they were well named, because the theme of these kinds of thoughts is always that life is meaningless and hopeless, that I can do nothing right, etc.

Even though I was often sad, I also found happiness during “downtime”  by taking up photography.

I know this sounds like a ridiculous cliche. “Get a hobby!”  It’s not a way to avoid the necessary pain of grief.   But it can work for depression that lingers on.

ACT is about finding what life directions you value and pursuing regardless of how you feel.   Being creative wasn’t my most important value. – Flying out to see my grandchildren often and finding spiritual meaning again meant much more to me.  But sometimes it’s the “lesser” values that really help give direction.  I couldn’t visit the kids every weekend, and spiritual reading can actually make things worse when what’s needed is doing rather than thinking.

When I turned to photography I was remembering something that happened years earlier.  Because I failed Art in the British equivalent of 8th grade – (Does this say as much about the teacher as about me?) – as a young adult I thought any attempt to be “artistic” was pointless.  However, I loved gardens, so later on when I needed to make a plan for mine I started to read about garden design.  To my delight, I found that you can LEARN to do it.  I studied intensely.  I worked too hard physically (with bad effects on my knees).  Eventually I had a garden that my family and friends loved, a source of comfort and delight.  And, when a family member was ill years ago, I would design borders in my head at 2am, keeping the “thought demons” at bay when I could not sleep.

I realized that photography could do the same thing as garden design for me.   It has happy associations.  I remember “helping”  my father develop and expose film in his darkroom in the garden shed.  I already had a camera that had belonged to someone I loved.  Photography is a (much) cheaper hobby than gardening (or perhaps I’m a newbie and not yet tempted by expensive extra lenses! )  and you can do it all year.

In the “Demons on a Boat” video, the sailor decides he will head for shore.  He realizes that though he can’t get rid of the “demons”, they can’t stop him from doing whatever he wants.  He doesn’t have to wait to feel better first.  We can do something positive, even when suffering.  And ironically, once we accept that we have to put up with our negative thoughts, their power will tend to diminish.

Have I “recovered” from feeling depressed on Sunday afternoons?  The feelings are sometimes still there, but now I have something fun to do.  Even though I have lots to learn about photography, I put my photos up on my website.   When you do something that you value, you can be happy even when you’re sad.

Here’s a link to “Demons on a Boat”.