I’ve made it to Day 22 of a grueling food elimination diet to see if allergic foods may be contributing to my health issues. The health yields have been imperceptible to non-existent. But I remain curious enough to keep going.
The experience hasn’t been without silver linings, like learning how to cook fish (the only allowable protein), and reclassifying acorn squash as comfort food. Parsnips aren’t so bad either. Plus, I’ve been reminded that inside my unhealthy body beats a lion’s heart.
Beyond the profound pleasure deprivation, there’s been a deeper, unexpected challenge. When I subtracted the comfort of foods I love, I discovered a pile of accumulated, long-disavowed…grief. Despite struggling with intermittent depression for nearly twenty years, I had no idea this much sadness was buried beneath that delicious Indian or Thai takeout.
Over the last few weeks, it’s looked like garden-variety depression around here. Little interest in spending time with people. Inability to do what I can do when I’m not depressed, like write.
Early in the food elimination process, a friend posted a comment on my blog. She said that giving up foods she loved included a true mourning period, with all the characteristic phases and feelings. So I decided to experiment with reframing this recent episode of depression as grief.
I’ve cried countless times about my struggles over the years. Yet, I’ve never felt entitled to my sadness. The more tears, the more I silently berated myself, demanding toughness, resilience, and focus on what’s right in my life instead of what’s wrong.
But I’m tired of feeling ashamed of the feelings and struggles and special needs that make me who I am. Through this latest test of determination I’m starting to see myself in a new light: as a warrior, tears and all.
In the last few weeks, the sadness that I’ve been invalidating for nearly two decades has flooded me.
Grief for food pleasure was only a harbinger, warning of deeper griefs beneath. Grief that I’ve felt unwell year after year after year, despite heroic efforts to get better. Grief that I’ve missed out on so much in life by being hindered by my body. Grief for the unrealized potential that defined the first half of my life. And the disabling pain that has caught me most off guard: grief that I will most likely never bear a child.
I’m ready to acknowledge that all of this grief is worthy of my compassion and attention.
When my brother Jeff died a few years ago, I didn’t play any of these convoluted mental games about whether I was entitled to my feelings. We’d suffered a flagrant tragedy and I’d lost one of my kindred spirits and best friends. That may be the only thing about death that’s tolerable: it’s one of the few times in life when we’re “allowed” to feel pain.
After my brother’s death, I fell into a grief cauldron and saw that I could survive the pain. I still miss him every day, especially at times like these, but I don’t feel confused or stuck in grief, the way I’ve felt paralyzed by my other struggles and losses.
We create the allowance for traditional grief because we know it will shift and lessen with time, even when it feels like we’re drowning in it. Death grief, though brutal, feels more organized than murky, borderless depression. It’s warranted, understood, and tolerated because everyone can see what you’ve lost.
Anyone who’s suffered a massive loss knows that it’s nearly impossible to bypass or skirt around this kind of grief. Eventually it catches up to you, demanding to be felt. One of the reasons that acute grief eventually recedes is because we give it the time and attention it requires.
What if depression, whether it’s a one-off episode or a chronic battle, reflects unacknowledged, less socially acceptable grief for things that people don’t send sympathy cards about? What if we paid compassionate attention to feelings of depression, to investigate if some kind of loss lies at the center of the sorrow?
If we looked at depression that way maybe we’d be kinder to ourselves, giving the pain space to shift and heal, like we do with grief. That’s what I’ve been trying to practice over the last few weeks. It’s not easy and it doesn’t come naturally, but I’ve heard voices of gratitude from within saying “thank you…thank you…thank you…for being sweet, for validating the pain, without comparison or qualification.”
Looking on the bright side and focusing on our blessings is powerful and sometimes imperative to emerging from the dark. But I think the pollyanna directive is too often used prematurely, to short circuit pain since it’s so uncomfortable to look at or feel in ourselves and, especially those around us. Plus there’s a mythology that emotional pain is bottomless, discouraging us from “going there”, for fear of being swallowed alive.
Maybe it only feels bottomless because understandably, we’re too scared to swim down and look. Maybe the bottom isn’t as deep or dark as we think. Maybe depression clings to us so tenaciously, like those static styrofoam packing peanuts, exactly because we’re so opposed to it, doing everything in our power to shake the sadness off. The more we shake, the more it clings.
Instead of letting it be still, long enough to notice that it may fall off, or at least be pluckable, when it’s been witnessed and supported, like with grief. As I’ve been playing with this idea of mini-griefs guised as depression, I do sense a deep loss at the core of all my depressive content. So I’ve been trying to apply the same tenderness I used with myself after Jeff died. This new approach is already bearing fruit: today I was ready to write again.