When you’re depressed, people love to tell you to think positive or be grateful. Fortunately for these people, I’m a pacifist and their lives were spared. It’s not that these aren’t useful skills, they just aren’t useful to someone who is severely mentally ill. It’s like telling someone with a leg injury to walk it off. If it’s a mild muscle strain, sure, walking might ease the discomfort. But if someone’s leg has been blown off, walking it off is an utterly ridiculous notion. I can’t tell you how validating it was when I finally saw a therapist who informed me that I really was too sick for the power of positive thinking to be an applicable solution and that we needed to sort out my brain chemistry first and then maybe give it a whirl. Well, my brain chemistry’s been sorted and now that I have the capacity for it–it turns out this positive thinking stuff is pretty neat! I thought these were skills I would have to construct, like an Ikea cabinet–I might have the necessary parts and tools, but surely I’d have to fit a few pieces together, tighten down some bolts, curse the Swedish gods in frustration. But after I began ketamine treatment I found these skills were ready and waiting–no assembly required.
One of my first experiences with this newfound ability came just after I had completed my first round of ketamine treatment, while on a family vacation to explore the national parks in southern Utah. I was sitting in the bedroom of our rental house contemplating a forecast that called for four solid days of rain–not something you expect on a desert hiking vacation. In a depressive state I would have welcomed that news with a despairing why me and curled up under the covers in defeat. But it was like my brain had been stripped of malware and rebooted with a brand new operating system. Zoe 2.0 thought, There’s got to be a solution here and set to work researching options. By the time the rest of the family awoke I had a game plan–we would drive two hours south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon–a place I’d never been and was elated at the prospect of visiting–and outrun the rain. See? I thought, No need to despair–this is even better than what we had planned!
Well, we made it to the North Rim, but the rain followed us there. Just a few minutes into our hike the grey skies loosed a torrential downpour that left the trails a muddy wash of flowing water and debris. We took shelter under the canopy of a pine tree and debated what to do. Should we turn back? The dampness was beginning to seep through our clothes and the chill cut bone deep. But I was determined. I wielded my new powers and spurred us onward. “It’s not so bad!” I urged, “It’s more of an adventure this way and the rain is keeping the other hikers off the trail so we have the area to ourselves. Not to mention, look how phenomenal the fog is in the canyon below–we would never have gotten to experience that in sunny weather.” My mom surveyed me with an expression generally reserved for suspected pod people and remarked, “Who are you?!“
We completed the entire ten mile hike and as we drew near the vista overlooking sweeping views of the canyon, its varying hues of burnt reds and oranges glowing through the silver mist, the sun broke through the clouds and drenched the forest in a dazzling light. Ponderosa pines shimmered beneath a sheen of rainwater, their cracked bark releasing its distinctive scent of marshmallow and vanilla. Quaking Aspens swayed in the breeze, their trembling leaves catching the light like flakes of gold. We stripped off our layers and basked in the warmth of the sun, a moment made all the more remarkable for the storm that preceded it.
This ability to reframe my thoughts and experiences has changed my perspective on life time and again. It often manifests in smaller ways–blink and you might miss them–but I think that’s the nature of silver linings. It’s easy to be appreciative when something wonderful happens, or on a grand adventure with a storybook ending, but the true magic lies in finding the good in more difficult times. I began to notice it while schlepping to work on weary, mid-winter bike rides. I’d be in a fit of despair–fingers frozen in a death grip on the handle bars, numb legs peddling away–when approaching the intersection near the corner bakery, the warm, sweet aroma of baking cakes and sugared buttercream would waft discordantly through the arctic air. In that transcendent moment I would think, Man, I guess life is pretty wonderful after all. It’s a moment that wouldn’t be nearly so striking as viewed from the comfort of a temperate day, and it is this contrast in our experiences that enriches our lives and inspires awe. These small gems were hidden in the murky depths of depression, but once the lights were switched on I began to discover them everywhere–glittering in even the dullest grit.
Today was one of those dull, gritty days. I still have them on occasion, though, post-ketamine, they’re few and far between. I spent most of the morning and afternoon in bed as the world around me receded in a monotonous haze. I couldn’t drum up the desire to be productive or creative, or hell, even watch TV. I felt that old, familiar bitterness creeping in, leeching away any shred of positivity. I figured the day was a loss. But when the time came I was able to get myself up and ready for work. Once there, after a rocky start and a few moments spent contemplating the logistics of drowning myself in a flower bucket, I found myself slowly crawling out of the abyss. To my surprise, instead of resenting the necessity of work on a day when I would rather not have left the house, I was able to view it as an opportunity to pull myself out of my funk. I found myself laughing along with coworkers–not the pained laugh of someone fumbling for natural, human emotion that I’ve so often been forced to employ, but a genuine, easy chuckle. Then, toward the end of my shift, my coworker sorted through one of the coolers and offered me a generous bouquet of roses, tulips, and anemones to take home. (Rescuing flowers on their last legs is one of the major perks of working at a flower shop.) This simple gesture filled me with a sense of gratitude and delight and, in turn, a recognition that those feelings wouldn’t be nearly so poignant if not for the bleakness of this morning.
These feelings strike me over and over. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that small spark of optimism that bathes my experiences in a new light and allows me to marvel at the grace of it all. Behold the power of positive thinking (more like, behold the power of ketamine), transforming life’s cruelties into moments of quiet celebration. I hear it might rain tomorrow–break out the champagne.