The Life-Saving Power of Purpose
Two years ago I tested that theory.
I’ve always been depressed. I must have emerged from my mother’s womb with an overactive amygdala and a deficient prefrontal cortex — creative brain wiring that generates panic and sadness. I was almost hospitalized in the fourth grade because I simply could not stop crying.
However, since December of 2008, when the market crashed, I hadn’t been able to surface into the land of the living and do things like pick up the kids from school and be at places like swim practice without hearing constant death thoughts (“I wish I were dead”). They were persistent, loud, and maddening.
For five years I tried countless medication combinations, saw my psychiatrist every few weeks, worked with a therapist, and swam two and a half miles every day. Still, I was doing death math — the type of arithmetic where you add up the ages of all your ancestors who have died and divide that number by the number of forebears to get the median age of death — the number that determines how long you have to hang on for.
So I tried the holistic route. I worked with a functional doctor and spent four months of my writing salary on 20 different tests to find the underlying cause of my depression. I eliminated dairy, gluten, caffeine, and sugar from my diet. I began taking a probiotic, liquid vitamin D and B-12, GABA, L-Theanine, SAMe, and 15 other kinds of vitamins and supplements.
I did 90 minutes of Bikram yoga twice a week. I enrolled in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the hospital and began to meditate for 45 minutes every day. One morning shortly after my last class in spring 2014, my death thoughts were more grinding than ever.
“WHEN? Just tell me WHEN can I die?”
I tried to let them go as I meditated, gulped down my kale-pineapple smoothie, and started stretching for my run.
I hurried out the door before my daughter could see my tears.
“Eighty-two. That was the last number I came up with.”
“Thirty-nine years from now?!?”
I ran and ran, and when I arrived at Hospital Point at the Naval Academy — a rock path that borders the Severn River — I stopped and let out a deep wail from a place I didn’t know existed in me. A raw and unprocessed pain surfaced.
And then I conceded. “I give up!” I yelled to God. “I give up on not wanting to die. I give up on wanting from this life any kind of joy. Right here, right now, I give you ever ounce of my being. Just use me to help another person escape this kind of agony.”
There were a few moments of peace. The kind of delicious equanimity amidst symptoms that bestselling author Toni Bernhard describes in her book How to Be Sick. And I knew I had stumbled upon my answer.
It wasn’t any combination of medications that could save me, although the right mix could help me stay stable. The antidote wasn’t a specific diet or a meditation practice, although both are important to staying resilient. I simply needed to get out of the way and devote the fragile, delicate parts of my heart to a WHY, and my WHY was never so clear as on that early May morning: to help persons who suffer from the same kind of chronic, treatment-resistant depression as I do, people who are tormented by constant death thoughts.
Later I read the words of Holocaust survivor and famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, MD, PhD, in the classic, Man’s Search for Meaning:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation — just think of an incurable disease as inoperable cancer — we are challenged to change ourselves.
I knew that the cure for my bitterness lie in using my pain for service. I could experience peace even in the midst of my suffering if I could find a way to use my bruises and sores for the good of others. All I needed was a medium that would allow me to reach out to others in loving compassion.
So two years ago from this week, I started a support group for persons with chronic depression on Facebook, Group Beyond Blue, which now has over 4000 members. A few months later I launched a new online community, Project Hope & Beyond, which now has over 12,000 members.
Research supports the idea that aligning ourselves with a cause and helping others can be a pathway to peace. According to a 2002 study in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. “Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain,” says the abstract.
Dr. Frankl’s “logotherapy” is based on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. If we devote our time and energy toward finding and pursuing the ultimate meaning of our life, we are able to transcend our suffering. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. However, the meaning holds our hurt in a context that gives us peace.
I am a big believer in logotherapy now, in pouring your heart into a mission that can become your life purpose.
I have made changes to my diet in the last year, which I believe made a significant difference in my mood. I continue to meditate, swim, work with a psychiatrist, and do everything else I can to stay sane. I still do occasionally get death thoughts, especially when I eat something made with sugar or white flour, or when I work too many hours. But they are not nearly as persistent or painful as they once were for six years of my life.
Obviously, I’m not cured. However, I know that something changed on that May morning I cried next to the Severn River. I discovered my WHY.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.
Borchard, T. (2018). The Life-Saving Power of Purpose. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-life-saving-power-of-purpose/