Long-term depression could be your shortcut to enlightenment.
I’ve called the shortcut ‘the BROH trick’. With or without medication, it’s the gentlest way to liberation. It’s permanent, it’s free, and it’s already helped many people find their way to healing!
If you’ve arrived here because you’re depressed and want out, you’re very welcome. I’ve a suspicion that only depressives will understand it. This is a personal site and I’d be very glad of any feedback you might like to offer, and to try to answer any questions you might have. I’m not a professional therapist with expert knowledge of depression, but I have become something of an expert on experts 🙂
My name, by the way, is Viv Mitchell. I was depressed for 35 years – the long-term, low-level misery that is now called dysthymia – and tried just about every therapy under the sun, together with all sorts of spiritual practices, martial arts, relaxation techniques, university degrees, self-help books, you name it. All to no avail.
Then while on Prozac I developed the BROH trick. I found that for me, it beat all the therapies into a cocked hat. And you can do it all with your thinking! I know that dysthymia will never bother me again.
I’ve written this article to explain everything you need to know to use the BROH trick for yourself. If your depression is anything like mine was, then I think you’ll find that the trick will work wonders in conjunction with whatever therapy you’re doing, and you’ll start to get a handle on what the therapists, wise books and kind friends are saying.
The real beauty of the BROH trick is all the things you don’t need to do to make it work. There’s no need to dig out and examine your childhood traumas; there’s no need to dig into the past at all. You don’t need to go looking for someone or something to blame. You don’t need to come to terms with horrible, deep truths about yourself. You don’t need to keep ‘mood diaries’, with or without a therapist looking over your shoulder. And you don’t need to try to substitute new thoughts for old ones.
No digging: sadly, all the therapies I tried went in for digging. The idea seemed to be that the root cause of all the bad thoughts would be found by trying to isolate the original incidents that caused them. The result is seemingly endless, agonising hours talking about yourself to a trained stranger. The more you hate it, the more they see confirmation that they’re getting to the truth and you’re showing ‘resistance’. It occurs to me that it’s perfectly reasonable to resist something that’s wide of the mark, just as it’s perfectly reasonable to show grief at a rock-bottom self-esteem.
A psychodynamic counsellor tried to point out that I had no reason for the low self-esteem, that I was reasonably competent at most things. But it fell on deaf ears. I can only see now that what she was saying made some sense. The depression wouldn’t let me see it.
No blame: trying to pin blame on someone else, or something in your past, is surely unlikely to be much help. Perhaps the idea is that if you blame someone else you stop blaming yourself. There are indeed some clear-cut cases – for example a victim of child abuse carrying the blame because she didn’t know it was wrong and actually enjoyed the attention. Take it from me, if that’s you, you are not to blame for that. And if that’s the root cause of lots of other bad thoughts about yourself, recognising it is unlikely to lift them all at a stroke. The depression stops you seeing clearly. Even if you do manage to dig up an incident in the past, which first laid down a bad thought about yourself, it may well have been what would have been a perfectly normal part of experience for someone else. For decades I blamed my low self-esteem on the Church of England because it seemed to be telling me repeatedly that I was worthless. But lots of people have been subjected to the Church of England without getting that feeling out of it. The point is, I’d have heard the message that I was worthless anywhere.
Even if there is a clear ‘root cause’ of your depression, you need to get rid of the depression before you can look at it properly. This seems like a horrible paradox, but the BROH trick can resolve it.
No affirmations: you certainly don’t need all those positive thinking affirmations on Post-it notes around the house telling you you’re really as valuable and lovable a human being as anyone else. We all know how hollow they sound when we’re swimming through treacle just to get out of bed. Positive thinking looks, to a depressive, like nothing so much as a deliberate exercise in self-deception. Trying to repeat to yourself that you are really a loving, generous person (or whatever) is like trying to tell yourself that black is white. The very fact that you are trying to convince yourself of something is proof that you don’t believe it. When a kind friend tries to pay you a compliment you can’t accept it. Even if you do accept it, you find half a dozen snags that make it worthless.
No mood diaries or reprogramming: trying to reprogramme youself is a mug’s game for most of us when we’re depressed. They ask you how you feel, and you’ve got no idea how you feel. The last thing a depressive needs is a close examination of the whole ghastly business. Changing it, from the point of view of the depressed state, is out of the question. The very idea that you have to chisel away at it bit by bit looks like trying to wear down a mountain with a toothbrush.
The BROH trick simply dissolves the mountain.
And the fact is, when you’re not depressed, you don’t go round carrying the thought that you’re a really nice person. You don’t actually think about yourself much at all, unless you’re aware that there’s something that needs changing. The point is: get rid of the depression first. Then you can go about creating the loving and giving human being. If you find you really want to, that is.
Finally, you’re allowed to think. The last, but by no means least, advantage of this approach is that it’s all done by thinking. There is a spiritual – though tradition-neutral – component because it does involve a shift to a higher level of consciousness – nothing fancy, I promise you:-). The trouble with using a ‘spiritual search’ to get out of depression is that all the traditions are so anti-thinking. You have to turn off your busy little brain, they say. I used to think that my depression was based on a desperate need to understand the incomprehensible, and that this pointed to some sort of congenital spiritual handicap.
Now I know otherwise. The BROH trick was developed by thinking, and implemented by thinking. You don’t have to believe something that seems preposterous, or out of your depth, to do it. But in the outcome, many of the wisdom texts begin to mean something at last. You really have moved on.
That means that there is no danger of relapse; the whole caboodle has just melted away.
What you do need
There are different kinds of depression, and I can only speak for my own experience of it. But I think there are four things you do need for the trick to work.
First, you need what the professionals, bless them, call ‘low self-esteem’. I don’t need to elaborate on that one: it’s the main hallmark of depression. But it’s not the same thing as the depression itself.
The second thing you need is a steaming pile of negative thoughts about yourself that keep coming back to haunt you, either triggered by something or seemingly out of the blue. Not all depressives get recurring negative thoughts about themselves, but most do. The sort of thing I mean is: I’ll never get the hang of being a decent human being; I’m not a nice person; I never do anything right; and so on. Any hint of criticism, or something that goes wrong, brings one of them to mind, and very quickly the others follow, along with memories which reinforce them, and before you know it you’re mired in a ghastly grey goop. You use up a tremendous amount of energy wrestling with them, and it’s no wonder your sleep is disrupted and you spend most of your life exhausted.
Depression is referred to by the pundits as ‘irrational’. From my present vantage point as a confirmed ex-depressive, I find that I disagree quite strongly with that. Depression is, for many of us, an intensely rational process. All the thoughts and the evidence are marshalled into a perfectly coherent way of looking at yourself and the world. There’s nothing wrong with the logic – it would have Mr Spock gasping with admiration. It’s what it’s based on that’s the problem.
If you’re not haunted by bad thoughts about yourself, then I have to say that I have no idea whether the BROH trick will be any use to you. You’ve got nothing to lose by trying it with the symptoms you do have. The way it worked for me depended on having the negative thoughts, but it doesn’t matter a hoot what their content is.
Thirdly, you need to understand clearly that the low self-esteem and the ‘orrible thoughts are not the same thing. That’s where the thinking comes in. The low self-esteem is a judgement about yourself; the bad thoughts come unbidden, like an annoying tune you’ve got on the brain. In my garden there’s a bird whose song includes the four notes ‘Drunken Sailor’ in the sea shanty. So, when I’m doing the weeding, I’ll hear the bird and soon enough I’ve got ‘Ooray and up she rises’ belting out in my brain in the thickest Cornish accent I can muster. It’s got to the point now where I don’t need to hear the bird: the weeding itself brings it on. Imagine the blind alley you could follow with a psychoanalyst who wants to get to the bottom of your association between drunken sailors and weeding! I tried to grow an edelweiss once: thankfully it died.
The bad thoughts and the self-image look like the same thing when you’re in the grey goop, because the unbidden thoughts seem so objective. There is evidence all around you to back them up. The best analogy I can think of is the difference between true love and infatuation. When you’re in the throes of it, you can’t tell which it is, but the chances are that you’ve had enough experience of infatuation in the past to know the difference with hindsight. For instance for me, the difference between my husband and all the other men I’d been in love with was that with him I never felt I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t. The quality of it was totally different.
Another analogy that might help is this: think about how you see your worst enemy. Never mind the content – the point is that the quality of the judgement is different. You can’t see yourself in the same way as you see others, because you don’t see what’s going on in their heads; you can only see what they do with it. Holding someone else in low esteem is like holding yourself in low esteem without the ‘orrible thoughts. It’s a judgement.
Trendy counselspeak is fond of telling us that we shouldn’t be judgemental, and it’s a load of cobblers. No-one can function without judgement, and the most judgemental bunch of people I ever encountered were the local Quakers. So for Heaven’s sake (to coin a phrase) don’t start feeling guilty about making judgements about people. You can work on making your judgements wiser, after you’ve sorted out your depression. Meanwhile you are fully entitled to the ones you’ve got.
The point is that the judgements you make of yourself, and of others, are not the same kind of thing as the unbidden thoughts that haunt you.
Finally, you need a strong enough desire to break free. Please don’t get me wrong, but strange to say, this might be the tricky one. It might even be one of the bad thoughts – that ‘there’s something within you that wants to stay miserable’. Certainly in my case, depression was so much a part of my life for so long that the idea of not being depressed – of living without even the spectre of depression – was so alien that there was a lot to be said for staying the way I was. If you have got a problem here, let me give some reassurance. The release from depression using the BROH trick is a very subtle and gentle process. Nothing happens too fast for you to cope. The improvement in your life creeps up on you, and you will cope effortlessly with things that, at the moment, you couldn’t imagine you could handle.
You’ll be in a much better state to deal with the other problems in your life when you’ve got rid of the depression. Many of them – a surprising number – will simply disappear with the depression, and the remaining problems will look so different you’ll hardly recognise them.
OK, here it is
The Broh trick isn’t just another strategy, like learning to meditate or trying to cultivate positive thinking. It’s not just another weapon to add to all the others in your fight against depression. It’s an insight which dissolves the need for a fight altogether.
OK, now here it is.
We’re all becoming increasingly aware that depression is a matter of chemicals in the brain. That in itself is very liberating in some ways, because it means that the depression is not your fault, but by itself it has a downside. It suggests that you’re stuck with it, that the chemical imbalance is a part of your nature, like a genetic predisposition to, say, arthritis.
But there’s also something else. Those ‘orrible thoughts I’ve talked about are also a brain thing. They are just like the irritating tunes you get ‘on the brain’ from time to time, except for the significance they have for your self-esteem. The tune that stays in your head long after you heard it on the radio this morning is just a pattern in your brain, which you can easily ignore. The ‘orrible thoughts, by contrast, seem to demand attention, because what they are saying matters. They seem to condemn the very fact of your existence.
•The more attention you pay to them, the more they are reinforced as patterns and the more poisonous they get.
•What you’ve got is a vicious circle between your self-image and the thoughts.
•Break that connection and the depression will gradually vanish.
BROH stands for Brain Running Old Habits, and the irritating tunes and bad thoughts alike are part of your BROH. The trick is to remind yourself, when you next get a weepie, that ‘it’s not me, it’s just my BROH’. Once you realise that it’s not you thinking those thoughts, that it’s just the brain up to its old tricks, you can ignore them and the vicious circle is broken. Ignore them and they really will go away!
It’s hard to ignore something that’s insistent, especially where your whole sense of self seems to depend on it. But in this case, you’ve taken the sting out of the BROH simply by recognising what it is. The BROH is just a set of patterns. They’re not true, and they’re not untrue. Just like the tunes, they come and go, they change over time, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with your self-image.
So for instance: you’ve just got in and you’re feeling a bit out of sorts. But you look at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink and you think: oh dear, I’d really better do something about that. So you reach down through the mess to the plug in the sink to empty the cold slimy water out and try and find somewhere to stack the stuff so you can fill the sink with hot, clean water. You turn on the tap, so far, so good. You start to put a few things in the sink and the gushing water finds a spoon and showers you and, among other things, the sugar bowl. You reach to turn off the tap and bang your hand against the spout. You’ve never banged your hand against that spout in all the years you’ve been living with it. By this time there’s probably some swearing going on, if only in your head, but you take a grip and wipe the floor vaguely (it’ll dry by itself soon enough) and chuck the towel in the pile by the washing machine. On the way back to the sink you knock your favourite mug off the table and break it. It wasn’t quite empty so there’s cold tea among the shards.
Everyone has had an experience like this. Everyone has days when nothing goes right. I’ll bet that even Jesus and the Buddha had their contemporary equivalent; it doesn’t fit the image, but, like I said, it happens to everyone. I’ve no idea what a seasoned saint would do now, but if he’s got any sense he’ll go off and do something else – maybe watch the snooker for a bit – and come back to it later.
But for thee and me, by now the BROH is screaming. You can’t even manage to do a simple thing like washing up! You drag yourself to the bedroom, climb under the duvet and howl into the pillow. What’s happening in your head now is all the old stuff about how useless you are – you have the proof lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of cold tea – you can’t take you anywhere, everything you touch turns into a pig’s ear, look at your life, it’s a mess from top to bottom, etc, etc. All of this is just the Brain Running Old Habits.
This is where the BROH trick comes in. The BROH thoughts have nothing to do with the broken mug, and they have nothing to do with who and what you are. You can see that, because they come back again and again in all sorts of circumstances. They are simply your brain’s habitual response, built up over the years, to the (perfectly reasonable) anger and frustration you feel when things go pear-shaped. Being a habitual response, you can’t do very much to change it but what you can do is short-circuit it. By all means stay under the duvet, study the familiar imperfections on the ceiling, and watch the thoughts, complete with renewed floods of tears (all part of the BROH). As soon as you realise you can watch them, you can understand that they’re not you. They’re just long-established patterns. See them as patterns, and hey presto, you’ve detached your self-image from them. Having detached, you are completely free to ignore them – they literally mean nothing.
And that’s it. There’s been no need for complicated philosophical gymnastics; no leap of blind faith; no trying to convince yourself of something that in your heart of hearts you don’t believe; and no nasty truths you’ve had to accept.
The patterns don’t disappear overnight, but you’ve managed to take the poison out of them.
Me and my BROH
The first glimmering of liberation for me was the dawning realisation that my depression was not a matter of my moral character. Now that doctors have effective antidepressants at their disposal, it’s much easier for them to acknowledge the problem in the first place – I wasn’t just a spoilt brat feeling sorry for myself after all. When the Prozac actually worked, that was the second step. I could see my depression as a chemical problem in my brain. For two years I saw it that way, and resigned myself to possibly taking Prozac for the rest of my life.
Then it dawned on me that the ’orrible thoughts – which I was still getting, though not so badly – were a brain thing too. I came up with the tune analogy to explain it, and realised that ‘it’s not me, it’s just my brain’s old habits’. It was like an old wound playing up, and had no bearing on my self-esteem at all. The BROH trick was born!
I came to understand that I wasn’t thinking the bad thoughts, I was thinking about them. The way the vicious circle works is like this: the negative thoughts were all conscious once but now they’ve become automatic, like changing gear when you’re driving. The self, on the other hand, is conscious here and now. So when something depressing happens – perhaps an embarrassment, a disappointment, a clumsy accident, or something you didn’t handle very well, you look at yourself and what you get is the BROH. So the BROH pulls your conscious self-image down, and the low self-image in turn puts more poisonous thoughts into the BROH. The spiral can go on for days at a time until, exhausted, you let go of it. Next time something happens, the BROH spews back all the accumulated stuff from last time. As the process repeats itself, the BROH gets more and more elaborate in its condemnation. Eventually, you don’t need to be aware of a trigger – it just seems to happen spontaneously, or as the expression goes, ‘out of the blue’, and then everything goes pear-shaped.
It’s obvious now why the old approaches didn’t work. Any technique that pays close attention to the BROH, even to challenge it, is totally unproductive. There’s no need to try to persuade the unconscious to change. You can challenge someone’s choice of wallpaper, but there’s no sense in challenging the wallpaper itself. It’s neither true nor untrue, it’s just a pattern. Once you see that, you can leave it in the background and let it fade, organically, so to speak. I do still find myself looking at it, and some of it does provide clues to my nature, but now that the depression, the vicious circle, is gone, it’s totally different. I can choose what to make of it. I could even choose to analyse it, Jungian style perhaps, if I wanted to – but there doesn’t seem to be any point anymore. My conscious self, unshackled, can go to work on a whole new set of choices.
Just in passing: I discovered recently, when I started thinking about publishing the BROH trick on the Web, that the vicious circle (the feedback model) is actually a central part of the theory behind cognitive therapy. It would seem from anecdotal evidence, though, that the theory also assumes that the client isn’t up to seeing what’s going on. If the BROH trick does anything, it might be only to tell the cognitive therapists that to point out the feedback mechanism can do the trick much faster than challenging the BROH thoughts one by one and encouraging the client to replace them with new ones.
The healing process
Depression has lost its sting, and it’s now just a matter of a little patience and being kind to yourself. You do still get the weepies for a while, and they still come out of the blue, but you start to treat them differently. I would perhaps go out ‘for a cigarette’, or ‘to go to the loo’ (to cause as little embarrassment as possible), and just let the body/brain mechanism run its course. I found I could talk quite normally with tears rolling down my face, just as if there was a cold wind. If anyone asked (which was surprisingly rare, even among ‘caring’ people) I’d just say: ‘It’s just the old brain up to its tricks again’.
Now that the ego isn’t feeding them, the weepies get fewer and farther between, and last minutes rather than days. Eventually you can see them coming and cut them out altogether. Because you’ve done all the thinking, you don’t have to rush the process because you know now that there’s no threat to what you are and how you see yourself. You can let it run its course, just the way you let a wound or a bruise heal.
Sleep starts to refresh you again. Whether you slept too much or too little before, you begin to discover the right kind of tiredness, the kind that goes with a sense of having achieved something today. Tomorrow becomes a whole new day, not just a continuation of all those ’orrible yesterdays. If a day does go pear-shaped, you mentally shrug it off as an effect of the weather, or hormones, or something equally non-threatening. It becomes very rare to have two bad days in a row.
Like so many life changes of this kind, this one creeps up on you. Suddenly you realise that you’re not depressed any more. When someone’s less than civil to you, you think they’re probably having a bad day. You can look at your mistakes and see them as learning opportunities. You don’t take things personally anymore. Plenty of things still bother you (for instance I’m still too lazy and disorganised), but they bother you differently, because there’s a new symmetry between you and other people.
You start to notice small things you can do for people that you never would have been bold enough to do before. It’s not that you make new rules for yourself, such as: next time I see x, I’ll remember to do y. It’s rather that you notice things in the moment and respond. A tiny example: there I was one day, coming out of the supermarket with a full trolley and two screaming small boys, one in a fireman’s lift, the other in the trolley which I had only one free hand to push. A bunch of ‘young louts’, figuratively if not actually swilling their lager, were standing outside watching me. Suddenly one of them came up to me – and offered to help me with the trolley! It cost him nothing, and was exactly what was needed. But if you’re depressed, a little kindness like that can look like a mountain to climb. As it was, we both came away from it feeling that the world was a better place.
You’re not constantly evaluating your character any more. You can accept compliments graciously because they’re nice, they’re feedback, and your life doesn’t depend on the truth of them. You look back and realise the house is a little bit tidier for a little bit longer. You’re more relaxed, and at the same time getting more things done, including those little jobs that have taunted you for years. You’re finding more clothes in the shops that suit you. You discover new avenues for your creativity. You discover new depths in your friendships, and new friends are made, effortlessly. In short, good things start to happen in shedloads.
A quick word about medication: there’s some debate among the professionals as to whether the low serotonin levels are caused by the depression or vice versa. It seems, from my experience, that this is another feedback loop. I haven’t had my brain examined, but it certainly seems as though my serotonin levels are as high now as they were when I decided to stop the Prozac. Exercise is now formally acknowledged to be an important factor in the relief of depression, too, so it’s worth making decisions in favour of exercise where you have the choice – take the bicycle or walk where the journey is short enough, for instance.
That’s it for the BROH trick itself. There are three more articles, linked to one another. They all reflect my personal experience, which I don’t presume will be the same as yours, but they might offer some reconnaissance information if you haven’t yet been there yourself. Meanwhile, I wish you all the best for your continuing journey.
The spiritual element
I made the comment that depression is a shortcut to enlightenment. In the course of my depression I’ve looked at a number of spiritual traditions, spurred on by their promise of freedom [2019 update: I’ve incorporated quite a lot of the search in the Poor In Spirit trilogy].
My difficulty in my spiritual search was that whenever I looked for ‘spiritual’ answers I tended to get either Christianity, New Age, or Zen/Dao and its variants. Christianity tends to put me off, as it puts off many people, at least here in the UK. Many people have found home there, but the rest of us who think a lot about these things tend, quite rightly, to resent being preached at, and there’s the feeling of being sold something. New Age requires an apparently absurd-looking leap into a world of unseen energies. Some of it looks promising, and once the depression is gone it might be worth looking into, with an open mind. Zen and the Tao are clean and beautiful, but they make it look so difficult! They make enlightenment look like something that will take a thousand lifetimes to ‘attain’ – in other words, an impossible goal. If getting out of bed in the morning seems wellnigh impossible, we can forget about satori.
Anyway, the upshot is that it seems to me that the whole spiritual thing, for most of us, boils down to a fading of the ego. The biggest surprise for me after the depression had finally disappeared, was that my ego is now a mere shadow of its former self. It’s as if the self-esteem hasn’t so much been raised, but rather become much less important. Don’t get the impression I’m trying to tell you I’ve become a saint – I still have my flashpoints (don’t I just) but I’m getting a lot better at recovering quickly and reasonably gracefully, and without bothering myself about it for weeks afterwards.
The point about the shortcut to enlightnment I can illustrate like this: imagine that instead of breaking the feedback loop you’d systematically altered your BROH to a more flattering version? If you’d got yourself the kind of bulletproof ego you can fry eggs on, it would have been an awfully long way back to where you are now. Think Testosterone Man. He may well be brimming with energy and charisma, very good at getting what he wants, but if you look closely you’ll probably find that he’s riddled with self-deception because there’s so much to protect.
The BROH trick brings about a shift in consciousness which is quite neutral about which spiritual tradition you happen to follow, if any. In the depression you were mired in the BROH; now you can look over the BROH with something akin to compassion. Compassion! Learning to love yourself, or rather, learning to love your BROH from a higher vantage point because the self is disappearing. And then, of course, you can see the BROH in others too, and compassion radiates outwards. Meanwhile, the world out there is richer than you ever imagined. And then, amazingly, all the traditional spiritual teachings (including the Christian, with a hefty pinch of salt) begin to make sense at last.
The path I’m on happens to be Tai Chi. But my experience suggests that you can do all the therapies and disciplines under the sun and get no result if you rely on things outside yourself to make you better. For me, the Prozac made life bearable enough to develop the BROH trick, the BROH trick gently and painlessly raised my consciousness above the brain habits, and only then did the discipline I’d been following come into its own.
Enlightenment, in this sense, is the next stage on the journey rather than an absolute destination. This means that it’s attainable in this life, and that it’s much more commonplace than we had imagined. There are plenty of people out there with reduced egos. They don’t stand out unless you know where to look, but they’re the ones that twinkle.
And how about this for a wonderful thought? Perhaps we depressives are in the vanguard of a new spiritual shift in the world. There are more and more of us: five million in the UK alone at the last count. When we all unlock our gifts by detaching from the BROH, who knows what we can do?
Choosing a therapist
If you’ve got the impression that I’m dead against therapy, then it’s time I redressed the balance. I’m very much in favour of the idea of getting help, whether it’s for depression, arthritis, a hole in the roof or your tax return. But finding someone to help you in your quest for liberation isn’t as simple as it might seem.
We hear the haunting refrain that you need to recognise that you need help before healing can begin. We hear the cry, that there is no substitute for professional help, but that many depressives still suffer in lonely silence. Could it be, for many people, a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’?
So I offer here a set of homespun guidelines towards finding a practitioner to suit your own uniqueness. Much of this advice applies equally well to finding an accountant or a builder or any other professional you need to employ.
As I’ve said before, you need to work on the depression first. This seems totally contrary to the usual advice, that you should address the causes not the symptoms, but this is a special case. In depression, the symptoms are the problem. So the first step is your family doctor, to see if there’s a physical or chemical imbalance that might respond to medication. If your doctor is unsympathetic, find another doctor. Meanwhile, get some regular exercise organised if you haven’t already got that in your life.
Now that you’re armed with your doctor’s backing, the quest for the right therapist can begin. Here goes:
1) Avoid pyramid-style hierarchies of ongoing, long-term therapy. If your therapist is undergoing the same therapy, he or she may well be struggling with issues that are deeper than you’ve yet ventured at the moment. On the other side of the coin, avoid those who claim to be, or are, at the top of their profession. They have prevailed in power struggles at a level higher than the likes of thee and me can imagine. In other words, it’s dangerous. If you’re convinced by the theory behind the therapy, you can embark on it with impunity once you’ve cleared up your depression and know what you’re doing.
2) Avoid therapies that do a lot of digging into the past (what a psychiatrist friend of mine calls ‘archaeology’). They can never put the buried treasure back as they found it. One or two positive memories might be useful in your backpack on the road to healing, but leave the rest behind. Use regrets as learning opportunities. You can learn to forgive yourself without archaeology.
3) Avoid blame with a ten-foot pole. You’ll have to go through the process of forgiving them sooner or later.
4) Avoid ‘reprogramming’ therapies until you’ve fully grasped the BROH insight (or its equivalent: I’ve a feeling that it’s an idea whose time has come and we’ll be seeing it everywhere in all sorts of different forms). Then, if it feels right, you can go to town on the project, and may the road rise to meet you.
5) Don’t give too much weight to personal recommendation. One person’s Perfect Master is another’s charismatic charlatan, and vice versa. Treat personal recommendation as just another search engine, equal in weight to referrals, adverts and Web links. If anything, I’d put extra weight on a chance encounter: ‘When the pupil is ready, the master appears’, that sort of thing.
6) Do get familiar with at least the bare bones of the theory behind the treatment. Don’t let them tell you that it works better when you don’t know what’s going on. Commit yourself only to a few sessions at a time, with some sort of agreed idea about what progress you can expect to achieve in that time.
7) Do take notice of your first impressions. Even if you think you have no intuition, you do have enough for this. You can tell pretty quickly whether this person is to be your mentor for a while or not. In other words, you can tell whether you trust them. Trust is an absence of fear. With the right person, this absence is palpable. It’s like coming home. There is not the slightest smidgeon of doubt that this person will do you no harm, wittingly or unwittingly. Trust is the Philosopher’s Stone, the ultimate catalyst, a sidekick of Love. (But watch out for infatuation – what a can of worms that is!)
8) Trust doesn’t have to be absolute. You can keep your deepest, darkest secrets for another time, another place, if you need to. If you limit your goals, you widen your scope and can save yourself a lot of time. (There’s a very good chance that your deepest secrets will turn out to be quite harmless after all – but wait for that sense of trust to permeate before you go there.) When you’ve learnt all that this person can teach you, it’s time to thank them and move on.
9) Worthless things come in all shapes, sizes and costs. And so does treasure. Money is not an indicator either way (look at Linux). Ditto the string of letters after the therapist’s name. The key, again, is trust.
10) Always remember that you are the client, you’re employing this person (whether the service is provided free or costing you a fortune). It is always your choice whether to stay or leave.
And the very best of luck.
Tai Chi and depression
Tai Chi, the most famous of the Chinese internal martial arts, is claimed by its exponents to be beneficial for all kinds of physical and mental health problems. In this particular context, it is claimed to be good for depression. I don’t know whether my experience with it is unusual, but my path was anything but straightforward. I’m now a junior Tai Chi instructor, and its benefits are at last beginning to show in all sorts of ways, but it took the BROH trick to get off a long-established plateau with it.
I spent two of my lonely years in London studying Tai Chi, and it seemed to make the depression worse. My teacher told me it was a ‘typical beginner’s reaction’, but failed to elaborate. He also told me that I did my Tai Chi like a robot. When I got married and left London, I left the Tai Chi behind with a sense of relief. That was in 1983.
Eleven years later, in 1994, I started on the Prozac, and a year after that I discovered a Tai Chi school in Crowthorne, Berkshire, a reasonable driving distance away. I’ve been with them ever since. They have a marvellously no-nonsense attitude to mumbo-jumbo (so I didn’t feel ‘spiritually challenged’) and also manage to be very tactful about one’s weaknesses. It seems like almost an added bonus that they happen to be excellent teachers, and know their stuff.
I learn forms reasonably quickly, but the ‘internal art’ eluded me for a long time. It was clear that my form was still a bit ‘robotic’. Interestingly, sometimes the Tai Chi itself would bring on a weepie, even in this new, supportive atmosphere. It was becoming very clear to me that the Tai Chi by itself wasn’t helping the depression, in fact it seemed to intensify it, even through the Prozac.
Even so, I still had ‘rational faith’ enough to persist, and once the Broh trick started to kick in I realised that all the years of practice were coming into their own. I strongly suspect that the Tai Chi accelerated that healing process, and it probably also indirectly contributed to the original Broh insight. I think, though I’m not sure about it yet, that it has to do with the fact that Tai Chi develops your body image – it literally integrates body, brain and mind – because you’re paying a lot of attention to what’s going on within your skin. Of course, there are plenty of other activities that can help you with that – you’re not doomed if you can’t find a decent teacher locally, or take to Tai Chi like a fish to a bicycle!
What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot, actually – it really helps to get a handle on what’s happening. Just as a formal diagnosis of depression is liberating, the label ‘Asperger’s’, also called ‘high-functioning autism’, might also help to explain a lot of things that previously looked like a problem with one’s character.
The defining characteristic is basically that, to a greater or lesser extent, Asperger’s people don’t do nonverbal. The result is what is formally called ‘the triad of impairment’: in social interaction, social communication, and social understanding and imagination. In other words, it’s a certain kind of social ineptness which arises from an inability to see the obvious, and it can land the sufferer in all sorts of trouble.
The impression I get from reading and hearing about it is that it’s a spectrum that ranges from ‘well within normal’ to extreme autism. In other words, most normal people have traits that can be placed on the spectrum, but are so mild that they don’t count as a disorder. (By analogy, very few people have perfect vision, for instance.) As well as recognising a degree of vagueness about body language in myself, I have also had some encounters with people who do have the condition. [Update: I finally got the label in 2012]
We’re told we get at least 70% of our information from body language, but AS people mostly rely on the words. So what happens is that you often can’t tell when people are joking; you say inappropriate things and are totally mystified by the funny looks you get; your best friends cut you off in midsentence because you’re boring everyone to tears when it seems to you that you’ve only uttered five words and the things you’re saying are so interesting; you offend strangers without meaning to, and you never last long in any remotely touchy-feely discussion group, even on your pet subject. You rack your brains trying to understand what you’ve said that was wrong. Like the BROH and the self-image, you find yourself in a feedback loop: you try harder and harder to choose the right words to get your meaning understood, but because you can only ‘hear’ 30% of what people are trying to tell you, you can’t interpret the feedback properly, so you start to hedge everything about with caveats – I mean this, I don’t mean that – and you talk faster and faster so you’ve got a chance to finish the sentence before they misunderstand or interrupt you yet again, and so it goes on.
Anyway, there’s a mechanism here that tends to drive self-esteem down. It works like this:
•there’s a general vagueness about body language, coupled with the belief (from being told) that it gives out a lot more than your words alone do. (If you’re a lousy actor, you can relate to that.)
•there’s a general background idea that your soul, your true character, is to be found and revealed in the subconscious: the idea (I’m not saying it’s true) that your ‘real’ motivation is betrayed by your unconscious body language
•this would mean that your own body language, of which you are necessarily only vaguely aware, is giving out ‘true’ signals to everyone you meet.
You soon get the background idea that people can read your mind, and to add insult to injury, you can’t read theirs. This leads easily to the idea that everyone you meet has got life sorted, and that you’re the only one that hasn’t. There’s a basic asymmetry between yourself and others that seems to go beyond the simple fact that only you can be you.
If we add the argument that:
• Asperger’s is a very vague concept that hasn’t been linked to anything definite in the brain, and
• everyone has the symptoms to some extent or other; the only dividing line seems to be whether it interferes with your life, and a mole on your nose could be said to do that, then many depressives might be subject to that mechanism without being officially deemed an Asperger person.
So perhaps we can reinforce the BROH trick by remembering:
• that in fact your body language isn’t half as transparent as you’ve been led (conditioned, wittingly or unwittingly) to believe
• that this is partly because while others might be able to read body language (yours, others’ and their own) better than you, they can never see what you see
• and partly because you might be sending out the wrong (relatively random) signals anyway, for instance if you’re self-conscious or preoccupied.
This means that however ‘good at’ reading body language a person is, they can’t read your mind. So for instance, being ignored isn’t necessarily a rejection, and if you’re accused of being hostile it could well be them projecting hostility on to you. What’s obvious to you (because you see the whole world in terms of it) might go completely unnoticed by the people around you, because they aren’t looking at the world in that way. (The number of times I’ve said ‘you would have thought they’d have known better…’) To take a simple example: when you’re in love you see connections to the beloved in everything. You know the feeling? Now to take a deeper example: if you carry with you everywhere the background assumption that everyone you meet knows more than you do, you are genuinely, pathetically, naively modest about accomplishments that actually leave other people gobsmacked, and then you wonder why you get hostility and funny looks.
People who do get past the idiosyncrasies discover that that unwittingly intimidating facade has a person with all the usual feelings underneath. You can care, it’s just that you have to think about how you show it. Email and the Internet are a godsend, because you can put the words together and think for as long as you like before committing yourself to pressing the fateful ‘Send’ or ‘Put’ button.
I think that one of the most important things I want to say here is that while a mild body language handicap could be likened to, say, poor vision, it doesn’t affect your capacity to love. If love is the triumph of ‘we’ over ‘me’ (a definition I first saw in Ian Robertson’s book Mind Sculpture), then a blind person can love no more nor less than anyone else, and so can any mildly aspergerish depressives. I can’t speak for psychopaths, but I can speak for anyone who has a sense of ‘I’, separate from the world and even from the brain, and who longs to reconnect with the Other, the Great Ultimate, and with other people.
Other short articles:
The spiritual element