The Opportunities in Setbacks. And Rainy Days Letters

This post is part of the PPD to Joy treasury. It was written by Yael on June 24, 2011. We are now in the process of migrating the old post from the old website to here.
This post started a trend. It’s about how to make a setback work for you rather than floor you, and describes how to write yourself a letter that you can use as a ray of light in the darkness of your bad days. 
Since I wrote this post, other mothers recovering from postpartum depression shared their letters with us. We call it the Hope in an Envelope collection. Scroll down for links to all of them.

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There you are, after having pulled yourself up by your bootstraps (or ponytail) from the mud and muck of depression; things are finally going better. You are beginning to feel much more like yourself. You recognize the face in the mirror. After a very long time, you finally like the sound of your own inner voice. You realize the storm has passed, and you are actually fine.

You like this new you, which has much in common with the old you, except that she is wiser, and more tired. And you are terrified. Terrified. Shaking in your boots (or flip-flops) afraid that the progress is temporary. Or worse: imaginary.
The fear of relapse is looming, like an ominous cloud, always at the corner of the sky. No matter how sunny the day is.

In my early recovery days, about 6 years ago, I would have those good days, and then when the bad days hit, I would totally believe that I was sinking. On those bad days, it felt as if I was nothing but a big fat idiot to presume that recovery could ever be real. Everything was doooom dooooom doooom.
On those days when the self-talk was cruel, the anxiety had me in its cold slimy grip, and the pain of trying to fight my depression seemed endless and futile, I would begin to descend again. The abyss felt ever so close, suicide so tempting.

On those bad days it would seem like all my progress was a delusion. I believed my PPDemons when they said I was forever under their curse. But I had made progress, and the combination of medication, therapy, support structures, and sleep management would help me live through another setback, and I would see for myself that the progress was really (really!) real, not imaginary.

Instead of feeling trapped by duty, resenting my baby, I would be able to access my love for him. I would be able to take care of hated household tasks without wanting to slit my wrists. I would be able to hold my crying child and not imagine smashing him against the wall and then jumping out of a window myself.  I could taste and enjoy food. I would feel love for my husband, not just overwhelming (read debilitating) gratitude.
This was real progress, and it was undeniable.
Until the next setback, of course. Which could be triggered by anything: a sleepless night, PMS, bad news, a cold.
And again, I would discredit every ounce of healing. Again, I would deem myself week, lazy and pathetically delusional for having thought, even for a moment, that I was better, that I could win.

And a few days (or weeks) later, I would be just fine.

So I noticed this pattern: that while from the inside, every setback FEELS like an inescapable black hole, it doesn’t mean this feeling is true. Again, the feelings are always valid, but the scary stories they tell don’t have to be.
Even more important, was to notice that how I believed the doom-thought-generated-feelings had everything to do with how the setback would turn out — will it be a pothole or an abyss? Well, turned out it was up to me.  More accurately, it was up to which thoughts I chose to believe, and which thoughts I was able to question. (This was good and bad. Good because I had a part to play, I didn’t have to be just a victim here. Bad, because now I had this extra responsibility, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge.)

I also noticed that fighting my demons wasn’t working very well. Fighting fed my PPDemons, while it drained and exhausted me.

An important shift in my healing was changing the metaphor for my healing journey. From  fighting a war, to doing life-saving research. Transforming myself from warrior to student/scientist/detective helped me so much.
You know how all humans have a deeper respect for the written word rather than the spoken word?
Have you noticed how we westerners have respect for “data”?
When I became a student of my own condition, instead of fighting, I practiced noticing, discerning, gathering, collecting.
Hypothesis. Data. Proof.

Which lead me to writing myself letters. Since on the good days I knew better, a whole lot better, than on my bad days, I asked the doing OK me to supply proof for the doom and gloom me. Those letters came in handy (now that’s an understatement). I would carry them in my wallet. I read them a lot, and after a while I didn’t need them as much. Several wallets and a couple of home-moves later, I am ashamed to say that I don’t even know where they are. I’m pretty sure I kept them. I just don’t know in which drawer, or which box. But back when I needed them, these letters were life-saving. Having them meant that I was able to discredit the voice of the PPDemons, able to tell the difference between my thoughts, and the thoughts that were PPDemons cwap. It meant that choosing which thoughts to believe no longer required huge reserves of optimism  which I didn’t have. These Rainy Days Letters were life-jackets for the rough seas.

I will try to find these letters and share them with you. If I can’t find them, I will try to reconstruct them from memory.

But don’t you wait for me. If you are doing OK today yet the fear of relapse still clouds your sky, I invite you to start noticing anecdotes of joy, little accomplishments, Very-Good-Enough moments, and collect them. When you have a little pile of data write yourself a letter. On paper. You might want to use glitter pens or crayons, or you might want to type. If you type, do print your letter. Give it a lipstick kiss (or not) and put the letter in your wallet or your purse. Tell your husband or partner about this letter, give him (or her) a copy, ask to be reminded to read it (your demons will object, of course. It’s their job, and by anticipating this you are doing yours). Rainy Days Letters can be long or short.  Your letter doesn’t have to be particularly well written, a simple list will do just fine. Or you can write it as a love letter to yourself. Mine had words like honey and sweetie in it. Do whatever works for you. People vary, your way is the right way for you.

I invite you to share your rainy days letter with me. You can do so in the comments here, or you can send me an email. If you want me to, I’ll be happy to publish your letter here as a guest post. Or we can just keep it between us, and I will be your witness. And your cheer leader.

Six years and many many setbacks later, I learned to see setbacks as proof of progress. I began to see setbacks as opportunities. Opportunities to practice the choosing of thoughts, the noticing of patterns, the applying of hard-won emotional skills. These days, setbacks are not common, but they do happen. Of course they do. Thankfully, they are now on an entirely different order of magnitude. And I no longer fear them. Since I started doing this work, writing this blog, setbacks are strangely useful. I still hate setbacks, of course. Setbacks ruin my day. But heck, I don’t have to like them to survive them.

On bad days, I am no longer terrified. I allow myself to be grumpy, I do my best not to be nasty, I ask for help.

I greet each setback with this welcome:
Hello setback. What lessons have you got for me?
When a setback comes, it is only a pothole, and a classroom.
The abyss is all gone.

– – –

Other letters in the Hope in an Envelope collection:

Rach (my intro to this letter has more hints for how and why to write one to yourself.)
Story
Jessica
Susan
Nicole
Becky
Sarah
Jenny
Andrea

Honorary Rainy Days Letters, guest posts written before the Hope in an Envelope collection began:

Tamara
Charity 

Comment magic:
Do you recognize any of this? Is this helpful at all? Do you have any questions about how to practice this? I’m always happy to answer your questions and read your voice.

As always, buckets of love to all who read, and whether you comment or not, may the joy be with you.

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