Colorizing the Story of Me…

I have been corresponding with a woman in Norway who responded to my post on depression in the face of qigong, or qigong in the face of depression. Hers was a supportive voice and also a kindred voice, and I am deeply grateful that she has been willing to communicate, since she is both a good writer and a person with things to say that have been helpful to me to hear.

We got into an exchange about the possibility of letting go of our stories, the things we tell ourselves about who we are.

A few days after one exchange, there arrived in my inbox, originally from a site called Quartz but now part of an Apple News compilation, an article with the following headline:

“By the Time You’re 77, You’ll Be a Different Person: A new personality study reveals that between 14 and 77, we don’t just age, our entire personality changes.”

The article was based on a study published in “Psychology and Aging” that began with data from a 1950 survey of 1,208 14-year-olds in Scotland.

Teachers had been asked to rate the kids on six personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to learn.

More than 60 years later, researchers tracked down 635 of the now 77-year-old participants, and 174 of them agreed to repeat testing. They rated themselves on the six personality traits and also chose a friend or relative to do the same.

To the researchers’ surprise, they found little correlation between ratings then and now. Studies where the interval was shorter had found correlation, but apparently with enough time, our personalities are transformed.

I shared this report with my friend—but, as I told her, I’m not sure I agree that, at 75, I’m an almost completely different person from myself at 14.

It’s true that change over more than 60 years might be so gradual that even I, sitting front row center, wouldn’t notice.

However, although I have accumulated a lot of memories in 60-plus years, some of them are more than memories “about” someone or something. In these special memories I am inside myself as I was inside myself then, experiencing whatever I was seeing or feeling or thinking. (Hmmm…. I don’t hear things in my memories….)

All of these memories seem to have the same “me” inside them. Perhaps I’ve just linked them and thereby formed the story of who is me—but there is some quality to them that seems akin to a space I sometimes briefly reach in meditation, a space that also feels like me, a space without words or specific content—one might say, a space without story.

As I was pondering this notion this morning, during a meditation session where I was definitely not in the space in question, I realized that “the space” and my “inside-me” memories are observational but also rather bleak. There’s just not much sunshine in them.

Part of the story that I tell myself about myself deals with my earliest infancy. My mother used to say that because I’d had a very difficult breech birth, the doctors would not let her hold me but instead kept me in the hospital nursery for a week. (It occurs to me as I think about this now how bizarre it is that, although my mother lived to be 96 and I certainly had plenty of time to ask her what, exactly was wrong with me—was I bleeding? mangled? unresponsive? what?—I never did.) But an infant lying alone in a hospital crib—that infant would certainly have a very bleak awareness of the world.

As I continued to sit in meditation this morning, I played with the idea that perhaps I could “color-correct” my memories all the way back to that earliest “as-told-to” memory. Perhaps I could put a little more warmth, a little more sunshine into them.

Wow! This would be like colorizing old black-and-white movies. If I want to maintain the thread of the story that I call me, can I just colorize it?

Hmmmm….. which is exactly what I’m hoping the anti-depressant I’m now taking will do….

The qigong alternative would probably be some sort of energetic excision of bleak memories and perhaps bleakness in general, or some sort of simply letting go of my story or at least the parts that don’t work for me anymore.

But at the moment, neither of those things seems to be happening.

My qigong practice is sporadic, and I am taking half of a 5mg tablet of Lexapro per day, where, according to the internet, the recommended dose is supposed to be 10 mg. I was supposed to take half a tablet for five days and then start taking a whole tablet—but when I started taking a whole tablet I felt so awful in ways I don’t know how to describe, that my doctor told me to stick with half a tablet until my next appointment, now nine days away.

For now, I’d say Lexapro’s overall effect on my mood is to shift it in the direction of “whatever.”

But we shall see….

Of course, spring is coming, and I may never know what was spring and what was Lexapro….

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Colorizing the Story of Me…

  1. Nick. Lape

    Barbara,
    As always, your comments are thought provoking and you are so open and honest and vulnerable. And, as always, I can’t wait to see where the thread leads though I wish you wouldn’t have to struggle so much.

    Three thoughts:
    1) I was wondering if you dream and, if so, do you dream in color or black and white? Vivid or hard to see?
    2) You’ve provided me with some pretty clever phrases to meditate on:
    “a space without story,” “color-correct” my memories,” “energetic excision of bleak memories” Seems like some meat on these bones. Thanks.
    3) I sense in this article and the last few that you are losing some confidence in qigong as a useful tool for working with unhappy states of mind and the realities of aging/illness. Am I reading that correctly.

    I really enjoy this blog. Thanks

    .

    • Hi, Nick — The easy question first: I’m sure I dream but I only occasionally remember dreaming. And I don’t really know if I dream in color or black and white, because the dreams evaporate so quickly and somehow aren’t visual enough for me to know if they have color. Do you have a theory about this? Please tell me what you think.

      And now, about qigong. Yes, I am in a very low spot in terms of my belief in its utility for more than a select few people, i.e., not skeptical, insensitive me.

      I probably wanted far more than qigong could ever deliver — and wanting too much, I am told, and believe, pretty much assures that you will get very little.

      I had believed that qigong could resolve various of my health issues, but I no longer expect that to happen. In my qigong community, one woman has survived lung cancer that was predicted to kill her in something like six months, and she attributes her survival in large part to qigong. Another woman, an ardent practitioner and teacher, developed lung cancer and was dead within months. True, she was a smoker, where the other woman was not. But still, qigong didn’t protect her and qigong didn’t save her.

      My very darkest thought about qigong goes back to a margarine commercial from the 1970s with the line “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” I consider that quite possibly when I am doing qigong, I am “fooling Mother Nature” by manipulating my bioelectric field. Should I be doing this? I have no idea how the energetic effects of giqong compare to the energetic effects of using my cell phone or walking across a parking lot where people are using invisible energy waves to remotely lock or unlock their cars. I can’t feel the latter things, but I can feel something when I do qigong.

      I have thought that perhaps the effects of qigong are similar to the effects of other types of meditation. Meditation does change the brain and also how one feels and acts in the world, although I know enough meditators to know it’s slow going, and I’ve known of people who live in Zen monasteries and take anti-depressants.

      I do still hope for personal change from qigong. And, well, in truth I still hope for a whole lot more. I still want to understand, to know, what existence is all about. Through qigong, I have had experiences I would not have believed possible–or more precisely, that I had no concept of. What more will I learn? I don’t know. I am impatient. Will learning more make me happy, or satisfied, or whole? I don’t know.

      I assume that you are a student of qigong. I would like to know what your experience has been. Whatever qigong may be, it’s not nothing.

      Yours, Barbara

      • Dear Barbara, I am sorry to read the emotions and bleakness you are experiencing these days. I am thinking hard wanting to offer relief or wisdom based on my thirty years of living with strong depression.

        One of the things I have found that always lead me deeper into depression is looking for meaning in anything, looking for the meaning of life, the meaning of MY life, the meaning of what I’m doing, “Where am I headed” what is the point of it all? I have found that when in a state of depression my mind is rarely if ever able to give a satisfying answer to any of these questions, if anything they just leave me feeling more disconnected and bring about a stronger feeling of loneliness and longing.

        When deeply depressed I am unable to do any qi gong, but I can still find mystery and a sense of connection through keep on working with the building blocks of qi gong, the building blocks of chinese medicine, the elements, the cycles, to observe and play with all these principles to see how I am part of it all. Go back to the basics. Think energies, connections, oh it’s hard to find what I am trying to say..

        An example is for instance a couple of days ago I was fuming with anger, could not pinpoint the origin, I was just so angry! So I thought about the Liver, the Wood element, the color green, and feeling completely stupid I rinsed and taped a large green quartz crystal over my Liver area and lay down visualizing breathing a cooling green color in and out of the Liver through the quartz crystal. Amazingly I found the anger subsiding and I fell asleep! Using the basic principles and building blocks from the same world I was helped energetically without doing a single qi gong sequence. It does not always have to look a certain way or follow a set pattern.

        And that for me is the inherent gift in depression, that it invites me to get better at observing how the many things around me take part in influencing me (and with time give me a few tricks up my sleeve to exert my own little influences here and there on my own energy.)

        We are influenced by so many things, the seasons, the energies of the current weather, the food we ate last, the colors around us, the way we carry ourselves/posture, the moon cycles, the time of day or night. The more I can let go off looking for meaning and rather transition into experiencing myself in the moment, my self in the midst of this complex and seemingly chaotic interplay of energies, the faster I can return to joy.

        And even in the midst of pain I can begin to experience how even the pain is never static, it fluctuates and differs all the time according to the more Yin or Yang times of day, the elements projected through the weather etc. If you learn to listen carefully you’ll see that there is a lot going on where it used to feel like just fixed immovable inner pain.

        I’ve found that instead of looking for meaning and quantifiable progress which often brings about a sense of “There’s never enough time” I do better when I look for timelessness and listen and observe. Freedom is key, feeling that there is freedom, not getting stuck in too many plans, rules, and set images of where you want to be next week, half a year from now or similar.

        Observing and listening you will start to see how you are influenced by these many things. For me for instance I have found I am the worst depressed from 11am to 1pm, I can’t even take my own feelings seriously in that frame of time I just have to get through it, and knowing that makes it easier 😉
        I’ve found I can not wear white clothing while very depressed, must have something to do with the Metal element, I have no idea.. White clothing or surroundings worsens it fast. Reds and oranges help. (Unless I’m angry 😉 )

        I’ve found that jasmine tea takes the edge of the depression on lighter days, oatstraw tea takes the edge off the high anxiety days but doesn’t help the depression.
        I have written down my emotions following the moon cycles every day for a couple of years now, so I know that on this or that percentage waxing or waning I will be a mess while other percentages are good days for cleaning the whole house, trying something new in the martial arts or asking other things of myself.

        With time you gather tools and learn to listen with more and more of you, and the depression that feels so overwhelming and like the end of all things I can assure you is a great opportunity, and everything you learn through it I’d imagine will deepen and add new layers to your qi gong practice whenever you feel like getting back into it 🙂

        So, let go off looking for meaning, start experiencing yourself in the midst of all the fluctuations, deepen your listening and your compassion for yourself, there is nothing that needs to be mended or hurried. Take time off from the listening when you need it, I get a cold Pepsi and buy a bag of crisps and watch some mindless tv shows whenever I’ve had it with “doing things right” and I need to rebel. Know that there are so many processes going on, everything around you and in you is highly alive, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

        Love and gratitude, Bella ❤ ❤ ❤

      • Dear Bella — You have given me another sentence to copy onto a pure white card: “Let go of looking for meaning, start experiencing yourself in the midst of all the fluctuations, deepen your listening and your compassion for yourself, there is nothing that needs to be mended or hurried.”

        I do understand that meaning cannot be found through words, through thinking — that was why I was so excited about qigong. It offered another path to understanding.

        But sometimes I feel that I am engaged in a deconstruction process. I will flash back to some past situation where I was intensely involved, clear about what I thought, clear about what was happening, and it occurs to me that I might have thought and felt something different. So who was I? Who am I? In a similar manner, there were moments during my recent depression when I felt my mind was out of control, that it was plummeting somewhere that it would not come back from. (I am talking about moments; this probably sounds more awful than it was.) (Hmmm, some would say that it is spiritual advancement to see that everything is in flux, nothing is cast in concrete — but if it is, I can’t say it’s much fun.)

        I have not managed to commit to a Daoist way of looking at things; I still don’t get the water-wood-fire-earth-metal thing, although I do get that everything that is born will die. In general, I feel my mind has a life of its own, and it twists and turns and I find that I have gradually become more negative, etc.I don’t say, well, I became depressed because A, B and C happened and I reacted with D, E and F.

        I’m just free-flowing here, so forgive me if this is a bit incoherent.

        I have stopped taking Lexapro. I started with half a pill, went up to a whole pill and felt awful so, upon doctor’s advice, went back to half a pill, but what seemed to happen over four weeks was that I pretty much lost all energy, all initiative, all enthusiasm — which was certainly not the goal. That was the “whatever” I wrote about earlier. I swallowed a speck of white tablet and slowly, things shifted until finally it became clear to me what was happening. That’s how my depressions feel to me, too. (Perhaps they are caused by eating too much nasty-tasting kale….)

        I will now throw in a memory that keeps coming to me as I write this, although I’m not sure how it fits in.

        Many years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child — and this is back in the day when medical records were all on paper — I had been given an envelope with my records and told to go stand in line at a desk. As I had nothing else to do, I opened the envelope, pulled out the papers in it and read “a nice but vague young woman,” whereupon it occurred to me that I probably wasn’t supposed to be reading the records and I put them back in the envelope. But it strikes me that I have always been vague, in a maybe-this-or-maybe-that way, because when I try to figure out what has caused me to feel a particular way, I come up with all sorts of possibilities and interactions of possibilities and get nowhere. It’s actually fairly a big deal that I am clear that the Lexapro caused me to feel lethargic. Indeed, I might not have been sure I was depressed and might not really know that the Lexapro caused me to be lethargic if I hadn’t read back through a journal I write in most mornings (but hardly wrote in at all when I was taking Lexapro).

        Oh, my. It is raining again today — it has rained a whole lot of days in Seattle this winter/spring — and I think I am succumbing to internal rain and dribbling it back out as I type. I need to get up and do something — perhaps go walk in the real stuff. I do like walking in the rain.

        I will take from your message a reminder that I can let the “somethings” I do be “nothings.” A week or so ago I quit my taiji school — the reasons were complex, but basically, I think it was not the right place for me to be — so I have more free time and have considered filling it with volunteer work or other “meaningful” commitments. I think I’ll wait….

        Yikes….. this is a mess…. Oh, well, I will hit Send anyway. But I do want to add that all in all, I’m not feeling too bad. Yesterday I bought three little pots of yellow and orange primroses and planted them in a big pot on my balcony, where they are currently being nicely watered in. Also, I ordered a new native-style flute, and I am excited for it to come. I started learning several months ago, and I am just now getting to the point where it’s satisfying to play. I see the psychiatrist tomorrow; I may or may not decide to try a different anti-depressant. But that’s tomorrow; I don’t have to decide anything today….

        Well, I wish you many sunny days to come. You are an inspiration to me.

        Yours, Barbara

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