(Cassandra Brandt is a regular guest writer for SPINALpedia and a C4 quadriplegic and mom from Arizona. She also writes for Ability360.org and is the author of “Iron Girl: a memoir”)
I’ve been depressed since I was a teen and anxious for as long as I can remember and to this day I’ve never sought professional help for it, so maybe I’m not the best person to be giving advice.
I have, however, learned some ways to deal with these emotions/states of mind pretty effectively. Before I explain, I’d like to say I think seeing a therapist is great and people can really benefit from it. I don’t think psychiatric drugs are great because of the side effects, but I acknowledge they are a good option for some people. For me, what’s worked though, hasn’t been therapy or meds. It’s been making major changes in the way I think, using tools learned from Buddhist thought.
I don’t subscribe to any belief system but I enjoy finding bits of wisdom in them all, but it was what I found in Buddhism that really helped and continues to help my mental health. I don’t have strong opinions about the afterlife or reincarnation and karma. I only believe in what I see, and what I see, from using some Buddhist advice, is positive change in my own mind and life.
After my 2015 injury that left me a C4 complete quad, totally paralyzed from the chest down at age 32, I was forced to stop running and really sit with my thoughts for maybe the first time in my life.
Being depressed while quadriplegic adds another dimension to despondency. I’m broke and stuck with the care I get. I can’t change things up, move away, or utilize any of the myriad methods I had used in my walking days to ease my depression. I used to go jogging or take hot showers. I started psych meds but they left me too groggy to do my work and had a ton of other unpleasant side effects. I used marijuana but it had its limits, too.
A couple years into quad life I felt like it was really time to turn somewhere. I was looking into meditation when Buddhism found me.
Here are 8 ideas I found in Buddhism that help me cope with my mental health as a quad.
• Check your ego. Our gnawing need to satisfy the ego does nothing but cause suffering. I was vain and prideful about my appearance and body, my career and money. When I became disabled my ego was brutally wounded and indignant. Nothing gets you acquainted with humility more than having strangers spoon feed you and wipe your butt! I hold onto the dignity I need but I am learning to let go of my pride in a healthy way. I remind myself that “I” am not my broken body or my disability.
Check out this Zen Master talk on The Ego
• Check your self esteem. My worth is not determined by the amount of labor I can put in, or the amount of money in my pocket any more than it’s determined by the ability and appearance of my body. I remind myself that I can still make genuine contributions to this world. In the end just three things matter, said Buddha. How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
• Let go. Buddha said our suffering could be caused by our attachments. It is hard to let go of the life I led and pour all my spirit and love into what is left, but if I don’t learn to love only that which cannot be taken from me, I will be truly left with nothing. Buddha said you can only lose what you cling to and I remind myself of this a lot. I let go of that life on legs and I’m better for it. Here’ a good YouTube video on Letting Go
• Don’t convince yourself of negative things. I’m learning to catch myself when I’m talking crap to myself. You must question the validity of your negative thoughts. Zen Buddhism has an expression: “Keep a Don’t Know Mind.” Do I know for sure that I am nothing but a burden and no one loves me? Do I know for sure I’ll never be truly happy again? Of course not. Keep an I Don’t Know Mind
• Remember the state of change. Hold on through the bad times. The state of change is like a universal law: This state of mind, this level of suffering, it is not my forever. The despair or anxiety I feel one day is unlikely to be the way I will feel tomorrow or even in an hour. And what a comfort that is.
• Remember you’re not entitled. It’s so easy to say “Why me?” Buddha would say, “Why NOT me?” Buddha said the assumption that life should be fair is the cause of suffering. The first step to ending suffering is separating the pain you feel from the notion that you are entitled to not feel pain, which leads to suffering.
• Don’t suffer. Dealing with the human condition means suffering, and this is what prompted the creation of the Buddhist religion. But you don’t have to let your pain become suffering. Suffering is our mental response to pain. But a fundamental notion in Buddhism is that pain and suffering are two quite different things. Pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice. I must acknowledge my pain and move on before I begin to wallow in self pity. Here’s a Talk on Transcending Suffering
• Control your reactions to your thoughts. I am learning to respond rather than react to my negative emotions in a way that lets me acknowledge them and yet move on. In the past I threw temper tantrums, ventilated my anger. Then I scolded myself for my weakness and experienced guilt. We tend to confuse aggression with strength but Buddhists say the opposite is true. Only understanding and compassion can neutralize anger. We must be a kind and patient mother to our rage and despair. It is as much a part of us as our joy. I am learning to speak kindly to myself; there is no voice I must listen to more than the one in my own head. That voice must tell me to calm down, move on.
• Learn a little meditation. I always said I’d get into meditation but I never had the time or patience. Now I practice Metta, loving-kindness meditation. Here’s one. I believe there is real science in meditation, and real hope. Imagine, the mind becoming healthier just by the way you think! If every moment throughout one’s life offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily, I choose peace.
Buddhist thought has been a catalyst for me, in letting go of my illusions about what my life should be, and becoming OK with that, and in dealing with the tidal wave of emotion that comes with having a high level complete SCI.
Read Cassandra’s past posts here