bipolar & depression

The Dark Dog: What the Body Wants by Melanie Ida Chopko

This is a part of an ongoing series I'm writing regarding my experience with bipolar depression, and practicing with a constellation of wellness. You can read more on two other elements here, vast nature and aikido. May it be of service.

Today I want to write about touch and connection, empty space and outbreath.

As I wrestled with the state of my mind and spirit this summer, trying to both honor grief and loss and also stay above water, I went back to re-read my own writings on my experience of depression and anxiety. I went searching for what levers I needed to pull to care for myself this time around. In my last serious depression three years ago, I remember my godfather Dennis Rivers sitting with me and suggesting I view it in an entirely different way. Since pain is a living system's way of communicating, what is this depression wanting to tell me? Even under the waves of anxiety and flatness, there is a center of light and wisdom that is truly me. Buddhists call this rigpa - the innermost essence [1].

So I centered myself one night, wrote a love note to my brain and body, the system that has carried my soul for 33 years, and asked. And it answered: I need more touch, more connection and empty space.

I think when I'm experiencing depression, my tendency can be to lean on one side of what I've learned to be three elements that create thriving mental health - wellness (read: diet and exercise), purpose and meaning, intimacy and personal relationships [2] It's pretty easy for me to be obsessive about the wellness side - that's the stuff I can most easily control. How many hours of Aikido am I doing? Am I eating enough of the foods I know are good for my airy/"vata" body type - heavy foods like meat, sweet potatoes, black beans, kale. Am I treating sugar like poison and staying away with a 10 foot pole?

But prioritizing touch, connection and friendship - these take vulnerability and empty space, slowness and emergence. Sometimes that is the absolute last thing my yacking brain thinks I need. I remember one colleague reflecting, "Geesh, Melanie, you're the most productive depressed person I've ever met." 

But that's just it. I've learned that busyness, flying from one place to another and overworking is a safety shape for my system - and in my opinion, for western culture as a whole. It's a desperate attempt to avoid pain by avoiding the empty, grief, the dark and the unknown. But these "yin" concepts are profoundly vital to every living system, and experiencing interconnection. And pushing past the inevitable need for empty and presence just dials up my panic. 

So I'm back to expanding my ecology of touch and deep respect for it, above and beyond sexuality. Babies that receive everything but touch DIE, and we adults are probably no different. In the absence of a partner, I'm back to gifting my body a short massage every week. I'm back to giving and vulnerably asking for long hugs and foot rubs. I'm back to prioritizing the fine art of hanging out with my kindred spirits, flopping around watching movies on the couch with them.

It's important to note - I'm not entirely sure this will work, and I'm not opposed to returning to the rocket blast method of anti-depressants that, for a short time, to make a bridge between one really hard patch of life and another, maybe supporting me to shift out of a season of grief. They've probably saved my life and the lives of other artists I love. And, it feels powerful to not to just ask - do I need to be on medication again - but also, what does my body need today? How can I give it the touch, connection, joy and empty space it's asking for?

And, on the more metta level, what happens when we as a culture make empty space together? What do we hear there about grief, anger and confusion as we see what is happening to our world? As eco-philosopher Joanna Macy suggests, that profoundly changes what choices we make, the very world we create, the Great Turning back to a life sustaining society.


[1] Rigpa and the Nature of Mind, excerpted from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sungyol Rinpoche.

[2] So You're Depressed, Now What? with Nurse Rona on KPFA

[3] Joanna Macy

The Dark Dog and Vastness by Melanie Ida Chopko

Oh great ocean, dissolve me. You large enough, tumultuous enough, to curl up around my thoughts.

Oh great ocean, dissolve me. You large enough, tumultuous enough, to curl up around my thoughts.

So many thanks for all the beautiful birthday notes. It was a bright day of gratitude, kindness and songs.

Today I want to share more about my experience of depression, and another element of my constellation of wellness: spending time in vast spaces in nature. Here's my full list again, together making up a north star constellation leading my back to my true self. 

- A Spiritual, Physical Practice with movement (like yoga, dance, aikido, tai chi)
- Time in Vast Spaces in Nature
- Somatic, Body-based Meditation and Drawing
- Loving Touch
- Prioritizing Outbreath: Rest and Sleep
- Creating Music/Singing for all is larger than language
- Group Truth Telling and Deep Listening
- Eating Real Food

In the last year I've realized that the ocean is a sort of tuning fork for my spirit, vast and tumultuous enough to believe and wrap around my confusion. It can absorb me, dissolve me, bring me to rest a bit more as a small speck of something much larger. I like walking along the shore and talking to it with my questions, my thank you's and my stuckness. That said, one of my friends shared he feels the opposite at the ocean, and much prefers trees and mountains to anchor his spirit when it is wobbly.

I like the idea of leaving stone and metal city scape to re-tune myself in my evolutionary home, even the ancient watery home of all my cells. And rather than falling back on the futile "trying to figure it out,"  I go asking all those ions somehow sort ME out.

And alot of the time, I leave lighter.

The Dark Dog by Melanie Ida Chopko

Today I want to write about grief, about depression, artistry and returning to my center.

When last week brought one of the biggest losses I could imagine, I began practicing very, very precisely every piece of wisdom and compassion I know. This same week I saw a few videos by 'medical experts’ discussing depression and bipolar depression, and I feel grateful to finally respond fully to share my own authority in this experience. I am a vast, sensitive intuitive creative soul, and I want all my friends and fellow artists to have support in holding their vastness, rather than drowning in it.

For 13 years I struggled with near constant depression and anxiety, which prevented me from creating, from knowing community and intimacy, from working. Two years ago I was living in a depression so acute I lost all ability to have a conversation, to follow a thought through to the end, to read or interact. I couldn't imagine I have graduated college. I thought I was going to die. For me my experience of a bipolar mind was actually a respite from this - a few days where I could create once again, where I could touch who I was and see beauty in the world. I lost my period for over 5 months. I had tried every medication possible to come back into my full mind, but nothing worked.

 Depression for me lived as both a physical sickness, a non functioning brain, and a spiritual one, a heavy, isolated, exhausted spirit. The video below visualizes this quite well, though lacks in my opinion, quality solutions. I love Anne Wilson Schaef’s words on the idea of disorder or addiction - "Watch out for who is defining “crazy.” Is it crazy for me to have this kaleidoscope of emotions in response to what I see happening in my world, to what is happening in my family? Maybe depression is just huge emotion unreleased. And maybe all of us are like the ocean - sometimes sweling up with power, sometimes falling back in quiet. “No one ever calls the ocean disordered,” says another creative bipolar woman, Azzia Walker, on Bipolar- A Nuerodiversity Approach.

Everything changed for me when I began talking to other people who were bi-polar and lived with depression, listening to their stories and saying yes to practicing to what felt true. I want to share what has become my constellation of wellness, the elements that make up the north star that leads me back to my self. My constellation includes these elements, and today I will write about one.

A Spiritual, Physical Practice with movement (like yoga, dance, aikido, tai chi)

Somatic, Body-based Meditation and Drawing

Loving Touch 

Prioritizing Rest and Sleep

Creating Music/Singing for all is larger than language

Group Truth Telling and Deep Listening

Time in Vast Places in Nature

Eating Real Food

Among all of these things, I threw myself into training in Aikido at the recommendation of Azzia, who ran Aikido Shusekai. I had no desire to do it, no interest in martial arts or Japanese culture, but I was willing to say yes fully for 30 days. I trained about 5 hours a week. It was hard, humiliating and above all, confusing. I was too confused (which hand? how? leg? foot?)  to ruminate or think. The martial aspect - the ability to be injured - gave me something to focus on, to be absolutely present for. Like doing yoga balance poses - but on the edge of a cliff. And that meditation was medication.

In combination with the somatic practices I had been doing for months, three weeks of Aikido flipped a giant lever in my body - I came back. My period came back. I continued to train 3x a week for that first year, 5-6 hours a week, especially in the winter, and now maintain 2-3 hours a week as a baseline for my wellness.

Two years later, I am just starting to wrap my head around what is so transformative there for me. At the suggestion of one of my other teachers, I began to use the dojo, the place of Aikido practice, to practice with all that is to big for me, all that grabs me - my fear, my anger, my confusion and witness of injustice. 

I can dress myself in white to enter the class, bow,  walk up to a black belt student and ask in Japanese, May i have the pleasure of training with you? And then blast them with a punch holding it all. My training partner makes room for this ‘chaos,’ witnessing it, by reshaping it and throwing me to the ground. An attack says yes, these emotions are real - They plant my face on the floor. I can be humbled by them, these experiences of grief and anger, what I see happening in my life and in the world.  This is maybe the truest thing to do with them.  And, while being thrown by them, I have also learned how to roll back onto my feet, to stand up with grace, with form, with center. 

And then, two minutes later, I can do the same for them - in a rapid oragami fold, shape what every they are bringing into a throw. As I am attacked I can call to mind the most barbed, sticky, uncomfortable bigger than me stuff, remained centered, and shape it into something else. 

More to share, another day!