Posts Tagged 'feelings'

Life Is Like a Boat


Here are four photos that (I hope) can tell you something.

    A few weeks ago, on one of my anti-depression walks, I encountered what I intuitively felt was a sad sight. It looked like an abandoned fisherman’s boat:

Boat Abandoned?

In my somewhat depressed mood, this upside-down hulk seemed to symbolize myself, or even symbolize depression: being useless, immobilized, out of one’s element, left to rot away.

But my first association proved wrong.

    Here is the same boat a week later. It now was obvious that its unknown owner had dragged it ashore for an overhaul: to give the rusty old thing a new protective coat of black paint, or tar, or whatever it is that fishermen put on their boats.

Boat Repainted

A few more days, and I saw they had turned it over, and put back the fittings and the tarpaulin cover. It was waiting for relaunch:

Boat Refitted

And when today (after another few days) I passed the same spot, I saw it happily afloat again, ready for use:

Boat Afloat

Still, my initial association had not been entirely wrong. If I in my depression was like that upside-down boat, then right now I may be in the overhauling process: ready to find my back way into the water, to become more functional again.

Getting Better

If we want to cling to this boat story as a metaphor, then maybe we should view depression not just as an illness, not just as a problem (like an immobile hull affected by rust) but also as an opportunity – the opportunity to get ourselves some kind of overhaul (like a new coat of paint).

    Am I too optimistic here now? Maybe. But sometimes an exhausting period of deep depression (nasty and pointless as it feels) can in the end actually leave us a little stronger too, a little newer, a little more experienced, and in exceptional cases maybe even a little wiser.

    We don’t expect this to happen while we’re still in deep depression, but we may recognize it’s true once we’re recovering.


Well, I’m not yet quite afloat again myself, but I guess I’m on my way.

    Meanwhile, should you prefer to read some longer and more informative reflections on how to recover from depression, I think that last year I wrote a few better posts about this subject: see Don’t Crash On The Way Up and Rebuilding Your Life.

The Song

Yes, of course. This had to be, just because of the title. Please listen to Japanese singer-songwriter Rie fu (actual name Funakoshi Rie) with her 2004 manga song Life Is Like a Boat:

Rie fu 
Rie fu – Life Is Like a Boat

Like many of her songs, Rie fu’s own website is a mix of Japanese and English. She’s an intriguing, creative person with intriguing music: go take a look!

Brave New Flower


Yesterday, my daily anti-depression walk took me through a meadow where I saw a small dandelion. So what’s the deal?

    Well, this field had just been visited by the Grim Reaper Mower and its friends. First the grumbling monster that razed the waving knee-high grass and left it out to dry. Then the sucking, whining monster that dropped a row of neat big bales. And finally the truck that lifted the bales and took them away.

They had left a barren field. Grass had just begun to make a new start:

The Meadow

Traversing this field, I came across one single tiny dot of bright yellow.

One Spot of Yellow

It really was the only one in the entire field. A closeup:

A Brave New Flower

Tiny Splashes of Color

So you are depressed? Then here is the inevitable metaphor, the one you saw coming.

    The barren field is your mind, your life. Your once lushly-waving flowery colorful existence, that now sadly has been razed flat by the Grim Monster of Depression. Ugh.

    But somewhere in that dull monotonous plain of your depression you may find a tiny hesitant spot of color.

    My little flower symbolizes any little moment, however briefly, when you manage to forget how ravaged you are by your depression. Those few seconds when you’re not fretting about yourself: when your feelings of utter hopelessness are pushed to the side, if only for one fleeting instance.

    The little lone flower stands for any of those rare moments when, through the gray self-centered haze of your depression, something from the outside comes through strong enough to be noticed.

    This can be anything. Some really stupid joke on TV that makes you smile for one brief moment, even when you didn’t feel like smiling all day. Or it could be a bite of hot chili pepper from the pizza that you sat munching so thoughtlessly that you didn’t taste anything before.

Pizza Peppers

The dot of color might even come from a sudden little flash of actual feeling – even if it’s deep sadness – that comes piercing through the numb blanket of depression, bringing some unexpected tears to your eyes. Or else it could be simply when for one moment the task of scrubbing a blackened saucepan claims your full attention, leaving no room for other thoughts. Or

    However depressed you are, I’m sure you can fill in something here for yourself.


The secret here is concentration. You don’t need to wait for that single rare moment when you encounter such a tiny lost flower in the barren field of your depressed day. You can go looking for such experiences. And this you do by trying to concentrate, by consciously focusing not on yourself but on where you are and what you are doing.

    If necessary, set an hourly alarm on your phone as a reminder to keep trying this: to fully concentrate for a moment on whatever you see, hear, smell and touch right now. Right where you happen to be.

    And when you do this, chances are you will encounter a few more little “flower moments”. For concentration will bring rewards.

    When I spotted that single small yellow dandelion in the razed meadow, it made me a little more aware of my direct surroundings. Was there more to be seen? While walking on I kept looking around more carefully, more concentrated. And sure enough I came across another cluster of modest flowering right at my feet:

More Brave Little Ones

Concentration is like a pocket knife that can pierce small peepholes through the all-covering blanket of depression. It can bring you back brief moments of color and taste and feeling. The surprise of such moments can be like a reward. And the more you concentrate, the more often you encounter such flowers of mindfulness, the more they will spread.

    And anyway, such moments should also be seen as glimmers of hope. Like this one little dandelion proved stronger than the big grumbling monster that had razed everything.

Sorry (Just In Case)

I think my optimism is well-founded. Concentration efforts can really do a lot for us all.

    But if my optimism here offends you in the depths of your own depression, if it comes across like I’m not taking your plight seriously enough, then I am sorry for that. I do understand that when we are very depressed, any kind of optimistic advice can look just futile and stupid. So if all this only makes you more depressed, I’m truly sorry for that.

    Just remember I’ve been locked in the very same pit where you may be now. It was concentration on little things that gave me back a foothold, that helped me climb out. Even though I keep falling back from time to time, all the way into depression again.

    Sometimes, if you try, the mere effort of trying is enough to be helpful – regardless where it will get you.

 tip: I cannot say this often enough. Please try to concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate: concentrate on anything that’s not yourself.

What Are You?


What is your main identity? And would it be wise to try and shift or change your identity a little? In order to tackle these questions, first we need to be clear about what we mean with the word “identity”.

    We could complicate this by making a difference between your “self” (how you see yourself, privately) and your “identity” (how you present yourself to others, publicly). But let’s forget that kind of nuances here: for most of us, your private “self” and your public “identity” will largely overlap anyway – unless you’re a kind of actor or a con artist, that is.


What is my identity?So let us keep this simple. If I surprise you with the question “What are you?” and you give me a honest and spontaneous answer, then your answer will be a brief indication of your main identity.

    For example, suppose you answer “I’m a happily married economist with two children” then I will assume this is your main identity, the core of it. In this example, it is about relationship (happily married), profession (economist), and parenthood (with two children).

    Of course we can have many secondary elements in our identity too, part time identities so to speak, like being secretary of the local hockey club. Together, your main identity and such other elements form your more-or-less complete identity. By and large, this is how you see yourself and how others see you.

Depression and Identity

Any long term illness will have the nasty effect of changing your identity, and usually in a negative way. If the economist from my example gets a chronic heart condition or severe diabetes, he may not be able to work anymore, being forced to concentrate on coping with his illness. His core identity may shift to something like “I’m a former economist with a heart condition.”

What is my identity?Chronic, long-term depression does the same kind of thing to us. Only worse, because depression (like any form of mental illness) has a strong negative stigma. Put bluntly, depression makes you think very negative about yourself, which in turn makes you even more depressed: a downward spiral.

    In the end, depression can overgrow most of your former identity until it is so bad you can only blurt out “I’m a depression patient.” At that point, depression has become your main identity.

And this, in turn, can only worsen the downward spiral.

    This downward spiral is a common effect: it was confirmed by three psychologists (Yanos, Roe and Lysaker) in a 2010 research article The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness. In their summary they say:

“We propose that accepting a definition of oneself as mentally ill and assuming that mental illness means incompetence and inadequacy impact hope and self-esteem, which further impact suicide risk, coping, social interaction, vocational functioning, and symptom severity. Evidence supports most of the predictions made by the model.”

What To Do

So if we have been a depression patient for a long time, we should (as part of an overall recovery strategy) clearly recognize that depression may have eaten away parts of our former healthy identity; and we should try to somehow recover a few parts of our former healthy identity.

What is my identity?    Exactly how to do this will depend from many factors such as your situation, your former identity, the type and phase of your depression. This makes it a little difficult to outline one general strategy that will work for everyone. But let me stress three general points.

    1. Once it has become clear to yourself that your present main identity has degenerated into “I’m a depression patient”, try to recall – however painful this may be – exactly what your full positive identity used to be back in happier times.
    Try to chart your former identity as complete as possible: list the main elements (such as relation, occupation or an all-important hobby) and also the secondary elements (things like a club membership, a movie-watching habit, whatever).

    2. Convince yourself of one simple truth: the fact that you have depression does not mean that you are depression. Being a depression patient is just a part of you. It has not completely filled the rest of your identity, but rather it has left the rest of it empty and barren.
    That empty part of your present identity can (and should) be filled with something positive again.

    3. Be realistic. Fully restoring your former identity may be impossible: perhaps main elements such as your former relationship or job simply do not even exist anymore.
    So what you should try to do is single out one or two identity elements, main or secondary, that to some extent might be restorable. Like taking up an old hobby again. Try to think of something you could actually do to gain back just a little of your former identity.

My Own Example

Please allow me to do something I don’t do often here: using my own situation as an example.

    10 years ago, I was hospitalized for severe and long-term depression. In the couple of years that followed, with electroshock treatments and all, much of my former identity was destroyed. Both the marriage I had in happier times, and the university job I had (teaching, writing books, doing historical research) did not survive those years of horror. These main parts of my identity have gone forever.

What is my identity?Being a depression patient has become an undeniable part of my identity. Luckily I’m doing much better now than 10 years ago, though I have periodic lapses and still need medication. In this situation I’ve come to realize that being a depression patient should not become the only part of my identity. I realized that it would be better for myself, and also help to curb downward spirals, to fill in some empty, desolate, long-neglected parts of my identity again.

    May I use a metaphor? See your identity as a house. Once, long ago, you lived in all the rooms of this house, using it all from cellar to attic. Long-term depression makes you live in the narrow space of the kitchen, permanently. You never set foot in any of the other rooms anymore. While you’re trying to survive in your depression kitchen, the rest of the house gets dusty and empty, falls into disrepair. Depression makes you think, wrongly, that the depression-kitchen is all that’s left of your identity-house. But is it?

    In my case, the practical solution was to open a door to one of the other rooms: to see if I could recover a little of the “I’m a historian” element that used to be part of my former main identity. I cannot restore it full-time and not professionally anymore, but will take it more like a hobby. A hobby that (I hope) will prevent me from permanently reducing myself solely to “I’m a depression patient”.

    This, in short, is the reason why last month I’ve been busy with kickstarting a new, second blog that is primarily about history of mental health. Not exclusively focusing on depression anymore, like I will keep doing here. I will now also be trying to regain a little bit of my former “I’m a historian” focus and identity.

And You?

Of course your own situation, background and depression troubles can be completely different from mine. But I am fairly sure that each of us can find a long-neglected identity element, one that can be rebooted in such a way that depression will no longer the single element dominating your identity. I am sure you can find something that will shift your identity from “I’m a depression patient” towards “I’m a depression patient, but I also try to ……………

What is my identity?    First chart your former full identity, as suggested above, and then pick one element from that list that might be restorable, albeit to a limited extent (and of course with some effort).

    Re-extending your identity will not diminish your depression right away, and will certainly not cure it by itself. But that re-opened door can feel like a small kind of liberation: even if it’s only ajar, it can bring you a breath of fresh air.

    At the very least, re-extending your identity (even if only for a little bit) will halt the ever more negative downward spiral into a purely negative self-image.

    What more can I say? First be aware of your present identity as a depression patient, and then think about reclaiming a little of your former identity. Give it a try. It will give you some satisfaction even it doesn’t work out as you hoped: the satisfaction of having tried.

 tip: Instead of just defining yourself as “I’m a depression patient”, begin to define yourself as “I’m a depression patient, but I am also a …………..” (fill in some part of your former identity)

• footnote: Did you guess the identities of the faceless people in this post?

From top to bottom:

1. “I’m a physicist and I like jokes” (Albert Einstein)
2. “I’m a movie star and I love to be loved” (Marilyn Monroe)
3. “I’m a rocker and deep down I’m really sweet” (Elvis Presley)
4. “I’m a charity nun and a good fundraiser” (Mother Teresa)
5. Here I cheated. This is one you just cannot know.

Introducing 2014


There are two big mistakes that we (I mean the depressed) tend to make on the threshold of a new year.

The first mistake: looking back and reflecting too much on the miseries, failures, bleak moments and near-suicidal moments of the past unhappy year. Thoughts like “Another Year I Wasted” are not really helpful. Right now, maybe it’s better to not weigh and evaluate what already belongs to the past. New Year’s Eve is just not the best moment to attempt a cruel, shattering self-analysis. It’s better if (for example) you try to step outside and look at the midnight fireworks, even if you don’t really like the bangs. Just concentrate on some thing in the Here and Now.

Fireworks(image by aeroart at

The second mistake: looking upon the new year as some huge steep dark mountain that threateningly and insuperably towers in front of us. Thoughts like “Oh my God, how will I ever get through another year of this” may be hard to avoid, but such thoughts really are not helpful either. Try to focus not on the whole massive year in front of you: focusing on what you are going to do the next couple of days will be much more productive.

    Of course there’s also a third New Year mistake: a fairly common one that we share with many healthy not-depressed people. It’s committing ourselves to Too-Good Intentions: resolutions that are too ambitious, too inflated, too difficult to actually keep. In the first weeks of January, there will always be people feeling miserable, even hating themselves, because they failed to live up to their own over-optimistic goals. Don’t be one of them. If you must start the year with some kind of self-improving resolution, great but do pick a modest one that is within reach.

Happy, um…

    Evidently we cannot ignore the fact that the beginning of a new year is some kind of symbolic milestone. Maybe, if people near us are throwing some kind of New Year party, it’s an idea to just for a few moments, you know? All I wanted to say with this post is, don’t make more fuss of the whole thing than you can bear.

    I’m not feeling particularly well at the moment; I fear I’ve already been making mistakes One and Two myself (I often stupidly ignore my own sensible warnings). So, enough of this now. You are entitled to the customary StayOnTop New Year Card. I hope you don’t mind that for once, I could do no better than this:

Let Me Wish You A Somewhat Less Unhappy New Year

You’re welcome. But maybe rather than my lame though I assure you very well-meant wishes, what you really need is a beautiful and at the same time not over-optimistic song. So here is the wonderful New York band Palomar with The Planeiac from their 2004 album Palomar III: The Revenge of Palomar.


Palomar – The Planeiac

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page

Christmas Giveaway

Christmas is looming up close and personal again. It will be warmer than ever, but I bet thou art shivering nonetheless. Rejoice! I now can bestow a splendid, even splendidious gift onto thee all!

    Maybe you’re ridden by feelings of guilt because your nasty depression will be spoiling both other people’s fun and your own? Well, first listen for a moment to English antifolk singer Uke Stanza (better known as poet Colin Shaddick) expressing his feelings of Guilt! And as if that’s not enough, then hear him asking this very same philosophical question that is bothering us all, in his song The Very Thin Line – the line between sanity and madness.

    A few years ago, Uke (here’s a link to his inclusifolk website) made his hilariously moving double album Pheasants Will Cross The Road / The Very Thin Line. And best of all, he’s giving it to you for freeeeee! You can download the full album (or listen to all 20 songs) from the Free Music Archive!

    To quell your Christmas guilt and insanity, here he is: first with his unforgettable Guilty, and then crossing The Very Thin Line.

Uke Stanza

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page


For the rest, isn’t Christmas the same every year? So I can do no better for you now than to repeat the same poetic reflexions I came to write down a few years ago:

The Christmas Rant

    If for you Christmas is the highlight of the year, if this is the event that you have been looking forward to since January, if this is the one uplifting occasion that makes you spontaneously join in singing carolish carnival songs, if this is just the inducement you needed to finally decorate your entire home up to the cat’s litter in a bright, sparkling, highly tasteful manner, if you’ve waited all year for an excuse to put a high-grade ivy-green noninflammable Tannenbaum right in your living quarters and spray it with ingeniously realistic and heat-resistant artificial snow, if this is the one blessed gift-packed childhood re-enactment that never fails to bring tears of priceless pure emotion to your eyes, if you have been in your cuisine for days-on-end in order to prepare for the entire family clan including great great-aunt Gretel your unforgettable once-a-year boeuf-bourguignon on its once-a-year silver platter embellished with just a few carefully-chosen holly-leaves, if this to you is a wonderful heaven-sent opportunity to light your grandiosely set table for once not with harsh and cruel electroglare but with romantically-flickering real flames of almost-real-beeswax candles adorned with almost-real little golddust stars, if you love to crouch-on-couch side by side with your most loved loved ones to indulge for the sixtieth time in the compelling sweet technicolor sound of Sound of Music –  

    In short, if this is the unique shared festivity that by its genuine natural beauty and merriness for a few felicitous days makes you completely forget the nightmare of your life, then let me wish you nothing. You already have all that could ever be wished for. And you deserve it!

    If on the other hand you belong to that small, sad, sorry, depressingly depressed minority of miserable outcasts who by some incomprehensible mental defect are left insanely insanta, who due to some hereditary or infectious illness of the mind are rendered tragically incapable to join or even grasp this heart-felt happiness, if you belong to those who cannot even muster the basic human decency to value and respectfully enjoy this most essential, rich, harmonious and satisfying of mankind’s deeply-rooted edifying social and cultural traditions, if you not only shun this gratifying example of elementary social obligations but even have the chutzpah to claim publicly that the whole brilliant endearingly genial conceptual concept of Father Citschmas does bore or mystify or depress or frighten or repel you, if by openly confessing such near-terrorist views you dare to put yourself beyond the outer fringes of civilized humanity, yes outside the moral confines of our entire festively twinkling globe and galaxy and universe itself –  

    In short, if you are unable or unwilling to indulge in this annual party of peace, goodwill and esthetical satisfaction, then to our regret we can not wish or promise you happy holidays this time of the year. You are doomed, and you know it. As a fitting punishment, your disgustingly sick, distorted, negative, party-spoiling, lonely, asocial mind will be haunted for eternity by the same cruel, nightmarish, awful, garish, horrible, atrocious, tasteless images that already roam your pathetic woeful head anyway:

Christmas Card

Seriously now. If you happen to be one of the people who have a problem with Christmas, you are not the only one. You may feel alone, but in this respect you are not alone. If you find this particular time of the year extra depressing, your feelings are not unique. You really don’t have to feel guilty or inferior for not enjoying the party.

• tip: Don’t blame or pity yourself.

Waves of Confusion


Sometimes my mind runs a little out of control. It’s almost the opposite of the numb silent emptiness of deep depression, but it’s not an entirely pleasant experience either.

    It’s like random thoughts and feelings start dancing wildly around in an aimless, unpredictable, confused, associative way. A kind of noisy emotional tangle, where unrelated shreds of thought, memories and feelings keep bumping into each other. For a while, it is hard to focus thoughts and actions again.

Brain Storm

Is This a Problem?

This kind of unbridled mental activity may raise the fear of becoming psychotic or something like that.

    Obviously I cannot judge for you or for others if that fear has some ground. If in your case it has, for example because you have a history of seriously psychotic episodes, then you might do well to consider your confused mental activity a warning signal. In that case, you might need to call for help.

    In my own case, I take a pragmatic approach. In the rare situations where the mess and the noise in my head persist to such an extent that it keeps me from function properly, from sleeping or eating or working, then obviously I do have a problem – a problem requiring action to get it under control. A couple of times I have indeed talked about this with my psychiatrist or used some antipsychotic medication for a brief while.

    But most of the times I don’t feel an urgent need to immediately refocus my wildly wandering mind again. For I know from experience that in my case such confusing mind activity is not really harmful. Usually it will not last very long. It doesn’t prevent me from functioning normally over the rest of the day.

The Real Problem

Luckywolf's FearMaybe the real problem here is the fear of completely loosing one’s mind. For some of us this fear may have some ground, but for many of us such a fear is not really justified.

    Perhaps we get this fear mainly because our depression conditioned us to view ourselves negatively. Meaning that we have too little confidence in ourself: too little confidence in our mind’s ability to restore itself to a little more order again.

    For myself I feel that what also plays a role here, is the continuous pressure of today’s social environment. We live in a culture where everything is supposed to optimized, efficient and under control. We are supposed to keep not just our workplace and our home, but also our free time and even our mind organized efficiently.

    And so the web today is churning out an endless stream of controlling tips. How to brew the best breakfast coffee efficiently in no time? How to best organize your kitchen drawer or your shopping list or your resume or your calendar or your fitness schedule? How to keep your mind clear and productive and in focus? Websites such as Lifehacker offer it all, nonstop, day after day.

LifehackerThe implicit, almost subconscious suggestion from such trendy websites is that indeed nearly everything in Life can be Hacked: that everything, from your kitchen drawer to your own mind, can (and should) be optimized and controlled for best results. But isn’t this a dangerous fallacy?

    On those inevitable occasional moments when your mind is a mess, when you can’t get it under control right away, won’t such an exaggerated cultural norm of controlled efficiency only make you feel worse?

Accept A Little Confusion

The Romantic Google Glass ViewI guess I am a romanticist who doesn’t belong in this Google Glass Century, but I am convinced that total control of your environment and yourself (including your mind) is an undesirable and impossible goal. It would make life dull and predictable; it would reduce ourselves to a kind of self-adjusting efficient feel-good robots.

    Aiming at full self-control overlooks the simple fact that no human mind can ever be 100% orderly, 100% positive, 100% under control. And certainly not all the time.

    I think that these moments when my mind feels like a mess do not necessarily mean there is a problem. Such moments become a problem only when they really keep hampering me, keep messing up all my day.

    By themselves, if such moments come and go, maybe they are just a precious sign of life: something I should simply sit out and accept.

    And perhaps on a less conscious level, such moments of complete confusion can even be valuable, in the same way that our mind actually needs having nonsensical dreams at night.

    And by the way, aren’t many new, creative ideas born from aimless confused mind wanderings? From uncontrolled thoughts bumping into each other within a wildly associating mind? From a mind that, for a while, seems almost running amok?

Cornfield (brought to you by the confused mind of Van Gogh)

In Short:

If once in a while our thoughts and feelings run out of control, maybe we should not immediately panic, not immediately interpret this as a sign of mental illness or as a sign of the worst.

    If it’s just some temporary waves of confusion, then maybe we should simply accept it as something natural.


I’ve found the perfect music to illustrate my point. A sound that evokes the clash of voices I sometimes do hear in my mind.

    Two voices wandering aimlessly, at times in disharmony and discord and weirdly bumping into each other – it’s like the makers brilliantly knew how to reflect a confused mindset in a song.

    At first, if you don’t know them, their voices may seem Katzenjammer* to you. Ten years ago, these two sisters formed the duo CocoRosie: Coco (Bianca Casady) and Rosie (Sierra Casady).

    They’ve recorded five wonderfully weird albums. Give them some time and soon you’ll either love them or hate them – which always is a sign of something special. Yes, I myself happen to love them.

    Here is the link to their official CocoRosie website. As an example of their unique and freaky sound I’d like you to listen to Good Friday from their 2004 Parisian debut album La maison de mon rêve. Just start the player below the pic:


CocoRosie – Good Friday

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page

• tip for my friends in the NL: this summer, CocoRosie is touring Europe. Saturday evening 16 September 2013 they can be heard and seen live in Paradiso, Amsterdam. You can reserve concert tickets here.

• footnote: the word Katzenjammer originally (literally) meant cats’ wailing. Over the course of time, it came to mean any discordant string of sounds. From there, it also came to mean bewilderment and confusion in a general sense.
    And to some people today, Katzenjammer can also describe a state of depression: one bad enough to make you wail. Or bad enough to make you want to wail, if you could.

Spread the Word:

StayOnTop itself has no dedicated Facebook or Twitter account, but at the bottom of each post are share buttons.
   If you like this site I would be really happy if you do tell your friends about it – through Facebook or in any other way.
   The best way to actually follow StayOnTop, is to simply use the email option below.

If you want to hear about new StayOnTop posts by email, please enter your email address:

Thanks, Akismet!

StayOnTop would drown in a deluge of fake comments by spammers, if Akismet didn't sort them out.
   The spam count so far, just for this site:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 158 other followers