The ‘Mindfulness Approach to Depression and Anxiety’ course at St. Luke’s was eight weeks long, every Wednesday at 2.30pm. Two hours with a ten minute break in between. At 21, I was the youngest by nine years. I'd been offered a spot to tide me over during the six month wait (in April 2014) for counselling. Some days people wouldn't come because they were in crisis. Other days me and two women had pizza in Kingsland and laughed at the silliness of it all. It was in a mindfulness session that I found out my application for reporter at Sunday Star-Times had been successful. It was in a mindfulness session that the facilitators asked one woman to “cover up” after a male classmate complained that he was distracted by her breasts.
I felt incredibly awkward at the idea of meditation-type exercises and out of place because everyone seemed to have worse problems. So I scribbled little descriptions of my fellow classmates in a leather notepad, pretending my recent journalism degree wasn’t in vain.
R: Has fiery red hair. She is also fiery in person, a fierce feminist, outspoken and fucking stylish. She works in mental health and I think she is gorgeous. When she first walked in the room we all stared at her (she was ten minutes late). She has an air of coolness, in the way she dresses and the way she holds herself.
T: Sat next to me. He has a receding hairline, a big nose and a shiny face in general with a rough looking moustache. Based solely on appearance (and my personal issues) he is the kind of man I would probably feel uncomfortable having walk behind me on my way home from work. I’m not really sure what affliction he has, for others it is a lot more obvious. He talks gruffly. When we did the coin exercise — smelling a coin to supposedly help *ground* us — I lent him one dollar and he snorted it like coke. He saw me draw a smiley face on my white ghost in the book (who was meant to symbolise a person hiding from scary thoughts and the world) and grinned. I liked him after that. He has kids who live in a different city and often gets really worried when they don’t text him back, “my oldest son has told me that if he doesn’t text back he’s probably out of credit" - T used this as an example of his thoughts/ behaviour/ = action/ urge process. He lives by himself and has his shopping day on Wednesday as well as group therapy. He plays touch rugby. He will spend an hour in checking routines before he leaves the house (a lot of empathetic nodding from the rest of us familiar with OCD).
A: Likes Brazilian music. When we had to go around the circle saying the one place we would like to travel to and why he said Brazil because he thinks the music is amazing. When we were assigned our homework of doing a mindful task — mine was pay attention when putting on a nice face mask — he said he would listen to Brazilian music. He seems very positive about the whole thing, enquiring. He works with computers and despaired that the booklets we were given are manually edited. I’m pretty sure he has Bipolar as he told us that he mainly deals with being manic as opposed to being depressed.
J: Her blonde, shoulder-length hair is perfectly straight, she has a slightly bemused look in her eye and holds herself with caution. She used to manage a very successful business and lost it all, having to sacrifice private psychiatry for public (interestingly, she thinks public is way better). She was able to save the porsche though — giving me and R rides sometimes. When she first came to the group she poked her head in the door to see if we looked ‘normal’. She told us she had a huge sense of shame in having to admit she was unwell and this made her nervous to come along to the group, others nodded their heads in agreement with her.
K: Sits in a way that is slightly curled in, has a very soft-spoken voice and seems to know the carers at St Luke’s well. She does meditation classes through the centre where you meditate in your chair. She says it is very helpful because you can do it anywhere. K isn’t used to group therapy but has had lots of one-on-one therapy. In the morning she likes to climb out her window onto her roof and look at the sun rising, take a photo and have a cup of coffee. It stops her from hiding under her duvet cover all day.
I: I is in her 60s. The top of her hair is white and the bottom suddenly changes to black, like it started aging but just forgot to do the rest and is caught up in a struggle between youth and old age. She is very shy. Sometimes the facilitators miss her timid attempts at saying something and I feel really bad for her that she had the courage to speak and go unheard. She is looking for jobs at the moment and said she worries about finding the locations and how to make herself stand out from the rest of the applicants.
P: Is the quietest. I always forget he is there. He is hesitant and stumbles over his words. He gets panicky but after our last meditation he said it really helped him. He looks confused a lot of the time — but that could just be the drugs. We’re on a lot of drugs.
At the first session we learnt about the difference between emotional thinking and logical thinking. Supposedly, the ideal state is somewhere in the middle where you use “your wise mind”. If it sounds patronising, it is. But then again we’re all here because somewhere along the line our brains went a little haywire in dealing with stressors.
We all lean more on the emotional mind, the one that makes impulsive decisions or feels, fears, and loves intensely. This can result in debilitating behaviours. However, a world with just logical thinking, explained David the facilitator, would not be a nice world at all.
“What are some benefits to having an emotional mind?” he asks us.
We sit there dumbfounded for a bit because at this point in our lives we’d love non-emotional minds.
I pipe up.
“Well, for me, remembering my family, friends and the really good times can stop me from, doing that, thing, you know, like, ah, harm, impulsive…” I trail off because one of our rules is that we aren’t allowed to talk about suicide or self harm. TO be clear I was alluding to suicide. Others in the group nodded their head vehemently in agreement.
“And if we just had a logical mind,” continues David, “there would be no feeling. What do you think it would be like feeling no grief?”
“Funerals would be a lot more fun,” says J
“But there wouldn’t be funerals,” says David.
“Yeah. Can you imagine. All these random decomposing bodies scattered around the world, it would smell so weird,” said R.
Everyone perks up and gets really excited, giddily spitting out fantastic dystopian scenarios and David quickly changes the topic.
During our break we were given budget chocolate biscuits and tea and coffee (“if the cups look like they’ve been used a thousand times it’s because they have,” “thank god they haven’t cut the funding so bad we can’t give them tea”).
At the end of the session I realised my milk in the little jug was off. I had sipped my coffee and at the end was a lumpy, white and curdled mess. I showed it to J and we wrinkled our noses in solidarity and disgust. This would not happen in a Ponsonby clinic, she assured me.
I’m not entirely sure mindfulness is an effective tool for severely unwell people and it seems like DHBs use it as a way to tide over people on lengthy waiting lists. I think it’s valuable for general anxiety and depression — and I try to remember to use aspects of it when I’m anxious — but if you’ve got a group of people who all had recent suicide attempts like we had, I don’t think it’s super helpful. In fact, I think it can sometimes add to the distress — but each to their own.
At the end of the first session I was struck with huge anxiety — having to express the thoughts that you normally try to push away was very confronting. This anxiety did not cease once I left. I got to work and felt sick, and utterly drained. I remember telling the other waitress on that night that I was just absolutely exhausted. She said it is a common occurrence in group therapy from hearing about other people’s problems as well.
Two years later I’m very close friends with R. K has just had a baby. I hope everyone else is doing okay. The sessions were invaluable for me, not because of the hippy techniques imparted upon us, but being able to meet people fighting to stay alive and sharing the same dark humour and compassion despite all being from different cultural groups and backgrounds.