A Return to Melancholy | Katherine Peters

As a graduate student, I read a lot.  This year I’m reading a lot of books about different places and people: how they feel, how they act, how they live, how they make sense of the world.  Recently, I’ve been reading a book about addiction and what I would call depression, but the author terms melancholy.  The book is The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande by Angela Garcia.  Throughout the book she describes the lives and worlds of people entering, leaving, and returning to a detox clinic in New Mexico.  One passage in particular struck me as interesting.

She describes a woman called Alma, who lost her sister.  Her sister died in a car accident from a drunk driver.  What is interesting about this woman is that she talks about her sister as if she is still living, and still reading books.  Alma seems to be stuck in a state called melancholy.

Freud wrote about how people deal with the death of loved ones.  In one of his books, he proposed that one could either mourn, or could turn to melancholy.  Mourning involves going through the grieving process and gradually coming to a place where you let go of the lost and move on with living.

Melancholy, instead, is when a person continually grieves for the lost because they are keeping the lost alive.  The past becomes incorporated into the present, like an open wound that is not allowed to heal.  Melancholy can become a kind of self-torture.  You may not let yourself forget the lost or the past.  The past, and keeping the past alive every day, becomes who you are.

I have found myself doing this on more than one occasion.  I wouldn’t let the past go, because I thought that somehow made it less real.  Or that forgetting erased the presence of people who had been in my life – those who I lost through losing touch with each other, or those who I lost through death.  I don’t think either of these are true now.  The past most certainly happened, and it was definitely real, otherwise it wouldn’t be the past.  Traces of the past already exist in the present, and I do not need to hold onto the pain to remember the joys.  And the presence of people in my life, and the loss of them, does not have to be something I constantly hold on to.  Those people, and my experiences with them, made me who I am today. Just like the past already has traces in the present, so do the people who were once part of our lives.  We don’t need to focus on the loss in order to remember who they were to us, or how important they were.

The thing about loss is that it happens to all of us eventually. It is a natural human occurrence. Additionally, loss is not restricted solely to loss by death. The loss of any sort of significant relationship, such as divorce, a breakup, the loss of a pet, or a major fight in a close friendship, can spur on feelings of mourning or melancholy. The fear of change and our natural tendency to resist it makes staying in the state of melancholy tempting.

Perhaps right now, while reading this, you realize there is an area in your life that has been frozen in melancholy.

The good news is that recognizing that fact is the first step to letting go of your past and moving on.

A simple exercise that will help bring you out of the past and into the now is a technique called self-grounding. Self-grounding is most often used to help cope with anxiety attacks, particularly for individuals experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. With PTSD, individuals can experience flashbacks that keep them stuck in the past traumatic event. Self-grounding assists in reminding yourself of the “here and now”.

Here are a couple of simple self-grounding exercises that you can do right now:

  1. Trace your hands around the physical outline of your body. Take note of the space you are occupying right here, right now.
  2. Move your body. Wiggle your fingers and your toes, shift your body position. Pay attention to your five senses. Name something you can see, something you can hear, something you can smell, something you can feel, and something you can taste right now. The more senses you active, the more “here” you will feel.
  3. Use your voice. Sing a short song, hum, whistle, or read a paragraph from a book out loud. Listen to the sound of your voice.
  4. Look in a mirror. You may not like your reflection, but let go of that for now. Look into your eyes, note your hair, see the uniqueness that is you. Remember that you are “real”.
  5. Take a shower or bath. Again, utilize as many senses as possible. How does the water feel against your skin? Take deep breaths in the steam. What scent is your soap, shampoo, conditioner?
  6. Take a look outside. What do you see? Count the number of trees, or the number of cars that pass by. What do you hear?

When you’re feeling stuck in the past, it may be hard to remember these grounding techniques. Write a couple suggestions down so that you can access it during those times when reality feels fleeting.

If you feel that you may be stuck in melancholy – or perhaps depression – consider reaching out today to a counselor or mental health professional. If you’re stuck due to a loss, consider finding a professional that specializes in grief and loss strategies. Always remember that you do not need to work through this alone.

By moving on and letting go of the past, you are not discrediting it or the people you have lost. Instead you are cutting off the means of self-torture, learning from your past, and using it to mold you into who you are today.