The Opportunities in Setbacks. And Rainy Days Letters.

This post started a trend. It’s about how to make a setback work for you rather than floor you, and describes how to write yourself a letter that can serve as a ray of light in the darkness of your bad days. 
Since I wrote this post, other mothers in the PPD community shared their letters here. We call it the Hope in an Envelope collection. Scroll down for links to all of them. You are absolutely invited to join us here; find out how below.
This post was originally dedicated to my friends Erica @ellemenopee and Robin @farewellstrangr. May this never apply to you again.
- – -

There you are, after having pulled yourself up by your bootstraps (or ponytail) from the mud and muck of depression; things are finally going better. You are beginning to feel much more like yourself. You recognize the face in the mirror. After a very long time, you finally like the sound of your own inner voice. You realize the storm has passed, and you are actually fine.

You like this new you, which has much in common with the old you, except that she is wiser, and more tired. And you are terrified. Terrified. Shaking in your boots (or flip-flops) afraid that the progress is temporary. Or worse: imaginary.
The fear of relapse is looming, like an ominous cloud, always at the corner of the sky. No matter how sunny the day is.

In my early recovery days, about 6 years ago, I would have those good days, and then when the bad days hit, I would totally believe that I was sinking. On those bad days, it felt as if I was nothing but a big fat idiot to presume that recovery could ever be real. Everything was doooom dooooom doooom.
On those days when the self-talk was cruel, the anxiety had me in its cold slimy grip, and the pain of trying to fight my depression seemed endless and futile, I would begin to descend again. The abyss felt ever so close, suicide so tempting.

On those bad days it would seem like all my progress was a delusion. I believed my PPDemons when they said I was forever under their curse. But I had made progress, and the combination of medication, therapy, support structures, and sleep management would help me live through another setback, and I would see for myself that the progress was really (really!) real, not imaginary.

Instead of feeling trapped by duty, resenting my baby, I would be able to access my love for him. I would be able to take care of hated household tasks without wanting to slit my wrists. I would be able to hold my crying child and not imagine smashing him against the wall and then jumping out of a window myself.  I could taste and enjoy food. I would feel love for my husband, not just overwhelming (read debilitating) gratitude.
This was real progress, and it was undeniable.
Until the next setback, of course. Which could be triggered by anything: a sleepless night, PMS, bad news, a cold.
And again, I would discredit every ounce of healing. Again, I would deem myself week, lazy and pathetically delusional for having thought, even for a moment, that I was better, that I could win.

And a few days (or weeks) later, I would be just fine.

So I noticed this pattern: that while from the inside, every setback FEELS like an inescapable black hole, it doesn’t mean this feeling is true. Again, the feelings are always valid, but the scary stories they tell don’t have to be.
Even more important, was to notice that how I believed the doom-thought-generated-feelings had everything to do with how the setback would turn out — will it be a pothole or an abyss? Well, turned out it was up to me.  More accurately, it was up to which thoughts I chose to believe, and which thoughts I was able to question. (This was good and bad. Good because I had a part to play, I didn’t have to be just a victim here. Bad, because now I had this extra responsibility, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge.)

I also noticed that fighting my demons wasn’t working very well. Fighting fed my PPDemons, while it drained and exhausted me.

An important shift in my healing was changing the metaphor for my healing journey. From  fighting a war, to doing life-saving research. Transforming myself from warrior to student/scientist/detective helped me so much.
You know how all humans have a deeper respect for the written word rather than the spoken word?
Have you noticed how we westerners have respect for “data”?
When I became a student of my own condition, instead of fighting, I practiced noticing, discerning, gathering, collecting.
Hypothesis. Data. Proof.

Which lead me to writing myself letters. Since on the good days I knew better, a whole lot better, than on my bad days, I asked the doing OK me to supply proof for the doom and gloom me. Those letters came in handy (now that’s an understatement). I would carry them in my wallet. I read them a lot, and after a while I didn’t need them as much. Several wallets and a couple of home-moves later, I am ashamed to say that I don’t even know where they are. I’m pretty sure I kept them. I just don’t know in which drawer, or which box. But back when I needed them, these letters were life-saving. Having them meant that I was able to discredit the voice of the PPDemons, able to tell the difference between my thoughts, and the thoughts that were PPDemons cwap. It meant that choosing which thoughts to believe no longer required huge reserves of optimism  which I didn’t have. These Rainy Days Letters were life-jackets for the rough seas.

I will try to find these letters and share them with you. If I can’t find them, I will try to reconstruct them from memory.

But don’t you wait for me. If you are doing OK today yet the fear of relapse still clouds your sky, I invite you to start noticing anecdotes of joy, little accomplishments, Very-Good-Enough moments, and collect them. When you have a little pile of data write yourself a letter. On paper. You might want to use glitter pens or crayons, or you might want to type. If you type, do print your letter. Give it a lipstick kiss (or not) and put the letter in your wallet or your purse. Tell your husband or partner about this letter, give him (or her) a copy, ask to be reminded to read it (your demons will object, of course. It’s their job, and by anticipating this you are doing yours). Rainy Days Letters can be long or short.  Your letter doesn’t have to be particularly well written, a simple list will do just fine. Or you can write it as a love letter to yourself. Mine had words like honey and sweetie in it. Do whatever works for you. People vary, your way is the right way for you.

I invite you to share your rainy days letter with me. You can do so in the comments here, or you can send me an email. If you want me to, I’ll be happy to publish your letter here as a guest post. Or we can just keep it between us, and I will be your witness. And your cheer leader.

Six years and many many setbacks later, I learned to see setbacks as proof of progress. I began to see setbacks as opportunities. Opportunities to practice the choosing of thoughts, the noticing of patterns, the applying of hard-won emotional skills. These days, setbacks are not common, but they do happen. Of course they do. Thankfully, they are now on an entirely different order of magnitude. And I no longer fear them. Since I started doing this work, writing this blog, setbacks are strangely useful. I still hate setbacks, of course. Setbacks ruin my day. But heck, I don’t have to like them to survive them.

On bad days, I am no longer terrified. I allow myself to be grumpy, I do my best not to be nasty, I ask for help.

I greet each setback with this welcome:
Hello setback. What lessons have you got for me?
When a setback comes, it is only a pothole, and a classroom.
The abyss is all gone.

- – -

Other letters in the Hope in an Envelope collection:

Rach (my intro to this letter has more hints for how and why to write one to yourself.)
Story
Jessica
Susan
Nicole
Becky
Sarah
Jenny
Andrea

Honorary Rainy Days Letters, guest posts written before the Hope in an Envelope collection began:

Tamara
Charity 

And yes! Of course I’d love to add your letter to our growing collection here. And if you have a blog and would like to post your letter at your place, that’s great, we can both share your writing! That way even more moms will be touched by your words. Just please make sure to let me know via twitter or email  (@yaelsaar /  ppdtojoy at gmail dot com) and please don’t forget to link to this very post, so mothers who read your letter can then find the rest of the collection, and perhaps be inspired to join us.

Comment magic:
Do you recognize any of this? Is this helpful at all? Do you have any questions about how to practice this? I’m always happy to answer your questions and read your voice.

As always, buckets of love to all who read, and whether you comment or not, may the joy be with you.

 

 

23 Responses to The Opportunities in Setbacks. And Rainy Days Letters.
  1. aatelier.pl
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  3. [...] ago, the lovely Yael at PPD to Joy wrote this wonderful post about setbacks. She talks about writing your own Rainy Day Letter, a letter to yourself written from a good day, a [...]

  4. [...] Yael Saar, PPD to Joy, The Opportunities in Setbacks, And Rainy Day Letters (this post started her awesome “Rainy Day Letters” [...]

  5. Chella
    December 29, 2011 | 10:54 am

    I love this, and I love you for compiling it for those of us who still
    feel like we’re drowning. One day I will be able to tell you how much
    I needed the information, personal experience and (most of all) hope
    you’ve shared here. Today is not that day. So, for now, I’ll just say
    thank you. Sincerely.

    • Yael
      January 14, 2012 | 3:54 pm

      Dear Chella,
      Thank you so much for letting m know that this is helpful to you. I’m sending you a hole lot of love and stroking your hair.

  6. [...] Yael Saar, PPD to Joy, The Opportunities in Setbacks, And Rainy Day Letters (this post started her awesome “Rainy Day Letters” [...]

  7. katery
    September 17, 2011 | 9:00 pm

    very nice post, currently trying to pull myself up by my ponytail while wearing flip-flops :)

    • Yael
      September 18, 2011 | 1:39 pm

      thank you for the kind words. And for telling me how this applies to you. that’s very meaningful to me. sending hugs and mojo.

  8. Rainy Day letter to myself « …just breathe
    September 16, 2011 | 3:21 pm

    [...] more rainy day letters here & learn about how you can get help if you think you might be [...]

  9. Amanda
    September 16, 2011 | 1:08 pm

    I wish I had thought to find blogs like this years ago, back when the grip of PPD was so terrible. It takes such bravery and love to write about these topics, and I can only imagine how many women are supported and possibly lifted up just a bit from that dark hole after reading.
    Amanda recently posted..My Mom is my Inspiration – Mother inspired artwork

    • Yael
      September 18, 2011 | 1:41 pm

      This is exactly why I do it. I wish I could be there to provide support when you needed it.

  10. mammacockatoo
    September 7, 2011 | 11:36 pm

    I’m just reading this now, but I really appreciate it. I don’t feel OK enough to write that letter yet, but I love the idea and hope I can get to it soon.
    Thank you for the wonderful idea, and your wise words.
    mammacockatoo recently posted..Getting back up

  11. Rainy Day Letter «
    September 4, 2011 | 6:02 pm

    [...] making a point to remember her progress.  What a beautiful idea, inspired by Yael’s post, The Opportunities in Setbacks, to write a letter to yourself to come back to when your truth is mangled by depression and anxiety [...]

  12. To Me, With Love « Healing Mutti
    September 2, 2011 | 5:51 pm

    [...] and I am worth it.  If you would love to read other letters like mine, visit this website:  PPD to Joy.  It is an amazing [...]

  13. My Rainy Day Letter « Living with PPD
    August 24, 2011 | 6:28 pm

    [...] Yael from PPD to Joy gave me this tip – write a Rainy Day [...]

  14. kiki wilson-hashman
    July 20, 2011 | 3:22 am

    I recently entered a writing challenge – oddly enough I was challenged to write of gratitude
    even more strange I wrote a thank you letter to myself…I will be referencing it often on
    rough days…http://barema.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/a-challenge/

  15. Rach (DonutsMama)
    July 18, 2011 | 2:07 pm

    Thank you for your soothing words. You give me such reassurance.

  16. JH
    July 3, 2011 | 10:49 pm

    Thanks for this. I am in the midst of my biggest setback yet and wish
    I’d had this idea to write rainy day letters previously. I do see how
    my thoughts can get me here. It’s hard to not feel guilty about being
    here or that I shouldn’t be here if this kind of power is in my thoughts.
    My thoughts are in my control, right?

    At least I remembered I could come here and read. Thanks for writing this.
    I’m still trying!

  17. story
    June 27, 2011 | 10:41 pm

    Thank you for this. This is just what I needed to hear today – how do you always know?

    I’ve been telling myself that my sense of progress was a lie, that I was foolish to think I was getting better. Or I guess it’s the demons that have been telling me. I guess I need to be more careful about who I choose to listen to inside and out.
    story recently posted..Swimming lessons

  18. Cristi Comes
    June 25, 2011 | 1:03 am

    I love the letter idea. that is awesome. It can truly be so cyclical with setbacks. The fear of the downward spiral almost as bad as the spiral.
    Cristi Comes recently posted..Fight It

  19. Ozcanbyrnes
    June 24, 2011 | 2:15 pm

    Such wonderful and useful words Yael. You’ve written exactly would I’d been going through and started to realize. My perspective makes all the difference.

  20. MamaRobinJ
    June 24, 2011 | 11:24 am

    Thank you, beautiful. This explains it wonderfully – after having a setback recently I understand what you mean by this and if it happens again I will remember your wise words. xo
    MamaRobinJ recently posted..Uncool

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