Each person has their own way of dealing with their depression. Xandra Robinson-Burns found a unique path to understand her life and handle her depression – fiction.
An avid reader, Xandra connected with the characters in the books that she would read. The Harry Potter series was top of her list. As a child, her family moved numerous times, and each move seemed to coincide with the release of a new book in the series. These familiar characters accompanied her to her new home and was a stabilizing factor in her unfamiliar surroundings. They were her friends and she was enveloped in their adventures.
“My parents took us to see Peter Pan when I was six years old and I was totally mesmerized. I asked my Mom, ‘How do I do that?’ My Mom saw how much I wanted to be on stage and she got me an audition for the next show!
“In high school I took twice the amount of classes as normal and I was in overwhelm. I was an overachiever and being top of the class was a given.
An English teacher, took me aside and said, ‘You don’t seem yourself. I have experienced depression and maybe that is what you’re going through.’ This planted the first seed. It didn’t get addressed directly, because I was also getting irregular periods and I was diagnosed with Graves disease, hypothyroidism. A side effect of that is depression. I told myself that I’m not a depressed person – it’s just a side effect of the disease. I took medication and it controlled it.
The depression passed or so I thought. Growing up I didn’t know there was a difference between having a bad day and depression. After I stopped the medication, in my second year at Oxford University, the depression returned. A blood test showed that my thyroid was fine so I was stumped as to what was happening. My depression came and went over the next two years of university. I attempted to tell people that I wasn’t feeling well and they just attributed my feelings to being nervous about tests which would determine my final grade. I didn’t feel motivated to do my work. Things didn’t change even after I completed my exams.
“I began questioning; I knew what the institution wanted me to do, but it wasn’t in line with my goals anymore.
“When the depression didn’t go away I went to the university counseling service to get help. But the counselor just said, ‘This doesn’t line up – you’re finished with your exams.’ I said, ‘I had a little experience with depression and I think this might be depression.’ The counselor answered, ‘Oh, no, you don’t have depression!’ Later on I realized she was not qualified to make that diagnosis. Now I had depression and guilt.
“Depression feels like, ‘whatever’, lack of joy in life and lack of wanting to be involved, so I didn’t do anything in the quest to get well. I moved back to live with my parents in Boston. A year later it got so bad, that I finally opened up to my Mom and told her that I didn’t want to live anymore.
“She took me to the ER and the psychiatrist there told me, ‘I don’t think you are depressed, you’re severely depressed !’
“Since I have opened up to people about my depression, every person responds with either, ‘Me too’, or ‘yeah, my mother, (sister, brother, best friend, son, daughter) had it.’ It was so much better to be able to share.
Medication was not the way Xandra found relief. Instead she uses fiction to understand herself and her depression. She is so invested in the characters of the stories, especially Harry Potter, she treats them as if they are real.
“When I notice something in my life which is abstract, what helps me to solidify it is to relate it back to stories I’m familiar with from fiction. I do this as a person and I also do this in my writing.
This summer I wrote an essay, ‘So What Happened’. People would ask me nicely, ‘What happened?’. I would tell them, ‘Nothing happened. This is just how I feel right now.’ It took a while to embody this. But there’s a lot to learn from it. When the depression would surface, I was able to recognize it. It was more of a frustration. I said, why are you here? In Harry Potter there are the Dementors that make everything go dark and drain the happiness from you. Harry had such a traumatic past and he was more affected by it than others. I found this such a great way to describe depression. At first he doesn’t know why he’s experiencing this. But then he puts systems in place and when they come back a few years later he puts the systems in place and then he does what he needs to do to get through it.
“I’ve learned to accept it; let it hang out with me for a while and trust that there is something to learn from my feelings. I’m an intellectual person and motivated to see what I can learn from the depression – not just try and get rid of it. I want to be present to understand what my feelings and body are telling me.”
Xandra has dropped the guilty from guilty pleasures. She practices letting herself get fully excited with whatever caught her fancy at the moment. She just lets herself enjoy. I believe that she is not only taking out the guilt from guilty pleasures, but she is enjoying it.
She has an online group, Everyday Wonderland, where she helps you find the magic in where you already are. There are weekly calls to adventure. She sends a digital postcard inviting you to take one minute to connect with the fantasy version of your life. Bring in all the wonder you experience in the fictional worlds that you inhabit to your real life. Take a regular moment in life and turn up the volume. The places Xandra likes to look at are the things we need to do everyday and invest them with adventure. If you are doing it anyway, then enjoy it! There’s no point in finishing the to do list, if you’re not in the moment. If we aren’t present there’s no reason to be productive.
In order to be prepared to combat depression Xandra has created a Spell for Feeling Well. It can be found on her site, Heroine Training. It is a to do list of the things that work to extricate someone from depression. When a person is in depression they can’t think clearly. This list dictates what they can do to start the process. Essentially it is taking care of one’s basic needs. Take a shower, hydrate, made sure to eat. The next stage is to cast a spell – get out the music and play a song; read a book, take a walk in the park – whatever will cause a shift in the atmosphere from grey to sparkle.
This list is a system in place to help move the needle. It is accepting how a person feels at that moment and validating it…. But then go on to the to do list. Once you do something on the to do list, celebrate the win. It was hard and still you did it!
Her husband Steve has learned on the job how to deal with Xandra’s depression. He doesn’t assume he knows what she wants, but asks, ‘ How can I best help you?’. She doesn’t always have the answer, but she appreciates his presence. After the episode they can reflect on what is needed during the depression: come hang out with me; let me disconnect; don’t talk to me; rub my back; give me a cup of coffee; forgive me if I’m not nice and if I’m neglecting you.
It is important to thank your support system. Let them know that you appreciate what they have done for you. Validate that they are doing the right thing. It gives them energy to continue. It is a hard road to travel as a loving partner.
Xandra can be found on her website, Heroine Training.com. She recommends that people begin with her first three essays. They are beautiful and can bring you to tears.
She has two podcasts. One with her sister, What’s your Favorite Part where they recap TV and film parts that they both enjoy. This does not have a specific schedule. Her weekly podcast is called, The Art Life, which discusses the process of being an artist in the present day. Rather than fixate with art as a job or as an end product trying to see art as part of your life.
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