Treating Depression with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

John Folk-Williams Health Guide
  • Merely Me’s fine post on living in the present to deal with depression brought to mind a long-ago incident when I first understood the need to break the hold of the past. The problem then was my complete lack of consciousness about old patterns of behavior and how they still held me. All I knew was that something was going terribly wrong.

    I had a part in a college play that seemed like a perfect match. Every moment in rehearsal was exciting as I released myself completely into the character.  I loved it, and the character came across more convincingly than any other I had attempted.

    But he was a strange creature, half human, ruled by instinct and primitive joys and fears. He certainly lived in the present! Each moment seized him and evoked the full power of his being - there was no past or future for his feelings. And not a bit of self control - that was imposed by his firm but kindly master. I felt a naturalness in playing this role that I’d never felt before while acting.

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    Everything was perfect in the rehearsal room, but as soon as I got back to my normal life, the panic attacks began. I couldn’t concentrate on anything or stop the intense anxiety and fear that overwhelmed me. I thought I was going crazy and rushed to see a psychiatrist. I had never done that before and wouldn’t again until the next crisis a few years later.

    In one marathon session, he led me to the source of my fears in the past. I could see myself again as a kid, paralyzed before family rage, yelling and fist fights that erupted all too frequently during most of my childhood and teenage years. This was the first time I became aware of the impact of my family history on present behavior. I had locked the emotions of that past away so well that I was completely unconscious of their continuing influence.

    Assuming the role of that primitive being terrified me because it threatened the tight control I had kept over those emotions. The control had been a survival tactic as a kid, and I came to believe that those hidden feelings possessed a deadly power that I could never release. When I made the connection with playing this completely unrestrained, uncivilized character, I experienced an instant relief, almost euphoria.

    I was still too fearful, though, of all that lay beneath the surface of awareness to push further with therapy. The breakthrough I had made felt like a “cure,” and that was quite enough delving into my emotions, thank you. I quit the play, thinking avoidance would take care of the problem.

    Not quite. It took many more years to learn about the numerous patterns of behavior that had helped me get through family life but that now only trapped me in alternating spells of depression, anxiety and panic.

    I mention all this because it helps explain why I had so much trouble understanding what living in the present was all about. I couldn’t detach myself from the past until I first became aware of how the strategies of that time kept me from looking at new experience on its own terms. Instead I was driven to return to old behavior at triggering moments. And it all happened unconsciously. I thought that all the problems I was experiencing just came out of my inadequate self.

  • Once I became aware that I was constantly reenacting the past, healing from depression could begin. I realized that I could open myself to each new experience without the blinders that had limited what I could see, and even feel.

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    It’s hard, though, to let go of those pre-determined behaviors. As destructive as they could be, they had guided me through life. Once I gave them up, what would take their place? Strange as it sounds, I was at a loss about how to be me. What do I do now? How do I manage the feelings I’ve held back for so long? I assumed I would have to learn a new set of habits and patterns, but with a lot of help I found a much simpler answer.

    There was no need to manage or think up patterns in advance. I only needed to be, to open fully to each moment, each day, each person. I had to learn to take a chance on unpredictable life and stop avoiding its fullness.

    I’m always amazed at how long it has taken me to live that way - and it’s still a struggle.

Published On: May 29, 2010