How One Man Fights Depression - 1

John Folk-Williams Health Guide


    Depression seems to thrive on self-defeat, and that adds to the difficulty of learning how to fight it. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:


    Summoned to a conference room at work, I had to listen to my boss let me have it with a long list of projects I hadn’t finished. I started to defend myself, but inwardly I was already depressed and just felt smaller and smaller. The fact is I agreed with every criticism and took it as the cold truth - guilty as charged. They’ve found me out! This proves how stupid I am! Of course, in depression I had left a lot undone, setting myself up for this moment. It was as if I had planned to fail.

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    It was a familiar situation because I had treated others the same way myself when I had been on the employer side of the table. I ran an organization for several years and shot down a number of people I’d hired, even when I had little cause. It was another face of depression staring at each person. In that mood, I was big, grandiose, aggressive, angry. Everything was overdone. The result was to alienate talented people and undermine the work we had all been doing.


    The same thing often happened at home. That was the worst - turning love and closeness to anger and distance - and then blaming my family for causing my own inner problem. I’d stomp into the house and at once explode at the kids: Stop that racket! Clean that up right now! Go to your room! And for good measure, cuss out my wife for letting everything go to hell.


    I wanted so much to have a loving family life. Yet I was doing my best to lose it. More self-defeat. 


    Whether depression left me “small” and shamed or “big” and angry, I'd become worn out with these distorted feelings. Finally I had to ask myself: What am I doing? How can I act this way? I’m hurting my family and myself. I’ve got to stop! Usually, though, the next step took me into a full blown depression. I’d get lost in that deadly mood and withdraw even more.


    How did I learn to start turning this around? In another post, I talked about a first step toward healing - getting just enough distance from depression to understand that all the misery and self-doubt were parts of an illness, not the reality of who I was. Then I’d list out all the symptoms, break depression into more manageable chunks - confused thinking here, self-hate there, despairing mood, cutting myself off from everyone. Describing them in detail helped to keep me from being overwhelmed and swept away.


    It wasn’t easy to do that. For a long time, I’d write lots of journal entries describing what I was going through, but the way I did it was no help at all. I wrote in exasperation that I was yet again going through the same hell. I used that as a reason to bash myself for not being able to will it away without any help. If I weren’t so inadequate, worthless, incapable of doing anything right, I could take this on and beat it.


    I struggled with all sorts of treatments, feeling only partial or temporary improvement. But I couldn’t wait to be cured altogether before stopping the behavior that was wrecking my family and undermining my work. There were symptoms I learned to recognize early, and I worked at building habits to protect others, long before I was anywhere near recovering from depression.


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    These steps are still important, though now they’re second nature. They may sound obvious, but depression makes each one a heavy load to lift.


    • I have to recognize what’s happening. For a long time, I’d deny that anything was wrong, but my wife was always alert to the early signs - the irritability and fault-finding, tension, the grim face, avoiding eye contact - and she’d ask if anything is wrong. The question would set me off. Of course not! I’d get angry and surly. Symptoms would build until I withdrew completely.
    • When an episode subsided, I could talk with her about what had happened. I’d be full of remorse and promise to change, but apologies after the fact don’t help. She’d already felt the brunt of my anger and isolation, and that damage couldn’t be undone. Gradually, though, those talks helped me learn to stop the denial and listen to what she was telling me in that early phase - before I disappeared in depression. After a while, I could catch myself without having to wait for her to warn me.

    • Those moments of recognition made all the difference on how I acted with her and our children. For a long time, I couldn’t keep myself from becoming deeply depressed, but at least I could see what was happening and stop abusing my family.
    • I’d keep telling myself that depression is a condition I have. There is another me here somewhere, and I'm going to be that person again.

    • And I’d try to hold on to another idea: that I couldn’t expect to stop depression by willing it away, and I couldn’t be discouraged if my best efforts didn’t work. I needed to give myself time and space to fail, knowing that each failure could teach me something about handling the next bout.

    I believe that the measure of success in recovery is not the ability to stop the immediate episode. A quick fix isn’t a cure. It's the long-term changes that are critical for getting beyond depression.


    As I became more alert to the warning signs, everything fell into place. I made these ideas my own, sometimes writing them on post-it notes and sticking them in spots I couldn’t miss. They became a habit, and these days I know what’s happening in an instant and then start using the other defenses I’ve learned.


    I’ll detail several of those in another post, but in the meantime perhaps you could let us know what you do. Have you been able to pick up the early warning signs? How did you develop the ability to do that? What’s the first thing you notice when depression is coming on?





Published On: August 19, 2010