Finding a Mindset for Recovery - 2
Developing a mindset for recovery has been essential for making any progress in getting my life back from depression. What I mean by mindset is the basic belief that permanent recovery is not only possible but within my reach. Naturally, everyone wants to get better, but it’s often hard to believe that it’s possible.
That was true in my case for a long time. And no wonder. The inner negative voice of depression was constantly attacking my self-esteem, and the sense of hopelessness I felt about the future was - and is for everyone - a defining symptom of the illness.
I had to start somewhere. I had to move from feeling helpless to at least imagining that I could get this monster out of my life - that it might not be so impossible as it felt when I was down and out.
Imagining that possibility - as opposed to vaguely wishing I could make depression go away - didn’t happen overnight. Getting to the starting line took years because I had to go through a series of recognitions - breakthrough moments - and each of those came only after a lot of false starts.
Even after each of those occurred, I could lose all sense of hope while struggling with the next severe bout of depression. I might completely forget those experiences as I got lost in a great mental wipeout. Luckily, though, I kept getting back on track and gradually strengthened the belief that I wouldn’t be at the mercy of depression forever.
Here are a few of those key turning point experiences. It’s fairly easy for me to separate these out in hindsight, but making sense of them and turning them into action was no easy matter at the time.
Recognizing the problem
I had early on acknowledged that I had depression but only as a name for periods of bleak feelings and lost energy. There were several times when I sought out psychiatrists for therapy, but it wasn’t because of depression. The problems had to do with family history and delving into the past to deal with other emotional problems.
For years I denied that depression was more than a narrowly defined problem of mood. My fits of anger were troubling but I never dreamed they had anything to do with depression. My intense anxiety among people just seemed to be a part of my nature. As for the inner belief that I had little worth as a human being - well, I considered that to be obviously true.
Recognizing that depression was, in fact, a deadly serious problem that pervaded my life took a lot of time and many rock-bottom experiences. But when I could finally admit how serious an illness this was, I took a big step toward healing.
Only then could I put a little distance between depression and me. I could see it as an illness, a box of symptoms with a label - a condition I might be able to change. There was another me here somewhere. I was more than depression.
Committing to recovery
Even with that understanding of the scope of the illness, I wanted to believe that I ought to be able to control the problem and will myself to stop “giving in.” That's a stubborn fantasy. It was really another club to beat myself with when I failed to prevent repeated bouts of depression.
Once again, I went through many desperate periods before realizing it would take a lot more than willpower. I had to face the reality that my life was at stake, and that depression was taking willpower along with everything else. Recovery had to be at the center of my life, not something I wished for only when flat on my back.
The question then was: How can I do this, if I can't do it on my own?
Finding help and support
I realized I needed much more extensive help than the occasional therapy I had tried previously. That meant getting past the feeling that reaching out for help was a sign of weakness or failure. I needed to see it as a realistic response to a terrible illness that could cripple and even kill me.
When I could give myself permission to seek help, I looked into everything I could find. That, in itself, felt good. It was a step toward healing because I was starting to move from the passivity and paralysis of depression to action, to doing something to change.
I explored many different forms of healing, but I came to rely on various combinations of medication, psychotherapy, nutrition, exercise and meditation. Everyone finds what works for them, and I believed that eventually these methods would cure me.
Becoming the lead partner in the work of recovery
So I kept at each of these treatments, but the results were disappointing. They were all helpful but only in limited ways. They alleviated symptoms for a time but never led to sustained recovery. Depression kept coming back, and I felt as if I were going around in circles. At some point, I could see that the problem was not so much with the methods I was using but with the expectation that they would take care of the illness.
Waiting for medication or therapy or anything else to cure me completely came to feel like a trap. It didn’t work to see myself as a patient to be cured by some external procedure or medication or nutritional supplement. Depression isn’t like an arthritic hip that can be replaced by a surgeon.
So long as I was waiting to find the perfect treatment, I was setting myself up for disaster. For if none of the treatments worked, what hope would I ever have?
It dawned on me that I had to be much more active than that. I had to take the lead in recovery, working with a lot of support to be sure, but focusing on the internal work that only I could do. Medication, therapy and the rest were the tools I could use to reduce the intensity of the symptoms, but I couldn’t expect any of them to take care of the problem for me. The hardest work was all mine.
Sherwin Nuland, the physician and author of the best selling How We Die and its companion How We Live, described his own recovery from years of crippling depression in a similar way. In his case, electroconvulsive therapy was the treatment that proved most helpful. The treatment didn’t cure him, he reported, but it did help him get back on his feet - literally. He then felt restored enough that “by an act of will” he could go the rest of the way on his own and resume real living.
The idea of a mindset for recovery is really the sum of what I learned through all these realizations and breakthroughs. In thinking about the possibility of recovery, I found it so easy to swing from complete despair to false hope and back again. What I think I wound up with is a more realistic sense of what’s involved.
I can't imagine how I could actually have recovered without this long period of learning behind me and a deep belief that I could really get find life after depression.
Today, this all seems so clear and obvious, but when I was looking around with a depressed mind I never saw what was standing right in front of me in the plain light of day.
Everyone finds a different way to deal with depression. What have been some of your breakthrough experiences in understanding your own illness and imagining the possibility of recovery?