A First Step in Recovering from Depression
“Everything is hopeless.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I might as well die.”
These are a few of the common pleas for help you will find on this site and every blog and forum on mental health. They describe overwhelming experiences of depression and self-blame that match my own experience, sometimes word for word. Despair, hopelessness, irreparable loss, shame, fear - everything comes crashing in. There is hardly room to breathe. It feels like you can’t do anything about it.
It’s all absolute: Everything is the worst it can be. There is no escape. You have no friends, no life, no one can or should love you. You’re completely worthless. It’s all hopeless. There’s nothing you can do. Not now, not ever.
Hard as it might be to imagine, though, there is a positive side to these messages. To begin with, the writers know they need help and are reaching out for it - in confusion, to be sure, and not even believing there can be help. However, the very fact that they can describe their experience shows they have begun to detach themselves from depression. Whether aware of it or not, they’re starting to learn that depression isn’t all they are.
That’s one of the first steps in recovery. They’re speaking in their own voices that aren’t controlled by depression. It’s like opening a closed door just a crack to let in the first sliver of light. There’s a hopeless you inside that dark room, and there’s a more hopeful you in the light outside trying to help.
The problem is that you probably don’t believe that yet, or if you do, you may think all the power is on the side of depression. Your better half can only recognize what’s happening and stand by helpless. The belief brought on by depression that you’re really a bad or inadequate person can’t be shaken. Not yet.
By writing down and describing what you’re going through, you’re also starting a list of the separate symptoms that are lumped together under the label of depression. As long as it’s rushing at you like a single avalanche, depression feels like an irresistible force. You’re helpless before its power.
But the experience doesn’t have to be like that. The vital thing for me was to break this huge problem into a series of smaller parts. Then it became possible to think about each one separately. Here’s the pain of despair, there’s my inability to think or focus my attention, here’s the paralysis of my will power, here’s my need to sleep all the time - and so on. I started to track each one of these: when did I lose mental focus and for how long; what was I trying to do when I lost the will to act; when I felt lost and hopeless, how was my body reacting, how long did the worst feeling last?
When I did this, I wound up with a pretty thorough description of the <em>what</em> of depression - the feelings, the experiences, the physical changes. The key thing then was to hold up a big stop sign.
I found that if I could stop at this level of description, I could see that the assumptions and judgments about the feelings didn’t have to march inevitably to a condemnation of myself. I could interpret all this in different ways, find in the experience different meanings.
I could see it as an illness, a box of symptoms labeled with depression, something I can get rid of. Like any other illness, it will knock me out for a while, and then it will go.
I could see it as a form of self-protection, a strategy to pull myself out of danger when exhausted, to rest for a time in isolation, and then to return to whatever I’d been trying to deal with.
I could see it as part of my growth as a person, an emotional and spiritual crisis that was forcing me to dig deeply and question what my life was all about.
Or I could see depression simply as part of life. Why did I have to come up with an explanation at all? Live with it as best you can, then deal with the next thing that comes along. Just live your life and stop all the judging.
Perhaps none of these were “right.” That didn’t matter. What was important was that I begin to see that my explanation was just that - a way of interpreting the feelings and explaining all the symptoms. My conclusion had always been that I was a terrible person. And because I was so bad, depression was my permanent condition. Even though I had periods of relief, it was always there and would soon re-emerge. I <em>was</em> depression.
I started to imagine that I might be able to turn that around. My assumption could be that I was basically fine but had to put up with these recurring bouts of depression. It was an isolated problem, not a sign of my nature as a person.
That was a great awakening for me. Though I still had to deal with the incapacity of severe depression, at least I could imagine a different future. I might not get there, but I had a more optimistic goal than the complete disaster I had assumed awaited me.