Peak Experience in Depression

leaping dancer silouette in sunSo much is written about peak experience, the feeling of oneness, the effortless flow of energy as you feel yourself at one with what you are doing. I often struggle with myself to achieve these moments, but depression has its ways of blocking them.

If you’ve ever played a sport that involves hitting a ball, you know the rare feeling of the perfect swing, the perfect hit. There are a hundred things that can go wrong, and you’re constantly practicing to get them all right.

You work hard to master every aspect of stance, eye, judging the right moment to trigger action, applying just enough force, swinging through smoothly, hitting the ball in the right spot to control its arc, speed and distance. You get better and better but usually fall a little short.

Once in a great while, though, all the worries about each detail disappear, and there it is. You sweep away the ball without even feeling the impact, and it sails exactly where it needs to go. You know without a glance that you’ve done it.

There is no thought, no struggle, no conscious push to get it right, just the swing and an impact with no resistance. It’s a pure outflow of will through the grace of forgetting all you know.

It’s the effortless connecting that happens when you meet and bond at once with a special person. It’s in the flow of a dance movement, teaching a great class or even, as Csikszentmihalyi describes in Flow, the intense repetition of one action in an assembly line production.

There’s a freedom about it, a release into connecting but also a release from all the struggle, the fear about getting it right, the barrier of self-consciousness, the unspoken conviction that if I don’t get it right, I deserve to fail.

The Peak Becomes Everything

Depression had its own way of guiding me through these experiences. It didn’t always undermine them. Far from it. Often I could find their magic no matter what my mood. The catch was in the aftermath.

Feeling at one with a person, with work, with a spiritual presence became the goal of living. Short of those moments, I’d be lingering impatiently for the real thing to return. Nothing else would do, nothing else could satisfy my need, nothing else felt like <em>me</em>.

The disappointment of the ordinary fitted well with depression. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t deserving, I couldn’t get it right. It was easy to spiral down. The peak experiences became the stuff of fantasy, escapist dreams of what life could be like if only I could get away from the life I was living.

The Peak Becomes Dangerous

The other side of depression kept the experience of flow beyond my reach. I could long for those moments, prepare for them as best I could, but stop in fear when they came too close.

I’ve tried learning to play musical instruments in the past but could never let my fingers fly over the stops of a horn or strings of a guitar. I would double-think each note or chord to ensure I was getting it right. But music isn’t one note after another. It’s phrases, cadences, whole movements of rhythm and melody. You have to release the hold on one note at a time, but letting go of the mechanics led only to anxiety.

In the same way, if you put me on rollers, blades or skis to slide along a smooth surface, I’d break the motion in fear of losing control and fall. There was always something dangerous in the release, even when releasing the tense grip was the only way to move.

Far more serious was stopping at an invisible boundary when approaching intimacy. I longed for that more than anything, but fear and tension spun a cocoon around me.

Letting out powerful feelings stirred an intolerable anxiety.

Self Becomes Self-Defeating

In those moments, I seemed to live inside a depressed self that cut me off from a fuller life. It tightly contained me for protection while at the same time caged me apart from what I most wanted.

Depression seemed to set so many boundaries, marking them out when I came too close.

It was after these boundaries began to disappear that I realized I was recovering. I didn’t feel so contained, so fearful of releasing my own feelings, so dominated by fantasies or dissatisfied with everyday life.

 

Have you been able to feel at one with the important events and people in your life? Can you accept those times as a fine part of living or do they become exaggerated, provoking fantasy or extreme anxiety?

 

18 Responses to “Peak Experience in Depression”

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  1. Sue says:

    I agree that depression if not properly managed can definitely inhibit the flow of a peak performance, creativity or success of any kind. Yet it is an irony that those who suffer from bi polar often attribute their success to the highs of that condition.

    I must say your working is quite beautiful

  2. Evan says:

    Hi Galen, at something of a tangent (not about depression). The ‘gifted child’ stuff has been around a few decades now – long enough for there to be some findings about gifted children being educated differently.

    The gifted children who went through special programs largely end up with ordinary lives and ordinary jobs that they are pretty happy with. And they didn’t especially like being treated as ‘special’ because it meant being separated from their peers.

    I guess this means the sensible approach is to keep people with their peers and give them work that helps them develop as individuals. (With this approach I would suspect we would find that we are all gifted.)

  3. Galen says:

    Hi John,

    Your post and the responses of others highlight the dawning(to me) importance of simple self-acceptance of my ordinary humanness. For most of my life I have striven to stand out and to be different (better) than others. Much of the time I have succeeded in either doing things others couldn’t or doing them better than anybody else could. These “successes” were hollow because they were never enough–I could never accomplish enough to justify the exalted status that I felt was my birthright.

    A longtime friend who has periodically heard my bellows of self-castigation took to whispering in my ear, “Be gentle with yourself.” I understood this conceptually and thought it to be good advice for others.

    After several recent episodes of depression it has sunk in, albeit late, that I have been pursuing a chimera. Between exertions to excel alternating with defensive periods of wrapping tightly around myself to keep the world from jostling a descending or sitting depression into a more severe incarnation, I have not permitted myself to sample the possibilities of ordinary contentment. What a waste of time. Crystallizing this awareness, which your post above helped me to do, has been an awakening.

    Today I don’t want to be different or best or anything else in particular, beyond accepting my occasionally charming and episodically gifted self as the ordinary person I am.

    Galen

  4. Elle says:

    Hi John,
    I found this pretty much sums up my personal experiences. I tend to go from peaks to troughs and find maintaining a contented state is hard work. I have had periods where I’ve been medicated for the anxiety, but I’ve found myself preferring to feel the extremes rather than feeling… well it felt like feeling nothing. It is like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head though, when am I going to let it [the depression] get the better of me again.
    I especially like what you said about the boundaries and the fear and the self defeat… I began and quit a number of music lessons! But this more than anything else resonated: “The disappointment of the ordinary fitted well with depression. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t deserving, I couldn’t get it right. It was easy to spiral down. The peak experiences became the stuff of fantasy, escapist dreams of what life could be like if only I could get away from the life I was living.” Sums it up. To a tee. So, thank you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Elle -

      I’m glad the post is helpful, but also sorry that you have to go through this sort of thing. The sword of Damocles is a scary image, and I know just what you mean. I used to think of depression as a scenic backdrop to my life. Sometimes the curtains would close around me and darken everything. When I think about it, I have to wonder what kept me on that same stage – what keeps you standing under that damn sword?

      John

  5. Donna-1 says:

    For me, the anxiety comes not so much as I approach the boundary lines, but when I confidently move beyond them…and then feel the rush of awfulness and wish for a do-over. My anxiety hides behind that imaginary line waiting for me to replay and rehash everything I did and said, looking for something wrong. I often end up chiding myself and swearing I will hide rather than ever approach that boundary again. Then I get depressed because of my self-imposed exile and try to reason it all out again and eventually vow to try it again, thinking it will be better next time.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna -

      That’s a great and sad description of a depressed mind circling itself to choke out living. Given the writing and painting you do, it seems you do break the cycle – at least sometimes.

      John

  6. Judy says:

    Now I have a name for it! A couple of years ago I joined a show choir and I get to experience these peak moments every time we sing. It’s not about having an audience but about joining with a group of other people to create beautiful sound. It involves hard work to learn it all, but a thrill to have it all “click” when it starts making sense inside, when I can hear how the harmony is supposed to work and suddenly, some notes that I couldn’t seem to ever remember because they might have seemed “odd,” now make total sense. It feels like being in a place where I’m lost, but it’s okay. I have a trust that I’m part of something bigger than myself. Sometimes I think music is miraculous.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy -

      Beautifully put, as always. I can imagine clearly what you mean – despite the fact that I can’t carry a tune. Your description reminds me of the rare moments when I acted in college and suddenly spoke lines as if they were mine, not something to be memorized and reproduced. I love your idea of feeling lost but knowing it’s okay.

      John

  7. Evan says:

    Hi John, there are all kinds of intriguing themes in what you say – especially intriguing to me is the tie up you seemed to have between control and depression.

    And as always your writing is excellent, thanks, Evan.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Evan -

      Control has been a big part of my depression, even though now it seems like a nearly delusional idea. I suppose there is a lot more delusion in depression than I used to think.

      John

  8. Jocelyn says:

    Dear John: thank you for sharing such an accurate description of a component of my depression. I know that I am recovering, as you say, “after these boundaries began to disappear… I didn’t feel so contained, so fearful, so dominated by fantasies or dissatisfied with everyday life.” You use the word “fear” a few times. One of the main causes of my depression has been fear: fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of abandonment, fear of discovering that every negative prediction about my worthiness as a human being was indeed true. The slow release from that fear through prayer, exercise, writing, therapy, a few weeks of medication, my husband’s love and support and a mental shift to accept and love myself and my ordinary life is the essence of my ongoing recovery experience. My peak experiences ( moving to the USA, learning English, obtaining a PhD, publishing books, climbing the socioeconomic ladder, becoming an American, job titles…), just as you described, provoked fantasy and extreme anxiety because of my fear of not being able to replicate the experiences. I simply pushed myself to climb one more mountain, achieve one more goal, one more degree, prove one more thing, overcome one more challenge…thus the vicious spiral cycle went on and on until I crashed and entertained more seriously than ever before, suicide to stop the agony, the dismay, the fatigue caused by 46 years of a relentless external pursuit of internal self love and acceptance. Each day, I am realizing that recovery, healing for me is about identifying, naming, fighting and rebuking each fear before my mind defaults into depression. I am slowly developing the basic ability to embrace each day, each moment without fear or suicide thoughts as a peak experience. I am rediscovering my spirituality (in my case, I happen to be a Christian) but is simply the awareness and conviction that I am okay just I am, that God, the Universe loves me and I have nothing to prove, that I AM and that’s sufficient and enough. David Webb’s work on suicide has helped me too. I am developing the courage to “live my life first,” to go beyond my mind and my fears and discover the real, peaceful self within that has been suppressed and depressed for so long. Some days, it literally felt like I was fighting for my life. Thus, just the simple, ordinary reality of waking up without fears, without the desire to die is a peak experience and evidence of my ongoing recovery after hitting rock bottom. Grateful for you and your wonderful gift with words.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jocelyn -

      Thanks for this beautiful and moving description of your recovery. I’ve sent you a note about it and hope to hear from you soon.

      John

  9. Janet Singer says:

    I have experienced this flow that you talk about at various times in my life, and have always viewed these moments as gifts, probably because they are so infrequent. Your beautifully written post illustrates that it is all about how you look at it…..I never strive for these moments; they just happen, and I see them as kind of a mystery, never to be expected. It never occurred to me that this state of being could cause someone anguish……

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Janet -

      These experiences are gifts – but I guess a good depressive is quite gifted at staring into a fire to find the ash instead of the flame.

      John

  10. Hi John, i seem to find that in my worst depression periods, I am most creative and find this “peak expression” in my writing…
    is there any explanation to this?
    Thanks :)
    Noch noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch Noch -

      I have to say I haven’t heard of that before – sort of a convergence of nadir and zenith. The closest I’ve come to this is being able to write as a means to start getting out of a deep depression. The mental process of writing – and maybe the physical part too – has therapeutic value. James Pennebaker’s book Opening Up is the best one on this. To be really scientific about it though, I’d say you are one very extraordinary and lucky person!

      John

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