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Marissa wrote a post at Wellsphere that made me pause. She was objecting to the idea found in Richard O’Connor’s book (Undoing Depression) that “I am not my depression.” She interpreted this as an evasion of accountability for one’s actions. The depressed behavior that harms relationships, for example, can’t be dismissed as something you’re not responsible for – it has a real impact because of your behavior, and you remain accountable for what you do. And so, in this sense, she insists: “I am my depression.”
I agree with the need to be accountable. I have hurt those around me by being emotionally absent, self-involved, unable to talk, irritable or in a rage, or behaving badly in any of the ways that are symptomatic of depression. But O’Connor’s intention with this formulation, I believe, isn’t aimed at releasing people from accountability. It’s a way of reminding those suffering from depression that they have an illness, that there is hope for recovery, that they should not confuse the symptoms with the totality of their human identities.
I think a better way of putting this, however, is another sentence that appears frequently in books about how to deal with this condition: “I am more than my depression.” In other words, my identity isn’t defined by behavior linked to the illness, but it also says that I am my depression, in part.
However I might phrase it, I have to get the point that I can fight the inner voice telling me I am nothing more than my depression. I can work hard to build up the other forces in my psyche, like creativity and love. Those qualities should never be eclipsed in my mind by the negative self-image that depression shrouds me with. In another post, I visualized the intermingling of these forces as a kind of spiraling in which they remain separate but closely bound in a single turning flow. Yes, depression is a part of me, but I don’t have to accept it as the dominant force.
In a much earlier post, I described a turning point in dealing with depression when I rebelled against the trend of thinking that was taking me to a kind of passive suicide by the temptation to leave a cancer untreated. That moment helped change my inner belief that I was the worthless person depressed thinking encouraged me to accept. I emerged from that crisis convinced there was so much more to my life and that I could get better by becoming an active partner in any treatment I might undertake. I was responsible for recovery, not medication, not therapy. Those could be helpful tools only if I used them with the deep intention of pushing depression back to a lesser role and bringing forward the positive forces that nourished life and relationships.
I believe that everyone has to arrive at a formulation that is right for them, that helps carry on the hard, daily work of recovery. Some find that power through faith in God, some through meditation, some through the concept of depression as a treatable disease, some by denying that it is a disease and seeing it as a part of their lives they need to manage without drugs. Although I may not agree with all of these formulations, I am not looking for absolute truth but rather for the beliefs that help with survival. I do not mean to be flip or disrespectful of deeply held values and convictions. I am simply observing that people go in different directions to arrive at the same place of recovery and hope.
In some of my posts I have narrated incidents in which I separated myself from depression completely by imagining it as a different character whom I could kick out of my life. That half comic representation was useful to me in those moments. Of course, I don’t actually believe that I can separate myself from depression as I would from a destructive person. But if imagination can help me from time to time, I’ll take anything I can dream up to get through another day.
So my thanks to Marissa for helping me work a bit harder to be clear and intentional about how I think about my responses to depression.
What are the beliefs you hold that help you keep going?