It’s hard to escape depression when it dominates your mind. The illness has many faces, but its most visible one is your own. You see it everywhere because you can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong with you.
The illness is filtering out everything that would disturb your isolation – like brighter feelings, hope, the reaching out of a loved one, self-confidence, the energy to connect with people. It keeps your mind roiling with your flops, dumb mistakes, broken relationships, and acid self-contempt.
When you’re well, you can lose yourself in the daily flow of living, but when you’re depressed you never lose yourself.
Depression’s Vivid Memories
Depression is supposed to interfere with your concentration and memory, but I think those symptoms apply mostly to external things, like trying to get your work done or listening to a friend.
When it comes to your internal world of depression, you’re all attention. Your memory for miseries is sharp. Every detail of recent and past experience is as vivid as if it were occurring at this moment.
You’re living in the flow of experience all right, but it’s a catalog of past sins and catastrophes. They’re alive in your sizzling gut, and it doesn’t matter that they’re all in the past and beyond your ability to change.
The intensity of the experience keeps them close. You’re busy with shame all the time. Escaping yourself seems impossible. You could probably swim the Atlantic with all the displaced energy that wears you down, body and soul.
Neural Maps of Depression
Daniel Siegel has a great way of putting this in Mindsight. He visualizes the neuroscience of awareness in terms of maps.
When visual cues are picked up by our senses, they travel across neural circuits that activate areas of the brain that put them together in pictures we can identify, patterns of sounds that take on meaning, smells, tastes and touches that trigger memories. But the brain doesn’t stop with individual perceptions. Continuing neural firing takes them to other areas of the brain where they’re put together in more complicated wholes. We see a child whom we recognize, understand relationships with people, respond to what we take in from them.
These are the maps that guide us through each moment of living.
When you’re depressed, all you have in mind is your me-map. It stands out in bold relief and full color. But you have minimal awareness of your connections with others. The you-map and the we-map are barely visible. You’re not making real contact with anyone else.
Having a we-map requires that many levels of perception in your brain are working well together. You’re sensitive to the sound of your partner’s voice, the tiny changes of expression in the eyes, the gestures of hands or posture, the tones of meaning in spoken words.
There’s a constant interchange of these signals between the two of you, and you’re responding to each other in many ways. The constant back-and-forth flow between two people creates a shared understanding.
The connection deepens and the sense of togetherness, of a “we” emerges. That map of connection, the we-map, generated by thousands of coordinated neural responses and interpretations of mindful feeling – all that is lost during deep depression. The signals can’t get through.
You can’t shift your awareness and brain functions to focus outside yourself.
When I’m depressed, life outside my mind and feelings seems to be happening on the other side of a soundproof glass wall. I watch it dumbly, detached, without feeling. All the while I’m obsessing about everything that’s burning in my mind.
If I react at all to the life around me, it’s only to feel yet more guilt or self-contempt for not being able to participate, to be a real-live human being.
Where You Are, Where You Want to Be
So what can you do to get your life back, to get out of that self-prison? Much of the advice on how to get better falls flat.
Get out there and do things. Action is the antidote to depression. It’s the only thing that breaks down the paralysis of isolation and loss of will. Lose yourself in a higher purpose, find your calling that will give meaning to your life and build hope in the future.
In other words, do all those things you can’t possibly do when you’re severely depressed. Despite the considerable insight and wisdom behind much of this advice, the recommended programs often boil down to a set of directives that sound like platitudes.
The best things they do are help you recognize where you are, to see the full scope of your illness, and then to define where you want to be, all the elements of recovery and a fulfilling life.
Learning to Cope
Getting your life back isn’t so much a matter of ending depression altogether – though that blessed event can happen. For most people, it’s a problem of adapting to the reality of the illness.
I don’t want to suggest that you shouldn’t try to recover, but if you wait for total healing your life could collapse in the meantime. To begin with, you need to find ways to get through each day despite the illness.
When I’ve been depressed, getting through the day has been the biggest challenge I could handle. I usually started out with a belief that things would likely not go so well during the day ahead. After all, today was going to be a follow-up to yesterday, and that couldn’t have been much worse. So I convinced myself that I would have similar troubles this time around.
I tend to stay in this circuit of frustration as long as a serious episode lasts. My only hope is that I’ll finally heal and be done with the problem. Until then, I limp along.
I see the possibilities as all or nothing. Either I’ll continue in the misery of isolation and failure, or I’ll come out of depression completely healed. It’s harder to imagine that I’ll have to handle the day as well as I can while still preoccupied with depression.
That’s not my ultimate goal. Full recovery is what I want so that I can get my life back. But daily coping with its modest victories is the only place to begin.
For the time being I can’t escape self-confinement in depression, but I can try to make do for now, even if I have to fake it.
There are a lot of skills to learn about making do, and I’ll be going into them in the next few posts in this series.
How do you manage to get through a day when you’re depressed and can’t stop thinking about yourself?