Early Steps Toward Recovery


Lynn left a comment on Why Depressed Men Leave that ended with a question I’ve been thinking about all week. She summarized the wrenching story about her bipolar husband and his blaming her for everything that was wrong with him. Then she asked me how I gained the insight that my blaming and raging behavior was my problem and only mine.

I offered a partial answer to that in a much earlier post. But there I only indicated that I had realized the problems would stay with me no matter where I was or who I lived with. In a related post, I simply said that I had been through enough therapy to have a glimmer of insight that kept me from following after a fantasy life rather than facing the reality of who I was.

But how did I reach that realization? I find it so hard to answer that question. All I can do here is offer a few notes that start with what I remember feeling. The emotions have always been the main drivers for me rather than thoughts and logic, but they are also harder to explain because they arrive without words.

  • The rages that surged up in me were the worst. It was then I felt most out of control, but simply sensing that I could not live this way was an early step in the right direction. At some level I knew that no one else could “make” me feel anything like this.
  • I experienced rage as an inner violence that found release by exploding at those around me. It seized on anything it could find, but punishing someone else did nothing to stop that burning within. The more it flared out, the more it returned, intensified, consuming the depths of me.
  • Shame followed these outbursts, a shame born of awareness that I was acting in a way that violated my own nature. This was a conviction, not a thought. I knew I was killing myself.
  • One day, it struck me that there was an even deeper feeling underlying the rage. It was a terrible fear that I could hardly talk about. Just acknowledging the fear, though, was a huge relief, and when I could confess what I really felt to my wife, after a fit of rage and blame, it helped us both. In that clearing away of what felt untrue of me, we could see each other again as we were.
  • Another breakthrough came as I obsessed more and more deeply about longing for a different life. It was so plain that the fantasies I was generating in my mind didn’t make any sense but were wild leaps into anything different from my present life. I realized there was nothing clear that I was longing for except escape from. Escape meant there was something I couldn’t face. My mind and feelings continued to obsess on escape, but I could at least draw back now and then and realize: there was nowhere to go, no new life to find. There was no way to run from myself.
  • I could also see how much of my energy as well as time was disappearing in these obsessions. I walked through my days seemingly present but not really there. I was wasting myself in an almost trance-like state focused on anything but my own fears and inner hurt.
  • Again and again, just as with rage, I knew that something was hurting, something was terribly wrong. I could feel it far below the level of words and explanations. It was me, it wasn’t anyone else.
  • There were also times when I could feel nothing but love for my family and became deeply aware of the obvious truth, that I was usually so blind to, that they loved and cared for me. I felt deeply that whatever the path of fulfillment my life might follow, they were part of it. Even at the worst of times, there was some inner conviction that might be as small as a whisper, but that was always telling me this. I love my family, they love me, we’re in this together, no matter what. Sharing life with them simply felt right.
  • One day in talking to a friend about spiritual experience, something else moved inside.  What if, I suddenly thought, all the rage, the fear, the blaming, the fantasy longings –  what if that was all a strange kind of mistake? I realized in a way that went right through me that the deepest drives, which were hidden so well, were not only a longing for love and closeness to my wife and family but also a need for spiritual connection. I wasn’t at all sure what that meant, but I felt it was somehow true, that there was a kind of completion I needed on a spiritual level.

All this may sound as if recovery would follow quickly, but it didn’t. These insights were only brief, soon displaced by the familiar destructive surge. After several years the rages died down, but depression followed. I was isolated in a different way. It took many years and endless repetitions of these cycles before I could begin to sustain recovery.

These are some of the early memories of insight that come to me now. I know there were many others that go much farther back. It will take time to recapture more.

I’d like to ask you about changes you’ve gone through and how you became aware that things were beginning to turn around. It is not so much the big moments of breakthrough as the first glimmers that I’m trying to get at – the brief openings of insight that provided even a dim awareness of hope for recovery.


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14 Responses to “Early Steps Toward Recovery”

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  1. Ed says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve just read a few of your posts and this one in particular really resonated with me. I’ve been depressed on and off for 6 years. A few months ago I reached ‘breaking point’ and I’m finally trying to deal with my depression. Recently I’ve found myself exploding with rage at the people who are closest to me, which is new and scary as I would always have described myself as a very gentle person. When my former therapist asked me about my anger a few years ago I told her that I didn’t really feel anger, just sadness. I knew that that couldn’t really be true and now I’ve become aware of this festering mountain of anger inside me. I’m going to hospital in Dublin in a few days and I hope that I can begin to understand and manage my anger, as well as my feelings of despair and self loathing. Hmm, I’ve gone on a bit, I basically just wanted to thank you for your posts – it’s nice to know that others have felt just like me.

  2. Kim says:

    Evan, I totally agree with you. I never thought that I was an angry person, just depressed. It’s only when I went to get help for my depression that the anger came out. I never realized how angry I was…at myself mostly, but also at others and at situations that happened in my life that couldn’t be fixed or that I couldn’t let go of. I am only now, just reaching a place where I actually feel anger, instead of just pain(and I really don’t like it much). It is affecting my life and especially my child’s life in a negative way. I get impatient and angry about little things that he does and I know that the anger is really not about “those little things” that seem to annoy me so much. The anger is about me and my lack of coping skills and being able to function in this world like a so called “normal” person. After the anger, comes the guilt of taking it out on my son, who in no way deserves it. I don’t have an answer, but I know that for my son’s sake if not my own, I will continue to try and learn how to deal with it in a less destructive and more constructive way. Mostly, I take my anger out on myself by doing things that I know are no good for me or just not doing anything at all. Anyway, don’t really know where I’m going with this, but can definitely relate to your post. Kim

    • jane says:

      I would also look at fear. I have just turned 50 and realized that my depression is tied to anger. I used to be a very angry person (rather than my depression showing up) and I was angry because I was frustrated and fearful – I used to get angry if I felt that my world was threatened). All I have left now is depression, because I believe that I cannot change my circumstances because I do not like to face the feeling of fear anymore – so have given up with that. Not sure if anyone understands this – I am going through a learning stage myself.

  3. Donna-1 says:

    At one point I realized this was not an issue of self-control, or even lack of love, and more importantly it was not something I could escape because it was so much a part of me. All my fantasies about just taking off into the wild blue yonder and starting over somewhere else — maybe they were good as a momentary respite from the depression, as a small hope that things could improve, but they ignored the painful fact that “wherever I go, there I am.” What I’m sayinig is, I realized I was not looking across the room at someone else like an observer and seeing this insular, irritable, depressed person muddling through life. I was looking at me. And I didn’t like what I was seeing. I wondered how I could have gone on so long as merely observer and not claim the body, the voice, the actions and thoughts as my own.

  4. Lynn says:


    It’s Lynn. Thank you so much for giving my question such thought and for your deeply moving response. I know that underlying the anger and rage there is a profound fear and shame inside my husband. He has been fighting all his life to keep anyone from seeing the fear and the shame. He left his first wife, the mother of his four children, rather than admit his illness or any weakness. She loves him to this day, and he blames her to this day. He is on a rampage against me, blaming out marriage for his depression and restlessness. We have been married for ten years. I keep staying here for him, but he shuts me out and locks himself in the basement where he is living. I have lost my temper at him a few times when I just couldn’t take it anymore, and he holds these times over me, unwilling or unable to forgive or forget. I am at the end of my rope. I just want him to talk to me, openly, honestly, and calmly. Our therapist says that he can’t do that now, and there is nothing I can do. I don’t believe that. I was raised with unconditional love, and that is what I have given him, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Could your wife have done or said anything to help you get better sooner?

    • john says:

      Lynn – That last is a question I can answer more easily than the earlier one. My wife’s main contribution was to keep confronting me every time I was sinking away, turning angry for no reason, ignoring her, etc. She is supersensitive to my emotional states and always tells me when my behavior is hurting her and pushing her away. That was what she needed to do for her own survival. For a long time I would simply deny any problem, but we did reach a point in one therapy experience, at the time of a crisis we went through, that forced me to see the destructive impact of what I was doing. After that, I could see through my denial and anger every time it surged up.

      Apart from what my wife did in constantly reminding me, I have to agree with the therapist that there isn’t much more you can do. The main things are to protect yourself and your children and to make clear to your husband the effect of what he is doing. This is similar to recovery from an addiction – nobody can do it for him. There has to be a wake-up call – and that could be something drastic like losing one’s family, job, health – and a determination to do what it takes to get better. I would just say that you have to focus on your needs and those of your children are even more than you focus on your husband. You can do something about your own situation but you can’t change his until he starts that process.

      That’s what my experience tells me – along with the witness and advice of many others. It’s hard – no question.

      I wish you so well in dealing with this.

      Take care — John

  5. shattered says:

    For me, a sign of early recovery was when I began to realize that I was not alone. There are others “out there” who have had similar experiences and they ARE recovered or well on their way to recovery. Isolation can be one of the most damaging situations for a person trying to overcome depression, anxiety, abuse…

    I have enjoyed reading your blog; thank you for sharing so freely.

    • john says:

      shattered – That’s very helpful. You’re so right, and that sense of connection – as well as a keen sense of lacking it – was a vital part of starting to turn around for me as well. I wrote about that early on but haven’t focused on it recently. I’ve just gotten a book called Loneliness that explores the need for connection from a psychologist’s point of view. Your comments makes me realize I need to write about this again.

      Thank you!


  6. BK says:

    A lot of things in life cannot be merely put into words. There is a quotation that goes, “A thousand years of prayer without awareness will bring forth no benefits whatsoever. Realization is instant.”

    • john says:

      Thank you, BK – That’s a beautiful quotation and gets at the essence of the change that I’m trying to trace. For me the positive reframing of life seemed to occur gradually as I made one instant realization after another. At some moment, the accumulation of all that led to the larger change. I started with a kind of awareness – a way of thinking – that led me to reflect on what I was going through, though that awareness was often blotted out in the worst times. A full spiritual awareness, though, has yet to happen.

      Thanks for coming by – I’m happy to have discovered your blog and will spend more time there.


  7. Immi says:

    “These insights were only brief, soon displaced by the familiar destructive surge.”
    It’s been key to me to realize that insights and better times will come and go, but the forgetfulness doesn’t mean they’re not valid. Now I write and talk to people to make the positive bits more real. This means they and their validity come back more often. Eventually they become ingrained and habitual, and I feel better in those areas much more of the time.

    • john says:

      Immi – That’s a wonderful idea. Yes, those fleeting insights are definitely valid, and writing and talking about them is a great way to help them stay with you. I have often written and talked about the ones I’ve had, and that has helped. But the force of rage and depression, in turn, always overwhelmed anything helpful I knew or might try to do – until recently, that is. What you suggest is a wonderful therapeutic tool.

      Thank you! All my best — John

  8. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    I’m intrigued that depression came when rage was no longer around.

    This is because I have a theory (this may sound glib and offensive, though I hope not): that depression is anger turned inwards that needs to be turned outwards. I would really like to hear your response to this idea (I hope it isn’t just glib). Thanks.

    • john says:

      Evan – Your idea is not at all glib – after all it was Freud who first characterized depression as anger turned inward. But I don’t agree on the turning outward part. The anger really isn’t the normal emotion of anger – which protects and defends you when attacked. That anger feels right when expressed at whatever provoked it, but you feel completely twisted if you try to suppress it. Depression anger is detached from a cause and is an attack on who you are. I think rage is a better term than anger, and rage breaks into/ breaks down the core of who you are. It’s completely destructive, so when you let it out on the world it doesn’t help at all – things feel worse instead – not to mention what it does to those on the receiving end. That, at any rate, is how I experience it. I have gone through many cycles of rage then depression so I see them as related. Well, there are lots of theories, and no one can find a single explanation or model.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. All the best — John

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