Reflections in Mind: Sherwin Nuland’s Recovery from Depression

An important part of my recovery has been exploring emotional memory when I respond so deeply to a story or song or even just a moment in a film that somehow reaches right inside. A feeling long held back flows out freely, even though broken away from the memory that stirred it. So I have to stop and ask – what is this, where is it coming from? The emotion is often grief over loss – and there have been plenty of those through decades of depression – but it can also be a happier surge of recognition, powerful reminder of a breakthrough in recovery.

Sherwin Nuland’s 2001 Ted Talk video about his recovery from depression provoked just such a response. It affected me so deeply that I started looking for a written version. I found it in the opening pages of his memoir about his father, Lost in America: A Journey with My Father.

Nuland grew up in the South Bronx in the 1930s and 40s, one of two sons of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Quite apart from the personal meaning I found in that opening chapter, the memoir is a moving, beautifully written story of life in a close-knit family dominated by an overbearing father – who also played a part in his depression.

Nuland’s recovery story parallels the experience of many who’ve been through this nightmare. He captures so well those powerful moments – the terrible ones that led him into a mental hospital and the thrilling, even funny ones that brought him back. There are several that resonate for me.

In the video, he describes the gradual collapse of his work life. Even while struggling each day to get out of bed and consumed by obsessions, fears and feelings of worthlessness, he tried to keep up the pretense of his surgical practice at a university hospital. But his condition was no secret, and fewer and fewer cases were referred to him. As he said in his talk, “I couldn’t work…I had no more patients,” I felt keenly for him since I had gone through a similar and humiliating decline that I had been helpless to stop.

Even at the worst moments of this years-long catastrophe, he remained determined to will himself out of depression. Despite many failed attempts to pull himself out of the depths, he could always “retain an image of my inner ogre as it looked when I could distance myself from it.” I know that glimmer of survival that persists in spite of endless frustration and defeat – it’s the one reminder that you’re not completely lost.

The voice of the young psychiatrist who attended him during his hospitalization proved to be an enduring source of guidance and strength, especially when he felt some recurrence of depression in later years. This was the doctor who saved him from a lobotomy that would have destroyed him. He alone on the medical staff was convinced Nuland could be brought round with electroconvulsive therapy. And the treatment worked but only at the twentieth session.

The way in which this treatment helped him captured exactly my own sense of the function of any treatment. It brought back enough of his mental and emotional strength and clarity that he could finally push himself to recovery. As he puts it, “the act of will that had seemed impossible now came within reach, and finally in a single surge of determination, I made it happen.”

What he then describes sends a thrill right through me since it captures almost exactly what I experienced. It makes me laugh and cry at the same time to think of it.

One Sunday morning in January 1974, I was standing alone in the little kitchen of the residence unit where I lived with some fifteen other patients, thinking very calmly – analytically, in fact – about the content of the galaxy of pathological ideations. It crossed my mind that it was no longer necessary to give in to them each time one or another would flash into consciousness. Why not figuratively turn away and refuse to succumb? Why not respond to their pernicious urgings with some dismissive formula, like “Ah, fuck it?”

Then and there I resolved to abandon my pathological limitations in a single determined stroke.

When at last it became possible to shrug off the demons that had pursued me for so long, the experience seemed at once simple and triumphant. I shouted out that big No with vast relief in a thrilling, giddy, crying, laughing instant. And it’s the words I used then that I repeat – as Nuland does – like a magic spell when ghosts of depression try to take over again. A monster of such power, suddenly weak and overwhelmed, looks so ludicrous. These days I tip it over with a finger push.

But there is always more to do. Nuland told his story of recovery at the beginning of this memoir in order to introduce the power that his father had over him. During depression, he felt that influence so strongly that his posture stooped to resemble that of the older man in his illness. He was becoming his father, the man who had held him back all his life.

Nuland writes of a haunting memory that symbolizes the relationship. His father had so much trouble walking that he had to lean of his son’s arm to get down a street. The life-long fight to free himself is captured in those moments when Nuland felt the tight grip of his father’s hand pulling him back to match his own halting pace. The force of this pull never left him, even after recovering from his disastrous depression, even long after his father’s death.

I find this story, in both its video and written versions, a recurring source of hope and encouragement for sustaining recovery and starting life over. Is there a story of recovery that you’ve found to be a support and guide?

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4 Responses to “Reflections in Mind: Sherwin Nuland’s Recovery from Depression”

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  1. Fritz says:

    There is something else I forgot to mention that I wanted to thank you for

    When I first came to your blog I read a bunch of your earlier posts and was intrigued by what you were calling your inner critic…..a voice telling you that you were worthless etc
    Took me a while to realize how I was doing that never quite understanding where it came from
    Dr Nuland claimed his mantra was ‘Fuck it’ my mantra with regard to that inner critic is “Fuck You I’m Golden”
    The only other thing I can relate to with this is the episode of The Sopranos where Tony finally gets his depression to abate by fighting for his life.don’t know if you remember that scene but this has helped
    Thanks again

  2. Fritz says:

    Just watched the TED video of Dr. Nuland the other day.

    That was an incredible story and possible the most amazing recovery story I have ever heard of.

    I have had some extreme lows that have eventually passed , I think the mental framework I used to get over it was a combination of a sense of detachment and
    a meditation on my own mortality…
    For me those things when pondered strongly enough seem to be able to make the psychic balance shift but you have to do the work.
    Everyone is chemically different and everyone bears different
    conscious burdens…this is a tough nut to crack

    • john says:

      Hi, Fritz –

      I find the video version of the story more powerful than the written version, but taken together they offer a really inspiring example of recovery. You’re so right about the need to do the work – as Nuland said, the ECT treatment strengthened him enough so that he could finally do that work. It does take a huge effort of will to break out of the paralysis of that state. Meditation has been a powerful method for me as well.

      Thanks for your offering your insight.


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