Sometimes relapse into depression comes on like the weather, suddenly there, a change in the atmosphere you breathe and the temperature and moisture of the air around you. I’ve been feeling that lately and find myself in the midst of a cool and sad stillness that draws my attention in with an almost magnetic force.
I sit and stare at nothing as if it were the most important thing I had ever encountered. I become endlessly fascinated, as I might when watching the roiling gray on the other side of an airplane window.
This state of mis-being has arrived with a little help from medication. I have felt my body and mind adjusting to losing the last traces of lamictal (lamotrigine). I am now off the drug but continue to have the mental lethargy that has been part of withdrawal.
A second drug has also caused problems, but its use is not related to treatment for depression. I was given a 10-day course of prednisone to relieve severe arthritis pain. The prednisone had the effect of first revving up my system and then dropping me into the mesmerizing world of empty stares.
So here is another test of resilience as I try to refocus myself and regain my inner sense of being in charge of what I do each day.
A Mirror for Depression
Last night, I watched part of a movie (Oslo, August 31st) about a depressed young man, but it was not the sort of film that dramatically transforms the experience. It realistically depicted a guy who had given up on himself, and it was too painfully familiar for me to watch all the way through, given the way I was feeling.
However, this morning I realized that it really had helped me to see someone going through this in light-of-day realism. So I watched the rest of it today, not for fun but to work my way out of relapse.
I could see the character shining a spotlight on himself. Within that bright circle of cold light he could see every scar he carried, convinced that his mental clarity revealed the ugly truth of his worthless existence.
He reached out to people, but each of his friends stood outside the spotlight in a shadowy haze. Everything they pointed out to help him could be pushed away as a shadowy half-truth. He knew the real truth, that he was a hopeless case, and everyone else had it wrong.
The friends he turned to could see he was unreachable, but had to try to get through. Their words of concern and support were all tossed aside and provoked only anger.
Believing in Self-Judgment
It was excruciating to watch the character live through this and believe the convincing falsehoods of depression as if they were the laws of nature. I lost all patience listening to him and kept wanting to switch off the film. All the classic lines came to mind, the scorning dismissal of the people who just don’t get it, but I was the one who was thinking them.
“Stop whining! Wake up and look around you! Pull yourself together!” I realized that all those empty phrases came out of my own uneasiness and fear of being trapped in that same place, as I had been in the past. As I feared I was being trapped right then.
But as difficult as it might have been to watch the film, it helped me gain the distance I needed from my own relapsing self. I could see the character in the setting of his world as he could not see himself. I could see the larger self that he insisted on narrowing into a few searing judgments that he accepted as the full reality of who he was. In this way, I could step back from my own depressive mindset and find a place in which I could regroup.
It struck me how much depression tells you about what you cannot do. Every talent is disparaged as fake, every accomplishment becomes the opposite of what it is. The tags of value placed on each action and ability become more important than the things themselves.
The negative judgment becomes more real than the experience of making something. You savage everything you prize in yourself. It’s no wonder that when this inner attack stops, and the fight against yourself comes to an end, you can have the feeling of rediscovering their own abilities. You realize that the talents you had refused to nurture out of contempt for their limits are still there to be cultivated.
Resilience is Creative
One way to think about the change of outlook in depression is that it limits your mind primarily to the judging and rule-following part of the brain that interprets experience on a verbal level. When balanced with input from the rest of the mind’s experience, the words and ideas can add to the sense of wholeness in life.
In depression, that other side of living, the intuitive, felt experience that happens before words form is screened out. The judgements, words and rules become the whole reality. The experience of meeting a friend is lost, and the judgment about having done the wrong thing is all you can feel.
Resilience is the mind opening up to the fullness of experience again. Instead of accepting the reality of left-brain judgments and value labels, you rediscover creativity by opening to intuitive, nonverbal experience. The internal norms and verbal formulas for evaluation become less important than the felt experience of trying something new, creating something you had forgotten you could do.
Recovery is a learning process, and one of the most important things is to get back in touch with things you can do well.
An Inner Shift
Today, I realized that the effort to stare directly into the deadly stillness of depression had helped something shift inside. It was like pulling at a heavy rock and feeling it move just enough to know that it can be lifted out of the way. It might take a better tool and certainly full concentration on the task, but it can be done.
That sense of movement is all it takes these days to get me going again. But for a few days I had been suspended, as if in a pause during which I could observe everything I was trying to do but unable to move ahead with anything.
It was a time of resting, perhaps finding refuge, in a state of incompleteness. It’s a dazing sort of mind, detached but not in the energizing way that mindfulness brings. It’s a state of fear muffled in drowsiness. If anxiety is fear shot through with pointless action, this is the quiet version, fear muted and slowed in motion. I’m glad to be out of it now.
What helps you achieve an inner shift, a tipping of the balance from depression back in the direction of feeling fully alive again?
This is a post from the archives.