Depressed: When Control Is Out of Control

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Why I try to understand depression, I find too few words with too many meanings. This isn’t quibbling over semantics. It’s about what you feel when living with depression and what you feel when you can finally live without it. It’s about the experience behind the words.

Take the word, control. To control and to be controlling are bad. Your world is all about you, and everyone else is there to meet your needs.

But being out of control is also bad. Most self-help books and therapists I know encourage me to take back control of my life.

As far as my experience goes, both of these ideas about control are true. I’ve lived each one.

When I’m depressed, I can flare up in anger with my family. I’m anxious and panicky at facing groups of people. I’m nervous and fearful about trying any new experience. I avoid people as much as I can and prefer to be alone. All of that is about control.

Depression Taking Over

Sometimes I think that depression has taken control, and I’m not the person I used to know. It helps me to imagine that depression is a separate force, a trespasser I can kick out of my life when I’m well enough. Then I’ll be in control of myself again, and all these symptoms will disappear.

But there’s a different way to look at control without resorting to the fiction of another person taking over. I’m still me when I’m depressed, after all, but I’m acting in a destructive way.

Driven to Control

Out flashes anger and tension when someone close to me isn’t doing what I want or expect. Irrational as my blame may be, I want them to do what I say they should do. I feel a twisting tension in my gut if they don’t. I’ve made them part of a field of vision that cannot be disturbed. I have to control them as if they were actors in a play I’d written.

I’ve pushed out my boundary as a person to surround everyone else in my life, everyone I can influence in some way. I’m anxious in groups because I can’t predict or control what might happen. I don’t have a script to follow. I’ll perform well if I’m at center stage and can say or do what I want, but apart from that I can become frozen in panic. I might disappear in place, detached and absent while physically there, or I might have to get out of the room altogether.

Depressed, I’m afraid of being among people I don’t know, even people I do know. I can’t foresee how it will turn out, and I’m afraid. That fear has to do with my inability to control the experience. There is too much stress in the unexpected, the need for spontaneity, the demand by others that I be available, open to them.

I’m running away from the scenes of inner chaos I imagine, never thinking that they might turn out differently. I exaggerate my importance and assume that my shortcomings will be the center of attention. Of course, everyone else will be focused on their own issues rather than me, but that doesn’t seem to count. Even if I’m looking ahead to meeting friends, I can forget their concerns and the kindness, love or simple friendly openness I might encounter. I don’t know what will happen

I put myself at the center of the scene I imagine and know full well I won’t be able to hold that spot. I’ll be silent, unable to speak, wishing I were invisible. I spend so much time wrapped up in these self-centered thoughts that I confirm my aloneness.

When I retreat and I’m on my own, everything is just as I want it. I’m in control, or so I imagine. No one else can take charge. I think I have my refuge without stress, but it’s not so simple. The act of avoidance itself can bring on shame and lots of stress. I feel like I’ve failed and wind up frustrated, obsessing about what I’ve done wrong, unable to get anything done. I still feel lost.

Aware and In Control

When I’m consciously in control, I draw my boundaries with awareness of where I leave off and others begin. We talk a lot about the artificiality of boundaries, that we’re really connected, part of a greater being. Maybe so, but in this level of unenlightened reality well-being depends on boundaries. You can be as open to connecting with people as you wish, but you are choosing when to open and close the boundary.

I’m in control of myself when I’m not worried about control. I’m relaxed and no longer feel driven by some compulsion I can’t understand.

Being in control of my life means that I’ve become conscious of the extremes of my anger, fear, depression and know when they’re no longer feelings but moods and forces that threaten to dominate. I know how to keep them in check, and I can make choices about my life with awareness and a sense of balance.

But when I’m lost in depression, I’m turned inside out. There’s a self-destructive storm in progress. I may feel weighted down, living in a fog, but there’s something roiling inside me at the same time. I feel it only as fear and stress, but it must be more violent than that.

I’m both a tornado and its victim. My whole being swirls with force that increases in intensity as it spins down toward the ground. I’m spending all that inner power to narrow the scope of experience into a small circle of focused destruction, all the while furiously churning to keep everyone else away. But I’m also the one on the ground, trying to keep everything under control but torn apart by my own storm.

That’s the control of depression. Everything looks so quiet on the outside, yet within I’m working hard to hit bottom and feel dead. Then I’m just wanting the tornado to tear me off the earth and make me disappear.

Do you ever think of depression in terms of control?

Image byBohman at Flickr

13 Responses to “Depressed: When Control Is Out of Control”

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  1. Elli says:

    Dear John,

    thank you so much for this article and your website.

    I read a lot on depression lately and I’m so glad to have found your website, I now better understand what my friend is going through. I would even say, that your website is the most helpful I have found.

    Best regards,


  2. crystal says:

    i am just so glad i found this. thankyou so much for putting this out there. i am constantly fighting my anger and depression wich altho is a daily battle spirals way out of control when i am not in control ov any situation big or small and have begun to really dislike who i have become i have lost so many people dear to me because i am this way….desperately searching for answers i found this …..reading it made me cry with relief for it was as if someone had been obseving me inside and out and put into words the way i am like neither me or anyone else ever has. thankyou so much John!!!

  3. One of the key ways in handling depression and anger is learning how to control it. These insights that you provided are very helpful especially to those who are struggling in managing both emotions. Thank you for sharing this very informative article.

  4. Donna-1 says:

    You always manage to say things so well. The part about the tornado rings true, as does everything else you said. I seem bent on destroying my own life much of the time and try to undo the damage by taking care of others. While it helps, it doesn’t stop the tornado. I often dream of tornadoes and driving madly away from them in a jeep full of other people. I guess those “people” are the ones I seem hellbent on taking with me on my journey — family, friends, etc.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      That’s a good dream – heading for safety with the people you care about. It’s a problem, though, if you’re also the tornado you’re trying to protect them from. But you’re aware of it and trying to escape – dreams are so interesting! I’ve had many breakthrough experiences with them, though they usually arrived as frightening nightmares.

      Thanks for your thoughts.


  5. Judy says:

    John, this was very interesting and I do agree with what you say. I guess instead of control, I’ve seen it as trapped, which is actually a loss of control, so it’s probably the same thing. I will avoid certain situations so that I don’t get “trapped” into having to do things I don’t want to do – which means, basically, that I fear not having control or boundaries, not being able to say “no.” When I start feeling trapped for too long, focus on it too much and see no way out, that’s when I start sinking. Like sinking below the trap so I don’t FEEL the trap.

    It is amazing, the webs we weave! What’s really frustrating is when you KNOW what’s going on and can’t summon up the tools to stop it. That depressed self is mighty strong sometimes.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      “Trapped” gets at that part of being out of control and not being able to stop. Anger at losing control of my surroundings – coming in outbursts about really trivial things looking wrong to me. So the urge to control everything traps me in an anger and behavior that I hate. It’s interesting that we can get to the same point of feeling we have no choice, no control over what we’re doing, even though you’re trying to avoid something and I’m aggressively going after something. Weaving webs gets it very nicely.

      Thanks for being here –


  6. Liz says:

    I can’t answer your question directly but once again, you have brought me into your world and it is so helpful to me in understanding what the love of my life has gone thru over the past 30 years. Fortunately, things are really, really good right now but your insight continues to be invaluable to me and, hopefully, to so many others who are partners to people who suffer from depression. I truly believe knowledge is power and with these posts you have given me and my love the power to move thru it as best as we know how. For us that means always being mindful of respect, love, living in the moment and above all, honesty. Thank you John.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Liz –

      It’s very heartening to hear you speak so kindly about these posts but even more so to know that your relationship is working so well. You sum things up so beautifully – mindful of respect, love, living in the moment and honesty. The humility of realizing that you don’t have final answers but keep moving through, as you say – as best as we know how. What more can anyone do?

      Bless you –


  7. Evan says:

    The people I know who suffer depression talk about being overwhelmed. That they are in some sense out of control and that in some sense depression is in control.

    I guess this means the same as what you say, but just a different way of putting it.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      Overwhelmed is the word I hear – and use – most often to capture the totality of the illness. It hits you that way when it’s severe. I think all the therapies and self-help ideas are about helping you get out from under that sense of helplessness. I keep trying to reframe the experience in order to support my own recovery.


  8. Matt says:

    In my attempts to fight the urge to isolate, I see now it is indeed my attempt at controlling my emotional state. By secluding myself I can control my state, of course in an unhealthy manner. It will help tremendously to know my behaviors are about trying to control the depression, then I can make healthier decisions for myself.

    Thank you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Matt –

      I’m glad to hear that the idea of control fits with your experience. There’s a whole school of thought in therapy that avoiding situations intensifies depression rather than providing relief. Lots of people disagree and find they can recharge by being alone and staying away from whatever is causing them stress. I’ve never had any luck with that because isolating to control depression only made things worse.

      Thanks for commenting.


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