The question continues to puzzle me: How did I get over depression? That deep change began about 18 months ago, and it’s been a year since I knew for sure that something fundamental had shifted. The nemesis wasn’t after me anymore. In fact, I couldn’t find that thing anywhere near me.
After so many temporary recoveries, I was cautious about saying – or even thinking – that I could finally be free of it. So I just kept on moving through each day. That was fine for a few months until I finally had to admit that everything was different. I felt fully alive again.
Why did it take so long? I struggled with that question for a while and got nowhere. Then, I woke up one day and realized that at some point I had become strangely comfortable with depression. Even while working hard to get over it, I had also been working hard, half consciously, not to change.
That was a thought I did not at all want to accept, but at some level it rang true.
There had been a certain comfort in when I’d figured out that depression was far more pervasive than I’d ever imagined. The condition accounted for so many of the problems I had long taken as proof of how empty I was. Knowing myself as a depressed person was a big step up from knowing myself as a worthless one.
There was a big risk in the change I would have to go through to find another me – a recovered one. Even though I yearned to be free of the suffering, emotionally I was telling myself: I’m not ready yet.
I didn’t understand depression all at once. There were key moments when I suddenly grasped new dimensions of the condition. Each of them helped seal me into a depressed – and passive – identity.
The first was simply finding out in my twenties that part of what I was going through was called depression by a bona-fide psychiatrist. The word wasn’t just a general part of my vocabulary anymore. It was official. As far as I understood at the time, though, that simply referred to periods of despair when I had suicidal thoughts and no energy to move. The psychiatrists I saw shared a then common attitude that depression was a side issue. The important thing was to get to the depths of family history, trauma and all the hidden influences that had shaped me. In that context, depression could even be useful as a stimulus to probe more deeply into the real issues. Nobody talked about medication or any other special treatment for it unless I was in a full-blown crisis.
Much later, I realized that depression was a more serious and pervasive problem than I had thought. It may seem strange to say that, but I had convinced myself that the dark moods were a relatively minor problem. I thought I was highly functional most of the time, even when it became obvious to everyone close to me that I was often in trouble.
Depression, I now found, accounted for problems of mental clouding, lack of focus, slowed thinking and talking, intense anxiety and many other symptoms. The relief in that moment came from understanding that I wasn’t the only one going through this and that those mind- and will-cripplers weren’t evidence of my inadequacy as a person. Instead, all these problems came together in the illness of depression.
The next eye-opener was that periods of depression had no cause in immediate experience. I believed it was the background condition of my life. It was always there and would keep on returning.
In the 90’s, a doctor let me know that new drugs could effectively treat depression, and for the first time I regularly took medication. The drug was called Prozac, and I felt great for a few months. Then it stopped working, and I was off on a long journey to find the right drug with the promised cure. I never found it, but now I was looking outward for medication combined with other treatments to take care of the illness.
Then I found there was a term for the disappointing results with all the treatments I tried. They were not ineffective. I was the problem because I was treatment resistant. Now it seemed inevitable that I would never get away from depression. My version was self-sustaining and could not be treated successfully.
Later I discovered my full DSM diagnosis and the number assigned to it, and I felt more settled than ever into a life built around a struggle with depression. There was a strange security and comfort in having this bad news. I knew, or believed, that I had found the answer. I was a depressed person for life. That’s who I was.
It was painful, to be sure, but this identity gave me answers for everything I went through. I had constructed a home where I lived with depression. We were on intimate terms. It made me desperate at times, and I couldn’t understand how it could keep returning and ruining so much that I tried to do. I’d scream at it, but always felt – that’s me, and that’s it. Nobody can end it, so I have to accept a life of constant struggle.
That certainty was my comfort.
But another mind-flip suddenly made life much more complicated. There was a different way to look at this. How could I possibly get back to real living if I didn’t put myself at the center of recovery and stop waiting for “treatment” to take care of me? That was the beginning of real change, but the idea was both empowering and scary.
How would this work? Why did I imagine that I could trust the progress I might make? Would this turn out to be false hope once again? At times I was a determined warrior steadily advancing. At times I was afraid of the future and made a cautious retreat. My fallback position wasn’t so bad. I’d read many stories about people who had come to terms with lifelong depression, even finding a spiritual meaning to their lives. Surely, I could live with that.
But I kept at. I may never know exactly how or why I changed for the better and for the first time trusted recovery. But I do know how I got out of the trap of comfort that might have prevented me from trying.