Doubt is Depression’s Last Stand

Bright Clouds from Darkness

It was one thing to get depression out of my life. It was another to get it out of my memory. Doubt about recovery from depression could linger on and keep playing tricks with the past. Vivid memories of old words and actions while depressed continued to torture and twist through me.

They became my personal fiction, screaming at me with the shadow truth I always used to look for – the one that confirmed a damaged man with endless wrongs to his discredit. They crowded me out, often when I was feeling well, as if to say – not so fast. We’ve been keeping your account, and you owe far more than you can ever repay.

There were so many scenes of the past I kept reliving, lingering on the critical moments of disaster. The insidious idea these depressive memories tried to instill was that I would always do my worst just when I thought I was feeling better. And at those times I might even imagine myself to be full of self-awareness, energy and optimism. Then I’d find myself doing or saying something so unexpected, stabbing, hurtful, deceptive, that I began to doubt my own sense of who I was. I couldn’t ever be sure that what I intended to do would get past the perverse second mind of depression. I felt unpredictable.

I began to wonder: What would I do to the next person I spent time with? Would I share an honest moment or simply steal what I wanted, use them and keep myself hidden. It’s hard if you think you’re going to be kind and loving to someone and then wind up cutting into them. How often I wanted to be able to go back and undo some foolish or hurtful thing I’d done or said.

I knew the memories were only partly true, but I’d start to dwell on any poisonous detail I could find. I would long to go back and restore the trust of lost friends, but since I couldn’t change the past, I’d begin to despair over that as well. If I start to get into vicious cycle now, I move instinctively to stop its first downward swing.

The doubt, though, keeps trying to butt in. Is that secret underside of life still in control but less visibly? If I start thinking that way, I wonder if right now I’m really recovered or if in a few years some new knowledge will cause me to look back and say, oh god, I tricked myself again. My feelings can start shifting toward despair about ever separating the reality of who I am from the illusions of depression.

I’ve lived through long fantasies of change in the past, the sort of change you leap into, believing your life will turn around. Of course, it was never long before the truth became clear that nothing was changing. And the temptation was to believe that depression was permanent, that I’d just have to live with it. I’m done now with all those false changes and restarts. Except that the doubt is always trying to come back. It’s one sign of recovery that the doubt has steadily lost its hold.

That’s because there’s such a deep difference between a real recovery and the fragile, cautious sense I used to have about feeling “like myself” again. That temporary lift was always shadowed by an underlying conviction that it couldn’t last. And now the conviction is just the opposite. Recovery – and more than recovery, a kind of waking up about life – is an assumption I don’t even think about very much. A new belief is the dominant undercurrent of everyday life, just as depression used to be – all the time reminding me of its power. And even the doubt those uncertain memories sometimes raise has a strong bar of hope crossed through it.

The doubt now turns even more often in the opposite direction and centers on those depressive memories. They are steadily losing the credibility they once had. True, I can still feel a bit of the anguish I’ve felt before, but just as often I can look back at past problems with detachment. Well, I can say, that happened. It’s done, and I can’t change a thing. I may feel regret but no self-torture, no obsessive reliving of that past. Time to learn from it and move on.

I was once helping a friend and colleague manage a meeting. The first session hadn’t gone well for her, and I offered to take over the next one.

“No,” she said. “I feel like I’ve fallen off a horse, and I have to get on again.” So, she picked up where she’d left off in the next session and turned everything around. I always think back on that – and it’s one memory I never doubt.

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18 Responses to “Doubt is Depression’s Last Stand”

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  1. Fred says:

    Just got this as an email blast, and it in part echoes what I was going through over the holidays. What it doesn’t address is how to let go of the lingering doubts, regrets, and grief. It’s been nearly 20 years since I had my first depressive breakdown. I was undiagnosed at the time and blew up my life in ways that continue to echo. I don’t know that I’ll ever really recover; the best I can hope for is to suppress the pain for periods of time.

  2. Christine says:

    When reading John’s blog it truly describes the aftermath of depression and the ongoing “torture” and “fear” of going back to the thoughts and self doubts that come with the illness. Helped me a lot in understanding that I am not alone in this and that my “doubtful thoughts” are part of the illness, thank you.

  3. Daffa says:

    Doubt paralyzes every aspect of life. Doubt drives away any sense of self reliance.
    Doubt becomes the sounding board for decisions. Doubt is jealous of any hint pride or respect.

    Doubt is now deeply rooted in my mind, body and soul. Not doubting, feels unusual, feelings of contentment are strange and not dramatic as doubt feelings bring to my mind.
    And when moments of contentment arise, some one or situation turns that assured feeling around and doubt graciously sets in. Then, doubt is home again, exercising the power of despair towards any decisions made.

    I would appreciate any thoughts of how to lessen doubt in my prevailing thoughts.
    Doubt won’t stand for an instant remedy, doubt is deeply ingrained in my mind and needs the respect of longevity for its presence.
    Thanks 🙂

  4. Jaliya says:

    Another thought … that individuation is a process of “de-shadowing” … creating spaciousness in the mind and thoughts … like pruning a wild vine … removing what creates only murky darkness and rot; releasing what’s being choked.

    • john says:

      Hi, Jaliya –

      I like that idea of individuation as de-shadowing. Another metaphor I keep thinking of is Michelangelo’s idea – or belief – that he chipped away at a block of marble to reveal the form he knew it contained.


  5. Hi John,
    I’m still reading and your words are still some of the best tht I see in the blogging world (and yes, I know you won’t really and truely be able to accept that).
    I read this with interest… the idea that there is a difference between real recovery and temporary relief, permanently shadowed by the fear of falling again.
    I’m nowhere near either of these places right now, but I have been in that shadowy place before where I have wondered if I dared to believe that perhaps I was free.
    I’m so glad that for you, the battle is mostly over and that you can write that there is no self torture or ‘obsessive re living’.
    Thank you for writing about it. It is good to hear that sometimes, depression isn’t forever.

    Warmth to you.


    • john says:

      Hey, WonderingSoul –

      It’s true depression isn’t forever, and I deeply hope it doesn’t take you as many years (decades!) as it took me to get to the other side. That in-between state was certainly better than darkness all the time, but what gets me now when I look back is my old assumption that the good feeling was temporary. I’m convinced that the hold assumptions like that had on me kept me from going deeply into what I was capable of doing for my own recovery. It was part of the passivity of the illness – waiting for the latest treatment to rescue me rather than taking the lead myself.

      In your words – dare to believe. That’s not a question. I think you’re doing it.

      Also, I may not truly, madly, deeply believe/accept superlatives, but I get a nice, warm feeling to hear that my writing connects with you.

      All love to you –


  6. cher says:

    This story was riveting. No matter how well one succeeds in overcoming depression, there is a nagging hangover with triggers that make sneak attacks like stealth bombers when you least expect them. We need to ward against them, know what the triggers are and build a better defense system. When my brother committed suicide a few years ago, I felt I had failed and did not deserve ever to be happy again. To some extent I have surmounted that, but every now and then that feeling of unworthiness slips in. Keep writing, John. You are a valued treasure.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Cher, you’re too kind!

      I’m sorry to hear about the tragedy of your brother and the difficulty of getting through those bleak feelings about yourself. I agree completely that we need to be able to defend against the unexpected, that so easily overwhelms. It’s strange that so many of us are so quick to take the blame for the suffering of others and torture ourselves for years – quite apart from normal grief.

      All my best to you — John

  7. Jaliya says:

    “Fall down seven times; get up eight” … That’s what I’m thinking …

    Sometimes, when I wrack myself into knots over what the meaning of life might be, I just say, “Sometimes Life itself is the meaning of life.” It’s a somewhat stern, get-on-with-it declaration … and sometimes it’s exactly what I need to raise myself out of the ol’ pit.

    “The shadow truth” … such a powerful image. My first thought was, “Tee hee — John means ‘bullshit’ here, doesn’t he” — but then my mind went all Jungian (I love it when this happens!) … There *is* truth in every shadow, and every shadow is part of the whole … The shadow truth is not, as you write, “the one that confirmed a damaged man with endless wrongs to his discredit”; perhaps it is simply the realities left by deep injury and wounding … perhaps the shadow truth is the injuries themselves, and the marks they leave … and our attempts to (however unconsciously) protect these vulnerable places …

    … the horrific, cruel thoughts we can hurl at our own good souls are part of the very real, brain-based damage of depression. — Yesterday, I had a one-time consult / assessment with a psychiatrist who referred to depression as “a neurological illness.” I’d never before heard this, and it made immediate sense.

    Part of my own peace-making with my habituated thoughts is to keep pointing my finger at physiological realities — physiological *truths* that are impossible to judge (i.e., chronically low blood pressure; hypothyroidism — two bodily truths that are part of my whole experience). “It is what it is,” I think, and then (in my best moments, mind!) I set about changing what can be changed, and letting be what can’t. I’m becoming ever more practical about it all … and with practicality, I find, comes very little judgment. Sweet relief.

    Jane Kenyon, one of the great poets of depression, wrote a poem called “The Clothes Pin”:

    How much better it is
    to carry wood to the fire
    than to moan about your life.
    How much better
    to throw the garbage
    onto the compost; or to pin the clean
    sheet on the line
    with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!


    John, thank you!

    • john says:

      Hi, Jaliya –

      You’ve inspired me to write more about the shadow – I do need to expand on that. It’s the person who does the bad stuff I try to keep myself from doing – so the inner belief that used to so strong was that the shadow really was guiding me and telling me his judgment. I’ve got a post in mind to go into that. Your concept is compelling too.I guess we all come up with our own shorthand about these things.

      Getting a sense of the neurobiology – or whatever it should be called – of depression does help, and I’m glad it helps you gain a level of peace so that you can deal with what can be changed.

      Thank’s so much for giving us these great insights!


  8. Marie says:

    Hi, John –

    I have recently started feeling better in general . . and, when I feel good, I have the choice of being discouraged that it won’t last very long or just relishing the lightness of the moment, for as long as it lasts. I find the latter choice to be the most joyful.

    I think you are saying something similar here . . .

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

    • john says:

      Hi, Marie –

      I’m glad you’ve been feeling well and hope that isn’t a short-lived phase. The expectation that feeling better wouldn’t last was always a problem for me. It never occurred to me to turn that around – it’s also true that an episode of depression will run its course and stop. I believed that depression was the norm, feeling good the exception.

      Thanks for coming by.


  9. Marlo Perez says:

    thanks for posting. I really learned from your writing..keep on blogging and helping others as well.

  10. Louise says:

    ”Each day shapes our lives as running water shapes a stone.”
    ~ Anonymous

    I also have a storied mind. It has helped me to understand that we are here on Earth to have emotional experiences and interaction with others for the purpose of growth. Thus, everything that comes serves a purpose and I suffer less from past mistakes knowing that. It is much easier to let those thoughts go when they are looked upon as assignments that were sent to us for experience. Each moment brings a new assignment. Some we pass, some we fail, but none prevent us from graduating for that is our purcpose for being here. The Earth experience is a school.

    • john says:

      The role of purpose and meaning is so important in seeing depression as part of larger life experience. It’s great that you’ve been able to find that. So many haven’t found anything positive or helpful it. That really hasn’t been quite my path. Finding new purpose has been important – but the new purpose served more to stop depression from being an overwhelming force.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.


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