Depression, Identity and Hope

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Marissa wrote a post at Wellsphere that made me pause. She was objecting to the idea found in Richard O’Connor’s book (Undoing Depression) that “I am not my depression.” She interpreted this as an evasion of accountability for one’s actions. The depressed behavior that harms relationships, for example, can’t be dismissed as something you’re not responsible for – it has a real impact because of your behavior, and you remain accountable for what you do. And so, in this sense, she insists: “I am my depression.”

I agree with the need to be accountable. I have hurt those around me by being emotionally absent, self-involved, unable to talk, irritable or in a rage, or behaving badly in any of the ways that are symptomatic of depression. But O’Connor’s intention with this formulation, I believe, isn’t aimed at releasing people from accountability. It’s a way of reminding those suffering from depression that they have an illness, that there is hope for recovery, that they should not confuse the symptoms with the totality of their human identities.

I think a better way of putting this, however, is another sentence that appears frequently in books about how to deal with this condition: “I am more than my depression.” In other words, my identity isn’t defined by behavior linked to the illness, but it also says that I am my depression, in part.

However I might phrase it, I have to get the point that I can fight the inner voice telling me I am nothing more than my depression. I can work hard to build up the other forces in my psyche, like creativity and love. Those qualities should never be eclipsed in my mind by the negative self-image that depression shrouds me with. In another post, I visualized the intermingling of these forces as a kind of spiraling in which they remain separate but closely bound in a single turning flow. Yes, depression is a part of me, but I don’t have to accept it as the dominant force.

In a much earlier post, I described a turning point in dealing with depression when I rebelled against the trend of thinking that was taking me to a kind of passive suicide by the temptation to leave a cancer untreated. That moment helped change my inner belief that I was the worthless person depressed thinking encouraged me to accept. I emerged from that crisis convinced there was so much more to my life and that I could get better by becoming an active partner in any treatment I might undertake. I was responsible for recovery, not medication, not therapy. Those could be helpful tools only if I used them with the deep intention of pushing depression back to a lesser role and bringing forward the positive forces that nourished life and relationships.

I believe that everyone has to arrive at a formulation that is right for them, that helps carry on the hard, daily work of recovery. Some find that power through faith in God, some through meditation, some through the concept of depression as a treatable disease, some by denying that it is a disease and seeing it as a part of their lives they need to manage without drugs. Although I may not agree with all of these formulations, I am not looking for absolute truth but rather for the beliefs that help with survival. I do not mean to be flip or disrespectful of deeply held values and convictions. I am simply observing that people go in different directions to arrive at the same place of recovery and hope.

In some of my posts I have narrated incidents in which I separated myself from depression completely by imagining it as a different character whom I could kick out of my life. That half comic representation was useful to me in those moments. Of course, I don’t actually believe that I can separate myself from depression as I would from a destructive person. But if imagination can help me from time to time, I’ll take anything I can dream up to get through another day.

So my thanks to Marissa for helping me work a bit harder to be clear and intentional about how I think about my responses to depression.

What are the beliefs you hold that help you keep going?

10 Responses to “Depression, Identity and Hope”

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  1. Immi says:

    I too believe that I’m ultimately responsible for my own wellness or lack thereof. I have bipolar disorder, etc., much like I have caucasian genes. It’s up to me to work with all my bits, and whatever tools fit with those bits, in order to be as well as possible. I can’t not have the bipolar disorder or the caucasian genes, but they’re just part of what makes up the whole me. The bipolar disorder can’t undo me entirely without my permission, any more than the caucasian genes can. So I work with it all and get more wellness. Good deal. At least, that’s my perspective at this point.

  2. John D says:

    Zathyn – Exactly. I think that’s what we have to work with, the determination, trying to remember also that the feelings aren’t forever and that there’s a whole person in there, perhaps lost in the fog just now but trying to get back to you. Thanks for coming by. I’m glad you’re sounding better.

  3. says:

    I agree that we all need to come to our conclusions about how to deal with depression and mental illness. There have been some things I’ve read in books, or heard from therapists, that have done little to help and only increased frustration and anger.

    However, for me, I agree with Stephany. I just have to persevere. I’ve learned I’m far stronger than I ever gave myself credit for, and when times are tough I try to remember this. I try to convince myself the bad feelings won’t last forever – at least not in the intensity of a major depression. And I try and remember the positive things about myself, which isn’t easy.

    What I do know is I’m not my bipolar or PTSD, and they are not me. They are aspects of my life I deal with, but they do NOT define me as a person.

  4. John D says:

    Dharma Kelleher – I think you’ve really hit the mark about awareness. That’s been a huge step for me – catching myself starting to stare into emptiness, my feelings sinking – that simple shift in attention to get just a little distance makes all the difference. Thanks for coming by.

    Caroline – Thanks for those kind words about the blog! I really appreciate, too, your openness about your past. What a dreadful thing to attempt suicide so young! It’s wonderful to hear that you have turned the corner in keeping depression from taking you over. And that boyfriend of yours sounds like a keeper. So many men don’t get it the way he does and either want the crying to go away or start saying all kinds of dumb things because they respond to emotion as if it were a problem to be solved by thinking. (Hmmm, I wonder how I happen to know that!) My best wishes to you.

  5. John D says:

    Stephany – You always make a lot of sense, and it amazes me how you do keep the light in mind in dark times. Do you think part of the reason is that you can pour out the full range of emotions, at least in your writing? I have a hard time doing that – classic guy thing I suppose – and I know that holding onto to the worst feelings has a high cost. I so admire your fighting spirit – determination sounds right on as a force that keeps you going.

    Immi – You make great sense about bipolar being part of you. That kind of recognition was certainly important for me. I realized I wasn’t getting rid of depression altogether but could make a pretty good adaptation to living with it. Accepting yourself as that whole being must make a big difference. Thanks for adding that thought.

    Pink – I’m glad you could get something from that perspective. I’m coming to believe that what helps me most is finding many ways to imagine depression. That particular day I had some good anger about being depressed and it helped to imagine kicking him out. Almost every day I need some new way to deal with this problem. And good luck as you work on figuring out beliefs. That’s hard!

  6. Caroline says:

    I also wanted to say, that your blog looks beautiful, I came across it while on a marathon EC drop, and it grabbed my attention, first by looks, then by content. 🙂

  7. Caroline says:

    I suffered from depression for a long time, beginning when I was about 12 when I had my first suicide attempt.

    Since then I have been able to recognize the signs, and I now understand that sometimes I just have to ride the wave. I used to make myself feel worse by trying to identify the cause of my depression, but that made me focus on the negatives in my life rather than the positives.

    Now when I hit my slumps, I just think about the great things in my life that I have to live for – my brother, my parents, my friends and cats. It gets me through.

    I am also lucky in that I have a wonderful boyfriend, who also recognizes the signs, and instead of putting pressure on me to “cheer up”, he just holds me, and lets me cry.

    I agree depression is part of who I am, but it does not define me, and I have some control over how it affects me and those around me.

  8. I like what you’re sharing. Personally, I don’t see that I am my depression any more than my car is the direction south.

    My depression is the experience resulting from loveless, isolated and insane thinking. I’ve traveled as far down that road as a person can without actually being dead.

    Now when I become aware that my thinking is taking a dark turn, I become willing to see things differently. It’s not so much trying to think happy thoughts as becoming aware of the direction of my thinking.

  9. Pink says:

    I’m still at that point where I am looking for meaning and trying to figure out what I believe. Your post has given me some ideas. I never thought about depression as another thing or person that we can kick out of our life. Interesting perspective!

  10. Stephany says:

    It’s not a belief as much as it is a determination, and what I thought about recently to sum it up with one word:


    I have no way to describe a 48 yr old life that has held grief and sorrow from a very early age, and how it came back full force in the last few years fighting for the life of my daughter.

    What I have discovered about myself, is though dark can be very dark, light is always there.

    Maybe this makes no sense at all to anyone else, it hardly does justice to how I feel optimistic in dark times.


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