Taking Depression Apart

I run a race with depression that keeps me on edge. The stakes are high because we race to take each other apart. I intend to keep the lead. For years, I’d hit the wall and lose the bare will to win. But somehow I got back not just the energy to move but a belief in myself that had long been lost. I can separate myself from depression, understand it’s a condition to be dealt with and so gain the inner strength not to give up anymore. Of course, in this race I never quite get to the finish line. There is no ending.

You can’t live with depression for fifty years, as I have, and fall for easy answers or mental tricks or chemical doses as ways to escape the problem and get on with your life. Bill Wilson once wrote an essay in The Language of the Heart that told his history with this problem. He couldn’t understand how the breakthroughs of the 12-step method could work with alcoholism but not with depression.

He thought he’d finally found the answer by becoming aware of two powerful drives in his personality. One was his dependence on external things, whether alcohol or womanizing or business success or praise that would bolster his ego artificially; the other was his demand for control over everything around him. By catching these drives at work, he was able to forestall the sequence that led to his recurring bouts with deep depression. According to one biography, My Name Is Bill, that turned out to be less than successful – depression stayed with him.

But there are a few things I take from his story that resemble the way I’ve learned to adapt.

  1. Total recovery will probably never happen. So I have to redefine the problem. It’s more like dealing with alcoholism through the 12-step method. Recovering means adapting to a life that includes depression but not letting it destroy me. That is the basic priority, as Therese Borchard has so powerfully given through her own fearless example: Staying alive!
  2. Staying ahead of depression takes active work that never stops. For major depression of the type I have, the treatments that are done to me don’t work for long. And the condition has become virtually self-sustaining, that is, no longer triggered by external situations but recurring without any evident change in my life circumstances.
  3. So I have to work from within, staying alert and catching the illness as it tries to seep under my skin. If I lose my focus, I will be letting depression take the lead. And that means it will make me an instrument of self-torture. I will do its bidding and take myself apart, bit by bit, until I find nothing left to live for.
  4. Just as Bill Wilson learned, one of the most effect methods is recognizing the different symptoms and moods of the condition as they begin to take hold of my behavior and thinking. If I can step aside for just an instant from the full assault of the symptom, long enough to glance sideways at it, I can spot what’s happening and immediately see myself experiencing that particular bend of mind or feeling. Here it comes, here it is, I’m feeling miserable because I’m depressed. Or I’m tearing myself down with every other thought – I don’t have to do that so you in there, you shut up, I’m not listening anymore – you’re just a disease, and you will not get me to believe what you’re saying. Of I see obsessive thinking taking hold, sizzling my mind and gut with something, invariably, that I did wrong. I see that I’m replaying it over and over, and I have to step back and just say to myself, you’re obsessing, that’s another symptom, so stop!
  5. All this requires attention and determination, and, of course, those are two qualities depression takes out at the earliest opportunity, like a military attack on command and control centers. My mind loses all focus in a fog, and I want to sit and stare at nothing as will is shot full of holes, like Dick Tracy and his villains after a gun battle. Daylight shows through my suddenly two-dimensional self. These are the toughest things: to maintain attention to what I’m going through and keep the ability to take action against those habits of taking myself apart.
  6. If all else fails, at least I retain the knowledge that this is part of a cycle that will pass, and that helps me get through.

What do you do to stay a step or two ahead – of whatever it might be that breaks your pace and knocks you flat?

Some Rights Reserved by juria yoshikawa at Flickr

16 Responses to “Taking Depression Apart”

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  1. cody says:

    the 12 steps were never meant to act as treatment for depression. Bill W took them directly from the Oxford
    Group of Frank Buchman and nowhere else(Bill’s words).
    Depression is a medical condition and alcoholism is a

    • john says:

      Cody – I realize that the 12 steps were never meant as treatment for depression, but many people with depression have found inspiration from the Big Book. As I pointed out, what struck me were the stories by the recovering alcoholics which take up most of the book. The lack of self esteem and need to escape a painful inner life are familiar to people with depression too. My understanding of the story of the 12 steps is more complicated that you indicate. I learned a lot from Bill W’s essay, The Language of the Heart, his Grapevine piece about the beginning of AA. There he emphasizes the power of one drunk talking from the heart to another as essential to his own recovery and that what he learned from his Oxford group friends was not enough to get through to him on a deep enough level.

      As to depression being a medical condition – there is a world of controversy about that. Some base their recovery on the use of medication, others believe medication only worsens problems and that recovery depends on a combination of nutrition, exercise, spiritual practice and more. One of the major forms of therapy asserts that patterns of thinking distort emotions, and the solution is to change thinking. I wouldn’t quarrel with anyone’s path to healing. But it is too simple to say that depression is simply a medical condition.

      And one of the breakthroughs of AA right from the start was its characterization of alcoholism as a combination of obsessive behavior and a physical illness, which was then described by Dr. Silkworth as an allergy. The group was at pains to educate newcomers that alcoholism wasn’t a problem of willpower but also had a physical basis.


  2. Marissa says:

    Great post. It’s certainly inspired me.

  3. Anon for now says:

    Merelyme, John mentioned your blog. Where is it? I, too, am curious about your rituals.

    John D, yah, I understand about not taking one’s own appreciations as true. Kind of like when I was a kid, thinking that my mom had to say those nice things about me because she was my mom.

    I think the turnaround for me was hypnotherapy, in which I was encouraged to see the stuff I hated about myself as a coat that someone had forced me to wear. Then, still in the hypnosis, I was encouraged to take off the coat and leave it behind.

    If “cursing out the negative voice and stomping him down” works for you, John, right on! Anger can be a valuable tool; who knows if it’s just a “guy thing.”

    Evan and John — about catching the early signs. I keep striving to do that. I think seeing it sooner and then sooner yet is a process. Writing as soon as I see it sounds like a great idea. I’m gonna try that.

    Denise, I, too, want to know more about your sense of different kinds of depression. Please write more or direct us to where you’ve written about it. Thanks much.

  4. John D says:

    Thank you so much, Denise! The book idea is something I’m working on – more on that later. I’m really interested in what you say about the kinds of depression and how you deal with them. Letting it role right over you is a new idea for me – giving myself permission to take it easy, I realize, is hard, very hard. I guess I can sense what the leading symptoms will be for different episodes of depression, but I rarely have the presence of mind to choose what I will do in response. The creative outlet is always one of the best things I can do, if I can get anywhere near my writing desk. Thanks for those ideas.

  5. Denise says:

    First I have to say I Love, Love, Love your blog. The imagery you use really speaks to me. You could take all of these lovely posts and put them into a book.

    I also have had to fight depression for the past 42 years…. I have learned after so many years what kind of depression is coming on and then I either give into it and let it roll right over me… or some I have to fight with all my might…. I also have a daily routine that helps my will to continue… and then sometimes I just take it easy and don’t expect anything from myself… give myself permission not to accomplish anything that day. I also knit and create quilts. A creative outlet is a definite bonus. I get a “feel” for what the depression requires.

  6. John D says:

    Dano – I’m curious if the twelve steps get at some of the depression issues for you. I’ve often wondered if surrendering to a higher power and working with others who have the same illness can make the same difference with depression as with alcoholism. The blog does something like the 12th step – describing my experience and having it connect with someone who shares a story back – this helps a lot. Maybe it’s a bad analogy, but reading the Big Book has always been a profoundly moving and helpful experience. Thanks for letting me know a bit about what this blog means to you. I’ll be at your site soon.

    Jack – Thank you for your comment. I regret that I can’t read your language but hope we can share ideas across borders.

    Alex – Thanks for the reference to the site and your kind comment. I like the four pillars you lean on – nutrition, exercise, creativity and prayer. Mind and body need to improve together!

    Anon for Now – It’s interesting about Rescue Remedy. I too find that it works but haven’t the faintest idea what’s in that tiny bottle. I’m glad you’ve been able to make progress recently through appreciations and your other steps. I still haven’t gotten to the point where I can take my own appreciations as true. What is effective is cursing out the negative voice and stomping him down, Maybe that’s one of those guy/I don’t want to talk about it things. But it works! All love to you!

    Evan – Exactly right – catching the early signs is so important. I can sometimes do that by immediately sitting down to write about the strangeness I’m feeling. That will give me just that bit of distance so that I don’t get taken into the darkness so completely.


  7. Evan says:

    For me it’s recognising the early signs and acting then.

  8. John D says:

    merelyme – I’m curious about rituals for helping at the worst moments – I’ll see if I can find more about this on your blog. Lists I depend on at work. Post-it notes sound exactly right. I’ve got to keep everything visible – like the character in Memento. Write it down when you’re well and then it’s staring at you when everything has been zapped out of consciousness. Thank you.

    Zania – Thanks for all those kind words! (You know I still have to build those muscles that let me take in praise – this is a real work-out!) Your finding this blog is great because it means I’ve found yours – you’re a fine writer, and I agree that writing is one of the most powerful things for countering depression. I really look forward to reading your blog regularly.

    isabella – Thank you once again. I plan to return to the creativity theme soon – that and spirituality are the most powerful forces I know to bring me back to life.


  9. Anon for now says:

    I take Rexcue Remedy when I notice that my face is frowning and I just want to dive under the covers. Within a half hour to an hour, I can usually notice my mood start to lift a bit. If I’ve done this early enough, noticing the lifting mood will be enough to cut the ropes that are dragging me down. Doesn’t always work, but at least it usually keeps me from losing it altogether.

    Also, I’ve just started experimenting with making myself feel appreciation. The daily quotes from Abraham-Hicks recently pointed out a difference between gratitude (which includes a sense that you got somthing you lacked, therefore reminds you of the lack) and appreciation, which is – to me, at least – a dilluted sense of joy. So, when I go to bed, before my mind can go to the negative thoughts, I fill it with appreciation. (Of course, I have to keep bringing m mind back to that, but that’s a good practice, also.)

    So far so good. Even a recent couple of days of fear that could have turned into depression were kept at bay much better than I’ve ever done before.

    I love this comment, John D: “the treatments that are done *to* me don’t work for long…”. Isn’t that a metaphor for life? 😉

  10. “All this requires attention and determination, and, of course, those are two qualities depression takes out at the earliest opportunity, like a military attack on command and control centers.”

    Brilliant Perception !!!

    I fight my depression with nutrition, exercise, creativity, and prayer.

    BTW, your very creative and you may find this site interesting:


    ~ Alex

  11. The picture is rather impressing!

    Thanks for your post, its really worth to read.

  12. This blog is a wonderful place. Your writing and visuals are a pleasure! That said, I’ve been in a 12-Step program for about five years, with four years of sobriety. The steps have you change the way you view yourself and your world. This almost identical to the Cognitive Behavioral approach the Doctor Aaron Beck brought to the world of therapy. My therapist was one of his first students.
    Just as you, I fight my illness(es!) as an on-going battle. I’ve been living with a primary diagnoses of Bipolar II disorder for a while now. I’m forty-two and I started my journey into the wacky world of mood-swings when I was fifteen.
    I find reading as a great escape for depression. I also paint, eat too much ice-cream, stare into space and/or sleep a lot. The last few days have been quite tough, but I managed to make myself work on my back-yard, laying bricks down…..They may be onto something with that exercise thing!

  13. great post, as usual. and i know i have said it before but i just have to say it again: i LOVE your layout and your images!

  14. zania says:

    Hi John,
    I’ve just found your blog; strangely enough, from a scraper blog which scraped both our sites. So I guess some good came out of it because I found this lovely warm place.

    Reading through some of your earlier posts, my goodness, I can feel where you are coming from! Although I must admit that the prospect of fifty years suffering from depression doesn’t fill me with joy… but yes, I guess it’s going to happen that way for me too.

    I have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember (although I didn’t call it that back then of course), soit’s nearly 30 years for me and I’ve managed to cope with it this long so I guess I can cope with it for the rest…

    “Recovering means adapting to a life that includes depression but not letting it destroy me”
    My thoughts exactly.

    And yes, it’s true, you can recognise the symptoms of major depression creeping up, but as you say, that’s the very moment it’s hardest to find the energy or the inclination to stop them.

    But reading your blog gives me strength. I know I am on the right lines myself in the way I address my own (mainly chronic) depression. I accept it and try to live my life with it. But it’s hard, I know.

    What do I do to prevent depression knocking me flat? That’s a tough one. Most of the time I haven’t the energy to do anything to stop it.
    Sunshine helps I guess, if I can drag myself out of the house… so does physical exercise if I can force myself to do it 🙂

    But like you, I write, and that for me works better than anything else.

    I won’t say anything cliched here, like ‘you are doing a great job with your fight’, because I know that, even though you are, on a bad day that would fall on deaf ears.

    Just to say I’m pleased I stopped by. You have a beautiful place here.

  15. merelyme says:

    i find that rituals help me. i like to have a list of bottom line measures for days when i have to just survive. i have many post-it notes with lists upon them for such days.

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