Accepting the past is hard work. Avoidance of any part of the past that makes me uncomfortable used to be my go-to strategy, even though it never worked for long. I guess it’s the opposite of the tendency to obsess about everything I ever did wrong. (For example, reliving that humiliating interview 43 years ago, or that meeting I mishandled in 1995, or a hundred others.)
Whether I’m trying to forget or can’t stop reliving those long-gone episodes, the effect is the same. The emotional intensity and pain survive as parts of my do-it-to-yourself depression kit. These days the periods I want most to forget were the ones when I was living, or rather buried, most deeply in depression.
Avoiding the Past
I tell myself there’s no point ruminating about a past I can’t change. Bad things happened, but it’s over, let’s move on, etc. That can be good advice, but in this case the solution to obsessing about the past by shutting it out of my mind creates its own problems.
I avoid looking closely and realistically at what happened.
I accept the verdict of my then-depressed mindset that the whole thing was a disaster.
I try to deflect the difficult feelings of pain and loss associated with that part of the past.
By shutting it out, I’m preventing myself from healing.
If I have really come to accept what happened in that period of my life, why do I flinch away from the memory of it? Why do I want to push it so far away that it feels like part of another person’s life?
I started to think about this recently when a friend asked me to contribute to a publication relating to my former work in public policy. I had had a long career in the field, but my sense of it had been colored by the last several years when depression took an ever greater toll.
Internally, I felt I was collapsing, and there was plenty of external criticism from the people who were depending on me. All my efforts to carry on a demanding worklife fell apart. That’s the way it was in the last years, but that wasn’t the whole story.
Depression tends to simplify memory of the past. All the separate events, whether good or bad, crowd together in a long indictment listing your crimes and misdemeanors. So it was for me. Years of work, full of ups and downs, became a shadow I never wanted to look at.
Trying not to think about that oversimplified past, however, cut me off from a big part of my life and set up rigid rules about what I should not do, who I should not see and what I should not recall.
I didn’t even want to read about that profession for fear of reliving the worst moments. It was as if by paying attention to that part of the past I would somehow become that depressed person again. Despite all the changes in my life since that time, I seemed to hold onto a visceral fear of being “found out.” I can’t really put words to the feeling since it was a fear that provoked an instinctive avoidance.
I had been trying to compartmentalize what I do now from what I did then, yet that only deprived me of my own wholeness as a person. It was like living in the different rooms of a house. I was one way in this room, a different way in that one, and I always stayed out of the attic where I kept the old stuff. But it was all under one roof.
Keeping a big part of my experience separate meant that I couldn’t relate different aspects of my history to each other or make the connections that could help me learn more.
Reconnecting with Experience
When I told my friend that I was reluctant to revisit that part of the past, he made a connection that helped me reframe the experience. He pointed out that I had spent a lot of time in my earlier profession helping people get unstuck when they were in difficult situations and that I was doing something like that now in writing about depression.
He thought this was an obvious parallel, but I had been so unwilling to look at that part of my history that I hadn’t seen a connection. I had only wanted to focus on the dramatic differences between now and then, between a time of wellness and a time of depression.
The effect of this change was to dispel the fear that had kept me from wanting to reconnect with that phase of my life. The need to run from it disappeared, and I could appreciate the range of experience, both the things that had gone terribly wrong and the things that had gone wonderfully right.
Part of the fear of looking at the past had to do with the lingering belief that depression and disability were part of a fixed identity. For years when I had been depressed, I had believed that I held within me a sort of monster who had to be kept confined. Without thinking explicitly about it, I had made the depressed man of that period into the new monster, the part of me that had to be locked away, out of sight and mind.
I’m grateful for my friend’s insight. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much has changed that I can immediately grasp the importance of such helpful ideas and use them to reclaim another dimension of my life.
Are there parts of your experience linked to depression that you have tried to avoid thinking about? Have you been able to make any helpful connections between then and now?
This is an updated post from the archives.