Re-Reading the Story of Depression’s Meaning

HoldingOn-Jose Tellez

There are no more beautiful and moving stories of healing than those told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Kitchen Table Wisdom is one of those books I come back to again and again. Each of its brief stories renders a moment of discovery that reveals a life’s meaning to someone lost in pain or rigid routine. As moving as these stories are, I had never thought much about the relevance of such experiences to my own life. It didn’t seem possible that the sudden revelation of meaning – and the strength it provides – could possibly result from my own severe depression. Not making the connection probably means that I glossed over such thoughts as these:

The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows. Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along. … .

Knowing your own story requires having a personal response to life, an inner experience of life. It is possible to live a life without experiencing it.

She tells many stories that capture the awareness of purpose through such re-readings.

  • A young athlete, embittered by the loss of a leg, emerges from depression when he finds he can help other young people going through the same kind of pain that he has suffered. His loss and depression themselves became the means by which he could help heal others, rather than the pure loss he had felt them to be.

  • An emergency physician, after delivering hundreds of babies, stares into the face of one newborn as she opens her eyes for the first time, and he suddenly understands the meaning of the work he had done more as a technician than a human being. This time “he felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes.”

  • An elderly man overcomes his fear of a risky cancer operation by recalling in a daydream his bonds of love with his wife, his best friend, his brother. They all appeared to him, their eyes expressing the love they felt for him in return – and more came. “[I]n the end there were more than fifty or sixty of them, crowding into the living room and even into the hall. In this way he had known that his life has been of value to many others and found that it was of value still.”

But how could such revelations come out of the depression I had experienced for decades? For a long time, I could only look back in anger, bitterness or grief at having lost so much of my life to this illness. It all seemed like such a waste. All I could think of was what I had not done, what I had missed doing, never believing that there was any other side to that story.

Somehow all that changed, as I realized that I had shifted at a fundamental level of belief. I was able to look back at depression as a long period of desperate searching to understand what it meant to be human. Of course, everyone doesn’t need to go through prolonged suffering of this sort to find meaning in their lives. But in my case, the only way to stop feeling less than human was to understand what it meant to be fully alive and to believe that I was capable of a “real” life. Depression continually presented one side of that coin. All I really had to do was turn it over.

But for a long time I put tight boundaries around the search for a way out of depression. I kept running rings around my inner self, trying to revive the belief that I could do so much more and escape the paralysis of will. How is it possible, I thought, to keep plodding through this cycle from brief energy to long depression to energy to depression over and over again, like the endless succession of seasons through the years?

I was always trying to heal so that I could write from my deepest self, be happy with my family, feel alive with hope about mastering whatever might come my way. It was mostly about becoming the star of the Me Show, and I was looking at the world as an audience. I could never get free of depression to find that sort of fulfillment.

In another re-reading, I found a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that complemented Remen’s stories.

…[T]he true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. … [B]eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is … . In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Stepping away from the circular pursuit of my inner self was hard to do consciously, but it seemed to happen on its own. I gradually realized, for example, that the purpose of this blog was not limited to my initial idea: self-discovery and, to be honest, praise and recognition – the applause of an audience for an actor. It was also a reaching out to people with stories that might be helpful to them. There was a very different sense of fulfillment in that.

Frankl refers to transcendence of self, but that’s such an ethereal word. I can’t live transcendence, but I can respond to the calls for help I hear so often in the world of blogging – and I can learn much more from others’ stories than I can from journaling my thoughts in solitude. In that exchange of depression’s stories I’ve found meaning I had never grasped before. I’m still at work catching up with Rachel Naomi Remen’s idea of learning what such stories have really been about all along:

We carry with us every story we have ever heard and every story we have ever lived, filed away at some deep place in our memory. We carry most of those stories unread, as it were, until we have grown the capacity or the readiness to read them. When that happens they may come back to us filled with a previously unsuspected meaning. It is almost as if we have been collecting pieces of a greater wisdom, sometimes over many years without knowing.

19 Responses to “Re-Reading the Story of Depression’s Meaning”

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  1. Donna says:

    I read Man’s Search for Meaning 2 or 3 times while in the dreaded depths of depression. What I received from this invaluable little book is the awareness that I have a choice about how I will face each day. How I will face life, the world, my family, my workplace, and myself. Learning how to transcend my own fears and anxieties (linked to depression) was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever faced. It is still difficult, even though I have overcome a great deal in the past 9 yrs. Seeing myself as a part of a greater good, rather than a greater evil, helped propel me into recovery.

    • John says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I keep coming back to Frankl’s book too. There’s such a bedrock truth to it – whether or not you like his formal approach to therapy. Communicating what I’ve learned about dealing with depression gives me that sense of larger purpose.

      Thanks for this comment.


  2. Karen says:

    To Wondering Soul,

    It’s possible that your therapist isn’t the best one for you. Finding another one may seem like a monumental and overwhelming task and it’s easy to stick with the same person. But you have the right to “audition” someone else and make a change if you feel better after therapy than you do now. That said, I’ve not done all that well getting out of therapy relationships just because I thought, my therapist is an expert, therefore her approach must work. You deserve the best treatment and therapist. While it is painful at some phases, therapy is a good way to understand yourself, improve the way you talk to yourself, and deal with daily problems.


  3. Karen says:

    I found the image of the doctor welcoming a little girl into the world “in welcome from all people everywhere” to have some personal healing power, related to our fight to put down our feelings of worthlessness.

    Since the conversation of the environment and overpopulation emerged in the late 60s, I have felt guilty for taking up space and consuming more than my share of the world’s resources. It even makes a case (a poor one, as I consciously realize) for suicide. I mentioned that thought to my psychiatrist last month at a med check and she reassured me that I did have the right to be here. In a way I was saying something exaggerated and something I didn’t really believe, but felt sometimes. But in a way, it’s a feeling I’ve had since childhood. Just hearing another person say, with assurance, that I belonged here felt good.

    So I made it a mantra for the last few days, “I do have the right to live on this earth.” The beauty of the doctor welcoming the child, on behalf of all the world’s residents is something I will hold onto and replay in my head. If one person could welcome one child in that way, I am welcome in the same way.

    These aren’t thoughts I can share with anyone without sounding like a drama queen, so I am glad to have this blog to share them on.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen –

      That’s not being a drama queen. It was a big breakthrough for me too when I first heard these messages about my right as a human being to be alive, to feel good, to make mistakes, etc. I had never considered such a thing, consumed as I was by shame. What you’re saying is true and powerful and beautiful – so why keep it to yourself?

      All my best —


  4. Dear John,

    I wanted to say that I read your comment but for some reason it has felt so hard to respond to… Perhaps because I hear such care and kindness in it… I don’t know about your depression (or whether it IS even part of depression) but I find it very hard to take anything good in… I guess, like your post on ugliness, it feels as though I am not worth anything ‘kind’. Something has to be punitive in order for it to be easily accepted. Perhaps you identify…

    I understand your own ideas about dependency and relying on someone to ‘fix’ you. I find that my problem if anything, is that I don’t really believe that it is possible TO be fixed. I’m not sure whether depression ever really goes away when it is something you have lived with for such a long time and it is woven into a tapestry of hidden feelings and unconscious pain.
    Perhaps though, I am unwittingly speaking from the hopelessness that characterises depression and I have been blinded by it. It is hard to know what to trust at times when you understand that the depressed mind perceives a distorted reality and yet your mind is all you have.
    Frightening really.

    I was touched that you had glimpsed my therapist through my blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to read… Again, it is hard to feel in any way ‘worthy’ of being heard.

    Your caution about leaving therapy is timely.
    I guess that your response knocked me for six partly because of your ‘lecture-like-advice (which, incidentally, coming from you is just fine – much, much appreciated… It’s advice from those who think depression can be cured by making up your mind to be happy that I am frightened of).
    You pre empted something when you wrote about running away from therapy. One of the reasons I had was that which I had asked you about… I have hit on the theory that therapy might be very unhealthy because I am not focussing on others, on the outside.

    I listened to you instead of my mind’s reasons.
    I just hope you are right!

    The You Are Beautiful post was in itself, beautiful.
    And I felt understood, as I think so many have, by your writing.
    When we are depressed, it is as if we absorb the monstrous darkness and ugliness of the depression. I am not worthy. I am vile.
    That is the silent cry of depression.
    Sorry for such a long response. I wanted to say all this before but have just felt unable to do so.

    Many thanks.

    • john says:

      Hello again, Wondering Soul –

      Thank you for taking the time to send such thoughtful, beautiful and very moving words. There is a lot of pain in what you write, but there is also the awareness of depression’s tricks and twisting thoughts. So you don’t trust a lot of what depressed thinking wants you to accept and follow. When I can hear that rebuttal in bad time – that swift kick back at depression even while it’s stretching you on the rack – it gives me a bit of hope when I need it most. What I hear as my better voice, though, is still shaky and not completely convincing. But at least I know I’ve something sane to work with.

      I know too well the vile-unworthy-undeserving cackle. Yet, though I may know as well as you that it’s not true, I still have to fight it every day. So I like what you say about that “silent cry” – “it is as if we absorb the monstrous darkness…” It’s not real but it’s as if it were.

      I’m so glad that something I said helped support the healing part of your mind. Of course, you’re not just following advice of mine about therapy or anything else. You know what works for you and have plenty of savvy to see through depressive rationalizing or just plain fear disguised as irrefutable logic.

      You’re a kind soul – all love to you in such a hard time.


  5. Thanks so much for your patience.
    Your reply made me think.
    I need to find the post where you talked about therapy…
    I have no intention of becoming dependent on anyone or any thing., In fact, it is the thing that frightens me the most. Perhaps because I suspect that it is not healthy.
    I have only been in therapy for a few months so I don’t really know much apart from the fact that it often feels like agony. To her credit, she has maintained that this process will get me better and that it is possible.
    It’s me that can’t believe that.

    I will bear in mind the context within which you write.
    It’s so good to hear the perspectives of somebody who has been there and got out alive.

    Thank you.

    • john says:

      Definitely keep my context in mind – we’re at such different moments in dealing with this. You’re a younger woman new to therapy, while I’m an older man who’s gone through lots of it. The aspect of dependency that has been the most trouble has been in my mind – my own expectation that some one or some thing would fix depression for me. Some therapy does encourage that, though mostly unintentionally. Your therapist sounds very good – through the glimpses I get in your comments and on your blog. My biggest caution is to watch out for the impulse to run from it. When therapy is new, and it starts tapping into the hard stuff – there is agony, fear, nightmares – all of which is good because things are breaking out of wherever they’re imprisoned – and the mind creates some great reasons for stopping the whole thing. Don’t listen – just keep at it.

      Of course you don’t believe you can get better through therapy – probably through anything else. You’re depressed! And depression takes control of your belief about yourself. Just note that down as another symptom.

      Sorry, no more lecture-like advice. Just take care. You are wondering and wonderful. (I have a post with a title You Are So Beautiful – check that out.)


  6. I can only say ‘oh my goodness’…
    Some of the thoughts here, the ideas… they are things that on one level I know, in a peripheral kind of way, and on another level, I am trying to shut my mind to because it all feels too impossible.

    My greatest fear having been kicked in the guts by this is… (hope you don’t mind me voicing this…?)
    I don’t get where therapy fits in…
    I have suspected (feared?) recently that the journey into ‘me’ through therapy may actually be unhealthy… in the sense that I should be looking outwards perhaps, rather than inwards.
    The idea of self trascendence preceeding selfactualisation is one which resonates… I believe that this can be the only way to real peace and joy… Serving others seems to be the greatest way to be in relatinship with others and ourselves.
    BUT. Where does that leave the role of therapy? And where does it leave us when depression’s needle is draining the energy it would take to lift our heads?

    I’m not sure I’ve made a whole lot of sense… Sorry! I’m honestly NOT trying to take over your blog (though it must seem like it). I am genuinely inspired by your writing and desperately looking for answers to the paradoxes surrounding depression.

    Many thanks for, again, making me think and for somehow presenting such great ideas in such a well constructed, thoughtful manner.

    • john says:

      Hi, WS –

      You make perfect sense – and that’s an interesting point about therapy. I guess I’ve worked with a dozen or so therapists over a great many years, and I have no doubt that the many insights I gained from the best of them have helped me deal with depression in many ways. But the other side of it is that most of them, whether consciously or not, assume you’re going to need almost endless treatment and bring about a dependence on their role. Too much compassion and understanding may not always be the best approach. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, none of them ever tried to convince me to take charge of treatment or even to tell me that I could really recover. So there have been good and bad influences in therapy.

      And there’s no getting around that “needle” draining out all energy. Whatever I say these days needs to be put into the context of literally decades of trying and failing to make any headway at all. Turning things around is part will and belief, and part mystery.

      Thank you for this great comment.


  7. Dear John,
    A truly great post! I, too, struggled for so many years with depression, and came to some of the same conclusions you did.

    And, my blog has also evolved. My initial purpose was to share what I know to help others. But, then I would get depressed and be unable to write, and feel like a “fake” because it would seem like every skill I had developed to help with my depressions would disappear during the worst periods.

    But, the feedback I got from my readers was always so supportive. And they felt that even if if I did get depressed, what I knew still helped them. And, I found that so heartening!

    These days, I alternate between providing advice I think will help, writing pieces on a range of subjects that interest me, and sharing information.

    P.S. I’ve read other books by Dr. Remen–and skimmed this one at a bookstore–but I’ll have to read it in its entirety. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • john says:

      Hi, Susan –

      Thank you. I know what you mean about losing touch with all the skills to ward off depression when it hits hard. And I can’t tell you how often I used to be completely shut down about writing – one of the worst and longest-lasting problems I’ve had to deal with. I’m so glad you’ve been able to come back more than once – a testament to your inner resilience – and share your wonderful insights. Whatever the subject, your writing always brings out something new that had passed me by until that moment. I’m always learning from you.

      Thank you so much!


  8. Anonymous says:

    There seems to be a surge in the collective emotional currents toward recognizing that depression has a positive facet amidst its many negatives. Over and over I come across blogs, and programs, and conversations, where people who have suffered low moods are now realizing how much the experience of suffering has deepened and added texture to their understanding of the human condition. They see beauty in events that were once understood as simple tragedy. They see wisdom in moods that once seemed to be obstacles and disabilities.

    I am not sure why this is happening. Obviously, all of us blogging and writing (here is a post I wrote with similar sentiments), are spreading the message. It may also be that there are deeper forces at work, a kind of reawakening of the human spirit to the fact that life is not only about joy and sunshine. That sadness and dark weather are equally valuable, and necessary to becoming a wise and fulfilled person. Our media and our materialist culture have made us buy into (literally) the idea that only by having and ‘being’ more and more can we find any value in our lives. Not true. Sometimes owning less, being less concerned about success and ‘happiness’, and diminishing our expectations are the best ways to relate to ourselves and others. And the best paths toward enlightenment.

    It is nice to come across writing and messages such as yours.

    • john says:

      Thank you so much for this wonderfully thoughtful comment – and for the chance to get to know you and explore your blog.

      There is an interesting book about this phenomenon of finding deeper meaning in major, chronic depression. David Karp’s Speaking of Sadness is based on interviews with dozens of people with long-term depression, and he notes that many develop a spiritual sense of their experience. This tends to happen after some years, when it is clear that the condition is not going away, and they are trying to come to terms with it as part of their lives. I don’t know if this is new or just something that more people are willing to talk about these days.

      You’ve offered a great deal to think about, and I look forward to getting to know your writing.


  9. Wendy Love says:

    Wow! This is my first time to your blog, but it is the best time for me to drop in. That story was just what I needed to hear today. I will have to pick up a copy of that book. I too an a writer/artist/bipolar who is trying to make a winning combination out of those three things. Keep up the wonderful work! I will be back.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Wendy –

      I’m glad you could come by. I know you’ll be moved and inspired by the book. I’ve just ordered another one of hers and will write about it soon.


  10. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    I think what Frankl means by self-transendance is what you have been doing – attending to the bigger story of others, and so being part of something bigger/higher than yourself.

    My way of saying it is: health is a kind of self-forgetfulness. (Not the kind of self-preoccupation where we give ourselves marks for not being selfish (I grew up in Evangelical Christianity) but of being absorbed and attentive).

    Thanks for a great post.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Evan –

      That’s a great definition of health. It captures so much in a couple of words – brilliant! Of course, I have a way to go before getting there, but I’m a lot farther along this year than ever before.

      If anyone fits the self-transcendence definition, it’s certainly you.

      All my best — John

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