Stories can be an immediate and moving way to learn about someone because they evoke the feelings and experience that factual details never can. When told with honesty and sincerity, a story helps establish a bond of trust because the teller has been willing to open such personal insight to the listener. For me, certain stories have served another purpose even more vital than forming connections with other people.
Those are the stories I tell myself to explain depression in my life: what it is, how I can live with it, what I can hope for in the future. Like stories told to friends, they connect with feeling and belief instead of rational analysis. Without the story I would feel lost in a chaos of uncontrollable and destructive forces. I’ve told many different stories, but each one has reflected what I felt and believed at the time. Each one has given meaning to emotional pain, whether a hopeful meaning or a bleak one.
There is another purpose for these stories, though. Seeing myself as playing roles in the context of treatment helps me understand the assumptions I’m making about myself, depression and the possibility of a recovery. It’s too easy to go along with therapies passively without this awareness, yet each approach to treatment is making those assumptions for me.
There can also be a downside to stories. It’s the danger that I’ll cling to one at all costs because it’s the one I want to believe, the one that I demand be absolutely true. Once I have this way of explaining what I’m going through, I don’t want to listen to a new one. It’s hard to accept any evidence or alternative stories that would change the character and plot I’ve created for myself. I’m afraid to let go of it.
Please understand that in talking about stories and playing different roles I don’t mean to say they can be taken up or tossed aside at will. Being able to make sense of depression is vitally important, and I don’t use the word “vital” loosely. The story metaphor is my way of thinking about the deadly serious efforts I’ve made to stay alive.
The story metaphor helps in another way by turning depression itself into a character. At first, I was depression, and the story was pure stream of consciousness, all in my head. But as I grew more aware and hopeful, depression and its allies split off as separate characters. Instead of attacking myself in an internal drama, I was attacking them. It was an empowering way of thinking about what I was going through.
Here are a few of those stories I told myself when depression and I were one. Even these were a form of support, a terribly negative one, simply because they gave me a way to explain what was happening.
The Con Artist: I’m a fraud and deceive people into thinking I’m smarter and more accomplished than I really am. I’m ashamed, anxious, depressed much of the time, but everyone thinks I’m on top of the world, relaxed and calm, sure to succeed at whatever I do. I’ve tricked them all.
The Prisoner: I’m trapped in a career, marriage, place that have made me miserable. My plan of escape will give me back the freedom to find a new life and start over. I know that everything will be fine as soon as I can get out. That’s the answer to all my problems.
The Loser: I know I can’t do anything right, that I’m bound to ruin everything, that I’m worthless. If I were a stronger person, I could control my feelings and get rid of this misery. But I can’t, and it’s all I deserve anyway. I should just die.
Jekyll and Hyde: I have a monster within that has to be kept in chains. If he escapes, he’ll take me over and destroy everything. I live in fear that he’ll break out, and so I have to keep every feeling in check. Releasing powerful emotions is the first step in losing control of his destructive power.
Once I became aware of the full impact of depression in shaping my life, I tried several forms of treatment. Each one helped in some way but also had a limiting effect in how I thought of myself and my ability to live without dependence on external help. I realized I would never recover fully unless I integrated the therapies to support my own idea of a new life free of the illness.
The succession of “roles” reflected a changing self-concept, as I became more independent of the limitations of any single approach to ending depression.
The Son Shaped by the Past: I’m living today as a captive of childhood experience. As I tried to survive the tensions and dysfunctions within my family, I devised patterns of behaving and controlling my emotions that still dominate my behavior. I need to work with a psychiatrist or other therapist over many years to free myself from these patterns. Recovery means ending their influence in my life.
The Medical Patient: Depression is a mental disorder rooted in neurochemical changes in the brain that can be treated effectively with medication. There’s nothing I can do about that on my own. I need to take antidepressants, probably for the rest of my life. I’m not going to get rid of the illness completely, but I can look forward to ending symptoms and stopping medication. I’ll be under continuing care, however, to be sure I remain alert to the first signs of relapse. If medication or other treatments, like electroconvulsive therapy don’t work, I won’t have much hope for the future.
The Warrior/Activist: The therapies won’t work by themselves unless I am the active, leading partner in using them. As proved to be true in fighting cancer, my own determination, energy and hopefulness give each treatment a much greater chance of success. I have to stay in shape, mentally and emotionally, to make the use of each weapon in my arsenal. I’m fighting to win and will defeat depression.
The Spiritual Searcher: Ending depression is only one part of a much larger spiritual change I’m seeking. As I become more mindful of each moment, I can experience a different dimension of being. Living with continuing experience of that dimension, I gain a detachment from depression which makes that form of pain somehow irrelevant. Its control of my feelings and mind disappears.
The New Man: I’m not only in recovery, becoming “me” again. I am living a new life, and, to some extent, am becoming a new man. The old “me” never lived completely free of depression, and now for the first time since my early years I can find a fulfilling life apart from its influence. I am learning the skills of wellness in the here and now, not just those of preventing relapse into the past.
These are a few of the true stories that have helped me separate depression from my inmost life. As I’ve said many times, there was no straight line from illness to well-being. I went round and round before a decisive change occurred. But there was always a role to make sense out of chaotic feelings, even if the role was that of a drowning person. I doubt we could live without some way of explaining who we are.
How have you defined yourself in dealing with depression?
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