John’s Recovery Story


A recovery story is a messy thing. It has dozens of beginnings and no final ending. Most of the conflict and drama is internal, and there’s a lot more inaction than action. The lead character hides in the shadows much of the time, so you can’t even see what’s going on.

I joined up with depression around the age of 8. There are snapshots of me in the shabby brown jacket I liked to wear. My mom took beautiful photographs, and there are lots of me in moody shadows, looking as down as could be.

She had her own depression to worry about. My typical memory of her from that time brings back a couch-bound, often napping, mother. She explained her sleep problem as a condition she called knockophasia – a term I’ve never been able to find in any dictionary. A few minutes after lying down, snap! Sound asleep.

No one mentioned strange emotional problems or mental illness in those days. My parents occasionally talked about someone having a nervous breakdown as if they had died. There was no hint of a need to get help for my mother, much less for me. No one worried about me since I was a star in school, self-contained and impressive to teachers for being so mature, so adult.

Migraine headaches started then, and increasingly intense anxiety about school. I missed many days, felt shame as if I were faking, and obsessed over every one of my failings. I spent long hours alone in my room.

Through my teenage years, depression went underground. Feelings were dangerous. There were too many angry and violent ones shaking the house for me to add to them. So I kept emotion under wraps, even more so than in childhood. Nothing phased me outside the house and even at home I showed almost no sign of reaction to anything, even while churning with fear and anguish.

It was in my 20s that I broke open, and streams of depression, fear, panic, obsessive love and anger flowed out. In response to a panic attack that lasted for a week, I saw a psychiatrist. In one marathon session of 3 hours he helped me put the panic together with frightening episodes from my family life. I was cured on the spot but never went back to him. It was too soon to do any more.

It took another crisis a few years later to get me back to a psychiatrist and my first experience with medication – Elavil. But I had no idea what it was. I took something in the morning to get me going and something at night to help me sleep. I took it short term, got through the crisis but continued in therapy. From there I was steadily seeing psychiatrists in various cities for the next 8 years. But no one mentioned depression.

I first saw the word applied to my condition in a letter one psychiatrist wrote to the draft board during the Vietnam era. But I wasn’t treated for that problem. Therapy in those days was still in the Freudian tradition, and it was all about family life and conflict. Depression was a springboard for going deeper. Digging up the past to understand present problems was a tremendous help, and it changed me in many ways.

But depression was still there in various forms, reappearing regularly for the next couple of decades. There were wonderfully happy and successful times as well, but I had these ups and downs through marriage, children and a couple of careers.

Gradually, depression became so disruptive that my wife couldn’t take it anymore and demanded I get help. So I finally did. This was the 1990s. Prozac had arrived, and I started a tour of medication over the next dozen years that didn’t do much at all. Nor did therapy, though two psychiatrists helped me to understand the more destructive patterns in my way of living.

Depression pushed into every corner of my existence, and both work and family life became more and more difficult. The medications only seemed to deaden my feelings and make me feel detached from everyone and immune to every pressure. It was like having pain signals turned off. There was no longer any sign coming from my body or brain that something might be wrong. I felt “fine” but relationships and work still went to hell.

The strange thing was that after all these years of living with it, I didn’t know very much about depression. I thought it was entirely a problem of depressed mood and loss of the energy and motivation I needed to do anything. As things got worse, I finally started to read about it in great depth.

I was amazed to learn the full scope of depression and how pervasive it could be throughout the mind and body. I finally had a coherent, comprehensive picture of what depression was.

That was a big step because I could at last imagine the possibility of getting better. I could see that I wasn’t worthless by nature, that there were reasons my mind had trouble focusing and that the frequent slowdown in my speech and thinking was also rooted in this illness. Perhaps the right treatment could bring about fundamental changes after all.

There were still traps ahead, though. I became obsessed with the idea of depression as a brain disease. I studied all the forms of depression, the neurobiology and endless research studies. That was a good thing to do, but after awhile I was looking more at “Depression” than the details of my own version of the illness.

I wondered how many diagnostic categories I fitted into. For sure I had one or more of the anxiety disorders. Perhaps I fit into bipolar II instead of major depressive disorder. What about dissociation? I read the research study findings as if they were announcing my fate.

It was comforting to know I had a “real” disease. Not only could I answer any naysayers about the reality of depression. I also had a weapon to fight my internalized stigma, the lingering doubt that anything was wrong with me. I used to think that maybe I really was using the illness as a way to avoid life and cover up my own weakness. Here was proof that depression wasn’t all in my imagination but in my brain chemistry.

Neurobiology was far beyond my control. I couldn’t recover by myself. Doctors had to cure me through medication or other treatments, like ECT. However, that meant my hopes were pinned on them, not on my own role in getting better.

When the treatments failed to work, I got desperate that there would never be an end to depression. Hope in the future fell apart. My life would continue to run down. Could it even lead to suicide, as it had for friends of mine?

Fortunately, as I learned more, I listened to the experts who had a much broader view of the causes of the illness. Peter Kramer’s overview of research in Against Depression made it clear to me that contributors to the illness could include genetic inheritance, family history, traumatic events and stress as well as the misfiring of multiple body systems. No one could point to a single cause or boil it down to a few neurotransmitters.

So I went back to basics and looked much more closely at the particular symptoms I faced. I tracked the details in everyday living and saw that I needed to take the lead in recovery. Medication – when it had any effect at all – played a modest role in taking the edge off the worst symptoms. That bit of relief gave me the energy and presence of mind to work on the emotional and relationship impacts, to try to straighten out the parts of my life I had some control over.

I was determined to stop the waste of life in depression. I got back into psychotherapy and tried many types of self-help as well. Many didn’t work at all, but something inside pushed me to keep trying, despite setbacks.

One of the most important efforts was writing about my experience with depression. Writing is one way I discover things, but a deep fear had blocked me from doing it for years. I can see now that the real reason I got stuck was that I had been trying to write about everything but depression. When I could finally take that on directly, writing came naturally.

Blogging turned out to be the right medium. It was manageable even when I was down. The online community of people who lived with depression gave me a form of support that I had never had before.

Another decisive step was getting out of high-stress work that I had been less and less able to do effectively. Taking that constant burden away restored a deep sense of vitality.

After all this, recovery finally started to happen. It took me by surprise, and for a long time I didn’t trust that it would last. But something had changed deep down. I believed in myself again, and the inner conviction of worthlessness disappeared.

I had found a deeply satisfying purpose in writing, as well as the energy and humor to do what I wanted to do. I regained the awareness and emotional presence to be a part of my family again, instead of the hidden husband and dad.

As anyone dealing with life-long depression will tell you, setbacks happen. There’s no simple happy ending. But if you’re lucky, an inner shift occurs, and the new normal is a decent life rather than depression.

Image by jtravism at Flickr

21 Responses to “John’s Recovery Story”

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  1. Rahul says:

    Thank you for beautiful writing John.

  2. Eloïse says:

    Dear John,

    Just thank you. Because here I am at 63, another Spring, another crash.

    I am sheepish not to have stumbled upon you before because, like so many, I feel as if I’ve cornered the market in depression approaches and experiences.

    I too have been coming around to the notion of acceptance, mostly because it feels like the only path once one has emerged and fallen in so many times. And that is how I’ve found you. I have become increasingly interested in the trajectory of a life dogged by depression as I weary of reading that depression is something that either purely IS or purely ISN’T. It is profoundly clear to me that the depression I am experiencing at 63 is different than the one I experienced at, say, 23 and that it is both better and lesser for all the things I’ve tried and worse and greater for its continuing reappearance.

    And so my gratitude for the clarity of your writing, its no-crap trappings-free style, and — more than anything else — for being on in years and continuing to face this thing that holds so much potential hostage. Thank you for lighting the way.

  3. Robert says:

    Dear John,

    I was an only child raised by a single parent. My mother was as they say “right off the boat” and had no skills, social or vocational! As a result my childhood was a constant struggle that always left me shame-based and wanting. Being very shame-based by obscene poverty and an illiterate mother, I was always afraid of what others would think so I nurtured no friendships, never had anyone over, barely dated and when I did, I was careful never to be authentic or truly reveal my living situation.
    It is only after I got a lucky break and entered the I.T. field (at its infancy) at 26 that I started earning enough money to afford my own things, personal space and relief from the angst of always feeling powerless and vulnerable.
    This income allowed me to seek therapy, medication, etc. And when that didn’t work for me, I shifted gears and started participating in personal development and growth programs, Alon-on, Anthony Robbins workshops, the landmark forum (formally known as est.) reading the Bible, becoming a student of A Course in Miracles and a never-ending succession of John Bradshaw (pioneered the inner child paradigm) workshops and lectures.
    John, family of origin dysfunction breeds in us much shame. Some of us gravitate to the classic strategy called the high-side of shame; good marks in school, model social behavior and college degrees in order to offset how we really feel about ourselves inside. Others succumb to the Low-side of shame; delinquency, crime, and our own replication of the family dysfunction in our own families! In relationships I was always trying to validate my self-worth, mostly by gravitating to even more damaged people; hoping to win their love and affection, to sort of redeem myself IF I could only fix them….
    Sadly, on several occasions that I came across these same people 30 years later, I witnessed that they had regressed back to the dysfunction of origin, in a nutshell; I had no significant impact on them what so ever!!! It is only after witnessing this 30 years later that I’ve concluded;
    no one can save anyone, only by the Grace of God, if some are intuitive and wise enough to seek his help!
    Although I achieved a moderate degree of academic and financial success, I always carried the “shame” in the form of a low-grade constant depression. It affected all my relationships, both with men and women! It also has a genetic marker; my mother was constantly depressed and was on medication for years. Enlightenment and wisdom about “who I am” and “why I am the way I am” has come late in life and at a very high price-tag. Thank you for your website and your insight, God Bless you!!!!!!

  4. Robert says:

    Dear John,

    Only today have I stumbled onto your site and have already felt compelled to submit 3 entries.
    Your story of recovery is very poignant and truthful, so much so, that it can ignite a healing spark in others, alas we all share many parallels.

    I was an only child raised by a single parent. My mother was as they say “right off the boat” and had no skills, social or vocational! As a result my childhood was a constant struggle that always left me wanting….
    Being very shame-based by obscene poverty and an illiterate mother, I was always afraid of what others would think so I nurtured no friendships, Never had anyone over, barely dated and when I did; I was careful never to be authentic.

    It is only after I got a lucky break and entered the I.T. field (at it’s infancy)at 26 that I started earning enough money to afford my own things, spaces and relief from the angst of always feeling powerless.

    This income allowed me to seek therapy, medication, etc. And when that didn’t work for me, I shifted gears and started participating in personal development and growth programs, Alon-on, Anthony Robbins, the landmark forum (formally known as est) reading the bible, becoming a student of A Course in Miracles and a never-ending succession of John Bradshaw workshops and lectures..LOL

    John, family of origin dysfunction breeds in us much shame. Some of us gravitate to the high-side of shame; good marks in school, model social behavior and college degrees in order to offset how we really feel about ourselves inside. Others succumb to the Low-side of shame; delinquency, crime, and our own replication of dysfunction in our own families. In relationships I was always trying to validate my self-worth, mostly by gravitating to even more damaged people; hoping to win their love and affection IF I fixed them….

    For the most part; I like you, was on the high-side of shame.

    Although I achieved a moderate degree of financial success, I always carried the “shame” in the form of a low-grade constant depression, It affected all my relationships!! It is also genetic, my mother was constantly depressed and was on medication for years.
    Enlightenment and wisdom about “who I am” and “why I am the way I am”has come late in life and at a very high price-tag…..

    Thank you sir for your website and your insight, God Bless you!!!!!!


  5. Sally says:

    John, I feel our stories are very similar – particularly the sleeping mother! Mine was always going to bed with a book for a ‘bit of peace and quiet’. And, of course, I had to try very hard not to be that sleeping mother when my children were young. Not easy! I have been up and down, tried psychotherapy, medication (the small dose of ssri’s I currently take keeps me on an even-ish keel) but over and above all else, that sense of purpose is the crux of the matter. For the last 18 months I have been writing a novel and when it was going well I felt in control and ‘normal’, when I started to fall apart, of course, the novel fell apart. Maybe I was expecting too much of myself. ‘If only I can achieve X then I can prove to myself that I’m normal’.
    At the moment I am in a bad place and fishing around frantically for the passing flotsam to keep me afloat. Same old, same old; religion, exercise, new business, conquer world etc. I’m sure I’ll lay hand s on something…
    I’m glad you found it in your writing and I think that your example is the most important aspect of this very helpful blog. Thanks!

  6. Camille says:

    Excitotoxins, Monosodium Glutimate, (L-cystine in bread) when removed from the food eaten will cure you from and is the cause of depression. Let me repeat that and shout it from the rooftops to everyone on the planet … When you quit eating food with monosodium glutamate, you will no longer have depression. QUIT EATING EXCITOTOXINS AND YOU WILL WIN THE BATTLE WITH DEPRESSION!!! I lived with chronic headaches until I was 48 1/2 years old, which caused me a lifetime of depression. When I finally quit monosodium glutamate I was cured of headaches. I still had some depression and sleeping depression, then I learned about vitamin D3. The books say they don’t know if vitamin D3 deficiency causes depression or depression causes vitamin D deficiency, either way it goes hand-in-hand. This one little pill saved my life, brought me back from the brink of death. I take 2000 international units a day, IU, without fail, if I miss my vitamin D3 I’m back to sleeping again. The other thing I learned is that I am gluten sensitive, I don’t have celiac disease but gluten affects me in the way that I will sleep all day, so I avoid gluten, huge help. One other amazing thing that I learned once getting monosodium glutamate out of my system, is that it had me addicted to food, I was ravenous all the time could not get satiated from food. I started researching what was the monosodium glutamate doing to my body, it put sores on my hypothalamus, the job of the hypothalamus is to create your eight major Harmones!!! There’s a lot more, too much to write here, I tell people to study, research for yourself, once one has learned about this you don’t want to eat this poison anymore.

  7. Pat says:

    Great writing…helpful as the noonday demon had been wrestling with me for the last week…unable to do anything…but broke through this morning and booked a vacation to Hawaii…definitely helps lift the spirit…been a depressive since my teens (64 years old) but have pretty much kept depression manageable…long story, of course…your writing is very authentic about the struggle…thanks

  8. Donna says:

    John…thank you for sharing your story and for the rich information contained in the articles in your blog. I have battled chronic depression and PTSD for more than 20 years now and only recently came into awareness that writing would be a creative way for me to express myself. Actually, I’ve known it for years now but every time I thought about it, or sat down to actually do it, I experienced a sort of “protection mechanism” from pain taking over. My mind would insist that I write about something else, anything else, other than depression. Deep down, I know it is time that I finally write about my life. The great news is that after reading your story, I actually felt a lift in my spirit! Here was someone whose story, in many ways, mirrored my own and I am extremely encouraged to know that I am not alone. Thank you!

  9. BIGFOOT says:

    Hey John, and All,

    I was hopping that by the time I finished your story, there could be a happy ending. I though that finally I might have hope of finding a cure. Glad to know that you stumble on the management therapy of writing.

    Mine story, is as old as yours. I got depression at 16 after dad died. I never knew what it was but my folks figured out. So, what they did scared the hell out of me. They took me into a psychiatric clinic, adjoining a metal health facility. In my imagination, and because of my young age, I thought I was very close to going insane. So, I made it very easy and refuse to explain exactly what I was feeling, just so that I may not be admitted (I now do not think they meant to) I was given sleeping tablets and told not to worry.

    Anyway, I vowed that from that time, I would have to battle it alone afraid of being locked up in a mental health facility. Over the years, it took toll on all my life. My studies, personal relationship, work etc. But I kept searching and searching about the disease. I would read one self-improvement book after another. But no book ever gave me an answer-until i dubbed in Christian Science are read the works of Dr. Ernest Holmes, The Science of the Mind. I also read Napoleon Hill’s book, ” Think and Grow Rich”

    These two boos, although they do not tell you what the mind is, they suggest how the mind works. These are the ones that helped me to figure out what exactly is “The Human Mind” Once you understand what the human mind, you will also know how to control yourself and protect yourselves from negative energies that trigger depression.

    One thing you need to understand is that this is not a knowledge you can get from out there. No expert is yet to figure it all and that’s why nobody can help much.

    The thing is, the Mind of Man, is a law differentiated. The brain, act as a “housing” or the “hardware” of a computer. The Mind, is to the brain, what a computer program is to its hardware. And just as the soft-ware is different from the hardware, so is the brain and the mind.

    This mind, as a law, is a self-programing software. It programs itself through conscious experiences and hereditary. There are programs which we have inherited from our parents, which are “locked up” in the brain, and become activated unconsciously. There are also programs which are imparted in our by the environment through experiences. And lastly, there are programs which we deliberately impart in ourselves by entertaining certain thoughts.

    The Human mind, is divided in to three main hemispheres each with a distinct, and differentiated function, influencing differentiated behavioral tendencies, but expressing the same mind, which is the individuated law . There is the frontal robe, or the Cerebral Cortex, then there is the inner brain, or the Limbic System, and lastly, we have the Brain Stem, or R/Complex or the reptilian brain. Each of these areas of the brain, influence different behavioral tendencies in human beings expressing the state of the Mind, which is the activation, of the differentiated Universal in Man, expressing itself as the “Human Mind”

    This, Law, is the Law of God. The Law of Trinity! The Law is first Intelligent and self-controlling. In this state, the Law is a conscious Law. Its your thoughts! The Law, then becomes spontaneously subjective. In this state, the Law, is a subconscious Law. Its emotive, and creative law. Lastly, the Law becomes spontaneously manifesting. The Law, is an unconscious Law. Its your behavioral character, your tendencies, your instincts.

    In all these states, its the Same Law and Same Mind. This differentiated law express a differentiated character in a person. “Me, Myself, and I” “Me” The person whom I have made myself to be. Your real you. “Myself” The Person I am making in me” This varies every now and then according to our whims, which basically are emotions. Lastly there is “I” The Logos, or the reasoning being. The “I” most of the times, is disrupted by the me, and myself. The contradictions between the three states creation contradictory character, which leads to conflict with yourself and others.

    Contradiction between reality and logos, also leads to conflict within the personality. The balance requires that we seek harmony withing ourselves by seeking to agree, the logos, with the other two.


    If the Son Sets You Free, you are free indeed. If the Logos sets you free, you are free indeed.

  10. Jake says:

    Hi John
    Did you have major issue within your relationship with your wife?? Did you feel like running and ending things as in your marriage?

  11. gautam kumar says:

    Help me i m 22yrs depressed boy dealing with all such problems

    • BIGFOOT says:

      Hey Gautam

      Been there felt that.

      Now in my late 40s, am reawakening my consciousness to understand reality better and find a fulfillment in life.

      What you need to understand is that the reality we live with is contradictory in nature. There is what we are made to believe is best for us, but there comes disappointment when these goals, are not fulfilled, or are fulfilled and yet they fail to satisfy. There is this urge to compete with others, and there is also an inner need to seek harmony with others. There is what we expect of ourselves, and there is what society expects from us. There are inner fears of lack, and there is the inner feeling of emptiness even when we have plenty. There is our desire to control people and the inner need to be loved. There is the desire for people to appreciate you, and there is an inner desire co manipulate them.

      All these conflicting issues create inner turmoils.

      Need some tips in dealing with all this”

      (1) If you want to change people, change yourself first.
      (2) Nobody is responsible for anybodies happiness. Conversely nobody is responsible for anybodies unhappiness either. You do not have to be angry just because someone has upset you. A man is a fool who cannot get angry, but he is wise who will not get angry.
      (3) “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature”.( Marcus Aurelius )

      (4) “Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life.” Marcus Aurelius

      (5) “A man, is rich to the proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”. Henry David Thoreau ( And conversely, he is poor in proportion to the number of things he can’t afford to let alone: Peter)

      (6) Life is a movie, where you are called to play all the roles. (Script writer, director, actor, and audience)
      (7) No body is perfect, so do not be hard on yourself

      (8) Seek God, and you will find eternity.

      (9) Be brave but humble, your mistakes are your lessons, your victories are your joys.
      (10) Its a mean world out there, take care. But still there is good too.

  12. MJ says:

    THANK YOU! Thank you for sharing and blogging – you are helping people. I see so much of myself in your story – miserable relatives, depressed mom, family where depression and alcoholism were covered up or excused, worried and lonely little kid, the breakdown/breakthrough in my 20s when I couldn’t hold in the pain or take the family’s blame (the story is they are all perfect, and victims of the cruel world who deserve to drink and behave poorly whenever they wish, and I’m the lone icky, shameful depressive).

    I’m much better now at 42 but in a stressful job I dislike that brings me tremendous despair (I entered the field to prove to my family that I wasn’t the “dud” they said I was – apparently only lawyers and doctors are not “duds”). I know that I have to change the job to really fix my life – there are only so many hours of shit that a person can take in this one life we get.

    Keep writing, please – you are helping so many of us, at the very least helping us to know we aren’t alone.

  13. Tim says:

    Your story is very inspiring! I am in my early 40’s and have suffered with recurrent depression since I was 20. I finally sought treatment in the middle of my Emergency Medicine residency in the form of talk therapy and medications. I have mainly depended on Zoloft the past 10 years which has helped immensely. Your story of getting out of your high stress job has got me thinking of coming up with a career change. Thanks for a great web site!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Tim –

      I know how risky a move it can be to leave a high stress job, but I realized that I wouldn’t survive long if I tried to stay. I wish you well – and hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did to cut down the stress.


  14. DanV says:

    Hi John

    Just wanted to leave a thanks for the story. I am currently out of the black hole, but it has been a rough journey here, and I am quietly determined not to go back. You’re absolutely right that hearing other people’s stories is a major help. I’m even thinking of trying to write it all out of my head as well…

    thanks again


    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, DanV –

      I’m glad you’re out of the black hole – and I encourage you to write that story. It will likely help you as well as others who have a chance to read it.

      Thanks for commenting.


    • BIGFOOT says:

      Hey Dan,

      Writing is really helpful. Its like talking it out. May be writing and talking are different. But to mention a scary moment, the other day, I just snapped! I had taken a lot of emotional whipping from my borderline wife. Then, I started giving her, her history of emotional abuse. My, It was like I was reliving every scene. By the time I got finished I could not bring myself to talking anymore with her. It was nightmarish. Am yet to get it over. Yet, am very reserved in nature. Writing helps, I know, I know.

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