I moved a lot, even from country to country, but soon learned that the escape was merely temporary. My old self was following wherever I went, but moving about and keeping my mind occupied helped to keep the demons of the past at bay.
By my mid-sixties I had lived and worked in ten countries and done short term work in a few more. While my nomadic lifestyle was modestly effective in reducing my negative outlook on life, my basic mind-set stayed more or less the same into my early thirties.
My latent insecurity and the occasional mires of sadness, the wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness were just part of who I was, to be suffered as others suffer from recurring migraine. It never occurred to me that there was anything I could do to change it.
It was not before I had turned forty that I recognized my emotional troughs as depression and I began reading self-help literature. The book Healing the Child Within by Charles L. Whitfield, helped me understand how my past has influenced my present.
I was still far from doing anything about it until, one time the depression hit so hard that I thought I would go crazy.
We, (wife, newly born daughter, and myself) were cooped up in my mothers apartment for over a year, surviving on odd jobs and the dole. I came down with an illness that was (mis)diagnosed as Colitis ulcerosa, an incurable chronic disease of the large intestine. My whole future seemed in tatters.
Among the techniques described in the self-help literature, meditation seemed to me the most plausible because it aimed at something that I was already pretty good at doing, namely focusing inward. Whereas my normal withdrawal was invariably associated with emotional suffering, meditation offered a near instant escape from the torment by reaching refuge in a state of deep relaxation.
Meditation and physical exercise helped me cope in this difficult period and during subsequent bouts with depression.
My affliction with Colitis ulcerosa eventually turned out to be treatable amoebic dysentery, which was cured within a week. A job offer materialized soon after. The future looked bright again.
Three Breaks and How They Helped
The first substantial change in my outlook on life happened when – in my late twenties – I met my wife.
Orphaned early on in life she had grown up as the Cinderella in a large family of distant relatives. We both badly needed emotional security and a place to belong and this is what we have now provided each other for nearly 40 years.
The wedding marked the beginning of the second phase in my healing process. With each year that the relationship lasted, I regained some belief in the existence of unconditional love and commitment.
The second break came when I secured admission and a full scholarship to a top university in my field of studies. I was already in my late thirties when I graduated with an MSc degree, but as I had acquired considerable prior practical experience, this was no disadvantage for my career.
I gained a professional reputation through my technical publications and my work in many challenging and interesting assignments. I was lucky in that I did not have to market and sell myself in job-interviews.
While I rose to the challenge in every job I held, I remained uneasy in meetings and face to face interactions, afraid of being uncovered as a fraud, and I had a tendency to clam up or become inarticulate in front of perceived authority.
The third break came with the birth of our daughter who has been a source of joy and pride ever since. Endowed with a quick mind and a solid set of values she has done very well in her studies. Now that she is carving out her own niche in life, our relationship is based on mutual love and respect for one another.
During this third phase of my healing process I gained confidence in my abilities as a care giver. Moreover, throughout my daughter’s childhood, we were the happy family in the cozy house of my childhood dream.
Where am I now?
My last truly debilitating bout with depression happened about ten years ago during a difficult period between jobs. I felt unable to keep up the front of being the strong head of the family. Sobbing uncontrollably in front of my flabbergasted wife, I experienced a complete and utter breakdown and sought medical help for the first time in my life.
The mere act of consulting a doctor brought immediate relief. He prescribed Zoloft. It was the first time I had taken anti-depressants, but it had no effect whatsoever. Rigorous exercise and renewed attempts at meditation helped me over the hump.
The worst of this depression episode was over in a month or so, by which time I had also stopped taking the Zoloft. Nothing even resembling the intensity of this experience has happened since, but short duration and comparatively mild depression attacks recurred off and on.
Some time ago, I began to realize that I am not totally at the mercy of the seemingly irresistible urge to dwell on niggling memories, bash myself with denigrating self-comparisons, and create anxieties arising from deeply pessimistic views of my situation.
I argued with myself: While I can’t do anything about these uninvited thoughts, I need not, will not accept them as true. They make me feel miserable and drain my strength.
Stopping Negative Thoughts
For some time now, I have been noticing that I can often catch the triggering thought and nip the depression attack in the bud. The looming cloud then seems to lift almost immediately and effortlessly, leaving me to feel, not necessarily elated, but alright and somewhat empowered by the small victory.
I think there has been an overall improvement in my ability to influence my mood. To verify this perception I have been keeping a diary for a year now. The top category of my daily mood barometer is defined as a severe depressed state for much of the day that does not respond to coping techniques. So far, such episodes have lasted between one and four days at intervals of 2-4 months.
While I have rated about three quarters of all days on record as “neutral”, well over half of these are still affected by depressive thoughts. At the moment, I feel that I am still inside the tunnel but I see light at the end of it.
Conclusions in Hindsight
I can offer a few generalizations based on personal experience, which is best described as gut feelings.
Leave the nest, do something!
Clearly, the breakthroughs I have had in my life – getting married, building a career, having a child – were crucial for the healing process. Had I not left home and tried my luck elsewhere, they would not have materialized in the way they did.
Meditation and Exercise
These are effective, accessible and affordable forms of self-treatment. Had I been more persistent with meditation and exercise, perhaps I would be further down the road to recovery. They brought near immediate relief at the time.
Keep telling your brain, your alter ego, your inner child (or whatever you want to call it), again and again and again that you don’t accept its depression inducing messages.
A greater awareness of my condition and professional help early on may have spared me much anguish. As it is, I have found even an unguided, unstructured and ad hoc cognitive approach to be effective in dealing with depression flares.
It took a long time to develop the cognitive ability, and the effect seems as difficult to verify objectively as that of anti-depressant medication. However, a cognitive approach is probably necessary for redirecting the neural pathways in the brain and to unlearn the ingrained habitual thought patterns of decades.
For most of us, fighting depression is a work in progress aimed at escaping the darkness of the tunnel behind us while striving to reach the light at its end. How do we know when we are there? Perhaps when we no longer dread the darkness that may still be ahead, and accept the one we know is inevitable.