Patterns of Recovery from Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

I started learning about patterns of recovery when my mother survived two heart attacks but died twice before her death. That’s the way she saw it. Her heart stopped both times, but she fought her way back. The second heart-stopping attack occurred during an operation for a different problem. She was 94.

I only learned about this complication when I visited her the next day. She looked a bit worn down but beamed at me and announced that she had done it again. Even under anesthesia she had found the strength to fight her way back. She was radiant, triumphant.

The trouble was that her powerful drive to live was not matched by a drive to live happily. She had no path to wellbeing.

I often felt that way as I tried to make progress in recovery from depression. I made the fierce decision – not once but several times – to pull myself back from the brink and commit myself to living with every bit of energy I had. But then what? What’s the next step that helps me keep this going? I had no roadmap of my own, no pattern of recovery, no sense of what recovery required or what I needed to do to sustain the drive that had kept me going through the worst moments.

Of course, there were things to do – get back into therapy, take these new medications, try meditation, eat this but not that. These were puzzle pieces handed to me with the assurance that each would help but without the larger picture of the complicated whole they fitted into. I waited for them to work. They didn’t.

This wasn’t what I’d had in mind when full of the hope that comes from renewing the basic commitment to life. I knew that recovery depended on my taking action, that I couldn’t sit back and wait to be cured by the latest treatment. And I knew very well that I’d have a hard time, that many periods of terrible depression would likely recur when I’d feel lost and hopeless. Especially at those times, I wanted to have a reference point, a sense of the overall arc of recovery to keep in mind.

Of course, I would know as soon as I was feeling better, getting mental focus back and losing the many other symptoms. But how could I expect to sustain that improvement if I didn’t understand how I’d gotten there? I didn’t want to keep worrying about relapses. As I’ve written here before, I wanted to get beyond recovery to a full life. I wanted my attention and energy to switch from sustaining recovery to sustaining wellbeing.

The books and theories on depression – and the therapists who put them into practice – provide descriptions of symptoms, explanation of causes, and lists of activities to undo its damage. There are lots of principles to keep in mind, lot of advice to follow, but something is always missing, not just from the books but from the treatments themselves. It took me a while to figure it out.

It’s this: I never felt empowered by them – or at least not for long, despite gaining many useful and important insights from each one. There are many different models to explain causes of the illness, and each model comes with its preferred treatment. In trying to apply them, it’s easy to forget the specifics of your own experience and focus primarily on what the model says. Too often, the treatments are promoted as the best buy in a therapy marketplace, and I wind up feeling like a consumer instead of the driving force behind my own recovery.

I found an example of a pattern of recovery while writing a recent series on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. From what I’ve learned, it isn’t used that often – the quality of available care is usually limited to the treatment of those symptoms that respond, sometimes, to medication. Among practitioners of more comprehensive approaches, however, there seems to be a high level of agreement on the phases of recovery. In varying forms, it has been recognized for over a hundred years, long predating the general recognition of PTSD as a disorder with its own DSM criteria.

Judith Herman, in her widely influential Trauma and Recovery, reviewed the recovery concepts described by several of the researchers who preceded her. They all had found that recovery required three distinct phases. (Some researchers identified as many as ten, but these could be consolidated under three basic dimensions.)

The first phase consists of stabilizing the worst symptoms of PTSD and creating a therapeutic environment that feels safe and encourages a sense of trust. Since personal safety and trust are primary victims of traumatic experience, healing cannot take place until they begin to be restored.

The second stage is an exploration of memories about the trauma and a re-experiencing of the events. The idea is to defuse the memories so that they become less terrifying and no longer have to be avoided. For Judith Herman, this means remembrance and mourning.

It’s the third stage that sets Herman’s pattern apart from the others most clearly. While most researchers talk about the individual’s need to rebuild or reintegrate the personality, learn new coping skills or rekindle an inner drive, Herman goes further and emphasizes the need to reconnect with other people. Once the sense of self has been restored, the task is to rebuild the relationships and sense of purpose that have been undermined by the impact of traumatic experience.

Her names for the three phases avoid clinical terminology and shift the emphasis from the techniques of the therapist to the experience of the person in healing: regaining a sense of safety and the ability to trust; remembering trauma and mourning loss; reconnecting with people. The role of therapy is to empower, and those trying to heal the wounds of trauma need to take the initiative at all times. Nothing can be done for them. The therapist’s role is to offer guidance and support.

This is the sort of basic roadmap that seems essential not only for initial healing but even more for moving beyond recovery to rebuild a damaged life. At every step, it emphasizes what those in recovery have to do for themselves and the conditions for recovery they need to put in place. It’s a whole person approach.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but having something like this would have been so helpful early on, long before I had experience of multiple treatments and was living in confusion, fear and hopelessness. At that time, I did the one thing I knew about and went to a psychiatrist. Today, the first thing you’re likely learn about is medication. There’s no context for healing and little sense of empowerment – in fact, passivity is usually expected in response to expert treatment.

From the perspective of recovery now, I’m looking back to reconstruct what I went through to be better understand how I was able to come this far. I’m not sure what I’ll find, but I will share it here.

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by Guanatos Gwyn at Flickr

8 Responses to “Patterns of Recovery from Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”

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  1. Donna says:

    You are so right. Again. Pushing through one bout of depression after another can result in what feels like stillbirth. Each time. Made it through the birth canal and out to the other side. Yayyy! But I felt dead. For me, all the “fighting through” almost literally took the life out of me. It is hard work martialing the physical, mental and emotional energy to make it through days, weeks and even years of serious depression and anxiety. Then one day — voila! Something is missing — I realized it was the depression that was missing. Like one of those rare days when the ocean is completely still. Dead calm. Nothing to fight against.

    First thing, like being born (alive, not stillborn), is to take a breath. Not in the dark wavy womb of depression, floating in that sensory deprivation tank anymore. But hit full in the face with bright light, a new kind of oxygen, noise, color, and…what’s next? If it is “connecting with people,” I’m in trouble. But I think that’s where I am now. I don’t have the constant depression. It isn’t even every day. Just a couple of days a week for maybe a few hours. But the anxiety is still there. I’m working on it, every which way.

    For one thing, if you ‘ve always been known as the village idiot that sat at the back of the room vegetating (i.,e., depressive mode) and gradually faded from the scene of every social encounter, you can suddenly “awaken” as I have in your 60’s and life has passed you by. The people I might have made friends with years ago gave up. Family goes on being family but they are all either dead and gone by now or my apparent strangeness and silence and eccentricities put me in the same category as those dead and gone already. So I need to find others.

    I ought to be able to figure this out, but it feels too late to start connecting with people. I never learned how. Depression began at 8 yrs old. Social anxiety kicked in during my early teens and still blankets me with fear. People I meet where I live seem like aliens from another planet. I think I was born out of depression and into a strange new world. Doubtless making friends is difficult for a lot of people, even those who never had depression or anxiety. I don’t want this to rev up a new despondency in me.

    Do any of your posts on this site (or any you can suggest) offer insight as to how I might connect. I know the pandemic has temporarily closed down senior centers and churches and so forth. But there are people around me every day. CBT? DBT? Some kind of therapy? If connecting with others is the next step I need to find a way to take it. Maybe it should be obvious, but I can’t see it.

  2. Lee says:

    Thank you for this. It’s a great article; really succinct, well-written and helpful.

    I recognise stage 3 so much, it is exactly where I am right now. I am a little worried that I am behaving differently to how I was before many years of depression and some people say I am being erratic compared to my ‘old self’. A few even suggest I need medical assistance again, and should go back on pills and therapy, which never helped me before. My fix seems to have been a trauma, my dad dying. Somehow, I was repaired pretty much overnight though I recognise recovery as a process, exactly as set out here.

    I have published an article on my journey and it reflects not only feeling like I have recovered, but that I feel better than my old self and am striving to generally be a ‘better’ person.

    Brilliant piece!

  3. char brooks says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this article.

    You are so right when you say that there’s a missing link, and that link is how to connect with other people once you’ve created a safe space and re-experienced the trauma with safety and support.

    Staying connected to ourselves and re-establishing connections with others makes recovery from meaningful and sustainable.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Char –

      I’ve learned so much from the writers on ptsd like Herman, Shay and Tick. Therapy and recovery have to get past the individual – where most of the attention is focused – to the need for connection and relatedness to others. We’re social beings and can’t survive without many relationships. I read about one study that found lower life expectancy among people who lived mostly alone and had few or no really close relationships.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.


  4. John,

    You always amaze me with your insight. Being in the mental health field when I began my process, I already knew what I needed and was looking for. It is a shame that your psychiatrist didn’t point you in a different direction. But, I am glad that you eventually found the help that you needed and the insight that helps others.

    Take care,

    • john says:

      Thanks, CC –

      Being in the mental health field sounds like a great way to understand how and where to start – though I have read about a number of researchers and therapists who, along with their colleagues, feel they can’t admit to the need for their own treatment. James Pennybacker – who did so much research on writing as a form of healing – told that story about himself. Instead of getting help, he started writing each day about his condition – and that helped him get over depression.

      Thanks for commenting.


  5. Wendy Love says:

    Thank you for sharing this ‘model’. It has given me just what I needed to try to describe how I too have experienced recovery. I completely understand how you reacted to the many examples given in books and how inadequate the advice was. I have found that I managed to get some little tidbit out of most of the books that I read, but that no single book was pivotal in helping me find the answers. As much as is now written about this mysterious illness, it is still a highly individual journey and each of us needs to be committed to our own recovery to be able to find strategies that work for our own little unique selves. You have once again provided some enlightenment. Thank you!

    • john says:

      Hi, Wendy –

      That’s the way I’ve benefited from the books and theories too. Each one contributes insights. The problem is that the authors often push things too far and make claims that go beyond their own research, as if one theory or model of therapy could be the answer for everyone.

      We do indeed have to figure out an individual journey by putting together the ideas and practices that somehow keep us moving forward.

      Thanks again from commenting. You always add great insights.


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