Recovery, Well-Being and Purpose


It occurs to me that recovery is past, well-being is now and purpose is the future. Let me explain.

Recently, I wrote about recovery as a concept I no longer wanted to apply to what I’ve been going through. The word carried a set of assumptions that kept me within an illness frame of mind. It meant getting over depression or perhaps managing it well enough to function more effectively. The focus was on what I had been through in the past and could not completely escape in the present or the future. My life was stuck in time. Recovery would never end because depression would never fully disappear.

But why did I have to start with that idea? Well-being, mental health, emotional balance, whatever you may call it – that’s what I was experiencing at the present moment. Why was I assuming that depression was the strong, well-being the weak force?

There was an alternative that could start from the fact that I’m excited, full of energy, feeling good right now. I can stay with that and assume that this is my normal state – that I’m well. Every time a depressive thought or symptom comes up, I can refuse to go there. Think it, say it: I’m not going there. If it should get bad, ok – it’s like being sick with the flu, or if it’s a lot worse – like pneumonia. Treat it, get rid of it, then get back to the norm of feeling good.

So I made a list of the assumptions I had carried around for so long. These are some of the big ones:

  • I have had a condition diagnosed as major depression for most of my life
  • Major depression is a chronic and self-sustaining
  • I am treatment resistant and will probably have this condition all my life
  • I hope for recovery, but none of the treatments work
  • Though I will have good periods, depression will always return
  • Medications aren’t very effective, but if I stop taking them, I’ll be much worse

Once I had set the assumptions down and saw them staring back at me, they lost their power to guide my thinking, feeling, expectations about the future and the sense of who I was. Recovery has been taking place for a long time, and the assumptions had to change. They didn’t make sense anymore, and I could suddenly sweep them out of my brain. Recovery was about the past – living and well-being are the rich present.

And what about purpose and the future?

I kept thinking of Viktor Frankl and the story he tells in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning about internment in a Nazi concentration camp. Thrown into the midst of the worst torture and suffering imaginable, subject to arbitrary “selection” for death, living through the grueling work details and lack of food only by mastery of the small tricks of survival, he learned the lesson that would shape his later life and career.

Without a sense of purpose, no one could live for long in those camps. He saw the truth  that starkly. Those who could believe in a positive future, or even a single event like liberation from the camp, and who could sustain the will to achieve it, lived. Those who lacked that inner sense of purpose and meaning died. Those who held such an idea in mind could live as long as it lasted. Once it was lost or given up, they died. Learning the art of survival was not enough; there had to be a vision of what came next that transcended all the suffering.

Frankl developed the basis of his psychiatric practice from such extreme experience. He believed – and I share that belief – that all of us need a sense of meaning and purpose not just for bare survival but for fulfillment as human beings. Since I have survived, that sense of meaning and the hope it engenders must have been much stronger than I imagined.

Getting beyond survival, beyond the goal of recovery – that’s where I am now, shaping a new future while trying to make the most of the life that fills and surrounds me.

What sense do you have of the role of will and purpose in getting past depression?

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by lepiaf.geo at Flickr

21 Responses to “Recovery, Well-Being and Purpose”

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  1. Evin k says:

    John , I have to admit I do not agree with all that has been written in your posts on the subject of ” purpose and meaning ” in life . I am not a councellor , GP, or psychiatrist , my only scrap of knowledge comes from 17 years of depression . I spent the most of that time fighting loosing battles in nearly all aspects of my life , blaming wrong decisions for my mistakes and character flaws for my inability to “keep up “. I have only lately started to come to terms ( thanks mainly to your posts )with the monster that has been reeking havoc on my life . At least now I have some sort of an explaination for what I had considered a wasted decade .
    Your post on frankl is inspiring in its own rights , but let’s be clear he was a person with an exceptional will to live . I feel you are almost implying in your post that if you had any form of depression back then in the concentration camp that you were a pretty sure many very strong willed men , women and children were dragged kicking and screaming
    to their deaths , while some of lesser strength survived . There also had to be an element of luck involved in his survival .The point I’m trying to make here is that this man is possibly at the opposite end of the spectrum to someone with depression who is trying to get a handle on “purpose and meaning ” in their life and I feel that using frankl as an example is a bridge too far for some of us , the will to survive is something we are all born with and if you have battled depression , give yourself a path on the back you have plenty of it . Don’t go measuring yourself against frankl or anyone else it’s not a level playing field .The depression you are going through at the moment might well be your concentration camp story for the next generation . The will to get up is something you may need every day , purpose and meaning Will sort them selves out in good time .I personally think that people put too much pressure on themselves trying to work out their purpose and meaning in this world , I for years have been doing things just to make me more appreciated to other people and look good in the community ,trying to gain purpose ,eaten bread soon forgotten , people forget you and your achievements very quickly ,you can get left very empty and confused with that policy .our purpose has to come from inside and I now attach two conditions :- it has to feel authentic to me and I have to feel some bit of passion towards that purpose , I’m still looking , there’s a few ideas on the horizon I’m in no panic , learning about myself through depression might be the road to my purpose , I don’t know but I’m actually looking forward to it .
    Some of the most successful people in the world only stumbled across their purpose in life by accident and were actually on a completely different path until faith intervened . What’s meant to be wont pass you out .

    Your posts John continually emphasis prioritising the illness and getting to know the conditions you are living with . I now fully agree with you that is a key first step , but what most people read your posts for is your gentle use of words , healing through care and compassion , I don’t mean to be rude John but you have most of the answers on your own , sometimes your use of excerpts from a different author only serve to slightly dilute your excellent train of thought . You don’t need assurance from anybody your point of view stands very well on its own ( no offence meant to any other contributors )
    Thanks for taking the time to read this I’m sure not everyone will agree but That’s what makes a good conversation
    Bye for now

  2. Andrea says:

    No job, no money…

  3. Minu says:

    I am currently in the survival mode of depression. I am trying to get through the day and night without giving in to my despair. I have an insightful positive feeling for a short time followed by more despair, exhaustion etc.

    I am still trying to accept depression as a real illness, not something I can will myself out of. I am still blaming myself for not trying hard enough. But the truth is that I have tried hard all my life.

    I know my beliefs need to change in order for me to recover. I just don’t know how to do that…I want to have a career or at least be able to support myself in a meaningful way. I am so scared that I won’t be able to do that. That thought keeps my depression going. I need help to let go of that.

    Anyway, that’s all for now. Thank you for this blog, and for all of your insights.


    • john says:

      Hi, Minu –

      I know how hard it is to keep going through a time of feeling discouraged and fearful about getting better. It really is true that depression is an illness and that there’s a lot more to you than that. It’s hard to find the methods that work – I’ve tried just about everything except sending electricity through my brain. In the end, I think it’s all helped – I urge you to look at the Sherwin Nuland video on his recovery (which did require ECT). It’s another moving testament about recovery from a man who almost lost everything to depression.

      My very best to you.


  4. John says:

    Ironic, this last week I’ve been looking at the different phases I’ve gone through with mindsets of ‘diagnosed’, ‘maintenance’, ‘recovery’…now I’m on ‘living’.

    The cool thing for me is knowing now where I was years ago, months, and even weeks ago compared to now. Making better choices than I ever have in my life, and knowing that I’m healthy and living to make ones for greater tomorrows, today and then.

    Again, another wonderful post.

    • john says:

      John –

      Thank you – that’s so encouraging to hear you’re doing well. It amazes me how the words and concepts can frame our whole outlook. Congratulations on great progress!

      Thanks for coming by.


  5. Merely Me says:

    Hi John

    This post reminds me to re-read this book. It reaffirms so many things for me.

    The way that I have always survived my moods is to think that there is a meaning and purpose to my life. Suffering is part of this meaning. I no longer resist suffering so much because of this. Not that I allow myself to become disabled by my moods but more so that I accept that these dark times are a part of my existence as a human being.

    I think nowadays the emphasis is upon eradicating any form of sadness. I am not advocating some romantic version of depression but being happy all the time is not my goal. Instead it is to find joy. There is a difference.

    Well I could go on and on but I will stop here.

    You always get me to thinking. Great post as usual.

    Was wondering if you could stop by to give your insights on a tongue and cheek post I have written about the history of depression “treatments.” Imagine using leeches to cure your melancholy!

    • john says:

      Hi, Diane –

      Accepting suffering and pain as part of being human is hard, but I think that gets at it. You show incredible resilience, given the number of issues you have to deal with – and you remain a highly motivated writer despite the pain. Happiness, I agree, is not the way to think of what to aim for. Frankl is great on this. He deplores the idea that people should seek a happy equilibrium – what he emphasizes is both purpose and action in the world, a dynamic state full of change and surprises – not the same anodyne existence all the time. (I’m actually working on a post about that now.) I’d be interested to know more about how you distinguish between happiness and joy.

      Thanks so much for your insights – they always get me thinking.

      I’ll check out your post on treatments – and others, since I’ve been remiss in visiting my favorite blogs. I’m spending a lot of time on my new blog and other online ideas. Fortunately, I have the time now to focus just on this kind of work.

      All love to you — John

    • Hannah says:

      Merely, thank you for these words

      “Suffering is part of this meaning.”
      “I accept that these dark times are a part of my existence as a human being.”

      this lifted me out of the hole I was stuck in

  6. Gianna says:

    I’m not sure this is in keeping with what you’re saying or not, but I simply don’t pathologize my feelings anymore. I’m okay however I feel…and the feelings pass through more quickly…like a rain cloud or some weather…or a burst of sunshine…etc…

    I don’t use clinical terms at all to describe my experience anymore and I don’t think in those terms either. This has been profoundly liberating.

    • john says:

      Gianna –

      This is exactly what I mean – getting away from the illness words and assumptions. What you say so beautifully about feelings passing through quickly is a wonderful quality about well-being. Unfortunately, I’ve always had a way of pinning the feelings up on a wall to stop them for review – I wind up holding onto them and they whip up a storm trying to get out.

      Thanks for this comment!

      All my best — John

  7. RoasterBoy says:

    Echoing the thanks, I’ve arrived at a similar place myself, making the transition from living just for recovery to some kind of new purpose. I hear the word ‘reinvention’ a lot, not only from my therapist, but even from people in business who are trying to cope with the external turmoil of the economy climate.
    To your question about the role of will and purpose, I believe that a certain amount of recovery has to take place before the will can function meaningfully.
    Depression robs me of the ability to do the things that I need to do to get better. There have been times when I was a puddle. No amount of exertion of will, belief in the future, or anything could bring me out of it. I required treatment in the form of meds, ECT, hospitalization, and therapy, along with tremendous and loving support from family and friends, to get my head above water.
    This varies widely from person to person, just as responses to crises, infections, or pollutants differ. My father, a welder, worked with asbestos all of his life, wrapping himself in asbestos blankets while welding inside boiler tanks. He lived to 93 with clear lungs at the time of his death. Another friend had a brief exposure to asbestos and died of lung cancer a few years later. It was, IMO, about genetics, not about will.
    Again, thanks for your good insights.

    • john says:

      RoasterBoy –

      Thanks for this interesting comment. It’s true, of course, that recovery has to take place and requires much of what you’ve worked with (I hope the ECT had benefit – friends of mine who’ve had it suffered serious cognitive loss for some time afterward). I discussed that more in the earlier post I cited in this one. I spent years in that condition of not being able to will anything, so what you hear from me now only comes after that long struggle for basic survival.

      There is evidence about the genetic basis for the disposition to get depression, provided the later life experience triggers it. But it isn’t the whole story, as it probably is with other diseases. However, no one really knows the whole story from a medical and research perspective, and each of us has to figure out what works and make the most of it.

      I wish you well with finding out where you go from here.

      My best to you — John

  8. Katharine says:

    I love this post. Getting beyond the “survival” of recovery is something I have explicitly talked about with friends of mine also in recovery. There is more to life than survival, and sometimes, that gets lost in the bare bones scramble to hold on of recovery. Survival is necessary for living, but surviving is no way to live. It’s what reaches beyond survival that makes life worthwhile.

    • john says:

      Hi, Katherine –

      I love that line – survival is necessary for living, but surviving is no way to live. Great tag line for a blog! I’m starting to explore different approaches to therapy that emphasize this idea. Frankl does, and there is one I hadn’t heard of before called ACT – just trying to find out what its principles are. I’ll probably write about those and others by way of follow-up.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      My best to you — John

  9. Lynn says:

    As usual, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think psychologists have done us a disservice by keeping those with histories of depression, alcoholism, or drug abuse “in recovery” for the rest of their lives. There is something better beyond recovery. Recovery is like getting a C. We need to strive for a B, or an A. The human spirit and will are stronger than any antidepressant. People can continue to function with severed limbs and other massive injuries when they need to. Active treatment of depression (planning a future, interacting, moving, talking, exercising) works better than passive (only taking meds). Depression looks back, anxiety looks around, happy looks forward. Yet the whole theory of depression today keeps focusing on neurobiology that we supposedly can’t control except with expensive drugs. I believe that human will is stronger than that, and by encouraging and expecting more out of those with a diagnosis of depression, we ultimately serve them better.

    • john says:

      Lynn –

      That’s beautifully put, and you’re so right that “human will is stronger than that.” Looking back on all the treatments I’ve tried, it’s strange that not one therapist, psychiatrist or anyone else ever spoke about human will or my will to live without depression. There was always the principle that making progress was up to me – but that usually meant achieving catharsis and acceptance about the losses of the past – or achieving a state of tranquility and equilibrium. It’s definitely time to get a higher grade than a C!

      All my best to you — John

  10. Evan says:

    “You don’t have to be sick to get better” – Fritz Perls, one of the founders of gestalt psychotherapy.

    I once tried the thought experiment of doing away with the concept ‘therapy’, it had interesting results: e.g. ideas like a celebratory approach to life (including suffering). I don’t mean this to sound like I trivialise very real pain.

    Looking forward to hearing how you shape your life.

    • john says:

      Evan –

      I love that quote! That’s an interesting thought experiment – there are so many things we just go along with that it’s refreshing to try turning them upside down from time to time. Something new always appears.

      All my best — John

  11. Sikantis says:

    A very impressive post, thanks. I thinnk it’s always important to write about positive personal developments to encourage others to do the same.

    • john says:

      Sikantis –

      Thank you so much! There is something to be said for writing about the down side of things – mostly for the catharsis. But writing out of hope and good feelings is one of the ways I stay well.

      Thanks for coming by.


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