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?