The words went up like walls, and I stepped inside to stay. I paced around in that confinement and after a while got to know the enclosure well. I liked its stillness and the sense of limits and order. Around me I read the names for mental things and emotions that I owned. They explained me, and I had a place to call home. I paid the rent in pain.
Depression, disease, obsessive thinking, mood disorder, isolation, sleep disturbance, paralysis of will, loss of concentration, anxiety, rage, hopelessness – I knew each one, the symptoms that likely would never go away, except for little breaks here and there. They were like furniture to rest in – or more than that, coordinates on a map that gave me location in the world. I could say: That’s where I live – right there.
At first, despite the inner emptiness and hurt, there was a comfort in knowing that all these symptoms were not my unique, damaged, failing self – but shared by millions all around the world – even named as a leading cause of disability. I was part of a vast economic loss with days, weeks, months, years of diminished capacity. Like all the rest, I wasn’t too helpful in getting the world’s work done. I added to their negative sum.
But after a while, I couldn’t take the dark cell anymore. I was afraid of what might happen there and resolved to move out, find brighter surroundings, know and hold my family again, thrive in my work, throw a little light around me – reform my life, reverse it completely. All that change, though, kept not happening.
I needed a sense of order, a sense of knowing where I was in the world of mind, feeling and spirit as well as place, worklife, community, country. I needed hooks to hold onto, and I had those, familiar after decades, hurtful as they were – but what would happen if I let them go? Would I grab onto new ones in a better life or would I drop in free fall to nothingness? I needed change to survive, but I feared change would leave me stranded in a place I couldn’t begin to understand. I never said that to myself at the time. I only knew how hard it was to stop depression. I could long for a new life, but getting there seemed impossible.
Depression was full of dreams of all that I might do – if only I could break myself away from it. But deciding among those possible new futures was the stopper. Deciding, after all, meant cutting away those many dreams, killing them off to pick the one that was real, that put me back on firm ground. But which one was that – and would I be any good at it? Somewhere deep down – and I can say now it was my twin, depression, talking – I felt a desperation to maintain that perverse and lightless stability. Reform is shape-shifting and letting go, and I was holding on. I believed so deeply that I could not change.
Most of the treatment people were not much help. Until recently, I never heard from a therapist or psychiatrist that ending life-long depression was even a possibility. They listened, opened up depths of history I needed to understand, offered sympathy, medication, temporary respite. At times, that stirred hope but mostly it confirmed illness, treatment resistance, the need for adaptation to an endless condition. I had a four-digit diagnostic number, and that would never change – unless at some point a fifth digit needed to be tacked on.
The words of explanation multiplied like the dreams of recovery. New findings of neuroscience, brain chemistry, changes in brain structures, neural pathways, genetics, increased likelihood of heart disease and bone loss, and then too the self-perpetuating nature of the illness. After a while, it kept itself going without need for an external push. My depression home seemed hard-wired, storm resistant.
But then – just like that – it was over – or mostly so. I suddenly believed that I could break out and so pushed against those hardening walls. Of course, they gave way, the word-bricks floated up like full balloons, burst at once and rained back down as bright ripped ribbons.
True, as I expected, it’s been hard to learn again the habits of life with people, the routines of work I love to do, the resilience of hope. And the hardest thing of all is keeping a determined mind and will not to go there again when the temptation to give up returns.
So how does this happen? What brings on, after so long, a change of spirit as deep as conversion? I’m not sure I will ever know exactly what it was. There’s no one cause of depression, so I wouldn’t expect to find a single cause of recovery.
It feels like a kind of grace, a gift, a quiet mystery.