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.
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by Boskizzi at Flickr
Chunks of Reality says
Hello dearie John!
I recently talked with a friend I made back in the psych ward a few years ago. He was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar and had a hell of a life. He was in the psych ward twice, tried to end his life once, was taking stimulants, smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and as many Red Bull as he could get his hands on. I worried about him night and day.
He lost his family, his children…everything.
He is now remarried to his ex wife, living with his children again and is the HAPPIEST I have ever heard since I met him. It is a genuine happiness and he reeks of it! He has been clean and sober for a year now and is no longer on meds and is doing great.
What would you call this? He said that he found God when before he was an atheist and is now a born-again Christian. What do you think? He thinks that he wasn’t bipolar in the first place.
I really don’t know what to think but would love whatever he’s doing to apply in my own life because I feel so lost.
Hi, COR –
Well, who knows what his original condition was – but the complete shift, that happens a lot. My own change crept up on me but was also remarkable. I can’t believe how differently I’m functioning now from what I went through for SO many years. I’ve met a lot of recovering alcoholics who’ve described a similar change. It could be the 25th trip back to rehab – or whenever it occurs, but they felt that something was different. And from then on they just had an underlying faith that they’d make it through rehab and really be done with alcohol. So it’s possible, whether you attribute it to God or something else.
I’m really sorry that you feel so lost – with the self awareness you have and the effort you make I feel certain that you’ll get to the same good place where you can look back and wonder – what was that all about? Not much comfort, though, when you’re in the middle of it and can’t see your hand in front of your face.
All love, blessings, good wishes, hugs and everything else piled on –
I know what you mean about the ‘comfort’ of depression – at least I know how to do that. And it’s such a good point that you have to have a vision of healing first, or a belief, in order to heal properly. When I was told that my brain was ‘misfunctioning’ and needed chemical help, and then the chemical help didn’t help, well, there wasn’t a lot of hope that I could improve. But I think we’re designed to heal and can help that process long. I haven’t beat depression / anxiety yet, but some days, I have hope that I will.
Anyway, very inspiring as always.
Thank you, Ellen – for being so supportive!
I think the vision has to be joined to determination – and that is a lot harder to sustain through repeated and long periods of depression. That’s when it’s so easy to sink into the comfort of the familiar dismal & stop trying. I’ve been through the hopelessness – fear – of running out of possible treatments and looking for others, like TMS. But none of them have a great record of effectiveness, and I had to stop waiting on them to do the job without me.
All my best to you – it will take time but you’ll kick depression.
Wellness Writer says
Yes, I can imagine that your experience with cancer would have that effect. While I’ve read Naomi Remen’s books, I hadn’t read any by Reynolds Price. I’ll see what’s available at my local library. Thanks for letting me know.
Susan – Price is a prolific novelist so fiction is what you’re likely to find. The book on his recovery is called A Whole New Life and deals with his emotional and mental adaptation to permanent loss of control of his lower body due to spinal cancer. His success in overcoming pain without medication is one of the key steps in his recovery process.
Wellness Writer says
Wow! What a powerfully evocative piece. You truly capture the despair of depression.
And, I, too, never had a psychiatrist or psychologist or therapist (except my present one) discuss depression recovery. But, after reading about miraculous stories of cancer recovery (when my father was dying), I decided that depression/bipolar recovery was a possibility, whether my doctors realized it or not.
Hi, Susan –
Thank you – I’m glad this piece gets through – I can never tell what will work and what won’t. Experience with cancer and stories of recovery really are amazing. And when I found out I had cancer about 14 years ago, the basic will to live surged up and empowered me to handle that problem. That was also the starting point for understanding what I had to do to get rid of depression. It’s interesting you made that connection too. Naomi Remen’s stories of adapting to cancer – not always recovering – are among the most beautiful and wise of any I know. Reynolds Price has a wonderful book too of his own adaptation. These stories are important for dealing with mental/emotional conditions as well.
Thanks for coming by.
Beautifully written John.
These are mysteries – why do some people get through it (in my experience it is not predicted by background, personality type or depth of trauma), and why when it happens and not before and after?
I have been puzzled by these things for years. And am no closer to ‘an answer’.
Thanks, Even –
There’s more research going on now about differences among people in recovering. The keyword is resilience. Studies have been correlating the ability of young people to preserve self esteem despite childhood disasters with the capacity to deal with mental disorders, trauma and other problems later in life. Others are looking into the neuroscience of resilience too – but all that is descriptive rather than really explanatory. I’m more interested in comparing this kind of shift with the experience of conversion – and I’ll write about that soon.
My best to you —