Revisiting: Recovery and Creative Experience

Breughel Village

All that I am, all that life has made me, every past experience that I have had – woven into the tissue of my life – I must give to … new experience. … [The] past … has indeed not been useless, but its use is not in guiding present conduct by past situations. We must put everything we can into each fresh experience, but we shall not get the same things out which we put in … if it is part of our progressing life… We integrate our experience, and then the richer human being that we are goes into the new experience; again we give our self and always by giving rise above the old self. – Mary Parker Follett, Creative Experience – Follett was one of the most original social thinkers of the 1920s-30s. She introduced ideas about collaboration, community democracy and management that remain influential today.

I think of recovery as a slow process of change that aims at replacing depression with a new responsiveness to life. A key part of it for me has been deciding that I would not think of myself as always in recovery. Recovery would be the method for getting back to life. As Mary Parker Follett put it, the essence of life is creative experience – the constant interplay between the best we can put into life and all that it gives back to enrich who we are. I couldn’t imagine getting to that point if I thought of recovery as it’s defined in the prevailing medical model.

According to this model, a condition like major depression continues through life, though possibly “in remission.” Recovery means reducing the impact of the illness on daily living through ongoing treatment using medication and therapy. For me that would mean living the rest of my life with major depression, but its symptoms would be managed effectively. As I’ve written before, this sort of recovery is not for me. It’s a way of crippling expectations about my life – much the way depression itself does.

Perpetual recovery is not my goal, but recovery is nevertheless an essential step in restarting life.

I think of the process I’ve been through in terms of three separate types of awareness: the deadly stillness of depression, the reawakening of recovery and the creative experience of life itself.


Depression is the freezing of life and the ability to learn from experience. It’s the static, steady state that won’t change. Part of the frustration of living with it was the repetition of the same symptoms over and over again. I was always tormented with the question: Why does this keep happening? I know what it is, I work on stopping it all the time, and yet it’s always the same. I felt powerless and expected that I would never be free of it.

Sure, the symptoms might come in different combinations and greater or lesser degrees of severity. But I believed depression was always there, lurking in the background, touching me lightly as a reminder that it could grab me whenever it wanted to. It was like being chained to a treadmill – a lot of motion but no forward movement or hope for getting anywhere.

I had no ability to adapt to the flow of experience because to me nothing was changing. I wasn’t in that flow. I was filtering out its variety and reducing it to the common denominator of despair.


Recovery is a new awareness of the possibility of change. With it comes hope and the determination to get moving again. After that new consciousness is in place, then it’s all about practice, slow steps, relearning life skills, changing beliefs and expectations about myself and the future. Every treatment has given me something new to work with. But it was common to lose all awareness of what I’d been learning in the midst of a major depressive episode. There was lots of backsliding, lots of discouragement.

One of my problems during recovery was to expect too much from each new tool. If I followed the right diet, went running frequently, meditated, practiced new cognitive skills, took medications, went to therapy, then surely I could turn this around and get rid of depression forever. When the breakthrough didn’t happen, I only got more discouraged, coming back to the dependable cause of failure – me.

Then it dawned on me that expecting big changes all at once was slowing me down. If I kept my eye on the bigger picture, I’d have a more realistic sense of the pace of recovery and start to get somewhere. It’s like learning how to handle a car on the highway. You move toward the spot you focus on. If you look at the road right in front of you, you oversteer while trying to stay in the lane and quickly start crossing the line. If you focus far ahead at where you’re going, you unconsciously adjust the steering wheel and drive straight ahead.

Realistic expectations supported the will to keep going. The slow process of recovering finally brought me to what I was after – the chance to come back to life.

Life as Creative Experience

Life is motion, the ability to adapt to whatever happens, to see myself as part of a complex world going through infinite changes. I needed to be in it again, out of the still, rigid world of depression, tightly bounded by my own mind. Recovery was the long preparation and training to get there.

Getting back into life means seeing it clearly and seeing it whole. It means pulling away the dark filter that allows a depressed mind to project its own reality and dim expectations over everything and everyone you see.

The quote by Mary Parker Follett, who is known these days only within a narrow circle, expresses a sense of life that I’ve come to share. She believed that each person reached fulfillment not in isolation, so typical of depression, but through a constant interchange with others. Discovery and learning from experience arises from the responses people have to each other – if they are open to receiving them. There is a constant giving back and forth and from that each person is enriched.

That’s a good description of what I’m aiming for – rather than thinking that the rest of my life will consist of perpetual recovery.

I believe the meaning and direction of recovery comes out of our unique experience. I’ve had to develop a private definition that really works for me. It supports the determination to get better that was one of the first steps toward change.

Everyone’s approach to recovery will likely differ according to what each has been through.

How do you think about recovery? How do you imagine a future no longer dominated by depression?

Image by danja at Flickr

4 Responses to “Revisiting: Recovery and Creative Experience”

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  1. Judy says:

    John, what you say makes so much sense. I, too, want to be doing so much better than just managing my symptoms and I believe that, for me, “really living” has to involve connection with others because cutting off my connection with others is what gets me back in the old depressive rut. Sometimes, all I want to do is retreat. But if I can make myself resist that, it helps quiet The Voice that wants to yell in my head all the negative things I was told over and over about who I was. It’s so ironic that the very thing we don’t want to do when we’re depressed is the crucial thing we MUST do to get our lives back. That means reaching out instead of hiding out, risking rejection, etc. I’ve had many years, too, of repeating the same old patterns that create their own special brand of hell.

    Sometimes I wonder if just hitting the stage of life I’m in has helped. Well, probably, because I don’t think if I’d stayed in my job under the unbearable circumstances that were going on the last 12 years, I might still be where I was then, unable to lift my head up enough to see any light. I am so thankful I was in a position to leave it and I can truthfully say, I wouldn’t want it back if they paid me a million dollars. I’m not getting my self BACK, I’m really finding who my self has always been that I never knew.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      You’re so right about not wanting to do the things we most need to do to feel better. It’s clear to me why that happens when I’m depressed and lack the motivation and energy to do much of anything. But I’ve also noticed the same thing happening when I’m well but need to do the things that help me stay well. Lots of resistance there too. I like your ability to make yourself do the opposite of what depression is pulling you into – like social connection instead of isolation. I’ve been learning how to do that when my mind is full of distractions and I’m itching to get away from what I’m trying to do. I can’t say I understand what’s going on – it’s so bizarre to do the opposite of what you want and intend, but I’ve always had that problem.

      I love what you say at the end about finding the self you’ve always been but never knew.

      Thanks for these great ideas.


  2. Donna-1 says:

    I know what you are saying, but I’m not there yet. I’m still in the “I’m in remission” stage of learning about myself and my place in this world. Today, I felt I was bursting at the seams to be creative (funny you mention creativity) so I looked at over 2000 fabric swatches online and finally settled on one, bought 5 yds of fabric, and have no idea what I’m going to do with it. Except it will go well in any room of my apartment. Unfortunately all the swatches managed to overload my computer and I spent another 5 hours trying to set it right again (and finally succeeded.) My poor little doggy, actually I’m dog-sitting for 3 weeks, sat patiently at my feet all day waiting for me to notice her. Maybe it would be better if I stopped and played with the dog and got my mind off of computers and life’s mysteries.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      Well, you may be more “there” than you think. “Learning about myself and my place in the world” isn’t something you’re ever done with, is it? Symptoms in the background, learning front and center, creative energy and ideas flowing, using your visual esthetic sense, going out and getting what you want – plus dog happy to be with you instead of alone in a freaky kennel. Coming along nicely.

      Sorry about the computer mess. That will definitely ruin a good day as well as the creative spirit. Teeth grinding frustration – gets worse the longer you have to spend on it. Total downer.

      Everything else sounds good. What difference does it make if you don’t have an immediate use for the fabric – it was fun finding it, and you can see how it would work well in every room. [[Another point here: You have to understand how important it is to gather all the fabric you can find. As my wife says, you can never have too much on hand – the greater variety of beautiful patterns and colors the better. As everyone knows, she tells me – and several friends have confirmed this – you have to be ready for the coming Fabric Famine. It may be a ways off, but it’s out there. 😉 ]]

      (Hire me for professional optimism services. Free consultation.)

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