The Risk of Change in Recovery

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Accepting the risk of change has been a big step in recovery: risks are hard to take because of the fear they trigger. I’m still stumbling around with the acceptance of risk – one minute eager for anything new, the next minute fearful of every change.

I mentioned the analogy of prison when describing my rejection of the idea that depression was permanent and that I would always be in recovery. But ending the isolation of that prison brings up exactly that fear of change.

The prison constructed in my mind for self-confinement was a special place. It took care of many problems, especially involvement in the unpredictability of life:

  • No way out, no struggle to escape because that choice didn’t exist.
  • The cell might be scrappy in appearance but there was plenty of room for the limited movement I made from time to time.
  • No colors visible in the dim light, no distracting associations to interrupt this solitude.
  • All my simple needs were met. Mysteriously, I needed little food or exercise and could sleep as much or as little as I wished.
  • No place to go, no person to meet, no anxiety or fear about new encounters.
  • My feelings were so muted, I had no need to stir them up.
  • Nothing to do, no need to self-evaluate or to dwell on my inadequacy to get that nothing done.
  • No time, only a futureless, pastless present, hence nothing to regret about the past, nothing in the future to plan or feel anxious about. The future would never come.

Life was simpler, safe, predictable – even in the misery of depression. I knew what it was, and, at the time, that’s all I wanted to know. In my case, I never opened any door to get out of the isolation. The perverse comfort of confinement seemed impossible to leave when I was there. But one morning I would wake and find it was gone and knew I never wanted to go back. I kept working against a return, but then on another morning I would wake, or try to wake, and realize I was locked up again. There was no why for falling back into it and no why for getting out.

As I’ve described elsewhere, after the last five years of sustained, intense effort to get out of severe depression without going back, another sudden change has occurred. I feel again like a whole person, not the half-person who gets better for a time alongside the other half-person who is ready to take over my life without notice. This time I feel different, more fully alive. But I still have a long way to go.

There are many risks in going more deeply into the full reality of who I am. Primary among them is the risk of letting my feelings express themselves as they occur without the filtering and restraint that has kept them from others and even from myself.

Equally difficult, though, is the fear of experiencing other people for who they are, instead of the projections I read into their voices, words, eyes. Strangely, those projections always made the other person mine in a way. Disguising them in judgments of myself pulled them into my depression. I used them as witnesses who confirmed what depression told me was true, at the cost of never seeing who was really talking to me. There was no other person, only me with a different face.

Breaking out of that wrapped up self, not only to let my own feelings flow spontaneously but also to experience fully the other person before me, continues to stir up the fears that were part of a life with depression.

There is the emotional vulnerability of being present, taking the good and bad as they come. That is no problem at all in a weirdly comfortable prison cell. Complete isolation, seeing the world only as it can be seen in the dark, removes the possibility of real interaction – and risk.

I’m reminded of a scene in a film version of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. The elderly Mr. Dorrit, having spent most of his life in debtor’s prison, is offered a chance to step through the prison door for a brief walk in the noisy, bustling London street. He looks out fearfully and then pulls back, politely declining the offer, and quickly flees back to his room.

I have yet to feel completely comfortable in a world with people and feelings I must accept just as they are. Now I’m doing that far more often than before, but old habits die hard.

Some words of Carl Rogers in A Way of Being
keep me thinking about what I’m trying to achieve and how difficult it is to sustain.

To really know what I am experiencing in the moment is by no means an easy thing, but I feel somewhat encouraged because I think that over the years I have been improving at it. I am convinced, however, that it is a lifelong task and that none of us ever is totally able to be comfortably close to all that is going on within our own experience.

Do these words resonate with you? Is this kind of struggle a part of what you’re going through now?

6 Responses to “The Risk of Change in Recovery”

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  1. Natasha says:

    I, too, was deeply moved by:

    “Disguising them in judgments of myself pulled them into depression. That helped to confirm what depression told me was true, at the cost of never seeing who was really talking to me. There was no other person, only me with a different face.”

    Absolutely and positively brilliant. Thank you.

  2. Donna-1 says:

    Perhaps not surprisingly, but with great embarrassment, I admit that the idea of prison does not sound objectionable. My body has always felt like a prison of flesh, my mind a prison where thought and feeling alternately bar the way out, my relationships a prison of expectations. If the totality of my days was bound up in an actual brick & mortar prison cell, I would not be exchanging freedom for confinement. I would merely be adding another layer of separation.

  3. Merely Me says:

    Hi John

    You are a brilliant writer indeed. It is hard to be well in many respects. I think for some of us there is this worry that…”will I be liked if I am well?” It is a crazy concept but when you live with dysfunction…you might be with people who like you better when you are down.

    And too it is somewhat easier to be down…to not have any expectations…no aspirations…no place to fall as you are already down.

    Anyways…great writing as usual. You always get me to delve deeper into my own inner world.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Diane! You’re too kind. Your question is one I’ve never asked myself. When I’m down, I’m so dysfunctional and absent that I don’t remember what’s just been discussed, even when I seem to be listening. At its worst, I speak and think slowly, and people start filling in sentences – totally embarrassing. When well, I’m really present and part of what’s happening. Friends and family always comment on the contrast. If I thought people liked me better when down, though, that would really reinforce staying in that comfortable dark cell. Will you write about this? I’d love to read the responses.

      Thanks for being here – and being your brilliant and highly functional self!


  4. Gianna says:

    Disguising them in judgments of myself pulled them into depression. That helped to confirm what depression told me was true, at the cost of never seeing who was really talking to me. There was no other person, only me with a different face.

    THAT is a brilliant insight! Absolutely genius. Not only depressives suffer from it though, most people with mental distress or even denial of mental distress (that is actually there) of any kind do…it’s a profound part of the human condition that we must free ourselves from.

    I certainly recognized myself.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Gianna! I’m very touched and kind of wordless here. Your thoughts mean so much to me. – I never know what part of my experience will resemble what others go through. It’s so helpful to know. Thank you again!

      All love — John

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