Every person who has lived with depression has a unique story to tell, and I’ve read or listened to dozens of them since starting this blog. Rarely, though, have I found a narrative that so closely parallels my own experience as Tony Giordano’s does. It’s Not All In Your Head: Unearthing the Deep Roots of Depression has one passage after another that I could have written about my own struggle.
Most familiar to me is the overall arc of his experience:
- the mysterious and devastating onset of illness,
- recognizing the problem as depression and searching for help,
- taking charge of his treatment,
- making connections between his present problems and childhood trauma,
- gradually achieving remission of symptoms,
- realizing that he needed to aim not just for remission but for a life of holistic wellness,
- supporting the ongoing work of recovery by changing his overall style of living.
A Baffling Crisis
Finding out that you’re depressed is a difficult realization for most people but especially for folks like Tony Giordano. Just as I did, he grew up in an earlier generation when no one talked or knew much about depression. Men, in particular, learned to deal with emotional problems on their own. If they couldn’t, they were weak and unreliable. So depression was far from his mind when his worklife and a successful career started to fall apart. (This part of his story is especially telling for me because it parallels some of the most painful experiences I had, as I’ve written about here.)
Terrible stress in his job triggered symptoms of depression that were especially baffling and frightening. Suddenly his sharp mind couldn’t focus and at times blanked out; he had episodes of total disorientation; his motivation was gone; he couldn’t finish his projects on time. He felt overwhelmed and sinking under a terrible weight, and above all he felt empty, weak and hopeless inside. A number of physical ailments added to his general sense of collapse.
Recognizing Depression and Getting Help
He never associated any of this with depression until his family doctor “said in a soft serious tone” that this was very likely the problem. It was stunning news since he “wanted no part of the label ‘depressed’.”
As hard as that was to take, he could at last, in his late 40’s begin to deal with the illness. Like all of us, Giordano had to wade through all the misinformation and quick-fix promises we’re confronted with every day in order to focus on what was causing his depression. After a disappointing experience with cognitive therapy, he realized there were much deeper roots to his depression than simply habits of distorted thinking.
I was getting a strange, unsettled feeling, as if a force deep within was haunting me, conquering me. I thought about a lot of things as I tried to understand what was happening. It didn’t take long for me to wonder if this may have to do with events in my childhood, events that were painful to think about.
This realization triggered a new determination to seek a different form of treatment and find his own road to recovery.
Searching for Causes
He made many breakthroughs through intensive reading that helped him understand how his past had shaped so much of his life. He credits this bibliotherapy as a critical part of his recovery. Two of the key books he frequently refers to are Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Charles Whitfield’s Healing The Child Within.
What he came to realize was how traumatized he had been by his father’s drunken rages and abusive behavior toward his mother. Continued over many years throughout his childhood, this ongoing trauma forced him, as it does most children, to find ways to protect himself. He distanced himself from his feelings and felt a detachment and dissociation from people around him. As he grew older, he put the pain of that childhood experience so far out of awareness that it took him decades to reconnect himself with the emotional depth of his own past.
Charles Whitfield’s description of the damaged child and the long term consequences of the trauma of family violence immediately struck a chord. It captured much of his experience perfectly. He realized that post-traumatic stress disorder was another name for many of the problems he was associating with depression. He found that the range of symptoms he experienced could be explained by a number of different psychiatric diagnoses. They seemed to him artificial distinctions, and he felt they were likely different manifestations of a single underlying problem.
Both on his own and with the help of therapists, he gradually came to terms with the powerful impact of his early life. A pivotal part of his recovery occurred as he relived the emotions of that trauma in a therapeutic environment. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is one of the methods that has helped him in recent years to recall and finally process the feelings linked to the memories he had buried for so long.
After his first major episode of depression, Tony Giordano seems to have achieved what psychiatrists generally aim for – remission of symptoms. He felt tremendous relief at getting past the worst and realized he needed to do something to reduce the pressure and stress of his work life to keep another crisis away. Given the practical difficulties of making a major career change, however, he was able to make only a relatively minor shift. Unfortunately, depression returned, and he started a decline in his effectiveness and job circumstances similar to what he had experienced the first time around.
Emerging from that second crisis, he realized that the medical model aiming only at remission of symptoms was based on a negative concept of illness and deficiency. What he needed was a concept of wellness to guide him in a more holistic way. He saw the need to heal on all levels – mental, emotional, physical, social, spiritual. That meant more than a temporary stint of rehabilitation. It required a fundamental change in the conditions of his life.
This time he was able to switch his career from the business world to that of college teaching. He not only found new stimulation in his work but could also avoid the level of stress that leads so readily to depression. In addition, he learned about the importance of finding ways to relax by living in the present instead of focusing on the past or the future. His work of recovery continues today, and he remains alert for the sudden impact of depression symptoms.
Reading honest portrayals of depression by people who have lived with it is not just a learning experience. It’s a healing one as well. I think you’ll gain a lot from reading It’s Not All In Your Head: Unearthing the Deep Roots of Depression. Let us know here if it helps you understand a bit more about the process of recovery.
Evin k says
John , your story about the need for explanations from our childhood past seems vital to resolving my own depression as well .my question is this :- why do doctors and well intended family members constantly try to steer me away from trying to link my past to my present ?I genuinely feel I need to understand my childhood / teenage years better as I regularly make links between current symptoms and ones I had back then
Or is it the case that all the backtracking is just another symptom of the illness ? I’m sure you have gone through something similar , you end up coming to the conclusion that it is irrelevant
Really interesting story John. I’m going to look out for this book. I read another one you recommended, I forget the name, about a writer who lost the use of his legs, and it was excellent. I also get a lot out of reading other people’s stories, and if they are good writers as this one was, that’s an added bonus.
Hi, Ellen –
The other book is A Whole New Life by Reynolds Price. It would be unfair to compare the quality of writing of these two. Price was one of the great novelists of the Roth-Updike era who wrote dozens of books. Tony is a regular guy who wrote his book out of a desire to share experience that could be helpful to others. But both succeed as helpful examples of recovery from major illness.
Thanks for taking the time to comment.