Even though I’ve written a great deal about recovery from depression, when I decided to pull my experiences together in A Mind for Life ebook, I ran into a lot of problems.
It’s so much easier to write about the miseries of the condition when it’s controlling your life than about the slow, stumbling process of getting better.
While I don’t pretend to have a roadmap or detailed process for recovery, I have learned by trial and error a lot of lessons that I believe can be helpful to others. Trying to write about them in a useful way, however, means walking a fine line that avoids both truism and preaching.
I need to be honest about the limits of my experience and my respect for the dozens of ways people deal with depression without sounding hopelessly vague or offering the empty idea that anything goes. Some paths into depression lose you in a maze, but some can guide you back out.
After searching for patterns in all the years of my attempts at recovery, I finally focused on the most basic ideas that I come back to again and again. These assumptions and beliefs form the bedrock not only of my understanding of recovery but also of my practice – the way I live my life now.
Learning How to Begin
I think of the book as an aid to getting started on recovery. It’s an overview of ideas and methods that have worked for me and for people whose judgment I have learned to trust. It’s about the things you can do for yourself and some of the things you can do with the guidance of trained therapists.
My assumption is that you are the most important part of your recovery, that your active participation in the process is essential. Depression is a condition that influences and changes all aspects of your life, and preventing it from overwhelming you requires your full focus and commitment.
That may sound obvious, but many people start, as I did, with the passive attitude of a patient waiting for the right treatment to bring the symptoms of illness to an end.
The fundamental shift that made so much difference to me was to stop thinking of illness and its limitations and to focus instead on changing the way I was living and work toward the kind of life I valued most highly.
Believing in myself enough to see beyond the need to alleviate symptoms was in itself one of the hardest changes, and there is no formula for getting the process underway.
All you can do is begin where you are, not at some ideal time when you will have lots of energy to get going. Starting can mean learning how to get yourself out of bed, snapping out of that empty stare into nothingness, looking directly into your loved one’s eyes instead of glancing away, or becoming aware of how negative everything seems.
Starting to learn your own way through depression, I found, also means paying more attention to the details of your condition rather than limiting yourself to the criteria used for diagnosis. The conclusions of studies and statistical profiles don’t really tell you anything about the specifics of your own life.
Tracking the things you do well and the difficulties you have every day is an effective guide to understanding, so I devote a lot of attention in the book to developing an approach to mapping out your own version of depression.
The detailed tracking of your condition also gets you thinking in a more active mode about what you can do. It helps awaken the long-dormant capability for taking action to change your life rather than waiting for the rescue of a cure.
It is like breaking the ice depression has sealed you in. Winter is often regarded as a time when everything dies, but in reality it is simply a time when life becomes smaller and more concentrated. Far from dead, it is compressed and waiting for the conditions that nurture growth to return. That seed of concentrated life remains within you.
Recovery is the process of bringing back the warmth and nurturing ground in which it can thrive.
A Mind for Recovery
You start by wanting to get rid of symptoms that threaten you with collapse. That is always the first priority. But ultimately, you need to shift the focus away from symptoms to the positive life you want.
Recovery becomes the process of taking control of your life away from depression. Instead of feeling driven by the condition and limited in what you can do, you want to be able to act in the ways that serve your deepest values.
To do that, you need to change the way you think about yourself and the beliefs that depression has drilled into you for years. All the beliefs that say over and over: can’t, won’t, shouldn’t and don’t bother trying.
You need to cultivate a mindset for recovery. Depression puts a hundred obstacles in the way – all the inner beliefs and voices that deter you from change.
Overcoming my own resistance has been at the heart of getting my life back. As I have worked on this book, I’ve realized how many skills I’ve had to learn simply to stop getting in my own way.
Those skills have become the equivalent of a video camera, helping me look at what I’m doing and listen to what I’m saying from a completely different perspective. They are the corrective to the inner story of defeat that I learned so well from depression.
There are so many human difficulties to overcome simply in accepting the idea that you can heal. A big one is learning to value yourself enough over the long term to believe that you deserve to live well.
Another challenge is how to accept the idea that it’s OK to have relapses without attacking yourself for not doing better and losing hope – and so losing the direction of your life all over again.
Tools and Touchstones
The specific strategies and practices you choose are up to you and will take trial and error to find. There will be losses as well as gains. You are learning new skills and giving up old habits that you’ve learned over many years.
I’ve described in this book the self-help tools I know best and the forms of psychotherapy that have helped me the most.
There is no getting around the difficulty of trying to change your life or the long time it is likely to take. You almost certainly need the support of many people: loved ones, peers in depression and professionals. Allowing yourself to ask for help is another challenge, another skill to learn, that keeps you on track.
The last part of the book, in a way, is about forgetting dreams of a better life in the future. I had to abandon dreams in favor of the daily reality of doing what I could do in the here and now. Whenever I started dreaming of how much better I wanted my life to be in the future, I knew I was drifting off into depression again. I was wishing that things would somehow get better rather than acting to make changes.
It was a signal to stop and refocus on what I value most in my life – my wife, my family, my writing, relationships, and the rest. These are the touchstones in the present that I have to stay with rather than dreams of a distant future.
What are the changes in your thinking and approach to daily life that have helped you get through depression and focus on the positive side of how you want to live?
I’m looking forward to your book, John. You have a real gift for writing about depression in such detail that we can’t help but see ourselves in your words.
It’s taken a long time to change my thinking about myself and I don’t think I could have done it without therapy, where I’ve been challenged to keep swimming every time I’ve started sinking. I agree with you about accepting relapses. How many times in our lives have we probably caught a cold or the flu? We recover and go about our lives and when we catch the next one, we generally don’t beat ourselves up about it. A very simple analogy, I know, but it doesn’t help anything to let ourselves feel like failures if depression reappears. And yes, abandoning the dreams – there’s a grief, I think, that goes with that. In my case, however, I never let myself have any, so I’ve had to slowly learn how to listen to my heart and believe that maybe some realistic ones are possible.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Judy –
The cold is a good analogy when you how many times you go through the same self-condemnation for being ill with depression. Do believe in the dream – albeit a “realistic” one.
Thanks for your kind thoughts about my writing.
Dick Sederquist says
I like your article. It reminds of my own attempts to outline my steps to recovery. On my blog (Messages of Hope) I’m currently listing and describing my personal “rules for survival”, one each week. As I say, it’s time tested on a party of one. We are all unique, but any suggesions from others who have been there are worth considering. It’s a good way of starting a conversation, even if it’s only in your head. I use my “rules” as examples to get the conversation moving in my volunteer prison discussion group. They, in turn, come up with some of their own great rules. Conversation and discussion is a great way of learning things you would never have thought of on your own.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Dick –
Starting a conversation in your own head is a great thought. I guess much of what I write is my way of doing just that. It’s not a matter of ruminating but of finding a way to challenge assumptions when activities that once aided recovery are becoming routine and meaningless.
Thanks for your ideas.
Wendy Love says
I like your approach so far.
I agree with your opening remarks that no one wants to be preached at.
I agree with you that we will all have to create our own depression recovery road map and that it takes time, a lot of time, and a lot of trial and error.
One of the mindsets I have had to struggle with is feeling useless. Depression has forced me to withdraw from some activities which tire me and being tired for me, leads to depression. So I don’t feel as vital or as filled with purpose as I once did.
But I continue to remind myself that managing this illness is now my full time job. And so my measure of success on any given day is what I did to manage me.
Even resting can be something I can be successful with!
What I would like to see you avoid is any promises that such and such will bring success. As you have pointed out, each of our journeys is as unique as we are ourselves. Some strategies work for some people and not for others.
I like how you described the mindset you needed in order to begin the recovery process. Establishing that is key.
Could you not just present the strategies like “here is what I tried, and here is the measure of success I experienced. You may get a different result, but it is worth a try.”
…just some thoughts…
John Folk-Williams says
Thanks, Wendy –
Yes, that is the approach I will use – to point out what I have tried or am working with now – maybe it could help. This is such a sensitive area that it’s easy to come across as more directive than I want to, especially after having learned some lessons the hard way. I constantly have to remind myself of how diverse the journeys are.
And yes, resting can be an accomplishment – or perhaps giving yourself permission to rest is the accomplishment?