Sometimes relapse into depression comes on like the weather, suddenly there, a change in the atmosphere you breathe and the temperature and moisture of the air around you. I’ve been feeling that lately and find myself in the midst of a cool and sad stillness that draws my attention in with an almost magnetic force.
I sit and stare at nothing as if it were the most important thing I had ever encountered. I become endlessly fascinated, as I might when watching the roiling gray on the other side of an airplane window.
This state of mis-being has arrived with a little help from medication. I have felt my body and mind adjusting to losing the last traces of lamictal (lamotrigine). I am now off the drug but continue to have the mental lethargy that has been part of withdrawal.
A second drug has also caused problems, but its use is not related to treatment for depression. I was given a 10-day course of prednisone to relieve severe arthritis pain. The prednisone had the effect of first revving up my system and then dropping me into the mesmerizing world of empty stares.
So here is another test of resilience as I try to refocus myself and regain my inner sense of being in charge of what I do each day.
A Mirror for Depression
Last night, I watched part of a movie (Oslo, August 31st) about a depressed young man, but it was not the sort of film that dramatically transforms the experience. It realistically depicted a guy who had given up on himself, and it was too painfully familiar for me to watch all the way through, given the way I was feeling.
However, this morning I realized that it really had helped me to see someone going through this in light-of-day realism. So I watched the rest of it today, not for fun but to work my way out of relapse.
I could see the character shining a spotlight on himself. Within that bright circle of cold light he could see every scar he carried, convinced that his mental clarity revealed the ugly truth of his worthless existence.
He reached out to people, but each of his friends stood outside the spotlight in a shadowy haze. Everything they pointed out to help him could be pushed away as a shadowy half-truth. He knew the real truth, that he was a hopeless case, and everyone else had it wrong.
The friends he turned to could see he was unreachable, but had to try to get through. Their words of concern and support were all tossed aside and provoked only anger.
Believing in Self-Judgment
It was excruciating to watch the character live through this and believe the convincing falsehoods of depression as if they were the laws of nature. I lost all patience listening to him and kept wanting to switch off the film. All the classic lines came to mind, the scorning dismissal of the people who just don’t get it, but I was the one who was thinking them.
“Stop whining! Wake up and look around you! Pull yourself together!” I realized that all those empty phrases came out of my own uneasiness and fear of being trapped in that same place, as I had been in the past. As I feared I was being trapped right then.
But as difficult as it might have been to watch the film, it helped me gain the distance I needed from my own relapsing self. I could see the character in the setting of his world as he could not see himself. I could see the larger self that he insisted on narrowing into a few searing judgments that he accepted as the full reality of who he was. In this way, I could step back from my own depressive mindset and find a place in which I could regroup.
It struck me how much depression tells you about what you cannot do. Every talent is disparaged as fake, every accomplishment becomes the opposite of what it is. The tags of value placed on each action and ability become more important than the things themselves.
The negative judgment becomes more real than the experience of making something. You savage everything you prize in yourself. It’s no wonder that when this inner attack stops, and the fight against yourself comes to an end, you can have the feeling of rediscovering their own abilities. You realize that the talents you had refused to nurture out of contempt for their limits are still there to be cultivated.
Resilience is Creative
One way to think about the change of outlook in depression is that it limits your mind primarily to the judging and rule-following part of the brain that interprets experience on a verbal level. When balanced with input from the rest of the mind’s experience, the words and ideas can add to the sense of wholeness in life.
In depression, that other side of living, the intuitive, felt experience that happens before words form is screened out. The judgements, words and rules become the whole reality. The experience of meeting a friend is lost, and the judgment about having done the wrong thing is all you can feel.
Resilience is the mind opening up to the fullness of experience again. Instead of accepting the reality of left-brain judgments and value labels, you rediscover creativity by opening to intuitive, nonverbal experience. The internal norms and verbal formulas for evaluation become less important than the felt experience of trying something new, creating something you had forgotten you could do.
Recovery is a learning process, and one of the most important things is to get back in touch with things you can do well.
An Inner Shift
Today, I realized that the effort to stare directly into the deadly stillness of depression had helped something shift inside. It was like pulling at a heavy rock and feeling it move just enough to know that it can be lifted out of the way. It might take a better tool and certainly full concentration on the task, but it can be done.
That sense of movement is all it takes these days to get me going again. But for a few days I had been suspended, as if in a pause during which I could observe everything I was trying to do but unable to move ahead with anything.
It was a time of resting, perhaps finding refuge, in a state of incompleteness. It’s a dazing sort of mind, detached but not in the energizing way that mindfulness brings. It’s a state of fear muffled in drowsiness. If anxiety is fear shot through with pointless action, this is the quiet version, fear muted and slowed in motion. I’m glad to be out of it now.
What helps you achieve an inner shift, a tipping of the balance from depression back in the direction of feeling fully alive again?
This is a post from the archives.
Oh wow, this was such a powerful piece. I can most certainly relate to a lot of your experiences. This year my depression and anxiety symptoms (originally rooted in childhood trauma) hit an all-time high after the loss of a loved one and the end of a 7-year relationship. I didn’t think I would ever feel better. I am a therapist, but I too need someone to help remind me about challenging my negative thoughts with positives and trying all of the holistic methods I know and tell others to do…lol. Recently I decided to try micronutrients, as antidepressants and antianxiety medications never gave me the relief I sought, and the side effects were dangerous and worse than my initial symptoms. Anyway, I’ve only been taking them for a few days, and I already feel amazing. I mean, I haven’t felt this happy since I was a very young child playing on the beach at my grandmother’s house in the summertime. It’s pretty awesome. I just wanted to share this with everyone in the hopes of it helping someone else feel as good as I do right now after feeling so sad for so long. <3
Here’s a link to some of the research I’ve come across all on one site for those of you who are interested in giving micronutrients a try for treating symptoms of depression and anxiety: http://bit.ly/2wavcCU
John, thanks for sharing this and I’m glad you’re feeling better now. The thing I grapple with sometimes is trying not to judge myself negatively for being rather idle when I don’t have the energy to get going on something. I’m so used to thinking of myself as lazy that it’s hard not to go there. I find, too, that being involved or engaged in something I care about helps break the descent – something that grabs my attention and gives me a little boost of energy. It seems like I have to strike a balance between being productive and knowing when it’s okay to let something go and not feel responsible for everything in my immediate world. Feeling overwhelmed with “shoulds” can often lead me to the edge of darkness.
Hope you’re feeling much better, John… Funny thing, I just experienced a few days of this myself, where I felt I was headed back into darkness, afraid to work because I might mess something up, afraid to communicate with anyone because I felt stupid. I avoid people in general. When this happens, it helps me to have a project going on, even if it is something for myself only. The current project I have for a client had taken a back seat for three days, but I finally opened up the file on the computer, saw what needed done, and that seemed to snap me out of things a bit. I was able to refocus and get some work done. At the end of the day today, I felt better because I accomplished something, so I felt it would be fine, in fact great, if I did nothing else the rest of the night. And here I am still on the computer! I’m feeling better, but, for me, it was a close call. Could easily have been that I’d hide in bed for days.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Lisa –
Thanks, I do feel much better. A project usually helps me too – in fact, getting this post done got me over the hurdle. More and more, I try to follow the practical advice of Judith Fast – doing work when you’re depressed usually turns out better than you think. In other words, all the self-judgment doesn’t cancel the effectiveness of what you do. I always feel better when I can force myself through the blank wall that seems to block me and get a few sentences down. Or go talk to someone when I feel like the words don’t want to come out of my mouth.
I’m glad to hear your method is working for you now. Stay well.
As a fellow depressive and also fellow arthritee (I have a weird form of inflammatory arthritis of the spine called ankylosing spondylitis), I wanted to comment briefly, although I know this is going to wander a bit as I’m writing kind of quickly. Everything you say about how you are pulling yourself back from the edge of relapse is very exact and rings so true. I have learned through living with a painful, changeable and rather dreary disease a lot about patience and letting things take their own time and being ok with small steps that seem useless at times–things that are helpful to me in continuing to deal with long-term depression. The focus that you have put–with the movie to concentrate and sharpen it–on the depression even as you feel it grabbing you seems the ideal thing to stop it for a second, just long enough to slightly change your path, to get that bit of distance and mindfulness and detachment about it, and then I think it would be fair to recognize the various external factors–and pain, without any other factor or any ‘unhealthy’ ways of thinking, can be enough to bring on depression despite trying hard to maintain a good attitude, especially if it is grinding, unrelieved pain–that together contribute to that blanket of bad feelings that can come on and then develop its own momentum that is hard to stop. Sorry about all the mixed metaphors. Having just slightly found distance from your own experience, hopefully you can start to chip away at each of the external things that get to you. Don’t mean to be too prescriptive, this is meant to be empathetic but more a general reflection than to suggest what you should do. For that, maybe just to note that your clarity about how you feel seems like an important early step in pulling back from it, and starting with time to get in a more positive spiral towards better feelings. Best, Carly
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, carly –
Yes, the clarity about what I feel is an important first step. It means sitting with the feelings rather than trying to blot them out as I used to do. I’m sorry to hear that you have to live with so much pain – mine comes on a few times a year at the most, due to problems in both upper and lower spine. Dealing with it reminds me of Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, which he wrote primarily for chronic pain patients. Apparently, pain and depression use the same neural pathways through the body so it is no coincidence that they reinforce each other and that dealing with one helps the other. Have the mindfulness techniques Kabat-Zinn discusses helped you with chronic pain?
Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you’re feeling OK.
Yeah, full catastrophe living is great. I did do the kabat-zinn mindfulness course a few years ago, and found it very helpful for both issues. i’m feeling fine for the most part–you get used to things, as i’m sure you know, and i’m not in pain at all most of the time thanks to the wonder drugs (biological modifiers) that i am trying hard not to be neurotic about. your site and writing are beautiful and wise and i check them often. thanks so much. carly
Lately I have felt such irritability and impatience with everything that slows me down. Maybe it is expressed in the curent fall season: things going underground, hibernating, exhausting themselves in a final burst of color and becoming dormant. I don’t want there to be a time of rest! I need to be moving and producing creatively and absorbing new information but there is a conspiracy of events and, I admit, moods, invading my space and wasting my time. It is frustrating to want to focus my senses and interests and natural talents on those “things I do well” and be robbed of the time and energy. Depression has a way of doing that.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Donna –
Exactly, depression – to the extent that it’s part of the conspiracy to slow you down – is a huge waste of time. It deserves a time zone of its own where the pace is geological.