Fighting Back – 1: Changing Belief about Depression

Depression is a strange thing. No one seems able to explain exactly what it is, yet there is no doubting the reality of its pain. I’ve had it with me since boyhood, though at that time, I was years away from even hearing the term, let alone getting treatment.  I grew up with it, not only experiencing my own moods, headaches and gradual isolation but also watching my mother succumb for years without ever seeking help. In those days, either you had a “nervous breakdown” (something I could only imagine as a kid as writhing and thrashing about on the floor) or you were fine. I was clearly fine – the top-of-my-class kind of fine. It was bizarre hearing people praise me often when I knew damn well that it was all phoney. Those grown-ups might be fooled, but I knew deep down how worthless I was. I lived in fear that this fact would be discovered.

Even as an adult, long after I had been through numerous talking therapies and medications and accepted the fact that I had this condition, I still couldn’t quite believe that it wasn’t just something incorrigible and rotten about me that was really the problem. I could see clearly enough that my moods, anger and isolation were damaging my family and the core relationship with my wife, and that recognition prompted many efforts to get help.  None of them had a lasting effect, though they all helped me grasp in powerful ways the influences of my past that played a role in distorting the balanced psyche I was born with. In fact, I made one breakthrough after another in recognizing destructive patterns of behavior and learning ways to prevent them from controlling my actions. My wife joined me in therapy at times, and those experiences helped keep us together. But depression kept coming back, and I kept returning to the feeling that I must be at fault. When problems started emerging at work, I made only a tenuous connection with depression and couldn’t shake the inner conviction that it was just my inadequacy or stupidity at the heart of the problem.

Eventually, I did come to accept the idea that depression was an illness. I even tried to be open in discussing it with friends, but there were many who didn’t know what to make of this. Some understood depression vaguely as a kind of cosmic anomie that must be caused by an intellectual conclusion I had reached about the futility and meaninglessness of life. Others would ask me about what had been going on lately, suggesting some external cause or event that was getting me down. No, I would try to explain, it doesn’t have a cause, that is, it’s not a response to anything I think or experience. It just takes over – it’s always there in the background, like any chronic disease that never gets cured. Or some would get restless and look as if they wanted to tell me to buck up and get a hold on myself. Emotional issues were embarrassing to discuss. They wanted to run far from that kind of talk. I even had to listen to a therapist of an alternative bent tell me, after my decades of dealing with the condition, that depression was a popular ailment these days because of the influence of advertising and the eagerness of drug companies to promote their products. He knew what real depression was like from his clinical experience, and he thought that strenuous exercise and deep massage would set me right.

Socially and culturally, the messages still made it seem so wrong to be depressed, as if it were a moral failing, and that only reinforced my worst fears. One person, who called to tell me about the shocking suicide of a young friend, long troubled by depression, concluded by calling him a failure, someone who’d had all the advantages but still managed to lose himself. I couldn’t think what to say to him, the gulf between our understandings was so great. I knew full well that our friend was no failure, but I couldn’t avoid feeling that I was failing. I was afraid I might be next on this grim list.

I wound up having to choose very carefully who I talked to about this condition. But it was still hard not to believe that on some level I was using depression as a rationalization for my own weaknesses, a cover for the knowledge that I was just no good.

What I came to realize, after too many years, was that in accepting the reality of those beliefs, I was still lost in depression itself. I had to get to a place where I could finally look around the edges of that thinking, to grasp that self-contempt was a symptom and that as the depression lifted, what I believed about myself and the possibilities of life could also change. And the trick was to understand this not just on an intellectual level (that was the easy part) but on the deepest level of belief. How do you change belief? I’m still not sure how it happened, but I know it did. As a line in a film said about everything coming together on stage for a play, It’s a mystery.

Mystery or not, that was the turning point for me, the missing piece that suddenly made all the treatments I was getting begin to work in a more lasting way. That belief gave me the one tool I could always use, even in the worst despair. And it gave me hope.

I’ll post more about how that change took place. In the meantime, it would be so helpful to hear what you have been through in understanding this condition and learning how to fight back.

 

Photo Credit: Derek Benjamin Lilly – MorgueFile

5 Responses to “Fighting Back – 1: Changing Belief about Depression”

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  1. Peter says:

    Thank you for submitting your experience here, the part about giving any belief a reality or a stage for that to play out, has given me a new perspective, I was always searching for the answer to ”Who Am I” or Who are We” in the broader sense, we are here for a reason, as opposed to the notion that all is born from chaos which I personally regard as a ridiculous notion. The mind is a powerful tool as is imagination, we may choose to follow our heart’s desire, one of mine is to seek to know why we exist, at the age of 55 I still search, I can say that search has brought me to many new understandings, we are in a unique age where information is becoming widely available to all.
    Depression has hindered me throughout life, a real struggle, daily, some better than others.
    To make matters worse we lost my daughter to Cystic Fibrosis in may 2011 she was 30yrs of age and left a son of 18mths, we were heartbroken, then in 2013 our son was murdered, stabbed, he too left a son of 17mths, devastation set in, and the road of simply surviving became painful in the extreme, I am receiving counseling presently for bereavement which is actually how I accepted that my depression was always present throughout my life, I had been dealing with depression either ok or badly for numerous years before my children died.
    Learning to watch my thoughts requires a vigilant watch as these thoughts and feelings have become habitual over many years, and though powerful they will pass, these thoughts seek a grounding by harnessing our heart and emotions which supplies ‘fuel’ and continuation, whether to the negative aspect or the positive, it is not easy to always be in control of our thinking processes, but as this account says it is our beliefs or mindset that can become habitual, I remember when I quit smoking, I rolled my own, so what I did was I saved 2 weeks of butts in a tin, when my baccy ran out I said to myself if you want to smoke you must use the butts to make a roll-up, it was so disgusting that I quit. I recognize how my depression has affected others around me and I know I must change, and re-learn how to separate my wrong thinking, it will take a lot of practice to improve, I can only try, I just want my quality of life to improve, an need to love myself or how else will I have positive love for those around me.
    I am encouraged by all the good people here trying to seek help for their personal journey of self discovery, we all have good in us, I do believe that.

  2. Karen says:

    I must say I found this website at the right moment. The idea of taking an active part in treating my depression was already there, but I was so lost… However, I read each line of these articles and it’s like looking at this part of myself in a mirror. It’s also an affirmation of what I had already begun to see, but the concept is more rounded, simple and true.

    Currently, I’m going through the ‘acceptance’ phase. I mean, that I got this in my life, that is not my fault, that medical treatments, medications and even therapy have failed (in my case), that I will have better days, and really awful days when I will not be able to function. And that the ideal concept of a cure -followed by a ‘state of happiness’- is not realistic… For the time being I get “flashes” of this acceptance, which I have processed intellectually (as you said) but has not yet become a belief.

    Suddenly I realise that, at this point, I get to understand my depression better than many doctors and therapists… and most of them are nice people, good at their professions, and have the best intentions. As to friends and family… you know, being called lazy, weak, a coward, calling for attention, even manipulative. My best friend told me once “I don’t believe in depression” -whatever that means to him-.
    So now I also choose who to share these feelings with: that alone has been a relief, because I no longer blame them for not understanding, I think it must be hard to understand… even I have been tempted to deny what was going on! So I do not pretend, I just do not share what I know beforehand they cannot handle.

    I have a great concern now: to find a way of making a living. I have been fired from my latest two jobs because of my overreactions and other depression and anxiety-related issues. I mean, they did not mention that, but I do know… I’m broke and the country’s financial chronic uncertainty does not help (I’m from Argentina… so please excuse my poor English, by the way!). Public mental health is inexistent, in fact my experience in that system has been kind of a nightmare.

    I haven’t yet find in my country a group or website with a message so clear, experience-based, positive in its approach yet keeping things true and honest about depression.

    So thank you, because sharing your experience and what you have learned is really helping me in finding my own path.

    All the best,

    Karen

  3. Donna-1 says:

    I realize this is several years after these original comments were made, but unfortunately, depression does not always acknowledge the passage of years by changing, evolving, or translating itself into a more easily understood language. Where I find myself bogged down is multi-faceted…or maybe “all tangled up” would be a better way of putting it. I find my usual half-dozen starting places for climbing out and employ them regularly only to find I only get so far, then I get discouraged, and am back at square one again all too soon. I make a great show and fanfare of feeling better and making progress because — hey, isn’t that worth celebrating? I write notes to friends, supporters, and depression forum citizens saying that it is possible to recover from depression because I have obviously reached recovery myself. I feel it in my bones, that evidence of new life, and it is very real. No doubt it is real. But then not long afterwards comes the embarrassing truth; it’s back again. And it doesn’t seem like I have reverted to any old subversive thought patterns, not made any significant changes in medication or diet or exercise, not done one damn thing that would account for the backslide. But there it is.

    I need a better long-range plan for dealing with depression. Maybe it is simply one of those cycles of nature: spring, summer, fall, winter, and now it’s time to get out my coat again and hunker down by the fire and wait it out. The hell of it is, I keep thinking I’ve got it conquered — that my mind has migrated to a more temperate climate, that I have accumulated a pile of healthy responses to draw on, or even that I accept the limitations of depression and can go on with my life. But then comes another harsh winter of reality. And the depression bites down hard and spineless as ice.

  4. john@storiedmind.com says:

    Ben –

    Thanks for your interesting comment.

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been through so many treatments without
    finding any lasting help. Whatever it may seem from my posts, I haven’t
    found it either, but I have made progress in developing tools to get
    through each day. In fact, writing is itself the most important tool of
    all for me.

    I don’t know that I had any control over changing the basic belief about
    myself. As you’ll see from other things I’ve written, I’m constantly
    losing touch with that belief, as I get new attacks of this illness.

    One way I’ve changed my thinking is to stop imagining that there is a state
    of happiness out there that I will one day attain. Accepting the reality
    that I’m fighting this thing every day, and probably for the rest of my
    life, makes it much easier to deal with each wave of depression that
    comes along.

    I sympathize about your brother – but remember what he believes is his
    problem, not yours. I keep wondering what it is about depression that
    causes that reaction in so many people. It’s hard to believe that anyone
    could read all that’s out there about the disease without seeing that
    it’s not a question of willpower and inner strength. But lots of people
    just get angry about it – what bugs them is something deep that they’ll
    probably never examine.

    Anyway, best of luck to you.

    John

  5. Ben says:

    Excellent personal experience! Thanks for sharing it with me. (Sorry, I don’t know your name.)

    Now, of course, I want to know how you change “beliefs.” I’ve been trying to fix myself for years. Therapists. Books. Doctors. Medications. Hospitalizations. ECT.

    Yes! I should be happy. Or at least content. I have so many blessings. But I continue to be, most of the time, a very pained unhappy man.

    There have been so many attempts at examining my beliefs; how I translate who I am; how I participate in the world; how I process my past, my relationship with family and the other 7-billion people clinging to life on the planet. But I still keep finding myself in that desperate, too familiar black room.

    You write about those who evaluate people with chronic depression, or other mood disorders, with little or no understanding. Well, you really mirror my own experience. My older and only brother still thinks it’s about character, drive and determination. Even when I’ve tried to “educate” him that depression (and bipolar illness) are real and valid illnesses, he still doesn’t buy it. “If I’ve succeeded so can you!” (Of course, it does make him feel superior.)

    The number of times I’ve beaten, pushed, demeaned myself in attempts to change are numberless. So many attempts. So many failures.

    Thanks again for writing and sharing.

    Ben

    PS: This is a fantastic website — not only in content but in its design. Did you do it?

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