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