Depression blogger Therese Borchard’s great piece about developing our own “healing packages” of activities, resources and comforts. Read her Blog
Depression isn’t just an illness. It’s a messenger.
In his book, Unstuck, James Gordon, M.D., writes:
“Depression is not a disease, the end point of a pathological process. It is a sign that our lives are out of balance, that we’re stuck. It’s a wake-up call and the start of a journey that can help us become whole and happy, a journey that can change and transform our lives. Healing depression and overcoming unhappiness mean dealing more effectively with stress; recovering physical and psychological balance; reclaiming parts of ourselves that we’ve ignored or suppressed: and appreciating the wholeness that has somehow slipped away from us, or that we have never really known”.
If we would but listen, we might find that our depression is trying to tell us something; important insights about our lives and the ways we live it that might be keeping us mired in a soupy gloom.
We often don’t heed our inner wisdom, but keep going full-speed ahead in the wrong direction anyway. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. observed, “Depression is a vicious circle and we keep doing these destructive patterns because “we don’t how to do anything else.”
When we think of depression only as an illness, we oversimplify its causes and remedies. No doubt, it has profound effects on our brains and bodies. Surely, it runs in families and likely has a genetic component. But if it were only that, a blue pill would solve the problem. And it doesn’t.
The pain of depression may be an impetus for sufferers to live a more authentic life. Often people who suffer from depression are living from a wounded place within themselves. Along the way, they learned that they weren’t “good” enough or were “bad people”. As a consequence, they learned to hide their true needs and wants and live an inauthentic life; a life that may not work, but they don’t know how to change.
In this vein, folks can come to think of depression as some sort of punishment: a recompense of some unknown sins from an undefined past. Or, maybe the very real wrongs they may have committed are magnified, as they are prone to be in the mind of a depressive, by the process of generalization: a known cognitive trick of depression where we take a negative incident (e.g. “I lost this case”) and turn it into “Why am I such a failure?”
Depression doesn’t just happen to anyone. Rather, it is the accumulation of a lifetime of varying degrees of psychic pain suffered during a lifetime, often starting in early childhood. In our early years, many learned that it was dangerous to live from a space of our true selves because of a parent who was an alcoholic, abusive or in some way emotional abusive or absent.
Ellen McGrath, Ph.D., writes:
“Scientists know that traumatic experiences such as child abuse and neglect change the chemistry and even the structure of the brain. They sensitize the stress response system so that those who are abused become overly responsive to environmental pressures. They shape wiring patterns in the brain and reset the sensitivity level of the machinery. Eventually, even small degrees of stress provoke an outpouring of stress hormones, and these hormones in turn act directly on multiple sites to produce the behavioral symptoms of depression. They push the brain’s fear center into overdrive, churning out negative emotions that steer the depression’s severity and add a twist of anxiety”.
Our parents, acting out of their own wounded souls, unconsciously played out their unresolved pain with us during our childhood. They did so because of their distorted way of seeing the world; a place that they found threatening, its problems unsolvable and against them at every turn. This hardened them and led them to fail in life’s most important vocation: the nurturance of their own children.
I recall my mom saying to me as a child, “Well, what are you going to do?” While one could say this was the innocuous lament of a middle-aged mother of 5 kids, later in life I learned it was mom’s worldview that there weren’t really solutions to life’s fundamental problems, that we are, at our core, helpless in the face of life’s thorny challenges.
My mom suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression for most of her life. I now see how this passive, victimized way of seeing the world took root in my psyche as a young man. And how hard I had to work to overcome it over the years; how I had to struggle to listen less to the inner voice and critic of my parents and incline my ears toward my true self which was always there waiting to be heard.
In Listening to Depression, psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb writes that depression is trying to tell us something: that we are on the wrong track in life. In this sense, depression can be a teacher if we would only listen to it.
How can we come to see depression as a teacher? Honos-Webb writes:
“Depression can be seen as a break-down in the service of offering the person an opportunity for a break-through. In this way, depression can be a corrective feedback to a life with little reflection. We only reflect on those things that break down in life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.”
I admit that it’s hard to see depression’s value when in the thick of it, the swamp through which we slog with little relief. But there’s much to be said for seeing depression not just as a disease, but as a messenger that our lives need to change for us to heal.
Two people look out the same prison doors: one sees mud and the other stars. – Frederick Langbridge.
Some of our best efforts to escape the deep mud of depression are misguided – – we step hard on the gas pedal only to find our wheels spinning deeper and deeper into the gooey, brown earth.
We keep using depressive thinking to get ourselves out of, well, depressive thinking. We are asking the wrong questions: “What’s wrong with me, why can’t I fix this, I suck at being a lawyer, my life is a mess.” Surely, this is not the tow truck we need to pull us out of the swampland of depression.
Depression makes us feel like we are stuck in our lives; we can’t seem to move forward beyond our melancholic sighs. According to psychologist Rollo May: “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” Maybe this is so because the muck of depression is so painful and deadening that it freezes us like a deer caught in a steel trap.
Depression also handcuffs us to our past. We mercilessly ruminate about all the ways our lives have gone wrong. We marshal the evidence against ourselves and “guilty” is the verdict every god damn time. What are we really “guilty” of? Of being a human being who makes mistakes. As newspaper columnist Jan Glidewell once wrote: “You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”
Our real and true self is sandwiched between our negative views of the past and our inability to move forward – hence, our bogged down blues. We have to let go of the past and lean into a vision of a more optimistic future to begin living our lives again.
We largely ignore the truth that we are not perfect – like every other person on the planet because we likely didn’t learn it in childhood. Perhaps, as much of the research as suggested, we were the victims of parents or other caretakers who caused us as children to see ourselves as “bad” or “the problem” instead of the out of control parent(s) who dumped their toxic thoughts and/or unhealty thoughts and emotions on our precious heads.
Our child’s mind, which lived in a world of magical thinking, was simply unable to process these painful interactions with our parental giants who held all the power. We could not reason that it was the caregiver(s) that was the “bad” one – and not ourselves. This dramatically changes how we view ourselves as people and we leave childhood with a high risk of adult onset clinical depression.
I was one of these children with a raging alcoholic father and a depressive mother. And I developed adult onset depression.
According to psychologist Richard O’Connor, author of the book and website Undoing Depression:
“Considerable research has shown that people with depression differ from others in how we perceive the world and ourselves, how we interpret and express feelings, and how we communicate with other people, particularly loved ones and people in authority. We think of ourselves as unable to live up to our own standards, we see the world as hostile and withholding, and we are pessimistic about things every changing. In our relationships with others we have unrealistic expectations, are unable to communicate our needs; misinterpret disagreement as rejection, and are self-defeating in our presentation. Finally, we are in the dark about human emotions. We don’t know what it’s like to feel normal. We fear the honest feelings will tear us apart or cause others to reject us. We need to learn to live with real feelings”.
Optimism researcher, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., wrote an article, “Why are lawyers so Unhappy?” which was reprinted on Lawyerwithdepression.com. The essence of the piece is that lawyers have a pessimistic cognitive thinking style which is groomed in law school. I think this theory is half-right: we are groomed to “think like a lawyer” in school, but many people who come into law school are already vulnerable to depression based on genetics and their childhood experiences. For these people, the stress of being a law student and the combat of practicing can law can tip them over into as state of depression.
In his book Unstuck, psychiatrist James Gordon, in a subchapter entitled, “From the Swamp of Stuckness to the River of Change,” writes:
“‘This is the way things have to be,” you may tell yourself. Or you plead, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ Pride and stubbornness and, of course, fear fix you in a circle of pointless argument and hurt. But it’s familiar and seems so justified. Even as the pain of stuckness becomes intolerable, or life begins to pry your fingers loose, you still hold on”.
“You’re afraid that without your familiar mooring you will lose hope and, perhaps, life. You will not let go, will not move into the current of your life, will not trust that this current will take you where you need to go. And go you continue to live less than fully, in denial of the change that is possible and necessary. And, as time goes on, as you persist in resisting or blocking your own movement, your depression may deepen”.
Dr. Gordon lays out his holistic approach to recovering from depression in a question and answer session on his website.
Depression gets to be a habit – a bad one. The more we depress, the more likely we are to become depressed in the future, the more likely are to become . . . stuck.
Please understand that your depressive thoughts are just broken records that keep repeating crummy tunes about yourselves. We become stuck because we refuse to change or we just don’t know how to do our life any other way. We need to let go and see that we can lead a very different and empowered life — a life without depression.