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A Strange Question about Recovery from Depression: Why Get Well?

John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More

Several years ago, as I was working hard to get the better of depression, I asked myself a basic question: Why get well? After all, if I’m trying so hard to get rid of a condition I’ve had for most of my life, I ought to be able to see what I’m aiming for.

Living without depression seemed the obvious goal. The idea of “fighting” depression made me think of the military kind of battle. What happens after a long and costly war among countries? There’s a lot of reconstruction, but the world that is rebuilt won’t be the same as the one that had been destroyed.

What did I expect my life would be like? How could I rebuild myself after so many years of depression? I heard and read what others thought of a future without this illness. One person wrote to me and mentioned happiness as what he was looking for, and I’m sure that’s what most people would say.

Saying I want to be happy seemed like a self-evident truth. I could imagine a life free of depression and all the harm it causes.

But happiness goes beyond simply not being depressed. There are plenty of unhappy people who don’t suffer from this mood disorder. If happiness was the goal, it had to mean a lot more than just getting over the illness.

I usually assumed that without depression I’d simply go back to feeling like myself again. There wasn’t any need to think about more than that. After first taking Prozac in the early 1990s, that was exactly what I felt – for a few months anyway.

I could suddenly do what I wanted to do. My brain worked the way it used to. My will reacted to my thoughts and feelings and carried out my ideas. Everything seemed so easy and natural! Why couldn’t life always be like that?

For a long time, that’s what I thought my goal was: getting back to being me. Wouldn’t life be fine if I could get to this state of being who I really was more or less permanently? I still think of that every time I ride the waves of depression to their peaks and troughs. Just let me alone so that I can be myself again. Isn’t that enough?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my “old self” had never been free of depression for very long. That dreamy self was me at my best, not the more typical me who had been shaped in large part by living with the illness. I had to admit that returning to that life was only about the past and a fantasy about a golden age I hadn’t really lived.

Then I remembered a startling book I had read many years earlier at the suggestion of a marriage therapist.

A Swiss psychologist, Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, wrote in “Marriage Dead or Alive” that the purpose of staying married was not at all to be happy or to achieve a state of well-being. Instead it was the much deeper goal of “individuation” – the process of bringing together the different sides of your inner being. It’s the attainment of a kind of psychic wholeness.

Depression itself was not the main concern. Instead, it could serve as a tool or motivator to help a person delve deeply into the hidden causes of the illness.

At that time, however, therapy was changing dramatically. It was becoming more focused on dealing with immediate symptoms. Fighting depression itself was the goal, and getting well meant becoming symptom-free. There were lots of ideas and models to think about – and I learned from each of these approaches. I kept coming back, however, to the basic question: Why get well?

I didn’t want to end up like the character in the film “As Good As It Gets”. In one scene, as he’s leaving his psychiatrist’s office, he looks at all the glum patients waiting their turn and asks: Is this as good as it gets?

That’s not what I wanted, then or now – living as the permanent patient dependent on therapy and medication.

Then I started reading the remarkable bipolar diary by the author of “Living Manic Depressive.” I found a post that came up with an idea that made sense. He said that he did “not” want to stop being bipolar. He had learned a lot about himself by having to live with this disorder. If his illness suddenly went away, he said, “I may be better off without it, but I don’t think I would be me.”

Like the author of “Living Manic Depressive,” I had been dealing with my condition since childhood. For many years, I had no idea what it was. But that didn’t change the reality that I was living with depression and discovering who I was partly through my reaction to its effects, bad as they were.

When I thought about how to answer the question Why Get Well? I had to wonder if getting rid of depression was what I really wanted.

My goal was, then and now, to become the person I was put on this earth to be, but who should I become other than the person I already am, illnesses and all?

Depression seemed to be woven into my psyche. There was no wishing it away. It confronted me every waking hour and pushed me to fight for who I waas. I felt that I’d better make the most of it.

I’ve changed my view since then and now live without feeling the constant presence of depression. These days, I focus on re-learning how to live a fulfilling life.

Part of the realization of that questioning period remains. Depression has definitely helped me discover what I’m all about. Self-discovery never really ends for anyone. I try to “live” recovery now as an ongoing search and process of learning – to be me.

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