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
“Activist” and “depression” sound like an impossible combination. After all, vitality is the opposite of depression and would seem to be a necessary ingredient in activism. It sounds like advice you might hear from someone who’s never had depression, who “just doesn’t get it,” and blithely tells you: “Pull yourself together!”
The thing is, becoming an activist in my own treatment was the only way I could recover. I struggled for decades with depression – severe, recurrent major depressive disorder, to list the diagnostic labels. If I hadn’t shifted from being a passive patient to an impatient activist, I’d probably be dead by now.
I wouldn’t wish a diagnosis for cancer on anyone, but, strangely enough, it was just this bad news that ultimately pushed me in the right direction. Up to that point, I had left depression treatment to the GP’s and psychiatrists.
I faithfully took the medications they prescribed and probed my condition in therapy, but nothing changed. I was getting desperate that there wasn’t any cure for me out there, when I learned that cancer was the latest item on my list of nightmares.
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For a time, my hope of dealing with cancer was stalled by a recurrence of deep depression.
I can recall hitting rock bottom one day, as I poured over the books describing how the cancer can spread, how it can move into your bones and begin an agonizing crawl towards death. I pictured that quietly spreading violence within my body and fixated on different organs and bodily systems becoming infected,. This picture perfectly matched the self-image of a failed human being that depression put in my head.
Maybe I should just give in to this, I found myself thinking, and my feeling plunged me into bleakness as far as I have ever gone. The whispering monologue kept on – maybe I should just rot away and die since I’m worthless anyway. This is suicide by letting cancer take its course. Forget about treating it, just let it consume my life.
This poisoning voice got louder and louder until I stopped it cold. Something else took over. NO – the word boomed in my mind – NO – I listened to the deep resonant sounding of that syllable. NO – I WILL NOT LET THAT HAPPEN!
From some depth of sanity that was left me, the will to fight back took over from depressive thinking. I stopped listening to its endless tape of defeat and suddenly felt full of energy and determination to survive cancer. It was deeply empowering to feel a resilience I hadn’t known was there. It was as basic as life over death.
From that point on, I became an activist in my own treatment. Cancer, of course, came first. But how to get started? What was it that I – the cancer patient – could do? I went online to check out discussion groups and learned about the great support you could get from talking to people who had your illness.
Then I asked doctors and friends if they knew anyone who had been through surgery or radiation treatment for this type of cancer. With a list of names in hand, I set about doing what no depressed person would normally do – call complete strangers to talk about intimate details of my life and theirs.
I was amazed that everyone I called was so willing to help. All I had to do was tell them I was considering my options for treatment, and they jumped right in, leaving out nothing. I learned more from them than from any doctor or book. Taking action on my own was paying off.
I decided on surgery, checkout out several specialists and the facilities of two hospitals, made my choice and went in for the procedure in complete confidence. The operation was successful, and my energy remained high for the next few weeks of recuperation. I’m sure the inner drive to get well contributed to the fast healing. Fortunately, I haven’t had a recurrence of cancer for over 15 years.
Depression was a lot harder to deal with, but having the attitude of an activist kept me going through one setback after another. It took far too long, but I finally achieved a recovery that has held for years.
How about your efforts to recover? What, if anything, has been working for you? How do you see your own role in treatment?
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