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The Strange Comfort of Depression

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

One of the obstacles I ran into while trying to recover from depression was a kind of siren call. I came to realize that at some point I had become strangely comfortable with the illness. Even while working hard to get over it, I had also been working hard, half consciously, not to change.

That was a thought I did not at all want to accept, but at some level it rang true. There was a perverse lure that made it easy to sink into depression rather than fight my way out of it.

There had been a certain comfort when I’d figured out that depression was far more pervasive than I’d ever imagined. The condition accounted for so many of the problems I had long taken as proof of how empty I was. Knowing myself as a depressed person was a big step up from knowing myself as a worthless one.

There was a big risk in the change I would have to go through to find another me – a recovered one. Even though I yearned to be free of the suffering, emotionally I was telling myself: I’m not ready yet.

I didn’t understand depression all at once. There were key moments when I suddenly grasped new dimensions of the condition. Each of them helped seal me into a depressed – and passive – identity.

The first was simply finding out in my twenties that part of what I was going through was called depression by a bona-fide psychiatrist. The word wasn’t just a general part of my vocabulary anymore. It was official. As far as I understood at the time, though, that referred to periods of bleak moods, loss of energy and motivation and occasional suicidal thinking. No one mentioned any other symptoms. The psychiatrists I saw seemed to regard depression as a side issue.

The important thing was to get to the depths of family history, trauma and all the hidden influences that had shaped me. In that context, depression could even be useful as a stimulus to probe more deeply into the “real” issues. Nobody talked about medication or any other special treatment unless I was in a full-blown crisis.

Much later, I realized that depression was a more serious and pervasive problem than I had thought. It may seem strange to say that, but I had convinced myself that the dark moods were a relatively minor problem. I thought I was highly functional most of the time, even when it became obvious to everyone close to me that I was in trouble.

Depression, I now found, accounted for problems of mental clouding, lack of focus, slowed thinking and talking, intense anxiety and many other symptoms. The relief in that moment came from understanding that I wasn’t the only one going through this. Those mind- and will-crippling symptoms weren’t evidence of my inadequacy as a person. Instead, all these problems came together in the illness of depression.

The next eye-opener was that periods of depression had no cause in immediate experience. I believed it was the background condition of my life. It was always there and would keep on returning.

There was a strange security and comfort in having this bad news. I knew, or believed, that I had found the answer. I was a depressed person for life. That’s who I was.

It was painful, to be sure, but this identity gave me answers for everything I went through. I had constructed a home where I lived with depression. We were on intimate terms. It made me desperate at times, and I couldn’t understand how it could keep returning and ruining so much that I tried to do. I’d scream at it, but always felt – that’s me, and that’s it. Nobody can end it, so I have to accept a life of constant struggle.

That certainty was my comfort.

But another mind-flip suddenly made life much more complicated. There was a different way to look at this. How could I possibly get back to real living if I didn’t put myself at the center of recovery and stop waiting for “treatment” to take care of me? That was the beginning of real change, but the idea was both empowering and scary.

How would this work? Why did I imagine that I could trust the progress I might make? Would this turn out to be false hope once again? At times I was a determined warrior steadily advancing. At times I was afraid of the future and made a cautious retreat. My fallback position wasn’t so bad. I’d read many stories about people who had come to terms with lifelong depression, even finding a spiritual meaning to their lives. Surely, I could live with that.

I may never know exactly how or why I changed for the better and for the first time trusted recovery. But at least I got out of the trap of comfort that might have prevented me from trying.

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