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Trying to Cope with Depression When "I Just Can’t."

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

Sooner or later, most of us who try to cope with depression feel so overwhelmed that all we can hold onto is: I just can’t do it. I can’t stop being depressed. I can’t stop it from coming back.

When “I can’t” comes rushing out, it feel like the response to an accusation. Sometimes, I feel the weight of other people’s expectations. “If you really wanted to get well, you could at least get up and get moving.” Sure, they don’t understand, they don’t get it. But I’m asking the same question of myself.

I’m answering my own accusation. “So why can’t you handle this? You’re a completely worthless weakling!” “But I just can’t!” is my only answer. I’ve internalized the stigma and prejudice and feebly try to respond. I don’t trust myself. What if I am faking this? What if I’m just afraid to face things? I know that isn’t true, but there’s the inner belief that I ought to be able to snap out of depression.

But there’s nothing left to fight with. Everything deserts me: vitality, willpower, feelings, the ability to think clearly about getting well, to make choices, to take action. The inner drive to get well is replaced by the depressive drive to get worse or simply stagnate.

It’s impossible to do any of the things that self-help books advise, and each book contains hundreds of suggestions. I can’t do a yoga warrior pose, I can’t get out and see people, I can’t meditate, I can’t do push-ups and I can’t get a good night’s sleep.

When I’m trying to cope in that condition, all I can do is to start where I am. Since I can’t do anything, just where would that starting point be?

I do have one thing left. Awareness. At first, I’m only aware of what I can’t do. Mental confusion and the inability to focus are usually mentioned in the list of depression markers, but I’m not at all confused about everything that’s wrong.

Depression gifts you with extraordinarily vivid, powerful, detailed memories of all your mistakes, failures, weaknesses, embarrassments. You have absolute clarity of mind for the negatives, and they build a case of shame and worthlessness. Severe depression, after all, really wants to destroy you, literally if possible. So it leaves you the mental and emotional equipment to undermine your life.

That’s what I’m obsessed with. At the same time, though, I’m aware that I’m tearing myself down. I see what I’m doing to myself, and another level of awareness opens up. I want to stop the depression. I really want to feel better. I may not be able to do much to end it, but I know I want to come alive again.

I can start there. I hear a debate going on in my head. There’s one me who is lost in depression, and then there’s another me wanting to get better.

Usually, I’m still too tense and self-obsessed to get any clear idea of what to do.

It’s hard to understand now, but it took forever for me to get beyond that point. But one time, that changed.

I stopped and realized that I was aware of one more thing. I was breathing. I admit that’s pretty basic, but when I was that far gone I didn’t think what my body was doing. This time, I could focus on my breathing and felt how tight and restricted it was. There was a twisting in my chest that tensed every muscle.

Breathe deeply! For God’s sake, you can do that. So I pulled in as much air as I could – two, three, four times. That was relaxing, and I needed to settle down a little to think about something positive for a change.

And I could think of one more thing. Walk out the door. Just get some air – the real thing, not the stale smoke of your mental closet.

Breathing deeply outside felt good. Something opened briefly in my head, and I could look more closely at what I was going through.

Awareness is the ability to step back a little from what your feeling-mind is doing and to see it in action. In my case, that small distance enabled me to see that I really couldn’t handle depression on my own. It wasn’t just a complaint or a despairing outcry this time. I took the words literally.

I can’t do it on my own. That meant: I need help.

I had resisted saying that to myself for years. The reason was simple: I did get better. Even severe episodes eventually wound down, though it would usually take months to do so.

When an episode ended, I felt great and could hardly believe I had ever been depressed. I put the whole thing out of my mind – until the next episode. Then I’d scream at myself. Not again! Why can’t I stop this! I should be able to … but I just can’t!

With the help of a little breathing and a little fresh air, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to cope with depression, I needed a method, skills. I had to learn what to do, and I needed someone to help me figure this out, someone I could trust.

This all seems so basic and obvious now, but it was a revelation at the time. I got lost in depression many times after getting help, but at least I had more skills to work with. I could remember one thing to begin a comeback.

Start where I am.

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