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
Part I of this series can be found here.
Part II of this series can be found here.
If you’ve spent a lifetime believing the inner voice of depression, you’ve likely developed the habit, almost the instinct, of seeing yourself as incapable, inadequate, somehow basically wrong. You believe it’s your nature, and you feel shame and guilt about almost any mistake or even your best achievements. They feel hollow, the result of dumb luck. You “know” you’re still a failure, and sooner or later everyone else will see through you.
Changing this belief means breaking a perverse habit, and that takes time. Interrupting the negative thought patterns with cognitive therapy techniques is a big step. Applying those methods to daily behavior is another.
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But to change the deepest conviction about the kind of person you are, you need to accept yourself in a realistic way. Until I could get rid of the pervasive sense of shame about who I was, the voice of depression kept returning, no matter how many skills I mastered at the level of rational thinking. I went through several phases of changing belief about myself, and the first of those was learning to accept the full range of my life without constant judgment. It took a long time even to become aware of what the problem was.
Times of Self-Acceptance
I remember, as a 12-year old, standing outside the school I was attending and feeling good about myself, ready to face adulthood. I had friends, I was recognized academically, much respected, and I felt I had everything I needed to be an adult. World, I’m ready for you.
Jump six months ahead. I’m a scared 13-year old freshman in a big high school, without friends, without recognition of any sort, feeling lost in the hallway throngs. Self-acceptance? I was desperately anxious to figure out who or what I could possibly be in this strange place.
Another moment of wellness: I was 21, standing in a college courtyard, at peace. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do: writing, studying exciting things, dating the perfect woman.
Two years later, I was crashing and about to break on impact. I rushed to therapy, took the offered medication to level out and proceeded to pull into my awareness everything I had hidden away for 15 years: the pain, constant fear, destructiveness of family life, the emotional side of endless day-long migraines. Over the next few years, it all emerged, and I could understand how the past had shaped me.
Who Is It You’re Accepting?
That new awareness didn’t negate the past times of peace, happiness, self-acceptance, but I knew now what I’d had to forget in order to feel OK.
I had been convinced that the paralyses of anxiety and panic had been aberrations, the depression had been an identity crisis that everyone went through, the unemotional behavior had been my early maturing to adulthood. I hadn’t a hint of what these had been – signals and outcries for help and release.
Taking all this in made me realize that I could only accept the self I was aware of at the time.
It’s hardly possible to be aware of all you are. So much of you hasn’t yet been put to the test – like the 12-year old me feeling ready for the world or the 30-year old never imagining that in a year he’d be learning he could be a father.
Depression Splits You in Two
Depression adds another dimension. Swinging from wellness to illness presents you with completely different ideas of who you are.
When well, you believe you’ve recovered the real you. That depressed person was only an impersonator. But when depressed, the bleak person is no less real. You’re sure that the apparently well-adjusted one is a fake.
Can you reconcile the two and accept them both as comprising your “real” self?
Depression Blocks Discovery
Depression makes it hard to get beyond this split. It cuts you off from the relationships that could help you learn more about who you are.
You find out a lot you may not have imagined about yourself by interacting with others and understanding how they react to you. That starts early. Without welcoming, loving parents, you begin life on shaky ground. You need to be cared about, responded to, valued.
When you see that someone else values you, you’re more likely to value yourself. In a depressive spell, you isolate from the very relationships that could help you heal.
It feels internally as if there are two mutually exclusive personalities fighting for dominance. The trouble is, there’s only one person others see in their relationships.
One person whose changeable behavior is confusing at best but frequently destructive.
So self-acceptance isn’t just a matter of feeling comfortable with your inner state. It also means accepting what you’ve done to others.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
You have to look squarely at the harmful things you’ve done. It’s not always a matter of cognitive “errors,” all or nothing thinking or obsessing on everything done wrong. There are people you’ve hurt as well as people you’ve loved – often the same ones.
There are former friends who can’t forgive you for things you’ve done. Easy to say, that’s their problem. They’re stuck, but I’ve “moved on.”
I have a friend – or had – who now thinks of me mostly as a dishonest untrustworthy man, advancing himself at the expense of others. I know the real incidents she can’t forget or forgive – though they were not directed at her.
They happened. I did things I’m ashamed of. I knew I shouldn’t be doing them at the time. I knew they were deceptive, manipulative. I can say I did them while depressed and out of control, but that doesn’t change the fact that I did those things. They’re as much part of me as the best moments were.
People saw both sides in a baffling combination. One day people knew me as deeply sensitive, responsive, caring about others. The next they could encounter someone who was aloof, self-serving, untrustworthy. Someone brilliant, someone incompetent. Someone to look up to, someone to dismiss. Someone inspiring affection, someone provoking anger.
I learned as much from them as I did from my self-evaluation. That meant facing the ugly behavior I had wanted to separate from myself and pin on depression. “That wasn’t the real me, and what I did wasn’t about you” was a useless rationale.
Accepting the Whole Me
I move with an inner stream of awareness, feelings, ideas, exhilaration and despair – as we all do. And mostly I’m comfortable with taking it as it comes. Yet there is a depressive spot in mind and feeling that is a self-destroyer.
Do I accept myself as I am, depression and all? By definition, you don’t accept yourself when you’re depressed. You hate the disordered you but believe that’s who you really are.
When you’re well, the challenge is to accept that other, depressed person as part of you as well. I think you have to take that step in order to live well despite depression. Instead of shunning the depressed person, you incorporate him with this difference. There is only one you who sometimes gets depressed. It’s not either/or. There are not two mutually exclusive people inside. But there is a greater you who can embrace the illness as part of who you are, rather than the whole of you.
To live with depression, I’ve come to accept myself as this whole being in the midst of discovery. What I don’t yet know about myself is as interesting as what I do know. That’s one of the beliefs that keeps me well, and it has shut down the negative voice of depression.
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