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
A friend recently asked me if I could help him understand the recovery from depression that I’ve experienced over the last several years. At the same time, a reader asked if I could elaborate on what I mean by taking charge or putting myself at the center of my own recovery – an idea I first discussed soon after starting my personal blog. Both are closely tied together, and I thought I’d summarize a few thoughts I’ve had so far on how to account for what I’ve been through.
The conventional treatments have not worked well for me. I’ve taken medication for 18 years, but it has never had a lasting effect or come close to ending depression. I’ve also been in half a dozen forms of therapy over several decades. While many of those experiences have been powerful in terms of personal growth, they’ve never changed the overall dominance of the illness.
The deepest changes seem to have arisen from the ways I live and the ways I think and feel about staying well. It could be that these changes have
1. Writing. First, I started writing Storied Mind. I’d written journals off and on for years, and these were full of ideas and descriptions of depression. Mostly they recorded the raw experience and the frustration I felt at not being able to get better for very long. There were also long periods when I was too depressed and mentally blocked to sustain writing. The blog has been quite different because I’ve written more consistently and looked at many more dimensions of the illness than ever before. Writing is the way I discover things, and it also has an important healing effect. This has helped me maintain the revitalizing energy that creative activity brings with it.
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2.Online Community. The people I’ve gotten to know as a result of getting active online are a treasured resource in healing. Reading about the experiences of so many others, exchanging ideas with them, receiving and offering support – all have had an enduring impact. This community has been a source of insight and encouragement throughout the past two years. What I’ve learned has helped change permanently some of my basic attitudes about depression.
3. Running out of Medical Options. A couple of years ago, I was quite nervous about running out of medical options since none of them worked for very long. At the time, I was putting my hopes on TMS – transcranial magnetic stimulation – and followed its progress in working toward FDA approval. I’d heard a lot of positive reports about it since I knew someone who had worked on one of the major studies of its effectiveness. However, the evidence submitted to FDA didn’t show much advantage over placebo. Medical treatment seemed less and less likely to offer any hope.
4. Challenging the Mindset of Treatment. So I stopped waiting for something to cure me and relied more on internal work of my own, bolstered by the help of the online community. I was starting to question the whole concept of the medical model of treatment that focused narrowly on a few key neurobiological processes. The medications based on that model didn’t work in my case. Health providers tended to blame me, in effect, by attaching the label of treatment resistant. That was no help at all. I realized I had to stop expecting cures within the limitations of that model. Before then, I had understood – based on my experience with cancer – that I had to become an active partner with the medical providers. My energetic determination to get better made a big difference in the speed of recovery at that time. Now I had to push farther in that direction. Taking charge of my recovery from depression meant changing the basic expectation that someone or something outside myself was going to cure me. That approach didn’t work, so I had to come up with a different strategy – and there was no one to do that but me.
5. Rethinking Depression. I found inspiration in reading Reynolds Price’s memoir, “A Whole New Life“. It describes how he learned to control the extreme pain of spinal cancer that permanently severed nerve connections to his legs. Nothing helped him until he started biofeedback and hypnosis. That started his ability to rethink the pain so as to end its debilitating effect. One of the interesting things about this was that the pain itself was pure phantom – it came from his legs where he had no nerve sensation at all. That got me thinking that such concepts as pain or depression are powerful mental constructs that respond to sense perceptions and chemical changes in the body. The most powerful of these constructs seem to affect, even dominate most of the experience of living. They assume a life of their own and influence the expectations and assumptions we have about their permanence. If Price could disempower “pain” in his experience, could I do the same with “depression?”
6. New Assumptions. Somehow, I internalized this idea and felt new hope for change. Combined with the healing effect of writing the blog and all the support I had from the online community, that new idea helped me to change long-held assumptions. I stopped assuming, for example, that depression was a permanent condition that would always reassert itself. I stopped assuming that it was a single overwhelming force and broke it down into the separate symptoms that were more manageable. I challenged more effectively the inner voice that was always telling me I had no hope, had no self-worth, had never done anything right. Most important, I assumed that depression had no more power over me than I gave it – however unconsciously. I didn’t have to be its victim. That was a hard one since it contradicted all my earlier ideas.
7. Belief. All that was exciting and hopeful, but there was still something missing. I’d often had breakthroughs and new awareness of possible recovery in the past, but those never resulted in real change because they never touched my basic beliefs about myself. Those beliefs had been completely negative, and depression had been their perfect mate. The eroding emotional and mental effects of depression seemed the natural outcome of my lack of self-worth. The belief that I deserved only a life of depression had to change, and somehow it did. That was a great gift, a sudden realization that I was fine, that depression was a nuisance rather than my fate, that I could live a full life again.
What are the methods and beliefs that have helped you deal most effectively with depression?
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