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Nov 06

The Healing Power of Depression

Depression is a common experience. The word itself conjures up negativity, and has many definitions, none of which is particularly cheerful. Depression has been the subject of many wise and unwise words over the ages.

 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I cannot remember a time when depression was not my companion. Over the years, I have made peace with my companion, and depression has changed from an antagonist to a friend.

 

T.H. White

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
― T.H. WhiteThe Once and Future King
Perhaps I have learned something about learning in my long years. I have never lost my love for learning. I would have made an excellent perpetual student, but somehow the need to earn a living drew me in other directions. I had many jobs I truly loved, but the best ones were the ones that challenged my intellect and required me to absorb, and even create, new knowledge. I spent many years as a quantitative financial analyst, which, in one guise or another, occupied my life from the time I was about 30 until I retired.

Over the years, I experienced many bouts of depression, some of them quite debilitating, but I was usually able to rally when it came time to go to work or school.

 

John Keats

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

I don’t know if I would have prescribed depression to myself as a way to form a soul, but now, having been through the fires of hell, I can see how it helped forge my character into one of steel, for better or for worse. Part of the steel that was forged in those fires makes up the ball that I pull around myself when the world is too much with me. I described this to a good friend recently. She remembered our time together many years ago and said, “Yes, I wanted to knock on it and ask you if you were still there and if you were ever coming out again.”

Part of that steel, on the other hand, went into stiffening my spine, and giving me the ability to carry on when cognition alone would have told me things are hopeless. Every human being possesses an abundance of self-overestimation, which is indeed what gives us the power to persevere when the odds are against us. But perhaps those of us who have lived through depression are blessed with an even greater sense of self-assurance that nothing can be so bad that it can’t be endured.

 

Margaret Atwood

“I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”
― Margaret AtwoodCat’s Eye

The feeling of worthlessness that comes with depression is all-consuming, powerful, and enervating. It is a time when one feels unworthy to live, and it is perhaps at these times that the risk of suicide is highest. At the time, it doesn’t feel like there is too much of a distinction between feeling that one might as well be dead and actually being dead.

Even those of us who escape those suicidal thoughts and impulses, however, may never shake the feeling that somehow we are not worthy to live in this world. For me, I never made any serious suicide plans or attempts, but maybe that was more because I was afraid of failure than that I didn’t think it was a good idea.

For as long as I can remember, I knew I was different. As a youngster, I knew I was better at some things than were others, but I was also keenly aware of feeling that I did not fit in. I continually managed to get into trouble with the adult world in one way or another, and sometimes my run-ins would bring visible grief to my parents, which distressed me greatly.

As I grew out of my adolescence into adulthood, I began to think of myself as a carrier of a defective gene, and I became determined never to have children. I did not want to pass along to innocent children the agony that I had endured. Plus, I could not picture being the father of such a child, having witnessed the pain that my parents went through because of me. Years later, I was able to laugh at myself (at least a little). One time, I took a friend to visit my mother, and jokingly told of some of the incidents of my childhood. My friend turned to my mother and asked, “Mrs. Wilcox, how did you ever put up with all of that?” My mother laughed and responded, “I would do it all over again!” I was thunderstruck by that response.

Still, I never lost my aversion to having children, and it wasn’t until I was 60 years old and learned about my Asperger’s/autism that I was able to understand my difference in a more positive light.

 

Elizabeth Wurtzel

“That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.”
― Elizabeth WurtzelProzac Nation

Now that I can look back, with the perspective of my understanding of being neuroexceptional, I can see things in a new way. I thought long and hard about what I came to call my Anxiety Cycle, which I recognized was part of my life in large and small ways every day. I might experience several in one day, and they might be overlapping. Some could end in minutes, others could drag on for days. They all started with the accumulation of stress, which triggered a reaction and a response. Inevitably, the end of each cycle was a period of depression, however brief or long it might be.

As I pondered this, and as I observed myself going through these inevitable cycles, I began to understand the purpose of depression. By the time I got to that point in my cycle (and depression, for me, does not arise from nowhere; it is definitely triggered by a cascade of anxiety, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what that was all about), I had reached the end of the road. The worst had already happened. The stress that had triggered the anxiety had already been dealt with, and depression was a time of healing, of rest, of picking up the pieces.

And that is how I came to think of depression as a friend, not an antagonist. When I get to that point, I can take a deep breath, and use my new mantra. I have taken up the phrase “this, too, shall pass” to calm myself when all seems bleak.

I should mention medication. For most of my adult life, I have sought help from a variety of psychotherapists for anxiety, behavioral modifications, and just to try to understand myself better. Some have been more helpful than others, but one common theme is that most of them suggested that I consider medication for depression or anxiety. That suggestion has also come from several medical doctors, sometimes emphatically.

I had always resisted taking medication for my depression. I felt that was treating the symptoms of whatever was bothering me, not the causes, and I wanted to understand where the depression was coming from, not to mask it.

It wasn’t until I received my diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome that I began to seriously consider taking medication. At the clinic where I was diagnosed, there was a psychiatrist who was able to explain all of the types of drugs that were available, and the effects (and side effects) that each had. I decided to try some clonazepam, and I’m glad I did. It did reduce my anxiety (that feeling of a racing heart in a constricted chest), but more importantly I think, it extended my reaction time, so that I had some time (a few milliseconds perhaps) to think about how I was going to respond before I did something rash. Being able to develop a sense of mindfulness was what brought me into the realization of how my anxiety cycle works, and how even I could learn to do emotional regulation, something I had failed at all my life.

After a few years of taking this medication, I felt less a need for it as I gained control of my own impulses and understood my natural rhythms. I now keep a bottle of pills on hand, but seldom open it. It’s there if I feel anxious, or if I know I am going into a stressful social situation, but for the most part I don’t need it.

In many ways, I have healed myself, and with the aid of some temporary medication and my new mantra, I have learned to make that healing process an ongoing one.

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