by Carinne Allinson
I have suffered from depression all my adult life, so it is not surprising that as the ‘winter blues’ bite, my thoughts turn to depression. This year, however, those thoughts are not concerned with whether I will get through to the spring unscathed, or end up on antidepressants again. This year, my thoughts about depression are much more constructive.
One of the most powerful positive forces in my life over the last year has been the 7 Words, so when the spectre of depression began to raise its ugly head at the darkest point of the year, I had an impulse to see if I could use the 7 Words to make sense of depression generally – and my own experience of it specifically. What I discovered has revolutionized my understanding of depression, and recovery. Having traced the path of depression from No to Yes, I realized that Yes is the pivot point that marks the start of the journey to recovery, which runs back from Yes to No, redressing the ills and imbalances that led to depression. This is how I think it works:
The Journey to Depression:
The roots of most depression lie in No. Depression is sometimes seen as repressed anger, which belongs with No.
The violation of an individual’s boundaries in childhood is abuse. This can be physical, mental, emotion, psychological or sexual. Such abuse leaves us with unclear or non-existent boundaries and sets up patterns of abuse, self-abuse, co-dependency, addiction, manipulation or other dysfunctional behaviours in adulthood. It also leaves us with a confused sense of identity. We don’t know who we are and we spend a lot of time trying to be whatever other people expect of us – or we believe the lies we were told and take on the identity forced upon us by our abusers.
Instead of unfolding as a result of free, proactive choices that reflect who we are, our lives become a series of reactions to situations over which we seem to have no control, or which have been forced upon us by other people.
One day we wake up and realise we do not know who we are or what we want. Our life is out of our control – we have given our power away to our lovers/bosses/children/parents/friends (or they have taken it from us). We are living a lie. Is it any wonder we feel angry?
However, we may not be aware of our anger, because we were told we don’t deserve any better, so we don’t feel we have a right to feel angry. Or we may have long ago lost any connection to our emotions. This unrecognised anger leads to depression – as does the sense of helplessness that arises from years of abuse/self-abuse, loss of control, manipulation.
In depression we become self-absorbed – the pain of depression demands our attention. Depression leads us to isolate ourselves, partly to protect ourselves and partly to protect others. We have lost faith in agencies outside ourselves (even God) – after all, they’ve been controlling us all our lives and look what a mess we’re in. And we cannot trust ourselves – a lifetime of bad boundaries, shifting identity and poor choices speaks for itself. We’ve learned to mistrust others – they’ve abused and manipulated us for too long, and the social skills we learned from them are flawed. We don’t know how to have a ‘normal’ relationship – and who in their right mind would want anything to do with such a flawed, miserable [insert adjective of your choice] individual as me?
For me, Hello is about risk, and the other side of that coin is fear. In depression, we are paralysed by fear.
Dysfunctional Thank You is about low self-esteem and depression throws that into stark relief. Far from being appreciated and valued as children, we are more likely to have been humiliated, or simply ignored.
We may be attracted to charming, charismatic people who abuse us. Their self-assurance and charm is probably maintained at our expense (in public), but the abuse goes on behind closed doors. We may appear charmless and worthless by comparison, outside the house.
Our sense of self-esteem, like our sense of identity, is controlled by other people. We lose the ability to affirm ourselves and in extreme cases, humiliation at the hands of our abusers leads us to develop ‘toxic shame’.
In depression, the weight of everything that has happened in the past can become unbearable – we feel like the ghost of Jacob Marley, dragging behind us great heavy chains forged throughout our lifetime. The sense of grief can be overwhelming, with bouts of uncontrollable crying that last for hours. The normal process of Goodbye (realization, decision, completion, moving on) is completely beyond us as we are overwhelmed by all the hurt, manipulation, abuse, confusion.
Why don’t we just ask for help? By this point we are not capable of doing so – we have long since given away our power, we have isolated ourselves, lost trust, and our self-esteem is so low that we don’t feel we deserve it. We are totally overwhelmed by grief and paralysed by fear. Besides, we wouldn’t know how to ask for what we wanted, even if we knew what it was!
At this point, hopelessness sets in. We don’t deserve anything good, we’re worthless – so what’s the point of having a vision? What’s the point of prayer when we’ve lost faith in anything? Thoughts of suicide might creep in – if there’s no hope, why carry on?
The two sides of this coin, for me, are responsibility and blame. It is likely that poor boundaries have led to much confusion in this area. We have probably been blamed for many things that were not our fault – one of the characteristics of abuse is that abusers blame the victims. We may, therefore, be accustomed to taking responsibility for other people’s ‘stuff’, while lacking the ability to take responsibility for our own ‘stuff’. This can also lead to carrying a huge weight of guilt, if we are constantly told it’s all our fault.
We may also get stuck in blaming someone else – after all, if it wasn’t for the abuse, we wouldn’t now be depressed, so we blame the abuser.
Another dysfunctional aspect of Sorry is judgment – and if we’ve been judged harshly in the past, we will judge ourselves harshly now. This is not helped by people who have never been depressed, asking us questions like, “What have you got to be depressed about?” or “Why not focus on all the good things in your life?” and other unhelpful remarks. Such remarks imply that we could get rid of the depression if we tried hard enough. Our own self-criticism tells us that we are not as good as other people, we are flawed, inferior, defective, weak.
Now we reach the ‘tipping point’ – but we have to make a choice. Some people choose denial – I’m not depressed, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just a bit stressed at work, that’s all; I just need a drink to wind down when I get home, nothing wrong with that. That’s okay, because it’s possible to change our minds at any point - that is to say, when we’re ready. At that point, we can say, “Yes”.
The keywords for Yes are Permission, Acceptance, Agreement and Surrender, and as soon as we are ready, they all come into play. When we stop fighting our depression, we give ourselves permission – to feel awful, to feel useless, to have no appetite or energy, to be tired and weepy, to want to avoid people – in other words, to be depressed. As soon as we give ourselves permission, we accept our depression and stop fighting it. We can now begin to deal with it and the process of recovery can begin.
The Journey to Recovery
When we give ourselves permission and accept our depression, it is like we sign a peace treaty with it. We can let go for a while and just go with the flow. Yes, we will need to deal with it – but not yet. For now we just surrender. This process may take a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, but for however long it takes, we need to just sleep, cry, stay in bed, stare at the wall – whatever we need to do. We will know when the time comes to move on.
Having given ourselves permission and accepted our depression, we no longer need to judge ourselves. Depression is an illness, like any other – we don’t judge people for having asthma or diabetes, so why should depression by any different?
Our attitude to blame changes, too. It may still be someone else’s fault we’re depressed, but at the end of the day that’s not helpful. We are the ones who have to deal with it.
If we release our judgment and blame and take responsibility, then we can make progress.
When we can see depression as just another illness, we can seek treatment, like we would for any other condition. Now we can go to our GP or mental health team and ask for help. This may be medication, counselling, psychotherapy, self-help group, reading self-help books, or a combination – in addition to other treatment for specific aspects (e.g. dependency issues or family therapy). The mere fact of having taken some positive action towards recovery will lift some of the weight of depression, and some of the help offered will help with the next step.
The issues that caused the depression in the first place need to be addressed and with the help provided in Please, this is now the time to deal with them. This is likely to take some time. I also believe it is important to grieve at this stage – for lost dreams, spoiled childhood, all the disappointments and missed opportunities of one’s life. We may also need to make some decisions regarding our lives – we may need to re-examine our priorities, or part company with those who abuse or manipulate us. This is part of the process of Completion, which we must undergo before we can move on.
As we deal with our childhood and other issues, we begin to feel better about ourselves, our self-esteem rises and we learn to affirm ourselves. Our sense of self changes and we begin to value ourselves. We feel we do, after all, have something of value to share with others. Our life has meaning.
Armed with our new sense of self we are ready to venture out into the world. We are no longer paralysed by fear. We reconnect to and learn to trust our emotions. Our trust in ourselves, others and God grows as we take small risks, pushing ourselves a little bit further each time.
Now we have found a sense of who we really are and we no longer put up with abuse or manipulation. Our boundaries are stronger and we can say “No” to our abusers – and others who ask too much of us. We take back our power, control over our own lives. We make our choices freely, respecting who we are, and we live our truth.
But we have also learnt along the way where we are vulnerable, what work still needs to be done, what our stumbling blocks are. My prime stressors are tiredness, stress and financial instability, so I protect these. I consider my energy and stress levels before agreeing to do extra hours at work, and I monitor my finances carefully to avoid the situations that trigger depression. And I use art to push myself to foster acceptance, play, courage to fail, letting go of judgment – it terrifies me, but it works.
And I have the 7 Words – a powerful tool in my fight against depression. This essay has been an empowering exercise for me. Not everyone will agree with what I’ve written, but that doesn’t matter. I have written what “speaks to my condition” (a Quaker expression) – I would strongly urge you to do the same.
Comments (1) Leave a comment
John (April 17, 2012)
I hope you find piece. Great article x