Published on June 8th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks
Staring Down the Dragon: Fighting Chronic Depression
First, the bad news:
For some people, depression isn’t something you “get over,” and sometimes there really are things you can do that slow your recovery or make the depression worse.
The good news is that there are things you can do to help yourself get better and stay better.
While some people reach a state of permanent recovery, starting with that expectation can leave you, the sufferer, with fear and guilt if it doesn’t happen for you. We fragiler folk may discover we can’t make a single, valiant effort to break free then finally be healed and well forever.
If you buy into the need to heal yourself in one leap, you end up with the weight of having not done everything right, of being responsible for your sickness. You don’t need me to tell you a depressed person is carrying enough without adding this.
Depression is still a somewhat mystical disease. The medical community seems to be getting more and more precise in its language about depression, but distinctions may seem arbitrary, and so far most medical treatments continue to be based on symptom-management, since many causes remain lost in the mist.
Here is a dragon. It is a feeding, growing danger that can immobilize you by its presence and have you begging for a hero to come and rescue you.
I believe this is why so many people find medication helpful: depression is a chronic disease that perpetuates the conditions where it can thrive. Sometimes medication can break the cycle long enough for individuals to start making stronger and healthier choices that move them further along the road to healing.
This is why I love the image of staring down the dragon. Completely defeating the monster may be beyond my strength, but I can look it in the eye, call it what it is, and hold it at bay with a Sword of Truth.
For my part, I had pockets of relief I thought were healing, so I looked away. The contrast between the darkness and relief was so great, I didn’t understand the fight wasn’t over.
When the relief wore off, I’d slide back into depression, terrified at what I knew was coming, and became trapped again in the old patterns. I’d work harder again to try and escape the dragon, not realizing that my fixation did much to tangle me in the dragon’s tail.
My freedom began to crystalize through a friend sharing the information she got from her counselor: Depression can be the reaction of an exhausted body instituting a stop-work order. Sometimes the body is trying to protect itself from further depletion.
The information wasn’t new–in my experience, breakthrough information rarely is new (I don’t think we’d trust it if it was)–but the timing of the image was perfect.
I began applying some minimal, specific nutrition changes (nutritional supplements including a vitamin B-complex and SAM-e; read more about SAM-e) that I could check off daily. (Disclosure: Those are Amazon affiliate links). I added exercise at a level I could maintain, also daily, and made a genuine effort to sleep more (still working on that one).
In short, I tried to look at my psyche as I would a broken arm: even after identifying, blaming, and/or forgiving the reason for the injury, even after applying reasonable care and change in behaviors to aid the healing process, I still had the time element to account for.
I needed to wait.
I realized I didn’t have the power to make things better faster, but I had the power to make things worse, so I needed to be careful.
I had to step back a bit.
It’s not easy to step back from yourself. I would argue it’s not wise, long-term, but for this time of healing it was like applying a cast to that broken arm.
This immobilizing took a great deal of faith. I was still staring at the dragon. He was not so far away, and I felt extremely vulnerable to attack. I had to trust that what I was doing would work.
Not just because “it had to work” for me to feel better, but because I would not be consistent in my behaviors if I didn’t really believe they were effective.
Any time old patterns would try to pull me back on the slide to depression (Why am I not better?! Is there something else I should be doing? Maybe I should stay up to read more information! Or write more to clarify my thinking! Or talk about it more!), I reoriented myself to what I was already doing: nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
I reminded myself my chosen behaviors were reasonable, and enough. Reminded myself that more wouldn’t change the speed of recovery, and that what was left was a matter of time.
The dragon became impatient—it paced about, mocking me. Showed me how weak I was, not to destroy it. But I persevered. You see, I’d been so miserable, so brain fogged, so uncertain of my value that I actually noticed when I was merely weak. “Merely weak” became a cause for celebration!
It was in June or July of 2012, after nearly two years of battling, that I became aware my head was actually clear, that I didn’t have the extra fog that depression had made my new normal.
I walked like someone newly off-ship, assuming the ground was steady, but still perceiving it as moving underfoot.
But I knew I was better. This wasn’t just relief. This was a significant shift. I’d proven to myself that I was not hopeless, that there were some small and consistent things I could maintain to feel better.
When October hit with its seasonal depression, instead of freaking out and telling myself the previous months of freedom were an illusion, I started an ill-tempered checklist for health.
Ill-tempered because I had really hoped I wouldn’t have to see this old enemy again, and I was not going to act like this was no big deal. This was war, and I had gotten sloppy, but no more.
I made my list; I did what I knew would work: made it easy to get my vitamins, my time on the treadmill. I cleared my desk so I could work under my full-spectrum light bulbs.
And every time depression pokes its ugly dragon head out of its hole and tries to tell me it’s in charge again, I still battle.
The difference is that this time I know how to fight.
This time, I know I have hope, I have a timeline, I have a future with good things.
Dr. Richard O’Conner, in his book Undoing Depression, emphasizes hope as the central element of the depressive’s survival and recovery. (Disclosure: That is an Amazon affiliate link.)
Without hope, you close your eyes and turn away from the dragon. You have no way to stand against it, and it can be too terrifying to see what will consume you.
Hope is a difficult word to define, but my favorite way is: The assurance that *now* is not permanent.
Even when you have chronic (recurring) depression, your situation is not hopeless. Recognizing the pattern, including the fact that there is another side to end up on, can add the hope necessary to prevent depression taking over as the unwelcome normal.
We didn’t choose this fight, but we must fight to avoid being eaten.
Thankfully we are not without weapons.
Photo by Kate Smith via Stock.Xchng.