Depression—which has been written about for centuries under the older term of melancholia—is a pattern of thought, belief, feeling. It is—in the powerful metaphor of Australian-born psychologist Dorothy Rowe, whose description of suicide I used above—a prison. Depression is where the sufferer lives. The vantage point from which you view the world. It is patterns of thinking and habits of mind. The story you tell yourself, your interpretation of past and present, that makes sense of your feelings and experiences. Creating thereby dire expectations of the future. Folk who have suffered from both cancer and depression regularly report that depression is worse—for it blights your entire life. To think your way out of the disastrous pattern of your thoughts is not an easy thing to do, since what one wishes to use to heal is precisely what is wounded and malfunctioning.
Something I later came to realise about deep emotional distress, particularly depression, is that one operates in layers. A depressed person is trying to manage internal pain. So they behave in ways which respond to that. Ways that can be deeply irrational, even destructive, for their interactions with the outside world. But internal pain has acquired a lexical priority over external sense.
Depression is ultimately a pattern of thinking, and it is that which has to change. The notions from Buddhist psychology of stilling the mind and the illusory insistence of wanting are great aids to eliminating anxiety. First, by simply stopping mental “chatter”. Second, by being sceptical about the pattern of one’s thoughts. This creates space to examine one’s anxiety. And other emotions and presumptions.
It is a bit like climbing a mountain range. Sometimes you break through above the clouds of fear, anxiety, delusion. Then you slide back into the valley and they close over you. But, if you keep working at it, each mountain is higher than the previous—so you spend more time unclouded—and each valley also—so you sink into the clouds less and less each time. It is being imprisoned by things that you do not see which are the most destructive. Whispering traitors of the mind are the most profound barriers precisely when they cannot be brought out into the light and examined. So, the more you dig out such whispering traitors and expose them to the withering light of critical examination, the more time you spend above the clouds and the less far you get dragged back in any relapse.
If depression is a destructive cycle of anxiety, anger and helplessness, then each part has to be attacked. Once one learns to recognise the impulse to be anxious, and separate it from actually being anxious—that anxiety is a stress reaction, and can be free-floating, and so can find anything to latch onto. But the particular thing it latches onto (bodily malfunction in my case) is a mere epiphenomenon, not to be given any moment. It can thereby, with practise, become remarkably easy to kill anxiety attacks. Anger can be a little more difficult, since there is often reason to be angry. But it can also be interrogated—even, if necessary, laughed at. The great lie of depression—its most insidious and deadly, from which all its other lies flow—is that there is only the one way to look at something, the way that is making you sick.
Helplessness is the gap between what one thinks one ought to do and what one thinks one can do. One’s expectations about both can be wildly off. Indeed, if one is suffering from depression, that is more or less guaranteed to be true. So, you need to work to raise one’s confidence in what you can do, and moderate one’s expectations about one ought to do (such as no longer believing one has to twist oneself into false shapes to “fix” everything). If you steadily work to expand what you can do (by doing things), and lower the self-flagellating expectations of what you ought to do, then you can reach a state where what one believes one can do is greater than what you believe you ought to do. In which case, you are no longer helpless.
Dorothy Rowe argues that there is a lot of pride in depression. And pride is a deadly sin because it blocks you from reconsidering things. Having the humility to consider that there might be other ways of looking at your experiences, and the appropriate reactions thereto, is very important.
Particularly in liberating yourself from depression’s lie of the dire future. The truth is, you simply do not know the future. So you have no right to decide that it will be bad.