The Path to No Path


Since about the time I started in primary school, I was depressed. Not so much what is called Major Depressive Disorder – I don't much recall being suicidal or thinking of death – but what the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls Dysthymic Disorder:

Dysthymic patients are chronically depressed. They have many of the symptoms that are found in Major Depressive Episodes, including low mood, fatigue, hopelessness, trouble concentrating, and problems with appetite and sleep. Absent from the criteria are thoughts of death or suicidal ideas. … These patients typically regard their chronic low mood as normal.

For such a diagnosis to be made, a person must have reported depressed mood or appeared depressed for most of the day, and to have at least two of the symptoms listed above (with 'poor self image' added to the list). Such people can feel that they are inherently 'second-rate', have very low self-confidence, and their gloom is barely relieved even by happy occasions. They can feel that life is passing them by.

That is a pretty accurate description of how I was at that time.

At the age of fifteen, I had a near-death experience, and at about this time this feeling of hopelessness seemed to have lifted – or at least, I was no longer aware of it. By my mid-thirties I had been through intensive therapy and was now living a very happy life.

However, I believe that the underlying depression was merely hiding, for it resurfaced one day, much to my surprise. For no reason that I could pin down at the time, I suddenly, without warning, felt depressed and suicidal.

From my experience of all the therapy I had gone through, I expected that the mood I was in would lift fairly quickly. At this time, I did not know that I was in a state of depression – I had no words with which to label my condition. After three or four days, I continued to be depressed and suicidal. I was rather intrigued that this mood was not lifting, so I sought help.

In a weekend workshop, I was told by somebody that what I needed to do was to look at my depression and let go of it. My reaction to this advice was that I didn't want to be bothered with looking at it – I just wanted to be rid of it. I didn't want anything at all to do with the depression; I didn't want it hanging around for a single moment longer.

The experience of depression is rather strange, and much of the literature about it seems to have been written by people who have never experienced it, and who therefore cannot possibly understand it. (At the time I did not know what this experience was, didn't have a word for it, and certainly never used the word 'depression'.)

In this state, the mind is, in a way, very focused – it focuses intensely on the depression. Outwardly, the person might appear to be unaware, distracted, not interested in anything, but this is because of the intense inward focusing. Depression can be likened to a fog, a thick white mist around one or a dark cloud above one, but the mind can at the same time be surprisingly bright and clear because of this intense focusing.

I remember feeling that although I liked having people around me, I was afraid that they might 'catch' something from me, as if I was infectious, and in any case as I was so miserable, I didn't want to inflict this misery on them. This is a caring for others, not a rejection of them.

Sometimes, generally when I was moving around or climbing the stairs, the cloud of misery would leave, and the sun would come out. Then when I stopped, the cloud would return. I thought of it as a helium-filled balloon on a string which trailed behind me when I moved, and which, when I stopped, would resume its normal position as my personal rain cloud immediately over my head.

Not wanting to look at the depression, I rejected the suggestion that I might look at it, and tried other means of getting rid of it. However, nothing worked, though I did come to the unexpected realisation that I was for some reason actually holding on to the depression. In a way, I did not actually want to get rid of it.

Still, I really didn't believe that what I needed to do was to look at what was going on, and let go of it, but I realised that everything else had failed, so I decided that I might as well try out this crackpot idea.

My habit was to try to get rid of the depression every time I noticed it, so I began by refraining from being too hasty in doing this. Perhaps just a quick peek, a brief glance. Gradually I got used to letting it be there, without having to try to get rid of it.

When I could manage this, I decided that perhaps I could be a bit more friendly, and started greeting my cloud whenever I noticed it. 'Greetings, friend, how are you?' (This has the psychologically advantageous effect of helping to create a separation, a dis-identification. While I believe that I am my depression, how can I let go of it? But if it is seen as being more akin to some alien life form, why not?)

Gradually I began to take an interest in the depression. I had seen plenty of 'negative' aspects to it; now I started to look for any positive aspects – for example, how it focused the mind, made the mind brighter, like a car headlamp in the midst of the fog, and how it had brought me into contact with a very supportive group of people.

Then, one day, I spoke to the depression in a friendly way, telling it that I was surprised that it was still around. It seemed to answer me, saying that all I needed to do was to let go of it. So, not quite believing this, I let go of the depression balloon's string, and watched as it floated up into the sky. I noticed a slight twinge of sadness, feeling sure that the depression would never return.

Twenty years later, the depression still has not returned. It seems to have gone for ever. And, by the way, I never sought help from the medical profession, never took any drugs. not for a moment did I consider this.

It seems to me that the long-term use of anti-depressives is counter-productive. I guess that if I had been so foolish as to go down this slippery slope, I would still be depressed now. Who wouldn't be depressed, after twenty years of taking anti-depressant medication?

One thing that can apparently help greatly with depression (and with a whole host of other 'problems' too) is physical activity. I appreciate that for someone who is depressed, the idea of going and doing something seems totally anathema, but if you can gently encourage yourself to start taking regular exercise, gradually becoming more and more active, this can be a great help.

I do not in any way suggest using physical exercise as a method of suppressing what you are feeling, or as a technique for aiding denial. Not at all – exercise can help you get more in touch with your body. Your body is far wiser than your mind. If your mind is in turmoil, or if it is stuck in a rut, let the body help.

Rather than suppressing your feelings, you can express your feelings as you exercise. If you feel depressed, try jogging in a depressed way. But do this as totally as possible. I do not mean “as vigorously as possible” – I do not want you to suffer a heart attack – what I mean to suggest is that while you exercise you do it with as much awareness as you can of what you are doing.

If you resist jogging in a depressed way, make it a game, an act, a play. Have fun with it. And if things start changing, let them change, neither encouraging any change nor discouraging it.

You may still be depressed, but at least you will be a little bit healthier and fitter, albeit perhaps in a depressed sort of way. And then perhaps you will feel ready to look at what is going on in you, and be free of it.

Horizontal line

If you should wish to contact me about anything you have read here, especially if you feel strongly for or against what you have read, or if you feel that something is missing, I offer you an opportunity to share.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Horizontal line