When a friend told me once that he thought I was too attached to my negativity, I reflexively (and a little crossly) disagreed. Depression had co-opted my identity and his blame-the-victim rhetoric pissed me off. But he didn’t back down. “You know what you remind me of?” he said. “You’re like a guy who’s got his arms wrapped around a big tree. He’s hanging on with all his strength, and he’s yelling, ‘Let me go!’”
Though I was slow to accept insights like this, over the years I came to see how, with certain habits of thought and behavior, I’d been giving aid and comfort to the enemy—those blue devils—when I could have been doing more to help myself. So by the time I got around to reading Richard O’Connor’s perceptive, inspiring book Undoing Depression, I didn’t resist his message, which was a lot like that of my friend. I peeled my arms off of that tree and used them to embrace the wisdom proffered by O’Connor and others like him.
O’Connor, who’s frank about his own struggles with depression, starts with the premise that depressed people have trouble recovering mainly because “we are unable to imagine an alternative.” He explains:
We know how to “do” depression. We are experts at it. Our feelings about ourselves and the way we see the world have forced us over the years to develop a very special set of skills.
Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? If you get good at something, you develop a kind of comfort with it, you want to keep doing it. I know, I know—none of us wants to be depressed. Except, when we are in that dark place, it seems there’s a part of us who does want to stay there, who digs in and hunkers down and shuts out all light and hope.
This part of us willfully and irrationally rejects any message that certain shifts in thought and behavior might begin to lift us out of the cognitive dungeon, even though we know that such shifts have sprung us from the doldrums before, or helped others in similar straits. But each time we get stuck down there, it seems, we convince ourselves, first, that we’re to blame for where we are, and second, that we’re powerless to pull up out of the pit. Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber puts it this way:
Even though this notion of ending the depression sounds very appealing, to a part of us it feels like death. It leaves a hole in our identity, an empty space that usually feels unbearably uncomfortable.
It’s a nasty irony of the human condition that we can become skilled at things that are really bad for us, and then identify strongly with those self-destructive talents. In Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist,” the title character becomes so consumed by his fasting occupation that he ends up abstaining not only from food, but from life itself. At the end of the story, as he’s dying of starvation, the artist reveals that he couldn’t help but fast for most of his life, because he could never find any food he liked. He’d turned his unhealthy, ultimately fatal distaste for food into a career for a very practical, understandable reason: he was good at it.
Those of us who struggle with the Big D do something similar—we become depression artists. As the hunger artist makes a career of not doing something vital, something on which life depends, we abstain from behaviors that could jump-start our vitality and ramp us back up to the world of the living. As the hunger artist languishes on the straw in his cage like some wrung-out, rattle-boned lab rat, we droop and writhe and lollygag with vocational persistence. Because we’re good at it. Because on some level, we find that depressive proficiency attractive even as it repulses us so much we’re tempted to escape it through suicide.
As depression artists, we’re also liable to become hypersensitive about the “art” we’ve spent so much time crafting. We might grow tetchy and proprietary about the whole world of depression: we alone know what this realm encompasses, and woe to those who defile it with their naive, incautious counsel. When some gentle soul presumes to comment on our self-sabotaging behavior, we might take umbrage and lash out like the hunger artist:
If some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal.
My reaction wasn’t quite so feral when the friend I mentioned advised me to relax my grip on that negativi-tree. And sometimes our resistance is warranted—depressives often get stupid advice from well-wishers or brow-beaters who don’t know the first thing about the disease. But when we’re really down, we depression artists tend to lock ourselves away in stifling, sunless garrets and refuse any hint of guidance that might help us.
It’s important to recognize these aspects of depression for a few reasons. First, it’s tough to extricate yourself from a con man’s trap unless you recognize how you fell for the scheme in the first place, how the trickster charmed and manipulated you. Depression often presents itself as a kind of downhearted repose that feels satisfying at the same time it’s incredibly painful. O’Connor describes one woman who “speaks of her depression as a big, soft comforter. It’s not really comforting, but it’s safe and familiar. Sometimes she feels as if she’s entitled to be depressed, to quit struggling, to snuggle down and watch old movies and feel sorry for herself.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking a rest when you need one, and sometimes depression carries the message of that need. But beyond that first delivery, this courier’s appointed rounds are all designed to drag you down. When this wicked messenger overstays his welcome, when he encourages you to bed down in a nest of self-pity for more than a day or so, then you know he’s not bona fide. He’s the Hell-a-Gram Boy, he’s the Phony Express. This is one messenger who deserves to be shot.
In discussing the special set of skills depressives develop, O’Connor likens us to people who are blind from birth:
They become very attuned to sounds, smells and other senses that sighted persons take for granted. They can read Braille as well as anyone else can read printed matter. They get very good at memorization. But asking them to imagine sunset, or a flower or a Van Gogh is pointless—they have no reference; it’s beyond their experience. Expecting us to stop being depressed is like expecting a blind person to suddenly see the light of day, with one important difference: eventually, we can do it.
Eventually we can do it—yes. This is good news, the kind we need to recall every time depression hectors us, telling us we can’t do much of anything very well. O’Connor backs up his bullish assertion with tons of clinical evidence, including the latest neuroscience that shows how new habits of thought and behavior produce significant changes in brain chemistry. These changes at the neural level boost our mood and energize us to refine further our new anti-depressant talents. Depression’s vicious circle slowly spirals away as recovery’s virtuous cycle hums into orbit.
I still sometimes find myself clutching that big nasty knotty tree and barking at it to let me go. But then I remember to drop my arms and hoof it back to brighter forests that guides like Richard O’Connor have mapped.
The trees in these forests grow sturdy limbs where there are always new leaves to turn over, and new lives to cultivate. I’ll meet you out on those limbs.