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The Gift of Depression

So you’re driving along in your life and the Check Engine light comes on. You ignore it, maybe even put some tape over it. You hear a clunking sound; you turn up the radio. All of a sudden, the engine seizes up. You can’t move forward. It’s lonely and foggy out here. You look around and the reality hits you: “I am Depressed.”

The most insidious quality of Depression is that it steals the energy that allows you to do the things that will help you feel better. If you either cannot sleep or can’t get out of the bed, you are drained of the energy to be with people, feed yourself well and exercise. Your self-worth drops; those things that brought you joy only cause numbness. It’s time to get thee to a mechanic.

The recipe for recovery typically involves two parts (although not always!):

Part 1: Medication, and Part 2: Psychotherapy.

Some folks try to omit one ingredient. One way to think of it is that sometimes Part 1 gives you the strength to do the things that you learn about in Part 2.

As someone in charge of Part 2, I view Depression as a gift (if used properly!). The gift is that it can be the impetus to reach out for help. Seeking therapy is both a gift to yourself (how awesome to be able to talk about yourself for an hour) and a courageous act (you may make discoveries that push you out of your comfort zone.) Sometimes the places where you get stuck are unconscious remnants from your childhood: exploring your patterns with an outside observer may help you move your life in a new direction.

I have noticed a number of themes amongst my clients battling Depression.

Lack of connection.

An older single man found himself eating boxes of cookies every night to soothe his Depression. His alcoholic mother had not filled his emotional tank when he was a kid; as an adult he had trouble comforting himself when he was alone. A former alcoholic himself with 20 years of sobriety, he was encouraged through therapy to re-started attending AA meetings each morning. He made breakfast dates and dinner dates. He plugged his friends’ numbers into his cell phone and scrolled through his address book when he felt lonely (instead of hitting the cookies). Over time his Depression lifted as he internalized the awareness that he was loved and an important part of the web of human existence.

Lack of meaning.

A middle aged woman had spent 20 years raising her kids. When they left home, she cared for her sick mother. When her mother decided to move in with my clients’ brother, my client became severely depressed. In therapy she realized that her life had lost its purpose: to care for others. She realized that volunteering at the local children’s hospital could meet that need. It helped her realize that she mattered, and lit up her heart when the hospitalized children smiled at her.

A stalled grief process.

A single woman who had struggled to find a healthy romantic relationship lost her father to cancer. He had been her sole source of unconditional love, as her mother was critical and judgmental. Left without her father’s love, her grief morphed into Depression. She felt paralyzed month after month; she withdrew from her friends and comforted herself with her dogs, TV and food. As she spoke in therapy about her father, she realized that the way to honor his legacy of unconditional love was to give that love away. Rather than waiting for a man to love her, she started exploring the possibility of adopting a child. This re-energized her and gave her father’s loss meaning.

Anger turned inwards. One woman became suicidally depressed after 40 years of tolerating her emotionally abusive husband. She feared speaking up because he could get “so mean.” In our sessions, she realized that painful experiences in her childhood had taught her to please others and caused her to believe that she was helpless to change bad situations (hence, her decision to end her life rather than speak up!). She learned in therapy that she had a right to express her dissatisfaction in her marriage. Her husband attended some sessions, and her new assertiveness changed the dynamics in their marriage. He learned to listen and not interrupt; she learned to tolerate his insensitivity and discovered she had a thicker skin than she realized. As she found her voice, her Depression abated and their marriage improved.

Not measuring up. A teenage boy wanted to die. He’d just seen the roster for the school’s football team and he had not made the cut. His family lived for football, and his parents had spent the past year talking about his try-outs for the upcoming season. When he didn’t make the team, he was devastated at having disappointed his parents. But when his parents responded with support instead of disdain, he felt relieved. When the coaches encouraged him to switch to a new sport, the cloud of Depression lifted. His life wasn’t over, it was just turning in an unexpected direction.

Unexpressed creativity.

A 40-something wife had put her creative energy on hold for over 12 years; her husband’s job kept him away from home and caused her to act as a single mother. For years, she had neither the time nor energy to devote to her significant artistic talents. When she came to see me, she was binge eating and purging to medicate her Depression. When she demanded changes in her marriage, her husband was willing to make changes to his work situation. This freed up time for her to pursue her creative pursuits. Her brain chemistry changed when she was engaged in her art; she realized that she ignored this aspect of her psyche at her own peril!

The well is dry.

A depressed nurse came for help. While she loved caring for her patients, she was on-call 24/7. She gave and gave, but had no chance to fill her own cup: friends, yoga, exercise, sewing had all fallen by the wayside. She took a medical leave. She realized that she had difficulty setting boundaries in a number of areas in her life, especially with her mother. As she started to say “No,” she freed up energy for herself. As she decided to shift her nursing career to one that accommodated a saner schedule, she felt more like herself again.

So if yourCheck Engine light is on, ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling disconnected?

  • Is my life lacking meaning or purpose?

  • Are there tears I need to shed over a loss?

  • Is there anger I need to express?

  • Am I not measuring up to some fantasy ideal?

  • Is my creativity stifled?

  • Has my well run dry?

And if you need help finding the answers to these questions, your mechanic has an open bay.

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