I liken my support system to the three legs of a stool. So long as all three legs are in balance, the stool – my recovery – is stable. Previously, I shared with you the roles played by psychotropic medications and talk supports. In this post, I’ll discuss the third leg of the stool, the effort, the work, needed to recover.
I must admit, I didn’t expect this. I thought that the lifting of the melancholic mood, coupled with my use of psychotropics, would cure what ailed me. I didn’t see that I had a history of depressive episodes. I didn’t recognize that each episode returned with greater intensity and longer duration. Each episode was bleaker, grimmer, darker than its predecessor. I didn’t see that this history contained within it a pattern of thinking, unhealthy thinking, that made me vulnerable to repeated depressive events.
In fact, in the beginning, I didn’t see much. I had a possible name for what was wrong with me and little else. So I did what, for me, was a comfortable action – I researched. I Googled “depression” and studied, or at least tried to study, the results. And I was stymied. You see, my thinking hadn’t yet recovered enough to allow me to concentrate on what I was reading. There were glimpses of comprehension, but it was incomplete as I struggled to retain concentration.
It was when I came across the Antidepressant Skills Workbook, that I grew to appreciate that there was going to be no quick fix. This free ebook taught me that combating a depressive episode was a skill and, like any skill, it took time and practice and work to learn. It taught me that part of the issue was my subconscious thinking styles and that I had to learn new thinking styles. In essence, I had to teach myself new automatic thoughts that were more rational and realistic than the unhealthy thoughts I was used to.
Similarly, the book, The Mindful Way Through Depression, reiterated the need to work, to practice, in order to heal. One tool used in that book to promote recovery is the practice of mindful meditation. Learning to calm, not control, the mind takes time. And practice. Learning to view your thoughts without judgement but with curiosity takes time. And practice. Learning to see your thoughts as just thoughts, not facts takes time. And practice.
In The Mindful Way Through Depression, you are taught, over the space of an eight week program, new skills that you will then apply over time. It is made clear that consistent use of the tools is required, lest you risk falling into old habits. Old habits, unhealthy habits, will open the door for another depressive episode.
I was coming to understand that I had spent a lifetime learning and applying unhealthy thinking styles. It only made sense that learning new ways to respond to these unhealthy thoughts would take time to develop as well.
While reading The Antidepressant Skills Workbook and The Mindful Way Through Depression, I was formally assessed and diagnosed as suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. The suggestion of what was wrong with me was now confirmed. However, along with the diagnosis came another new book, Mind Over Mood, filled with a slew of CBT forms to analyze and dissect thoughts and thought patterns. It is, without a doubt, a daunting book, one that makes it clear that healing takes substantial effort. In fact, it was so daunting that I bought Feeling Good to make the CBT program more accessible for me.
What I didn’t see then, but realize now, was that all of this reading and learning was serving another important function – it was distracting my thoughts. Time and time again, I hear of people contacting crisis lines to be reminded to apply their distractions. For me, research and study and learning proved to be a massive distraction, giving my mind the time to start its healing. And as my mind healed, my comprehension returned, my ability to concentrate grew. I found myself looking for more books, especially autobiographies, where others, like me, had struggled and found a way to manage their illness. In this way, I discovered, Reasons To Stay Alive.
Reading, although a key tool, was not the only tool that I used. I also turned to writing. My initial writing was a third person diary undertaken on the advice of my counselor. I used the diary to come to terms with my actions, to explore my state of mind. Over time, this evolved into a blog which was created to keep my son informed but has grown into much more.
I also began a Gratitude Journal, taking the time to find three moments each day for which I was grateful. If I could not find three moments, I would take one and find three aspects of it for which I was grateful. I would meditate on each moment or aspect of a moment, giving myself time to linger on it, to recapture it, to allow the gratitude to be experienced.
Not content with these writings, I sat down and filled a notebook with all of the lessons I had gleaned from my reading and study. This served to both remind and inform, and allowed me to link together lessons from widely disparate sources. Again, like the studying itself, the writing proved to be a wonderful distraction although I did not know that at the time.
This lesson, that recovery takes work, was reiterated during a day program treatment plan I was enrolled in. The program covered a slew of coping mechanisms, from CBT, DBT, radical acceptance, art therapy, et cetera. Alongside the lessons taught in the sessions themselves, we were often given homework. It quickly became clear that those who actually took the time to do the homework were the ones who benefited most from the program. They were more confident in their recovery, more self-assured in the sessions and most comfortable with moving on. Those who did not do the work, remained timid, uncertain, afraid of change.
One lesson was significant for me. We were tasked with the creation of a Wellness Toolbox, a “calm”-tainer, a Buddy Box. The concept is simple: find a container and fill it with objects that will help you cope. If possible, try to include objects that will engage multiple senses. The more senses you connect with, the better your ability to cope.
The significance for me was that many of the objects in my toolbox were memories. They were warm, they were loving, they were inspirational. These memories reminded me that not all of my past was darkness. Even within the gloom, warm moments, memorable moments, took place. I was able to view the past without fear of prompting a relapse.
This project, like the other homework exercises, revealed that it was those who actually made the effort who proved the better able to cope. This may seem obvious given the exercise, but it was more about their demeanor in the session that followed when they explained their toolbox. They were more self-assured, more confident and projected this new self-awareness. You could see that they were growing into accepting their ability to cope.
In this I’m reminded of rehabilitative therapy. Surgery for carpal tunnel is a day procedure. However, you must follow-up with therapy, and engage in therapeutic exercises at home, or you risk further damage. If you want to regain the full use of your hand, you must employ the compress and relax exercises given you by your therapist.
The mind is vastly more complex, but just as exercise, work, will benefit the hand, so to will it benefit your mind.
About John Dickson
A lifelong battle with Major Depressive Disorder resulted in a suicide attempt. That attempt taught me the danger of being silent about my personal struggles with mental health. I've had to learn to be more open about my struggle. I now choose to reach out with the hope that someone will be inspired and end his/her own silence. I'm a dad, a blogger and a new convert to the power of social media.