You might think from the title that this post will be yet another rant from one of those woo-woo types who wants to rid the world of the evils of western medicine, particularly in regard to mood disorders such as depression or bipolar. It’s true, my husband recently declared that I am officially now “one of those woo-woo people.” Ah, well. Even if I have crossed over into woo-woo land, I still like to think I can… well, think. And the truth is that I have seen medications and good counseling save far too many lives to discount these treatments so easily. I have one friend in particular who says that when she found the right medication to treat her mood disorder, she finally felt like she could be more of who she really is and at long last knew what it felt like to truly live. Still, in my particular experience with depression (or bipolar II, as it was diagnosed by one psychiatrist), I found that medications and psychological talk therapy were not enough. What does “not enough” mean? Well, these treatments did help me to survive because they gave me enough of a boost to refrain from committing suicide (a real plus!). But the truth is, I still felt directionless, hopeless, and without passion or vitality. I could not see the beauty around me. I did not feel gratitude for my life nor see a greater purpose. I did not feel true joy, love, or inner peace. I was surviving, but not thriving. And so I knew I had to find another approach (in addition to all I was already doing) if I ever wanted my life to be about more than always struggling to keep my head just above the water so as not to drown.
Some of you might also be wondering why medications and talk therapy haven’t been enough for you. Perhaps you might still have a glimmer of hope that there must be some way for you, too, to begin to thrive, not just survive. In this post (Part 1 of 2), I’d like to share some of the reasons the typical western approach to treating mood disorders (diagnose, medicate, and support with psychological therapy) wasn’t the cure-all I’d hoped it would be for me. In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll talk about what did work for me and why.
1. Fight, Fight, Fight!! Wait, who am I fighting again? For me, a big component of my depression was self hate. I suppose there are some people who are depressed and also love themselves unconditionally, but I would venture to say that would be a rare person. Usually, there is some component of self loathing, even if it is just because we hate ourselves for not being able to just be happy already. The way I was taught in therapy and support groups was to look at my depression as a disease, as something somehow separate from me which I had to battle and eliminate. After all, if mood disorders are diseases like cancer, then we have to fight them! That’s what we do to survive — fight and destroy! But for me, seeing my depression as something to battle ended up backfiring. This was because of that pesky self-hate component to my depression. It turns out that “my depression” and “me” weren’t actually all that easy to separate. In the end, all I succeeded in doing was beating myself into a bloody pulp (emotionally speaking). You see, it turned out the battle I was fighting was with myself, not with some entity called “depression” lurking within me. The truth is there was no such entity. There was only me, a person experiencing depression. All I was doing was heaping another dose of self hate on top of the large, steaming pile I’d already created. This was one case where I had to stop fighting to win the battle.
2. I’m complicated, thank you very much. Seeing depression and other mood disorders as diseases also has another effect: categorization. The doctor needs to label your disease (give you a diagnosis) in order to prescribe the correct medications and provide the right kind of counseling to treat the disease. I must say, I despised this process. I did not want to be labeled. Some part of me screamed inside that I am a unique individual, that what has gotten me to this point in my life is complicated and not so easily analyzable and medicated away. I found the idea of being put into some sort of box called “depression” or “bipolar II” (as if that explains everything and can now be managed appropriately) to be wholly inadequate. I am not a puzzle to be solved. Where was the recognition of me, a real, live, complicated person? This kind of recognition was missing in this whole process, and it turned out it was critical for my recovery.
3. Medicate my troubles away. Not so much. I want to emphasize again that medications are absolutely critical for some people. Sometimes it comes down to life or death, literally. My intent here is to share my experience, not convince anyone to take or not take medication. With that said, I have found that for me, at least right now, medications just aren’t the answer. Part of the issue, I admit, is that I have a real problem with the fact that we just don’t know much about what these things are doing to us. As I said, we’re complicated. These drugs do much more to us than help treat our mood disorders (as is evidenced by the numerous so-called side effects, which are actually just effects, of these medications). But even more importantly, when I finally found the supposedly “right” drug combination according to my psychiatrist (after many horrendous wrong combinations), the effect was a numbing of my feelings. I could not feel the lows anymore, but I also could not feel the joys. To me, this wasn’t living. I admit I could have tried more combinations. But there came a point for me when I said to myself, “This isn’t worth it. I need to do this another way.” I knew deep inside this wasn’t the right path for me.
4. Analyze, Analyze, Analyze!! Wait, I’m dizzy. Through approaches such as talk therapy, self-help & spiritual books, and personal growth seminars, I began to make all sorts of amazing discoveries about my underlying (and previously unconscious) belief systems. I discovered what they were, where they came from, and why and how they contributed to my depression and every other aspect of my life. This was transformative and really the beginning of finding my way back to the land of the living. After all, awareness brings with it the opportunity for change. But then I fell into what I lovingly refer to as the “self-help trap.” (I must admit I still stumble into this trap more often than I’d like.) Here’s how it goes: 1) I see a belief system in myself like “I’m not worthy” affecting my behavior and running my life. 2) I understand where it came from and that it “no longer serves me,” as all the self-help gurus so helpfully point out to me. 3) I nonetheless still behave/feel the same way, regardless of this awareness. I don’t know why. It’s stupid (I think). 4) I become disgusted with myself for behaving/feeling the same way yet again. 5) I beat myself into a bloody emotional pulp for doing the same damn thing over and over again. 6) I feel depressed because I’ve just beat myself up AND I’m a self-help failure. And down the rabbit hole I go. This obviously doesn’t work for me. I had to stop analyzing myself into a hole.
So where did all of this leave me? Alive, but barely. I certainly wouldn’t describe my state of being as truly living. But hope springs eternal (at least on my good days)! I thought there surely must be another approach that would work for me. I couldn’t possibly be the only one thrashing about aimlessly in the self-help rabbit hole. In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll delve into what actually did work for me. Who knows? Maybe it will work for you, too. Stay tuned.