Is depression a choice?

Late last year, perhaps in November, I decided to not be depressed anymore.

A lot of crap had happened, and I was feeling crappy. I could sense myself going into the tailspin that I know really, really well – after hundreds (if not thousands? let me calculate the years) of repetitions.

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Mindful, repetitious observation

The last couple of dozens of these repetitions were lived through with increasing mindfulness, as they call it: rather than running in panic for something, anything that could calm me down, or, more accurately, numb me out (like food, loud music, overexercise, sex that I don’t really feel like, clinging to people I don’t really want to cling to, and finally, dissociation), I would try to stay present with the sensations and feel them, without freaking out too much (or generate compassion and warm feelings for my freaking out). Because I’d read in books that these feelings won’t kill you (unless they drive you to suicide, but I do maintain control over that).

Staying sober during the storms, over endless repetitions, was useful in as far as it taught me that these things pass. A crisis lasts maybe a few hours, and may be followed by another soon, but there are always breaks.

It also taught me to notice when I’m in it; and – this is actually advice a friend with similar issues gave me – to absolutely not trust my thoughts when I’m in it. To absolutely and unconditionally postpone thinking until it’s over (since, over many, many repetitions, I’d learnt that there is always a moment when it’s finally over).

This is one of the most useful things I’ve learnt, probably.

But back to the title question.

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The official answer is “No”.

That’s the whole point of depression defined as a serious, chronic problem (not a brief, passing mood or a response to a difficult situation that’s relatively limited in time).

And yes, of course I’ve found myself trying to explain this to people who, on my bad days, tell me to (yes, often literally) “kick my ass”.

There are days (of mild melancholia in the midst of which I preserve a sense of humour) when it helps a bit – sometimes getting out and e.g. enjoying exercise in nature actually keeps me out of it when it’s just a slight sinking in out of habit; but then, there are days when it’s really bad (outer apathy with inner agony), and I feel I need help, and of course, that type of statement and attitude adds yet another Dantean realm to the misery.

That much is perhaps clear to anyone who would read a mental health blog; if not, it’s easy enough to look up.

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The New Age answer

On the other hand, yes, I’ve also strayed and wandered through any number of New Age self-help books claiming that any disease is a choice (assuming depression is a disease, which I disagree with on other grounds).

Your negative thinking causes it, etc.

Blaming people who are already feeling miserable for their problems (in the name of “taking responsibility”) is cruel, as (ex-)New Age healer and writer Karla McLaren also notes – seeking a balance between being hopeful and self-responsible, and … grounded and realistic.

So no, that’s not the kind of choice I’m talking about, either.

This “think positively” choice (tyranny) is a dressed up version of the “just kick your ass” litany.

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f you

So knowing this, why did I decide to stop being depressed?

I’m not sure.

When I felt this is starting again, I just got very, very angry. Frustrated. At a point just pissed-off, and later just forcefully and deeply … angry, from the bottom of my belly. I had enough.

And I channeled all this anger, frustration, exasperation into a forceful internal energy stream of “just f you, I’m not playing this game anymore”. I’m just not. Screw you. (Whoever was the “you” here – presumably the process I sensed settling into its worn tracks again.)

This feeling – not sure how describe it, anger, rage, exasperation, but also just a forceful drawing of boundaries and a daredevilish acceptance of “whatever may come” – was bone deep and reverberated throughout my whole body.

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Recurrence and nipping

Did this work?

Well, mixed. I have started sliding into these phases several times since November. However, recalling this bone-deep sensation of resolve has helped me regain sobriety several times, and often nip the thing in its bud (or, if I’d missed the moment … well, tear at the ingrained root frantically).

But I’ve just done this again … walking outside, feeling miserable (due to similar triggers, related to loneliness and feeling abandoned), I’ve recalled this decision.

I’d like to go deeper into the kind of decision it was.

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Repression, escape and fight

It was not a decision to repress or escape, or to fight. None of these; all of these have been tried endless times and failed.

The decision was more about an intuitive knowing that, hey – in my case (I don’t say in your case, talking about a particular person with a particular history, me) – I’m doing this, my mind-body system is creating this paralysis and agony because.

Typically because I don’t want to, or am afraid to, or refuse to, or can’t imagine to, or don’t have the confidence to – face something.

Maybe throughout the many repetitions I developed an intuitive sense that this is a way to paralyse my system when going ahead seems unimaginable.

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Perhaps

But perhaps in November I got so fed up that I decided to make the unimaginable imaginable.

Rather than going through this cycle yet again; and again; and again.

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Losing

Maybe, deep inside, my mindbody and soul decided to change its priorities. Perhaps the unimaginable became less scary, disgusting or shattering than these recurrent cycles became exasperating and pointless.

Perhaps I grew stronger and decided I will do whatever it takes; perhaps I got weaker and decided, look, I’m ageing and going to die anyways, so what’s there to lose that I’m not losing by losing myself like that.

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The unimaginable

Making the unimaginable imaginable isn’t meant in an idealistic sense here. It’s meant in a very realistic, sometimes painful sense – that I’ll be ready to do, think, feel things that I haven’t been ready to previously; perhaps compromise; perhaps give up ideas that I thought were part of me; perhaps give up my identity as I know myself; perhaps admit error or ignorance; perhaps regret or ask for forgiveness; perhaps accept loss; what do I know.

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Recall

I’m still fed up with these cycles, and I’m still reminding myself that I am, and that I will accept other things, other paths now, even if they are unfamiliar, scary, or I don’t like them. Or perhaps, conversely, I will stop accepting what I don’t like (in other areas) and go through the agony of protecting or asserting myself. What do I know.

It’s all of this and more.

I don’t know if this will make the feeling of depression come on less frequently. That doesn’t fully depend on me, either, I believe (but to some degree on circumstances – yes, encounters and how resilient my system is naturally).

Still, if it’s here, and part of my soul, I’ll try to be truthful to what it wants, and respond by peeling off even more layers of this onion until vitality is reached, even if vitality sometimes means facing pain, loss, old humiliations, or unimaginable fear – but screw that, I think I’ve chosen that now and at least I do sense life in it; feeling alive and gradually growing more real.

Though certainly not more nice, calm, and uncomplicated.

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Appendix: the function of depression in the psyche

Sending the children to the countryside before the air strike

I have observed that in these phases, I tend to have nightmares. That seem odd even to me. Namely a meddle of air strikes, bunkers, concentration camps, maoist prison torture, maimed animals, and other graphically beautiful flourishes of my visual artist’s imagination.

Sometimes I thought these might be past lives, or whatever. Because they did seem a tad extreme and graphical – certainly worse than what directors accomplish in movies (which I’ve been conscientiously avoiding for at least a decade now). And out of context at that, because, mashallah, I’ve never gone through something like that and avoid consuming such images.

Reading The language of emotions by Karla McLaren, I believe I have finally found the answer. The chapter on depression describes how one day, she decided to sit down with her depression and ask it – in a felt, empathic inner dialogue – what it has to say.

She received a vision of London airstrikes during WW2, with Londoners frantically sending their children into their countryside for safety. The description matched my nightmares remarkably well.

McLaren’s interpretation was that her psyche is a war zone (that she wasn’t even aware of), and her soul, inner intelligence, or whatever – is sending the children (vitality) out of there, away, into hiding. For safety. This shattering conflict zone is no place to be for your soul’s precious (energy) children.

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White flag

This struck me, and made new sense of my decision, for me. Maybe I decided that I’ll at least try doing what it takes to make this place safe bring them back. Maybe I have to win a war first; or put up a white flag; no idea. And I don’t know if I’ll succeed – frankly, there are odds both ways. But I don’t want to spend the second half of my life in a city without children.

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Share your version

This is my personal path. What about yours – are you going through anything similar? Have you ever had this kind of “enough, I’m going to face it now” moment?

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