A few days ago I was sitting with a friend and the question came up – “do you really believe that it’s possible to recover from depression?” For whatever reason, maybe the tenor of our conversation leading up to that question, my immediate response was unsure. I was surprised by this – if I don’t believe that recovery from depression is possible, where does that leave me as a human, as a therapist?
I left my friend’s house thinking about this question. Was it possible? Who did I know who used to be depressed and now isn’t depressed anymore? Anyone?
In my mind at that moment, depression was like a light switch – on/off. Depressed always or never depressed.
But of course, that’s not how life works. There are levels of depression. There is the mild dissatisfaction with everyday life, the irritation, the difficulty getting going. There’s the nagging thoughts and haunting sense that you don’t really exist, not really, and that you’re not going anywhere fast. There’s the deep pit of depression that you feel all over your body, like a lead blanket that keeps you in bed past your alarm, past the start of the work day, that stalls your hand from answering the phone when it rings. There’s hating yourself so much that you want to destroy yourself. There's the tendency to see the negative in everything, even when you know logically that life is more complex than that.
If I’ve been feeling really good for a while but then have an extra beer, feel hung over, skip yoga, and then start procrastinating, start doubting myself, start to feel slow and lonely, and don’t make it out to see my friends because the only viable place for me is under the covers watching netflix, does that mean that I’m depressed again?
When I finish binge watching and the dog licks my toe and I remember to look at him, like really look, and I realize that he wants to play catch and I get up and toss the ball for him, and he's so cute, and he loves me, and I know it, does that mean I’m recovered?
Most of us feel better or worse at different moments in our lives. We can never unfeel the way we felt, or unthink the thoughts we have had. There are dark shadow times and incredibly bright moments of joy and connection, but a lot of life happens in between.
We can figure out, over time, what makes us feel better. More connected. More committed to the things that we care about. And we can continue to return to those things. With these practices we build the groundwork of a life worth living. Then even when we stray, it gets easier and easier to find the path again.
Those practices may be literal practices in the world (hike, breathe, know when to walk away, take medication, go to acupuncture, go to the park with friends, make art, pay attention to the dog, tell the truth, ask for help, etc.), or they may be new ways of attending to your darkness and cultivating your courage and joy.
I don’t know anyone who could entirely stop doing the things that make them feel better and still feel good. But I can think of a list miles long of clients and friends who have grappled with deep depression and who now live rich, connected lives that they are excited to step into in the morning.
So if that’s what constitutes recovery from depression, then hell yes. I absolutely believe that recovery from depression is possible. And I take my hat off to everyone who chooses to walk that path, even on the bumpy days.