A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:


1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

5 responses

  1. Dia, this was a very thoughtful gesture on your part. To share what works for you in your handling of depression can help others hopefully too.
    My Mom had severe depression for most of her life and tried meds for a while but to no avail because she would would never give them a chance to work for her. I know the implications of some meds can be worse than the actual depression but when some people don’t have the insights and knowledge of what is going on, like yourself, meds are the only viable option.
    Good for you that you have figured out something that works for you. I really admire your courage and tenacity.

    • Thank you Jim, and I’m sorry about your mother. I’ve often wondered about the long shadow my struggle cast over my kids. Growing up in a household with chronic illness places such a burden on children. It seems so unfair. Yet allowing the guilt to swamp me only ever made the depression worse, which then increased their burden even more. So much of the discipline I had to learn was about how to navigate all the powerful, dark emotions without drowning in them. It was a lot like swimming in the ocean in Hawaii when I was a child. Sometimes big waves would break and suck me under, and there’s no way to break out of them when they do that, no matter how powerful a swimmer you are. I’d just have to curl up, hold my breath, and endure the tumbling for as long as it took for the wave to finally let me go. It’s a terrifying, helpless kind of feeling…but I never let that get in the way of holding my breath. The experience of getting caught in a depressive episode is very similar, only emotionally instead of physically. Over the years I’ve identified the likeliest triggers and learned the early warning signs, so I can usually head off an episode before it drags me all the way to the bottom. But even in the earliest stages it requires the same skills of endurance and surrender.
      Depression, like the ocean, is a demanding and relentless teacher.
      I have an uncle with schizophrenia who went on and off meds for years because the side effects were unbearable to him. Once he finally stayed on them the change was pitiful to see…he could barely talk…yet it was also a profound relief to the whole family not to have to deal with his crises anymore. The trade-offs in these situations can be so painful for everyone. I know for me, as the one who is actually experiencing the mental illness, I have a very deep fear of being drugged against my will, which is probably part of the reason why I was so motivated to make my own treatment regimen work. I wish our medical system would devote more resources to developing and providing an array of options for treatment, rather than focusing on pharmaceutical remedies as the only one. Talk therapy was very effective in helping with my depression and was an important part of my overall strategy, but my access to it was severely limited by financial constraints. I was lucky to find a psychologist who was willing to work with me through the most dangerous part of my first episode, in spite of my limited ability to pay him, and his generosity probably saved me. It’s a debt I try to pay forward every day.

  2. Dia,
    This is a really important subject and I admire you for tackling it head on and then for sharing what you’ve learned through years of agony, diligence, and …endurance.

    I was struck by your first and most important tip. Develop emotional endurance. Do excercises.
    I hate to be obtuse…but what exactly is emotional endurance and what kind of excercises have you found to hone the skill?

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