"If someone with a lot of money and access to the best treatment couldn’t be cured, then what hope is there for me?"
I keep hearing this asked in all different ways, and while Robin Williams’ life left behind a legacy full of bright colorful ripples, unfortunately his suicide also has a legacy- a frightening message sent to a population already clinging to hope like a parachute made of sand that the only way to be free from the hell that is depression, is death.
The problem lies in the way depression is understood and the courses of treatment that stem from that understanding. One of the most damaging moments in a depressed person’s journey ironically, is the first time they have the courage to reach out and seek help and they are labeled mentally ill. I spent over a decade in 3 different states seeking help for depression, and I have seen a broad variety of health care professionals from psychiatrists, holistic doctors, life coaches, therapists, psychologists, people who were new in the field, to people who had many years of experience. There is a very clear summary of all of their beliefs: Depression is a mental illness- a nebulous disease, some type of chemical imbalance that we don’t really understand and treatment is more about managing it and learning to cope than actually “getting better”. You are best to accept that you have a handicap and adjust your dreams and the things you try to achieve accordingly.
Who wouldn’t want to die after being handed that fate? And so this diagnosis begins to feed depression with all the things it needs to keep it alive- hopelessness, powerlessness, defectiveness, and a view of the future that is suffocating.
IT IS ALL BULL FUCKING SHIT.
Depression is a suppressed level of functioning caused many distinctly identifiable things. If you resolve these things, the depression resolves itself. Permanently. People who are depressed live in a thick murky soup of confusion over their own truth, anger that has been so stuffed down they don’t even know it is there, pain that they don’t have language for, grief that has not been allowed to evolve to a healed state of acceptance and gratitude, loss that is not so straightforward, trauma that is often complicated and psychological (if not physical), the feeling of a higher calling with no visible path or understanding of their abilities to arrive at those destinations, personality traits that have been overdeveloped while others that are necessary to support the weight of that are under developed, gifts that feel like burdens because they don’t have the tools to manage them, and tremendous sensitivities all sealed inside a pressure cooker of the body with a hefty sprinkling of shame. When you begin to understand this, suddenly a very faint map starts to appear. Routes to freedom appear. A logical progression of the things that must be done to heal. Ways to grow. Suddenly there is room for excitement. Empowerment. Hope.
Well, hope doesn’t sell pills. About $10 billion dollars a year worth of pills. They are selling a cure based on a carefully branded hopelessness. Is anyone actually getting better? Antidepressants are most consumed class of medication in the US, yet 2 out of 3 people taking antidepressants report they are still suffering from depression. Listed side effects include the possibility of suicidal thoughts or actions. People are committing suicide in alarming numbers (currently the 10th leading cause of death in the US) or living heavily medicated and/or in tremendous pain yet somehow managing to serve out their term of life until it’s natural conclusion. Both are equally tragic.
For over 10 years I was completely unaware of the message in my depression, that it was actually a calling to break myself apart, examine all the pieces and build something new. I was repeated told I was mentally ill (with implied permanence) by every doctor I saw, yet somewhere that just didn’t feel right to me. Eventually I concluded that was just another component of the mental illness- secretly believing in my own sanity. All I knew something was very wrong and I had no words for any of it. If it had been explained to me as I explained it above my entire life would’ve opened up. It would’ve been frightening, but with the nervous energy of a new beginning rather than a death sentence.
One of the biggest tragedies of my struggle was that all except one of the mental health professionals I saw didn’t have a fucking clue what depression really is or what to do about it . Overcoming depression requires tremendous growth. Most of the professionals I encountered were only equipped to help me cope. Coping is suffering. They didn’t recognize psychological trauma. They didn’t understand PTSD. I was so good at coping, I had no idea that I even was coping. They sat and stared at me with long awkward silences hoping that I would bring something up in a session that they could work with. I never did. I felt even more defective because after years of therapy I never got anywhere. I blamed myself. I felt more broken, more hopeless. I didn’t know that I didn’t have language for what was going on inside of me and therefore I had no voice. I had no idea that a big part of overcoming depression is finding someone who will reach into the darkness within you, asking the right questions and helping you to develop language that will shed light in some very dark corners of your mind and heart. It is that new voice that will set you free.
The thing people don’t realize is that going for therapy isn’t good enough. You have to find someone who has language that speaks to your wounded soul. You have to find someone that you have chemistry with where your story collides with their energy and special brand of wisdom and lifts you to a higher place. Something about the way the two of you communicate inspires deep revelations. And when you have outgrown that person, you have to recognize that and move on. It is important to understand the core beliefs of the person you are seeing. I had a therapist recently tell me that suffering is a great part of the human experience and I will always suffer to a certain extent. The more I am able to accept that, the happier I will be. No fucking thank you. That’s her truth and so if I had continued to see her since that is one of her core beliefs, she would not challenge me to any higher existence than that. I know enough to walk away from that now, but in the past the fact that she was very experienced, expensive and located in the Hollywood hills would have spoken to me louder than the fact that her version of truth made my heart want to die.
In addition to examining the roots of one’s depression (yes, there was a point when it formed) unraveling and processing the past, and sorting out all the confused feelings in that thick murky soup, another part of overcoming depression is also rehabilitating the present life. When relationships and friendships stem from the toxic soil of depression the dynamic feeds the depression in major ways. This can also be true for other circumstances in life, like aspects of a person’s career. I will never forget the time in my life that I felt like my eyes were slowly opening for the first time to the fact that I had actually reconstructed the emotional crime scene of my entire childhood with frightening precision as an adult. And that is what I woke up to and lived in every single day.
What we are doing to people- labeling them mentally ill, sending them down a dark tunnel of inadequate treatment, taking away the one thing that could save them (hope) and medicating them so that they live a shell of a life experience, is tantamount to practices from the past where we imprisoned people in mental hospitals and threw away the key.
What a tragedy that a person so full of life, love, and brightness suffered so terribly to the point where he saw no other avenue for relief than suicide. Even more tragic is that it taints his beautiful legacy with this dark message of hopelessness. That is my motivation in writing this, dispelling that message. It is not true. And I think he would want you to know that. I wish he could’ve known that.
(An article explaining one of my core theories as published on www.thinkdifferentfeeldifferent.com)
The trouble with happiness is that we tend to believe it is a high, instead of a state of existence. Because of this we end up seeking to create it in ways that are not sustainable and it becomes just that- a temporary high. Picture an internal mechanical contraption that houses your spirit. Here are 5 components that when aligned, create a sustainable baseline of happiness deep within.
1. Your heart
Your heart is both the engine and the compass of this machine. It is a highly underestimated power source which can power you through things you don’t think you can survive, sometimes just by brute force. It also tells you what direction you need to pursue in life in order for your soul to be the most fulfilled, just like an animal somehow just knows which direction to migrate- sometimes thousands of miles, to get the nourishment it needs to sustain its life. It knows the deeper truth, beyond logic and we are never truly at ease when we are ignoring it.
At the front of this contraption, are lenses. They are the filters through which we collect information. The data points they detect are neutral in reality but the way we interpret and distort that neutrality is based on things that have affected us in the past. There are many published lists of cognitive distortions, but there are a lot of subtle personal ones too that are formed based on our story. For example, one of my personal lenses that I have always struggled with is Traps. I have a tendency to see everything and everyone slanted in such a way that I feel completely trapped and therefore powerless. At this point, I begin to suffer. The suffering used to feed itself and snowball to the point where the only way I could see out of it was to actually fantasize about death. It was a great milestone in my growth the day I began to see that this was a skewed perception of reality.
If you continually find yourself in pain, or just have a dull nagging feeling like you don’t really like life, you can benefit from exploring what exactly your lenses are, how they were shaped, and then work to adjust them in a way that gives you a view of reality that is in keeping with what your heart really wants to feel.
3. Thought system
Another component of this internal structure is our mind, which is our thought system. This is the part of the machine that processes the information brought in through the lenses and then gives the heart its orders on how it “should feel”. Often we end up in life with a thought system made up of scraps we have collected from previous generations, society’s conditioning, etc. – basically patterns of thinking based on the truths or limitations of others. This system doesn’t support our heart and this causes inner conflict and collapse. The bigger the discrepancy between the soft voice of the heart and the loud, logical voice of the mind, the greater the chance of depression, anxiety, and all self-destructive behaviors.
Often our thoughts actually take us in the exact opposite direction of what our heart wants to feel. Awareness of this gap without judgment is always the first step in fixing this. Surrounding yourself with teachers (people who have an inspiring way of processing life) and being open to what they show you is key. This can mean wisely selecting friends and mentors, or hiring a professional to help you rebuild the way you process the world in a way that feels good.
Your spirit is the sacred nature of who you are. It is the core of this machine, the reason the heart beats. A large source of pain in life stems from failure to spent time to get to understand it, and failure to see it as the most precious thing you have. This results in all sorts of other painful situations such as relationships that oppress and injure it. Often we have systems of thinking that cause us to inhibit our own spirit. We also often fear it, or fear that aspects of it are some form of mental illness or defect. Your spirit must exist in everything you do, for you to be living at your full potency.
Your voice is what gets this machine the nourishment it needs to keep running. When your voice speaks up for what your soul needs, that is how you receive things that make you feel alive. It is how you protect yourself from things that drain you. Often we don’t have language for what we need. And if we do, we don’t express it. This leads to a continual state of needing without any hope of having those needs satiated. It also leads to people never really knowing you, and a continual state of disconnect. Your voice is also the music that comes out of you. It is not just what comes out of your mouth, it is what vibrates out of you, into your life. It is what the people who know you, experience of you. It is your truth.
When you have lenses that give you a view of the world that creates joy, a thought system that is constructed to support the truths within your heart, and a voice that not only feeds your soul but also shows it to the world, that is when happiness becomes more than a temporary high, it is a state of living.
I had been suicidal most of my life. As a kid, I used to draw my gravestone over and over and over until I just went numb in the soul. I guess it was in my late teens though that the actual debilitating depression set in. I was raised basically in isolation by a mentally ill mother, who never received help, so I thought I would be responsible and go to the doctor and admit I had a problem. A serious one. I explained to my first psychiatrist how I was having all of these terrible thoughts that I couldn’t control they spun around and around in my head. I described these “flashes of death” that would happen every few seconds to the point where at the end of the day my nerves were so frayed all I could do was drown myself in alcohol. I described this tight knot in my throat that felt like a golf ball, and how all day long I tried to swallow it. I was diagnosed with OCD. The complicated medication regimen that I was put on would’ve required OCD to follow it. It made me lethargic, dizzy, frighteningly anxious, gave me vertigo, and extreme nausea. The thoughts became worse, to the point where I was afraid I was going to lose control.
I saw another psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression and started me on Prozac since that was the flavor most of my depressed family was on. I don’t think I got out of bed for a whole month. I felt like my skin was a bag full of concrete. I could barely drag myself to the bathroom. When I was awake, my heart would pound and I could barely breathe. I felt crippled by fear. Then I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder too.
Over the next ten years, I was prescribed virtually every medication on the market. The effect of these meds never lasted very long; I’d start off on whatever the regular dose was, and over months of them becoming less effective, the dose would increase until it was at the max. For over a decade despite being in therapy and on constant medication management, I suffered from night terrors, gripping flashes of death, insomnia, panic attacks, times when I felt completely dissociative, depression that at times completely immobilized me, stints in the mental hospital because I was sure I was going to hurt myself, and consumed with thoughts of suicide every second of everyday. In this condition I managed to graduate college, co-author several books, and start my own business. I so desperately wanted the life I would’ve had if I wasn’t so dysfunctional and I never stopped fighting with everything I had to overcome this emotional disturbia that was trying to consume me. My idea of success was how little of my suffering anyone actually knew about.
Finally after all of those years, I broke and began telling people that I wanted to die. I was married at the time and my husband started doing research and found a seemingly hip younger psychiatrist who had impressive credentials and seemed like he might offer a different perspective from the older, more conservative doctors I had always seen. This was the tiniest twinkle of hope I felt in my heart in years.
He sat there with his trendy surfer hair and shell necklace and again began to sentence me to the same fate as all the other doctors I had seen over the years. He repeated what I had been told time and time again, depression was not about being cured, it was about coping. Trying new meds as soon as they came out on the market, upping dosages, mixing things. Being proactive about medication management. He then went on to diagnose me with a rare form of bipolar, where instead of cycling from high to low, I cycle from low to lower. I keep the paper that he drew on right here, where I can see it. He drew a relatively straight horizontal line- which represented the moods of a normal person, an exaggerated sine wave- representing bipolar high and lows, and my own special rare bipolar, way below the other two lines- where my “high” was the bipolar low. I felt like someone let the last teeny drop of air out of the already deflated balloon that was my soul, yet I managed to protest that I was feeling slightly better, brighter and more alive now that I had reduced my dosage slightly. He explained to me that that was because I was on an “upswing towards down”. He told me in addition to sleeping pills, anxiety meds, an antidepressant, he also wanted me on an anti-psychotic.
Standing at the crossroads of “continue descending into the dark hell that was my life on antidepressants” and “give up”, It was then that I decided I deserved peace. I had tried hard enough, been through enough therapy been on enough pills, enough side effects, endured enough pain and I had nothing left. I was going to kill myself. I deserved freedom. And so I prepared to depart this earth. This meant internally making peace with letting go of every single thing about my reality, my existence and my dreams. That was easy; there wasn’t much left.
But there was just one thing that bothered me, that I could not seem to let go of. Was the joy, happiness, inner peace that I had dreamed of all of these years- that I distinctly remember experiencing as a small child- just really the delusion of a sick mind? I decided that since I was going to commit suicide anyway, I would go on the journey of answering that question first.
I got off all the meds. This meant that I endured close to a year of the most excruciating physical and emotional detox you could imagine. I lost almost a year of my life in “protracted withdrawals” detoxing from medications that supposedly were not addictive. In addition to the “brain zaps” and other physical symptoms, the emotional symptoms were equally frightening. Waves of sheer terror would wash over me constantly, my vertigo was so bad I often had to crawl, I had zero ability to calm myself down. I had what felt like no control over my mind or emotions and mood cycles. When the physical symptoms finally subsided, I remember the first time I felt air on my skin. It was such a beautiful moment that I giant streaming tears just poured out from somewhere deep inside. Just to feel the breeze on my skin… To be coming back to life.
I found a new therapist, who for the first time in all the years I sought help, told me that she believed depression was curable. She talked about “when I reach the end of my treatment”. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that concept. She said we were going to go back in time and explore how its roots. Bit by bit, guided by her insightful questions, I began to tell her my story. A story I had never told to anyone before. No one had ever asked.
I learned that being suicidal is not so much about wanting to die, as it is about wanting to be free. I found my way to freedom. The freedom I had been searching for my entire life.
That was 7 years ago. It was hard at first. I felt like I had literally woke up standing in the middle of my life. I saw how my marriage, my friendships, basically everything was built from a place of being a completely dysfunctional person. I started over, gaining momentum in my newly found freedom with each step. I rebuilt my entire life, this time with intention. I would describe my general state these last several years as a baseline of happiness with peaks of joy, and that is why I tell my story. I want people to know that is even possibility.
My story about living with mental illness is actually a story about living most of my life with a mental illness that I did not in fact, have.
Although it may sound that way, The message of this story is not that antidepressants are bad. My message has many components such as:
-Antidepressants may have their place in dealing with traumatic events and difficult times in life, but in my opinion as a long term solution for someone who is severely depressed they are tantamount to a death sentence. They are recklessly and over-prescribed. The direct-to-consumer marketing is grossly misleading (suddenly the gray world turns to bright color, etc).
-There is a serious void in the education of mental health professionals. In their education path, if they don’t want to develop the special skill set needed to treat it, they at least need to be taught to recognize PTSD & trauma and refer a client to someone who can help them. I believe is often the underlying cause of depression, addiction, self-harm, etc., and it is virtually impossible to heal from that unless the underlying trauma is dealt with. We also, as a society need to realize what trauma is. Trauma does not necessarily mean dramatic things like years of physical abuse, kidnapping, warfare, etc. It is actually anything that causes us to split where one part of us stays frozen in that state of pain and suffering and another part goes on putting on a show for the world and even our own selves. It is often subjective- something that traumatizes one person may not traumatize someone else. Often people who have experienced this split are so adept at coping that their secret internal suffering goes undetected by the outside world. In all my years of therapy, no one asked me the right questions, and I didn’t have language to explain what had happened to me because I didn’t understand myself what happened. Had I been diagnosed with PTSD or had someone picked up on the fact that I had endured complex psychological trauma for most of my early years, I would’ve been saved some 20 years of suffering. If someone hadn’t eventually recognized it, there is no doubt in my mind I would be dead by now.
-Depression & anxiety is not some random chemical imbalance. There are roots of when it formed in your life. Depressed people live in a thick murky soup of painful confused feelings that we cannot separate on our own. As we develop language for our experiences, pain, and our story through adult eyes, it becomes entirely evident why the depression exists. We begin to make sense to ourselves and in that process we learn love & compassion for ourselves. By developing language for pain and feelings, working to resolve it, learning to honor our needs, adjusting our distorted lenses (the way we look at life), learning tools to process life in a way that is in keeping with our hearts, and by building a life that supports our emotional needs, depression is completely resolvable. The key is growth, not coping. And growth doesn’t come from a bottle.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel like toxic people are everywhere. When I say “toxic” I’m referring to those people who always seem enmeshed in drama and negativity. They can come across as needy,