Content note: In this blog, Louise describes her experience with serious depression. She also references Man’s Search for Meaning, a book about World War II concentration camps.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul
—and sings the tunes without the words—
and never stops at all.”
I have become very philosophical about my depression over time, having had more than a handful of episodes—which can be expected considering my 31-years of experience living with bipolar disorder. I’ve had many more depressions than manias over the decades, with a few relentless bouts of stubborn low-grade depression lasting more than two years.
What allowed me to withstand even the most debilitating depressive episodes, was one little phrase I have repeated to myself over and over like a mantra, “This, too, shall pass” (Abraham Lincoln’s favourite catchphrase). I have come to learn that the human spirit can withstand even the most atrocious series of events if it has the knowledge and strength derived from these four words.
It’s the hope, you see. Hope is a state of mind that makes present day sufferings more bearable by providing the expectation of a better life in times to come, no matter the present circumstance. It gives us a certain amount of control over our lives—even when we feel we have none—building resiliency and reducing anxiety and depression. It’s a match guiding the way in a pitch-black passageway.
Hope. Such a small word with such massive promise. There’s hope in that short phrase, for a depressed person who is often at a point of seeing a bleak unchanging future and lacking in the full range of human emotions.
“This, too, shall pass.”
It is rare that a book can capture our hearts and changes our perception of ourselves and the world around us. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was one of those books that transformed my beliefs about hope. In this inspiring book, Frankl wrote that he was able to find hope and meaning in the most catastrophic of places: the Jewish concentration camps in World War II where he was surrounded by heinous death, extreme hunger, and debilitating living conditions. When he often wondered how he would get through the next hour, much less the three years he ended up enduring; treading water between life and death.
Frankl wrote that he faced the stark choice of choosing between hope and despair when he first arrived at the camps, and he chose hope. Specifically, hope that he would one day be reunited with his wife. He felt a loss of hope was a complete loss of meaning and that humankind must have meaning and purpose in their lives in order to live well and eventually flourish. He witnessed many prisoners in the camps who had lost all hope and observed they almost always faced imminent death. He retained hope in one of the most desperate situations ever recorded in the history of all humankind—a place so hellish it could make a devout person question the existence of God. An experience far worse than even the most crushing form of depression could ever be.
Hope is an inherent part of the human condition and necessary in the face of total darkness. It alleviates some of the powerlessness and suffering we all may feel. I’ve nurtured it in times of wellness to ensure it would be there when I needed it most, before the depression successfully hunted me down and surrounded me with its tentacles. I laid the necessary groundwork in times of stability, rather than in times of depression when the mind is seemingly controlled by pessimism.
I’ve often wondered during my debilitating depressions; how could I be this wretched and this grief-stricken and still be alive? How could my chest rise and fall, breath after breath, when I was a discarded marionette with no life force? When each second felt like an hour of inexorable pain, I used to think that other people couldn’t possibly be suffering from this plague as harshly as me. Yet I have seen others in treatment settings, their minds and bodies completely wrung out, tortured by their thoughts. I am not the only one.
“This, too, shall pass.”
I’ve been so depressed my shoulders had trouble supporting the weight of my heavy head. I’ve been so exhausted but could not sleep because it felt as though my bed was made of nails. I’ve been so depressed I laid in bed at night gently rocking myself back and forth to sleep, seeking comfort from some unseen mother all those years ago.
I didn’t always have hope.
I’m a committed atheist, and yet, I have shamelessly beseeched God to eradicate my depression. Thinking that if he were to lift me out of depression I would never do a bad deed or have an unkind thought toward anyone for the rest of my life. These entreaties intensified as I spoon-fed my demons throughout the haunting hour, when night was still, and I was at my most vulnerable and disconsolate.
The old military aphorism, “there are no atheists in foxholes” proved true in my case. I have pleaded to God through so many cascading tears, that I could not see—yet I still searched blindly for him, so I could beg. He was always the final power I sought out. “Please God. Please. Please help me. Please. I’m on my hands and knees in front of you. Please show some mercy toward one of your children suffering beyond what a person is normally expected to endure on this earth.”
My pleas have always remained unanswered. I was on my own. Alone like I never thought possible in my desperation, like a wounded soldier waiting for an ambulance that never comes. Consequently, I have become strong and resilient, like a reed bending in the wind and never breaking.
I have seen depressed patients in the hospital in bathrobes and slippers, too dejected to dress; leaving a trail of dirty finger-marks at waist level in the hallways from trying to steady themselves as they walked, overcome by stupefying drugs and formidable depression. I have been there too. When suicidal ideation dominated my thoughts and all I wanted was oblivion by sleeping forever, until the icecaps had melted, and the oceans covered the land.
“This, too, shall pass.”
Depression became the biggest trial of my life once it burrowed beneath my skin. When vibrancy turned to nihilism. When laughter turned to stone. When the birds sang, but not for me.
It took perseverance to keep going during times when there appeared to be no damn reason to continue. When psychiatrists opened their little black bags and gave me their tired, old medicines that numbed me out and dumbed me down. A huge price to pay, especially considering the drugs were sometimes ineffective in alleviating the stubborn low-grade depression that took up residence in my mind for two years at a time, rent free. Depression forced me to play a most disagreeable game with no discernible rules. Only feeling safe from the daily onslaught of negativity and pain in the fetal position. The “lost years” when my plaintive call wasn’t heard, and the medications didn’t even make a dent.
“This, too, shall pass.”
Hope is a conscious choice…It’s a powerful way of thinking that has given me the courage and confidence to meet adversity head-on.
Hope is a conscious choice. Ultimately, I chose hope over despair—like Frankl did a lifetime ago. It’s a powerful way of thinking that has given me the courage and confidence to meet adversity head-on.
Incredibly, I clung on to a sliver of hope that one day I would find a regimen of drugs—which sometimes felt like an elusive elixir—that would produce the desired results, even when I got steamrolled by life. I don’t know how I managed this, but perhaps we all hold a reservoir of inner strength that we are not even aware of having until we find ourselves alone up at bat.
For those who have yet to learn that finding the right combination of medicines is often as unhurried as a night with unremitting insomnia, this process took time. It seemed on occasion a bit like trial and error, but I persevered. I recently came across a complete list of all the psychotropic drugs in existence (97) and, to my horror, counted that I had been prescribed a total of 24 different medicines in my 31-year history. This was mostly in my first ten years when my bipolar disorder was always one step ahead of me, and I was frequently overmedicated with large cocktails of drugs (amid a frightening amount of medication changes in a short time frame). This would never happen today when medicines are changed one at a time, and less frequently, and plenty of patients are often prescribed a course of treatment efficacious from the outset.
But despite all that—all the failures, shattered dreams, and empty promises—I still placed my faith in science because there was nothing else when I was diagnosed in 1991. There were no support groups, no webinars, no peer support workers, no “lived experienced” blogs, no quality-of-life tools, or even that many books on depression for laypeople like there are today.
I began to cultivate hope by setting a series of realistic goals for myself, in times of wellness, to direct my recovery and to act as a prophylactic against despair.
Brené Brown, American research professor, lecturer, and author defines hope as “a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them and believing in our own ability.” After reading Brown, I began to cultivate hope by setting a series of realistic goals for myself, in times of wellness, to direct my recovery and to act as a prophylactic against despair. This resulted in a lighter load to carry. At the risk of sounding pollyannish, adhering to very simple goals and tools for self-management produced stability and ever-increasing amounts of hope and, I dare say, a sense of general wellbeing and happiness over time.
Research has also shown that practicing mindfulness increases hope, optimism, and positive affect: one’s tendency to experience positive emotions when faced with life challenges. Even when our moods change like the weather in spring, from warm to cold and back again in an instant.
I have known paralyzing depression, but I have also watched it pass. Just as the moon will pass in front of the sun every once in a while, for an eclipse. Knowing this makes me able to withstand almost anything.
“This, too, shall pass.”