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Reclaiming Life: A Letter From the Other Side of Depression

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Coming out on the other side of depression is like being reborn.

The world is huge, bright, a horizon for endless curiosity and exploration. The vastness of the future is no longer daunting and exhausting, but an invitation. There’s a sense that no matter what’s out there, it is what it is and you’ll be OK. You’ll be OK because you carry within you the capacity to be OK. If you’ve made it through this far, there’s really nothing you can’t overcome.

Recovering from depression is a feeling of ultimate empowerment. This seed of your self has been harshly refined — battered, bruised, blown, flooded, scalded, drowned almost to nothing — but look! It’s still there. And then, against all the odds, it begins to take root. No one thought you could do it. You didn’t think you could do it. Yet one day, you wake up and realize: I’m more alive than dead. Life is more good than bad. And there’s your little seed, alive and growing. Welcome back.

I know you might not believe me. A few short months ago, I wouldn’t have believed myself. It reminds me of the first year I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, just in time for four straight months of winter rain. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I didn’t believe that the rain would relent and turn these soggy fields to blackberries and camas flowers and gold hay. But, surprise: spring came.

I know it sounds cliché. But depression gives this simple metaphor powerful weight. Spring follows winter. This is a basic, well-known fact — until it is not. Until depression shows you perpetual winter, and you stop believing that there’s anything but dark. Suddenly, winter-to-spring isn’t a passive process that you watch playing out on the Earth each year. It’s inside you, and it’s a battle for your life. “Spring” means the little truth inside you saying, “My world was dark, but there’s a possibility that light will return.” It means the belief that depression has another side.

When you come to believe in spring again, it’s nothing short of a miracle. It blows you away, again and again. You feel like a child, first discovering the smell of fresh grass or a field of bluebells. Except it’s so much better than that, because it’s a second chance — you’ve already done it once, as a child. And it’s better because of its contrast to the dark that came before. The harsher the winter, the sweeter the summer and spring. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. If warmth lasted all year, August blackberries couldn’t taste as sweet. Each year, this feels like a new discovery to me. It never gets old.

Recovering from depression means rewriting the basic rules you believe govern the world. Light, not darkness, is life’s native condition. Good, not bad, is the way time tends to go. There’s every reason to believe that tomorrow or next year will be even more wonderful than today, and not the other way around. Depression, too, was about looking forward—but forward held nothing but fear and dark and stasis. Recovering from depression is like watching a path unfold where walking forward is a welcomed privilege. Not only are you reawakening to the present, but you’re also reclaiming an entire future that’s yours to live joyfully and completely.

How did you not see this before? If this rebirth is real — as you know it is, with total conviction — then obviously the beliefs of depression were lies. The problem is, they never seem that way. You don’t sit with depression and say, “Look, a veil just descended over the world, obscuring reality with darkness and pain and despair.” Nope. You feel like the veil has finally been lifted. Happiness and pleasure and light were the illusions. Now, you’re seeing the nature of life as it is.

The beliefs of depression are complete and, in the moment, true. But the transformation that comes with recovery is also complete and true. And the strength of the darkness — the completeness of depression’s illusions and veils — makes rebirth all the stronger.

It’s a miracle, really. An exchange of opposites. A transfiguration of darkness into light. Alchemy. And the remarkable thing: this transformation happened inside you. The circumstances of the external world haven’t changed — at least not hugely enough to explain the shift in you. The same streets, the same landscapes, the same jobs and people. Yet all of a sudden, you are different. The power to turn the light switch of the world back to “on” is inside you.

That makes it sound easy. A simple choice: why not just flip on the switch? Nothing is farther from the truth. The darkness of depression is so complete that not only have you lost the light switch — you forget that things like switches and lights even exist. The funny thing is, though, that when it comes to turning the light back on, it actually is kind of simple. You’ve been fighting your hardest, laying down the sweat and tears and soul-work and medication and mental games, until it feels like you’re climbing an endless mountain of shale and keep slipping backward, until — flick! All of a sudden, the entire landscape shifts, and you begin to see the light.

I can’t tell you how it happens. Or when. Or why. Certainly, work and struggle and perseverance lay down the foundation for recovery. They put healing in the realm of the possible. But in the moment, emerging from depression is more like letting go. Letting go of trying, letting go of the illusion that work and thought can fix everything, letting go of your control. It’s not a trust-fall, because you don’t believe that if you surrender you’ll be caught and cradled and shown the light. If you wait until you do believe these things, you’ll never jump. It’s more of a last-ditch surrender. A desperate confession that yes, I’m empty, yes, I’m helpless, no, I can’t do this alone. I give up. I give over my self, my broken soul, to something or someone that sees and loves in a way that’s not possible for me right now.

It doesn’t feel good. It’s a dark night of the soul, the lowest and most broken a person can be. You might stay here for a while — I did, for the better part of a year. But this place is also where you find the tiny seed for possibility. By giving up on the dark way you perceive the world to be — by surrendering control to a desperate hope in the far, far distance — you’re affirming that somewhere, deep and hidden inside you, you might believe there’s another way to live.

The harsher the winter, the sweeter the spring. This is true. But there’s a deeper truth here, too. The strength of depression — the magnitude of despair and betrayal you feel when the light goes out on your world — is testimony for the magnitude of your hidden belief that life can be better. Depression feels so bad not because life is inherently bad, but because life is so good. Somewhere inside you, you know this. You know things can be different. That’s why it hurts so much right now. The strength of your darkness and suffering is not a refutation of, but evidence for, the strength of your hidden faith in light.

Seen this way, light and dark — depression and healing — are not opposites. That’s the miracle of recovering from depression. You’ve glimpsed the way that two seemingly opposing contradictions are in fact interconnected parts of a whole. Darkness is simply the inverse sister of light. Once you know this, you have nothing to fear from your despair. There is no guilt or shame. Yes, life has dark seasons, and we sometimes dwell there. But merely one turn of a cycle, and spring will come back. The remarkable truth is this: in order to glimpse the unity of light and dark, you had to know the darkness completely. You can’t comprehend the wholeness until you’ve plumbed the deepest boundary of darkness and found that even there — especially there — is the boundary into the territory of light. And all this is within you.

It isn’t simple. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. But I promise: one day, you’ll wake up and realize that the balance has shifted. Light is back, and you believe it might grow. Things are still hard. But if you look back to where you were a month ago, or a year, or five, then you begin to recognize the change. Your pain and struggle aren’t over, but you’ve emerged on the other side. You’re on your way back to life. And look at what you’ve learned and felt along the way.

Is depression worth it? Couldn’t you have gone your entire life without learning about light and dark and wholeness this way? Some people do, or they learn in a way that’s less extreme. If I could go back and do it all again, would I choose this crash course in unity of opposites and self-knowledge and rebirth? It doesn’t really matter, because I don’t get to choose. But I can choose to be awake now. Awake to the joy and the miracle and the newness of it all. Right now, I am grateful. I’m happy. I’m full. I’m alive.

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Thinkstock photo via Karepanov

Originally published: February 16, 2017
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