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Escaping the Prison of Depression

by Dorothy Rowe(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 90 - July 2003

"It seems crazy, but I feel I'm locked inside a dirty grey glass cage. I can see people outside the cage, but I can't reach them and they can't reach me."

Alison was trying to explain to me what it was like to be depressed. I recognized what she was saying. I've been researching depression for 35 years. I've discovered that the best way to find out whether a person is depressed or unhappy is to ask, "If you could paint a picture of what you're feeling, what would you paint?"

Each person has his or her own image of being depressed, but all these images have the same meaning. The person is alone in a prison. The person might be in a pit with crumbling walls or perhaps walls of stainless steel; the person might be walking along an endless black tunnel, or crossing an empty, infinite desert; the person might be wrapped in a thick shroud, or weighed down by some burden with no one there to remove the shroud or lift the burden. Unhappy people will describe miserable images, but they are not images of being trapped and alone.

Nowadays the words 'depressed' and 'depression' are used very casually, often where the person is simply unhappy, dispirited or disappointed. Yet the experience of depression is markedly different from any of these states. It is utterly distinct. There is a barrier, impenetrable as it is invisible, between you and the rest of the world. You can see that people outside the barrier are being loving and supportive to you, but none of that comfort can cross the barrier to warm you. Inside the prison you don't comfort yourself. Instead you've turned against yourself and hate yourself. You're suffering the greatest torture, that of complete isolation for an indefinite period, which is the torture which jailers use to break the strongest prisoner.

What Leads Us into the Prison of Depression?

Each person who becomes depressed has his or her own story, but all of these stories have a common theme. I call this 'The Depression Story'.

This story starts in early childhood with an experience most of us have. Babies are born full of unselfconscious self-confidence but, by the time most of them become toddlers, this self-confidence has been lost and they see themselves not being acceptable to their families. They have to learn to be clean and obedient and all the things their family want them to be. They have to become good. Alas, the trouble with being a good person is that you are never good enough. You must always try to be better. Learning to become good is very painful, and so as children we are likely to accept readily the teaching that we live in a 'Just World' where goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. All religions teach this, though they differ in how they define goodness and badness, rewards and punishments. Many people, though not at all religious, believe that ultimately bad people are punished and good people rewarded. As children we can comfort ourselves that when we grow up, we'll get our rewards for being good.

Believe that, as you are, you are not acceptable and that you have to work hard to be good and that you live in a 'Just World', hold these beliefs absolutely, without question, and you have laid the foundation for the prison of depression.

Our sense of who we are, what we call 'I', 'me', 'myself', is a set of ideas about ourselves, our world and our past and future. Sooner or later we discover that there's a serious discrepancy between what we thought our life was and what it actually is. Perhaps the person who we saw as our future has deserted us. Perhaps someone dear to us has died. Perhaps we had a secret ambition which we discover can never be fulfilled. Perhaps we believe that if we're good, nothing bad can happen to us. With such a discovery we feel ourselves falling apart. Terrified, we cast around for an explanation for what has happened. We reject chance or blaming others. In the 'Just World' nothing happens by chance and good people always blame themselves. So we say to ourselves, "If I had been a really good person this disaster would not have happened."

Thus we turn against ourselves and hate ourselves. In doing so we cut ourselves off from every aspect of our life – from other people who will reject us, from our wicked past, our hopeless future and from nature itself. We are too disgusting to be part of all this. Thus we create the prison of depression.

Escaping the Prison of Depression

By changing our ideas. We need to realiZe that we aren't the wicked person we thought ourselves to be – indeed this is a belief that we acquired in childhood and that we're free to change. We need to understand that the world isn't ruled by an iron law of rewards and punishments, but that things happen by chance.

Changing long-held ideas can be difficult, but it's possible to do this step by step. We can begin by acting as if we're our own best friend. Each day we can do something nice for ourselves. We can go for a walk and really look at and absorb the beauty of the trees and the sky. We can prepare ourselves a nutritious meal, or indulge ourselves in aromatherapy. We can join a yoga class and learn how to centre ourselves and how to meditate. By doing this, we not only care for ourselves but we come to understand how everything that exists is in constant flow and change, and that we are part of everything. Thus we find that chance is not something to be feared but something to be welcomed, because it is only in a world of chance that we can hope and be free.

The third edition of Dorothy Rowe's book Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison is published by Routledge at £9.99.

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About Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe is a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She has written 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and is a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Her website is www.dorothyrowe.com.au

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