The first theme across narratives of healing is that of hope—hope that healing is possible, that choices do matter, that tomorrow doesn’t have to be the same as today. As Mark put it, “I didn’t want to just cope. I needed to hope that tomorrow could somehow be different, and clinging to that hope was what had kept me alive so long.” (25)
Although hope is clearly relevant to all the stories sampled here, we draw below on themes from 20 of the accounts where participants spoke especially directly about the role hope played (2, 12, 14, 21, 25, 27, 42, 44, 46, 47, 61, 63, 65, 72, 82, 87, 89, 91, 105, 108). “There is always hope” (63) Beth said, with Nyla adding, “Healing is a process less about a destination than it is about maintaining hope.” (61) Another woman described “the promise of healing” as what “urged her forward.” (27)
Sources of despair. Expressions of hope starkly contrasted with the despondency people experienced at certain points along the path of healing. As Josh said, “Hopelessness was a huge part of my life for a very long time.” (105) One man described his time in a psychiatric hospital, where observed what felt like “so many people in despair, with no way out.” (101) This sense of despair was often compounded by diligent efforts to heal that seem fruitless—reflected in the common experience of seeking and trying, but not finding:
- “I sought medical, psychological, and psychiatric help for about two years… Several medications, dosage changes, doctors, therapists, etc… Nothing made a dent.” (2)
- “I continued to spiral…I struggled to enjoy my life, from the simple moments to big celebrations. It was as if I had gone from living in color to viewing my world in dimly lit black and white. I was waiting to feel better. Every single day I would wake up, hoping that it would be different. I prayed to God that something would change, but it never did.” (42)
- “Medication, the mainstay of conventional treatment, simply did not work. Drugs, such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, made me agitated; others such as Lithium made me even more depressed; and the rest did nothing at all. As the emotional pain became unbearable, I began to contemplate suicide as the only way to escape from my ongoing nightmare. In desperation, I agreed to be evaluated for ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but was told that I was not a good candidate because of my high state of agitation. Having run out of options, I felt as if I were trapped in a dark tunnel in which both ends were sealed off, and a sign on the door read, ‘No Exit.’” (4)
- “I tried everything I could think of to help myself, to improve myself, when I had the energy. I wanted so much to be normal and, especially, to be happy.” (12)
- “For the last 7 years I have fought with depression that has gone from mildly inconvenient at times to downright debilitating at other times…[including] almost a full week of being unable to even make it out of bed. At that point I had already gone through 3 different types of drugs and was thinking I was going to be moving to another type soon. But that wasn’t much hope as each type I tried would work for a few weeks and then I’d be back almost to where I started.” (65)
This continued failure to find relief can generate profound levels of disappointment. As Johann said, “When it isn’t taken away, it can feel like your pain will never go away.” (21)
It wasn’t simply discouraging experiences that seemed to compound hopelessness, but often the larger things people were told and came to believe about depression. For example:
- One woman said, “My first therapist told me in one of our sessions, ‘Juanita, you will have to live with this for the rest of your life.’” (47)
- “Pat, from everything you’ve told me, I believe your clinical depression is a life-long condition…Your bouts with depression and anxiety have been so frequent and so severe that I believe your brain chemistry is permanently out of balance. You’re like a person with Type 1 Diabetes, a chronic condition that requires a lifetime of insulin.”
- “When I was about 16 years old, I remember the first conversation I had with a psychiatrist about my brain and how my brain influenced my mental illness and its role in my mental illness. He told me my brain was like a car engine without oil. And therefore, over time it would break down. It wasn’t able to do what it wanted to do because it didn’t have all the proper components there. I was a bit crushed when suddenly, at age 16, listening to a medical doctor, I was disposed to believe him, that my brain was like a car engine that didn’t have oil in it. Which brings up this natural question, ‘Where do I get oil? And how much does this oil cost? And where can I get a reliable supply, because the last thing I want is to break down.’ And all of these fearful thoughts come up, and your life transforms like that [snaps]. You go from having this brain to having this busted up jalopy of a car that’s going to break down at any moment. And I remember that was a sad day and I really carried that with me.”
This man went on to say:
I remember feeling dismayed—and maybe I’m putting that too mildly. I remember feeling a little bit crushed that all of a sudden this brain that had made such a good companion to me for sixteen years of my tender life, that it was deficient, that it was kind of broken, that there was something we needed to prop it up with to make it kind of work. Immediately, this new framework—this framing of symptoms that were coming up in my life—it wasn’t a tough go at it, it wasn’t just this season of challenge and unrest. It was, ‘this is your brain kid—this is how things are going to be.’ And I was upset; I felt deeply saddened by that prospect.
Anyone who believed these bleak diagnoses about their brain and life would, of course, feel some discouragement. And it was precisely a shift in these larger views on depression that produced new levels of hope for many.
Hope from hearing new possibilities and other ways of thinking. A number of people described a burst of new hope as they began to reconceptualize the problem they faced. In many cases, this happened from coming across a particular book which pointed them beyond the usual paradigm of mental illness:
- “And then I read this book. And everything changed. His 6 steps gave me something to focus on, other than “being sick.” Just the change from seeing Life from a Wellness perspective rather than a Sickness perspective changed so much. Knowing the science behind depression, anxiety, and the brain really gave me reason to work on each step.” (2)
- Moni recollects, “After my release from the hospital in December of 2013, my closest friend came across Sean Blackwell’s book Am I Bipolar Or Waking Up? and suggested I read it. This book certainly made it sound as if there was more to ‘Bipolar Disorder’ than simply being a mental illness caused by a chemical imbalance. The book was impossible for me to put down—I read it all the way through in one night and [felt excited] right away. I had finally found a plausible explanation for the cause of my breakdown! I was so enthused that I went to Sean’s YouTube channel and watched all of his videos. For the first time, I saw light at the end of the tunnel—a hope that I could be med-free and healthy one day.” (46)
- Another person described the “beautiful, powerful a-ha moment in which I turned the last page of Anatomy of an Epidemic and saw my life in an entirely different way.” (14)
- Caleb described reading Dr. Stephen Illardi’s The Depression Cure that discusses what he calls “Therapeutic Life Change,” and how that started to change things for him. He started applying different parts of the therapy and saw improvements. (108)
This person continued, “none of the realizations I’ve come to…would have happened had I not been at least slightly open to thinking about things in a different way.” (14)
Johann said, “We have been systematically misinformed about what depression and anxiety are,” before explaining what led him to that conclusion:
I had my story. In fact, I realize now, it came in two parts. The first was about what causes depression: it’s some kind of malfunction in the brain, caused by serotonin deficiency or some other glitch in your mental hardware. The second was about what solves depression: drugs, which repair your brain chemistry. I liked this story. It made sense to me. It guided me through life.
He admitted feeling hesitant to meddle with this story:
Once you settle into a story about your pain, you are extremely reluctant to challenge it. It was like a leash I had put on my distress to keep it under some control. I feared that if I messed with the story I had lived with for so long, the pain would be like an unchained animal, and would savage me.
Yet that fear didn’t stop him from eventually embracing another story. Citing two professionals who described depression as “an understandable response to adversity” and a “normal response to abnormal life experiences,” Johann wondered if mental illness “wasn’t just a problem caused by the brain going wrong” but rather, something “caused by life going wrong.” He then cited eastern Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teaching, “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society” before asking: “What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief—for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?”
It’s that new story of a depression that makes sense in the world today that Johann continued to embrace, “The old story says our distress is fundamentally irrational, caused by faulty apparatus in our head. The new story says our distress is—however painful—in fact rational, and sane.”
Even so, he continued to acknowledge the struggle:
If you believe that your depression is due solely to a broken brain, you don’t have to think about your life, or about what anyone might have done to you. The belief that it all comes down to biology protects you, in a way, for a while. If you absorb this different story, though, you have to think about those things. And that hurts.
But there were also some emotional benefits to the new story. As Johann put it:
If [depression is] an innate biological disease, the most you can hope for from other people is sympathy—a sense that you, with your difference, deserve their big-hearted kindness. But if it’s a response to how we live, you can get something richer: empathy—because it could happen to any of us. It’s not some alien thing. It’s a universal source of vulnerability. (21)
This man imagined saying to his younger teenage self:
You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values…You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated. Every human being has these needs. You are not suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain. You are suffering from a social and spiritual imbalance in how we live. Much more than you’ve been told up to now, it’s not serotonin; it’s society. It’s not your brain; it’s your pain.
Johann then cautioned, “If we’re told the wrong story, ‘You will become sealed off in a serotonin story. You will try to get rid of the depressed feelings in your head. But that won’t work unless you get rid of the causes of the depressed feelings in your life.’”
He now believed that “nobody is condemned to be depressed or anxious by their genes. Your genes certainly make you more vulnerable [to depression/anxiety] but they don’t write your destiny.” (21)
[To be clear, even for those who see depression as entirely a brain-based phenomena, they can come to believe, as one woman did, that “your brain is a body part that can get injured like any other, and it can also heal like any other].
Hope from having new experiences. In addition to new ways of thinking, other life experiences also become huge for confirming hope. Newton described his life as “proof” that the “darkest of darkness” can indeed lead to light—saying “I turned my life’s torment into testament.” (87) A man named Mendek recounted:
I am grateful that even through such dense, stifling darkness, I was able to perceive the bare whisper of my inner voice telling me, “Life is worth fighting for, no matter the price.” Otherwise, I would have perished. That whisper brought me hope that there could be more to my life than struggle and frustration. It inspired my determination to go all the way, to never buckle under the avalanche of self-doubt, fear and pressure to conform. It gave me the courage to release the old and useless so I was free to build a new life—one based on trust, beauty and peace. (44)
Two others expressed gratitude for divine help in finding their new hope and new life:
- Crystal said, “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and awe [as I] look back at the journey of healing that God has brought me on. I can’t believe all that I would have missed had I taken my life or chosen to continue living in the feelings of hopelessness in depression.” (82)
- Robert said he had “learned it is possible to recover the joy that depression had stolen. [God] helps us understand that while the recovery process is a long journey, there is indeed light—and hope—at the end of the long, dark tunnel.” (89)
Don’t give up your own hope. As many of us know well, hope can’t just be conjured out of thin air or manufactured artificially. Someone can’t just walk up to you and say, poof, you have hope now. You can’t really even just arbitrarily decide to be hopeful, either.
Even so, many participants in our review included pleas to others reading their story, to not give up on their own hope—especially those on the edge of giving up on life itself:
- Jonathan said, “If you ever find yourself in a position where ending your life seems the only option, remember you will never know what could have been, never know how your life could have changed for the better. How could you? You won’t be around to see it.” (96)
- When another person who was ready to give up asked Joanne for support, she responded, “The world is full of wonderful things you haven’t seen yet. Don’t ever give up on the chance of seeing them.” (72)
Noting that “extremely depressed people have become disconnected from a sense of the future,” Johann described from his own experience, “a sense of a positive future protects you. If life is bad today, you can think—this hurts, but it won’t hurt forever.” (21) While acknowledging this can feel impossible, Ben said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.” He continued, “I know this is true. I know it because the fact that I am here now, writing this to you is proof to me that I am capable of the impossible. And do you know what? So are you! (91)
Crystal summarized her encouragement:
You have to believe me when I tell you that you can find healing, and then desire it. Even if that’s just a tiny flicker of hope or desire at first…that’s all you need! Even if you feel as though you’ve exhausted your options, just try again—please. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. (82)
In describing what people need to heal, this woman then acknowledged that people suffering from depression “need validation” while others “need to recognize they have issues to deal with, etc. but all need hope. ….This was such a critical piece of my healing. (82)
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