Friday, October 9, 2009

Taking on Depression

What do you do when you feel utterly uninspired? When your usual sources of joy and pleasure cannot rouse you from an immobilizing, listless dullness? When you may not have anything to feel bad about, but also can’t find anything to feel good about? When you can’t depend on your usual ability to focus and concentrate? When you are easily annoyed and generally irritable, or when you find yourself in a sudden outburst of anger that is just not you? When you’re tired but can’t sleep, or you sleep too much. When you’ve lost your appetite, or eat too much. What’s going on?

Those of you who have been there would recognize this description of depression, and in the absence of a diagnosable physical cause, that is probably what you’re experiencing. Depression can seem to strike suddenly, or it can be a subtle and gradual process that we’re barely aware of, if at all, until its persisting effect on health, job, relationships and general functioning is no longer tolerable to us and/or others, and we are forced to address it as the problem it is.

Most of us have experienced at least mild depression. It can be regarded as part of the human condition, a fact of life. Some are more vulnerable, some less, for reasons that can be biochemical, circumstantial, genetically determined, even socio-cultural. The triggers setting off an episode of depression are many and sometimes easily identifiable, such as an external event: a blow to the ego (a perceived slight ignites an old vulnerability); a major loss (of a loved one, a job, income, home; even a personally treasured object, a dream, or a social role); a personal or professional failure (divorce, failing the bar exam, losing an important case).

Sometimes the source of depression is not immediately apparent. We may feel awful, begin to realize we have felt awful for too long, and have no clue as to where this encroaching lethargy came from, and only with some (perhaps professionally assisted) digging and soul searching begin to discover a myriad of intersecting events, conditions, memories, unresolved losses and more that affect us at a core level, leaving us with those three major emotional earmarks of depression: feeling helpless, hopeless, and worthless.

Much has been written about what some authors call the “epidemic” of depression in this country, even among children. If the incidence of depression is escalating, we can suspect that something may be going on in the culture, even in the collective psyche, as well as in or within our own personal lives. Times like these, of unpredictable economic, political and financial events, fractures and polarizations in the sense of national unity, etc., can contribute to depression by diminishing our sense of control over our lives, eroding self-confidence, overwhelming one’s usual coping strategies and bringing on fear and doubt. To recognize that a co-occurring wider phenomenon may be taking place may offer a useful context and perhaps perspective. However, personal responsibility for one’s own sense of well-being still obtains.

Lawyers are disproportionately over-represented among the depressed, due in part, as many have noted, to the adversarial nature of their work, the constant stress of managing details, deadlines, and demanding clients (or partners), the need to present themselves as always competent, in control, and able to deliver the answers and solve the problem. Add to that the tendency to over-prioritize the clients’ needs to the neglect of, or even disconnection from, their own needs, and the burden reaches critical mass.

Lawyers’ struggles to meet such demands of the job, without adequate self-care, may be inimical to the very things that really count, that make life worth living, that give pleasure, and that support physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and balance, i.e., that prevent depression. Depression is a sign that balance has been lost and some action is necessary to restore it. The good news is the right actions will restore balance and vitality. Because depression can be so disempowering, enervating and immobilizing, discovering the source(s) of depression and identifying and prioritizing appropriate actions may require, or is at least expedited by, professional assistance. No matter how smart and savvy you are, negotiating the slippery slope of your own mind can be tricky, can amount to missing the forest for the trees. What is most helpful is someone who can compassionately mirror back to you what you yourself can’t (yet) see, and who can help you figure out what you are willing to do, so that you can make the changes necessary to feel better.

Overcoming depression is all about getting your power back - power over your own life, your own self, your own mind and spirit. Overcoming depression is not about controlling or exercising power over other people, places or things. Overcoming depression is not achieved by changing anyone but yourself, anyone’s behavior but your own, anyone’s thinking but yours. You may notice, however, that self-empowering actions you take to combat your depression may evoke positive and self-reinforcing changes in others’ responses to you. Self-change is where your true power resides, and as you begin to exercise that power with increasing confidence and skill, you need never succumb to debilitating depression again. Depression may recur, but you will be able to successfully deal with it.

Yes, you have to change, change your thinking and change your behavior. And you are the only one who can do that. What’s good about that is you don’t have to wait for anyone else, or depend on anyone else in order to make changes that will help you begin to feel better. That’s the good news. There is no bad news, unless taking up the challenge in your own behalf is not what you had in mind. Realistic expectations of professional assistance and family or close friends may be an important part of the process of taking up the challenge; for some it makes all the difference. Depression will not be remedied by magical thinking, longing, or mere wishing that things were different. It may require determined, persistent work, and in the case of certain intractable depressions that don’t respond immediately to your best efforts, the use of medication for a period of time may be very beneficial. The important thing is to never accept defeat, and never accept victimhood.

In subsequent blogs, I will suggest specific actions you can begin to practice to loosen the grip of depression.

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