By Evelyn Jervey Willburn | Featured Contributor
Looking back, I would say that the first time I became depressed was when I entered fourth grade. That year, my class was divided into two groups, and I found myself separated from all my previous year’s playmates. I didn’t bounce back: that year started my long, mostly self-imposed exile at school. At recess, I paced the perimeter of the playground, and as I moved up through the grades, I effectively rendered myself invisible. The occasional thoughtless comment that came my way from some popular kid became my excuse for further isolation. Once in seventh grade I went to see the school counselor, and she showed me a poster on her wall. In the poster, a group of cartoon hippos were piling into a small boat, threatening to swamp it. The caption read, “More is not always better.” That message stayed with me, in the background, but it was many years before I really understood it or was able to assimilate it into my worldview.
Journeying through Depression
After graduating from high school, I rallied, and had some magnificent adventures, thanks in large part to my sister Laura and her wandering spirit, but in my early twenties I slid back hard into depression. For a period of several years, I was plagued morning, noon, and night with obsessive thoughts of self-condemnation and suicidal fantasies. My mind settled into a deeply worn track of thoughts like this: “you are useless, you are toxic, everything you touch dies, you should take yourself out of this world as a favor to others.” Even at my lowest moments, I knew that I did not actually want to die; I just wanted to stop feeling the way I felt, and I could not think of any solution beyond not feeling anything at all.
Somehow, after washing out of college, I was able to maintain a job and keep an apartment. During those years I visited many counselors and tried various types and doses of anti-depressant. I learned early on that imposing “positive thinking” into the maelstrom of my vicious thought-stream was futile. Such brave statements as “you are worthy of love” were laughed right out of the room by the demon that produced that thundering cataract of self-hatred. Once, I tried dispelling a particular cruel invention of what I later dubbed the “Evil Tape Machine” by putting a rubber band around my wrist and giving myself a painful snap each time the though surfaced, which was about every three seconds for hours at a time. My wrist got red and sore, and the nasty messages kept right on.
Gaining the Upper Hand
One psychologist, to whom I owe the current quality of my life, told me that fighting against these thoughts was a hopeless quest, and the best way to feel better was to lean in. “When you hear those thoughts starting,” he told me, “try agreeing with them. Keep them going, and embellish them to the point of absurdity, even when your brain gets tired of them. You might even write them down in a journal.”
I was skeptical, but in my desperation, I agreed to try this technique. I kept a journal (it was important to destroy the pages as I wrote them, because somebody discovering endless repetitions of “I am a useless human who deserves to die” and such-like would obviously be concerned), and slowly, the better part of my consciousness, the one that sees me as worthy, began to timidly assert itself. I plowed on, though, with the madly counter-intuitive strategy of trying to verbally squash these little crocus-like thoughts. Ironically, fighting the good thoughts in this way began to strengthen them, and soon my negative thoughts began to recede a little. Sometimes I would suddenly notice that I had gone for quite some time with no visit from the Evil Tape Machine.
A Brighter Outlook
I continued this process for several years, with surges of success intermingled with periods of regression. In addition, I continued with counseling and antidepressant medication. It has been many years now since I have needed, in the interest of my mental health, to write long strings of horrible things about myself. These days I take a small daily dose of antidepressant, I participate in a program that helps me improve the quality of my self-care choices, I do the things that I love, and I try to help out in small ways without showing off about it. I still, and always will, suffer bouts of psychic misery. The difference is that now I can see beyond my own curtain of thoughts, and I have a fine and ever-growing arsenal of self-help tools. My struggle has helped me become a better person in just about every way possible, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.
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