I wake up 4am in the cold morning. All I see is black, and all I feel is emptiness. I remember why I committed to waking up early, but I don’t seem to have the motivation to get up anymore. Life suddenly seems pleasureless and bland.
We all have experienced our bouts of depression at some point in our lives. It is even normal and appropriate to experience such, especially after the loss of a loved one.
Depression as an illness
This was a recent experience where I felt depressed. Depression is a term commonly used to describe a state of intense sadness or hopelessness. When one is depressed, the person usually experiences low energy, fatigue, and even thoughts of suicide. Lack of pleasure from once pleasurable activities are also common. This means eating good food or bonding with friends aren’t appealing anymore.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) refers to a period of prolonged depressed mood as a major depressive episode. However, most people like me prefer to simply say “I’m depressed!”
Labeling depression as something that we’re victims of does have negative consequences though. Since mental illness is something beyond our control, we would have to rely on a rescuer or an expert to handle our problems. Fortunately, one can view unpleasant states such as clinical depression and anxiety at a different angle.
Depression as a choice
Psychiatrists concern themselves with diagnosing patients with mental disorders, and prescribing to them the right psychotropic drugs for the job.
William Glasser (1998) was an unusual psychiatrist. He argued against diagnosing people with mental disorders. Instead, he insisted that whenever someone is anxious, he is ‘anxious-ing’. Similarly, when someone is depressed, he is ‘depress-ing’. You’ve got an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) you say? Share to me how you are OCD-ing!
Of course, his practical view of mental illnesses does not extend to cases of brain injury or deterioration, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
What does this funny form of wordplay of adding ‘-ing’ to mental illness mean? It means, whatever symptoms or ‘mental disorders’ we experience are actually our choice. Every behavior has a function, and depress-ing oneself is no exception.
I knew a girl named Mikaela (not her real name) who took a law course due to paternal pressure. Since law is definitely not an easy course, she depressed. She thought her studies hopeless. Mikaela badly wanted to transfer courses, but was repeatedly forced by her father to do otherwise. Consequently, she felt even more depressed. What was her alternative?
Instead of depress-ing, she could have been anger-ing towards her father, perhaps complain or scream at him for not understanding. That wouldn’t have end well for her though. Her depress-ing served a function, and allowed her to socially adapt as a form of coping. However, it was emotionally taxing, and not getting her what she really wanted in the end.
This is where Glasser’s Choice Theory and psychotherapy come into play.
A way past depress-ing: changing our total behavior
Glasser founded Choice Theory based on the principle that every behavior we carry is our choice. Behavior according to the pocket dictionary next to me defines behavior as “the way in which one conducts oneself”. Oftentimes, people mistake behavior as only the activities that we do. However, this is far from the truth.
When I think I of happy thoughts, or that I am good for nothing (thinking), that is my behavior. If I am feeling down or angry (feeling), that is my behavior. When my heart suddenly races a hundred beats per minute or sweat profusely in the arm pits (physiology), that is my behavior. Together, the components thinking, feeling, physiology, and activity constitute our total behavior. This means we choose how we behave, though we do the latter two indirectly.
One night, I swore I was depressed, so I went to the gym. By bench pressing on some higher-than-usual weights, my focus shifted fast. Instead of thinking repeatedly of the nasty things that happened that night, I felt intense strain on my body from my bench press. Boom, no more depress-ing for that moment! Also, the weights were too heavy and someone had to rescue me, so that was another distraction, albeit embarrassing. By altering my physical activity, I indirectly change my feeling and bodily state.
Exercise is good example of an area ‘depressed’ people have control over. A study (Johnsgard, 2004) suggests that sticking to a regular exercise program is just as effective as any medication program (or even better).
Implications for the ‘depressed’
Does it really help to label one’s depression as a choice? If I am depressed, would that mean I am intentionally making myself suffer?
Again, depression is a form of coping, it allows one to adapt in an otherwise problematic situation. The situation may be as obvious as a punitive parent, or as subtle as a purposeless and lonely existence. Since one’s feelings of depression are a fraction of one’s total behavior (hence, depress-ing), it is a choice.
Psychological growth occurs when one finds more life-giving behavior to replace the depressing. Make no mistake, this might take as long as a few minutes (for the blessed few) to a couple years depending on the presence of an intervention or support.
I can’t directly change how depressed I am, however the next best thing is available. I’m able to seek behavioral alternatives through counseling, and slowly change my situation. I can change my physical activity and consequently affect how I feel. Or I can affect the way I think and feel better in the process, and so on.
Ultimately, it is our choice to see ourselves as mentally ill, or mentally ill-ing (forgive my repeated use of alien vocabulary). When I admit that I am responsible for my anxiety or depression (no matter how little that might be), I open myself to positive change.
For a more detailed account of Glasser’s concept of mental illness, read “Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom”.
Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: a new psychology of personal freedom. New York: HarperCollins.
Johnsgard, K. (2004). Conquering depression & anxiety through exercise. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.