The following first appeared on Public Square Magazine.
What can we learn from people who find sustainable healing from depression? This has been a question burning under my fingernails ever since learning about a remarkable researcher named Kelly Turner.
Dr. Kelly Turner noticed something usual in her early studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Across the 1,000+ cases of “spontaneous” or “radical” remission from cancer (where someone heals in a statistically unlikely way after conventional medicine has failed), very few questions were asked of the survivors themselves. So, she set about doing just that—conducting interviews with initially just 20 people and ultimately gathering many hundreds of stories all around the world.
Her findings are summarized in the bestseller, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, now translated into 22 languages—along with Radical Hope: 10 Key Healing Factors from Exceptional Survivors of Cancer & Other Diseases. Dr. Turner’s work has been an inspiration to many families facing cancer—and a reminder to the rest of us not to overlook important things that can be learned from especially encouraging cases.
Fixated on the hardest realities. If you’ve ever studied the history of psychology, you can appreciate how much the entire field could benefit from this kind of reminder. Even those who love the field know that psychology has had a fixation on lurid and worst-case scenarios for a long time. That’s precisely why positive psychology (ala Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Ed Diener, and many others) has also been so refreshing.
Even so, this fixation on the negative has been so captivating for so long that it’s common to find mental health professionals who are convinced that no healing from depression is even possible. “People don’t get better from this,” one doctor told me once. So convinced are some about the impossibility of healing that when they hear a story of someone claiming to have experienced healing, their first inclination is to doubt that they ever experienced (real) depression in the first place.
This is partly what has motivated me to take a similar approach as Dr. Turner, but applied to many stories of depression. For many years now, I’ve been gathering accounts of deep or lasting healing from depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Some are people I’ve interviewed; others are individuals publishing memoirs, blog accounts, or videos on Youtube. All are profoundly inspiring. I used to collect basketball and baseball cards—now I collect stories of profound and beautiful healing.
What can be learned by looking across these many personal stories? In what follows, I will act as a “tour guide” as we walk through some of the most interesting patterns arising in an analysis of nearly 80 stories of people speaking about finding deep and lasting healing from serious cases of depression. I presented a small survey of these findings in a Liahona article earlier this year entitled “New Hope for Deeper Healing from Depression and Anxiety.”
The extent of deep and profound pain. Some of these stories may be surprising to hear and, in some cases, challenging to ideas held by many (including the belief that true depression is inherently chronic). For that reason, I begin this introduction to my in-depth review of healing narratives by giving you a glimpse of what people say about their own initial profound pain and eventual happiness. The reality of the agony faced by narrators of the stories included in this analysis was real (and don’t forget, these are the same people who eventually found deeper, more sustainable emotional healing):
- “I had been fighting with severe clinical depression; it robbed me of my life, of enjoying my husband and children.” (2)
- “For ten months, I was assailed by out-of-control anxiety attacks which alternated with dark, suicidal depressions. Each day felt like an eternity as I struggled to stay alive in the face of overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. … 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)
- “The sky turned threatening. Bleak, dark, so dark. Empty. No motivation. Wanting badly to surrender, retreat—from life, from people, from work, from responsibility. I never imagined that there could be emotional and psychological pain so overwhelming it made me desperate for relief. I could and do understand how many people turn to various kinds of escape … Some days, I was gasping for breath and hoping not to drown.” (6)
- “I can hardly eat, sleep, or think straight. The only thing I can do is cry unending tears.” After the birth of her first child, her husband discovered her in the backyard, “clawing the earth furiously with my bare hands, intent on digging a grave so that I could bury myself alive.” (40)
- “Grief and sadness clung to me like it was part of my own flesh.” (42)
- “I was in hell.” During 26 months of hospitalization, this woman was, for a considerable part of this time, “one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.” (43)
- “Days passed with me in bed, overwhelmed by a sensation of falling, spiraling, and spinning into a pitch-black tunnel day after bleak day. … It felt as though every nerve in my body was popping. Imagine large strong hands slowly applying pressure while breaking a family-size package of uncooked, dry spaghetti. I was the spaghetti.” (47)
- One woman’s depression felt so severe that she felt it might “vaporize her into millions of tiny molecules.” (66)
- “I was struggling with grief and bereavement when my husband unexpectedly ended our thirteen-year relationship. I was devastated, suicidal, and felt completely alone. I had severe anxiety, waking up every morning with horrible dreams and panic attacks. I was also constantly crying, unfocused, and had no appetite.” (77)
- “I just want the pain to stop … Let’s just say if a car were coming towards me, I wouldn’t scream, I wouldn’t cry, I wouldn’t run, I would just stand there.” (94)
- “When I got depressed or anxious, I used to feel like a dark curtain was being drawn over my brain. It seemed almost physical.” This man remembers praying, “God, please help me make my mind stop torturing me,” and how a new day felt, “The alarm goes off, or you are probably awake before it even rings. A new day, and it is nanoseconds before you feel that dread in your stomach, that fear of what the day will bring. I’ve had these mornings in abundance. I know that feeling like I know that water gets wet.” (96)
- One man’s wife recounted in an interview with the couple, “Something was different. I saw him on the floor, and I knew it was depression.” She went on to describe “5 years of really, really dark depression,”—recollecting that during these years, “he suffered greatly, and had multiple symptoms of depression, including daily suicidal thoughts. He was in a deep darkness.” (108)
- “The sky turned threatening. It was bleak, dark, so dark. Empty. I had no motivation.”
In addition to the sheer intensity of their prior experience with depression, many of these people suffered for many years, even “decades of unrelenting depression.” The instigators and contributors to this agony are widely varied, with people speaking about a wide variety of circumstances—from brutal and intense trauma (trafficked at 7 years old) to current circumstances influencing their emotional burden (painful health challenges, etc.). There is so much more to the painful backdrops that couldn’t be included, but one woman’s story illustrates the complexity well:
“I was an empty shell … thirty years old and ready to die. I didn’t know who I was. I had been drinking since I was thirteen and drugging since I was sixteen. I had my first death wish at age twelve and tried to kill myself, but I was too scared to jump off the pier. I sat on that pier half the night, crying and praying for an end to my miserable life. I tried again when I was fifteen. That time I took seventeen downers, wrote half a dozen good-bye notes and was astonished to wake up the next day and find that it hadn’t worked. I was supposed to be dead! … The hopelessness of that moment still tugs at my heart. … My third and most serious suicide attempt was at age twenty-four. My drug-addicted husband had beaten me for the hundredth time—punching me and kicking me until I was half-senseless. My two babies were sleeping peacefully in their cribs. I went into my bedroom and swallowed the remainder of my new tranquilizer prescription—about twenty-four pills. I woke up in the intensive care unit three days later. … I withdrew into myself even more than before. … Only with daily use of marijuana and beer could I function at all.”
“I went in and out of depression for the next six years and the thought of suicide never left me. I hated myself so much. Eventually, I just hung on for my babies who were getting bigger every year. I felt that I would live until they could fend for themselves, and then I would kill myself and get it over with once and for all. I was so sick and out of touch that I thought my children would be able to handle losing their mother to suicide when they reached ages six and seven. … I spent some of the time on the bathroom floor, begging God to help me, asking why God wouldn’t help me. But most of the time I was in bed with the pillows and the covers over my head alternately sleeping and crying. I had reached that awful impasse of being too afraid to live and too afraid to die. Having tried everything to help myself, and having failed, I had reached the bottom. I was thirty years old, and I had wasted my life.” (12)
Yet this woman later spoke of how well she was, including, “I recently graduated from the State University with honors, and I am currently in graduate school. My goal is to be a therapist.” (12) It’s this contrast between before and after which is so striking—and which makes these narratives so exciting to study.
The possibility of deepening healing. Every story included below was selected based on one of two fundamental criteria: (1) as evident above, clear indicators of real and serious depression (not just a few bad days), and (2) equally clear indicators of having experienced some degree of significant deep and lasting healing [numbers in parenthesis correspond to the participant # in the study].
See for yourself the significance of the peace and healing people in this review found:
- “It was as if a heavy curtain was drawn back from the window of my soul, and I could see my true self in the light for the very first time. For the first time in my life, I felt settled, calm, and peaceful.” (46)
- “Today is my birthday, and it’s the first birthday in a long time that I truly felt like celebrating. I now have a life that I love, and wake up grateful for it every day. … Today, my life is amazing. It’s not just an improvement over my old life but rather a completely new universe. I don’t really know how to explain it; I never knew that life could be like this! Life is easy and enjoyable; it’s not a daily struggle to convince myself to get out of bed and get myself motivated to do simple tasks. I will catch myself smiling or singing for no reason. I’ve laughed and danced more in the last month than I have in the last 10 years combined. I am so excited to be alive. I didn’t even know that it was possible to feel this much joy and contentment. What’s wild is that I know my body is still healing, so things are just going to get better!” (51)
- “It’s hard to put into words what coming out of depression feels like. All I know is that I feel right now in a way that I thought I’d never be able to again.” (65)
- “I am totally healed from depression. I have never struggled with depression for over two decades now. I’ve gone through some hard times since then, some really difficult times. I’ve felt sadness and anger at times. Those are temporary emotions, so [they are] very different from soul-killing depression. I have learned how to be healed from depression. When the blackness of depression creeps anywhere close to me, I now know how to fight it and win … really win … not just push it down, put on a happy face and act like everything is okay. I’ve learned how to actually be profoundly happy, content, and at peace deep in my soul. Yes, it is really true. I’m not faking it. I am healed. I believe that everyone is capable of being healed from depression as well.” (69)
- “I have no depression in my life whatsoever — literally none. I have sadness, and joy, and elation, and satisfaction, and gratitude beyond belief. But all of it is weather, and it just spins around the planet. It doesn’t sit on me long enough to kill me. It’s just ideas.” (73)
- “Now, thankfully, I don’t get depressed.” (78)
- “I was completely healed—totally free of all those things.” (101)
- “Life has never been this good before—I enjoy my life and feel peace.” (102)
- “My life is now full of purpose, I appreciate things more, and I am much happier than I ever was. I’m in a good place right now.”
To be clear, these are not intended as pre-post outcome measures since they are not before-after glimpses from the same stories. Rather, I’m referencing here especially notable examples from different stories to paint a picture of how vivid the shift is in these people’s lives. Yet everyone in the study has had similarly painful pasts and similarly sweet landing places today. This is especially evident in the contrast within individual stories, for instance:
- One man described his life as starting with a “seemingly endless sea of pain, fear, rage, guilt, grief, and loneliness.” => But he eventually describes coming to “live a life of deep peace and boundless joy.” (44)
- “I was so depressed that I could hardly motivate myself to do anything” [telling loved ones] how horrible I felt and how hopeless everything seemed,” adding that “they were so afraid that I may try and hurt myself.” => “About four months ago, I remember telling friends that I felt ‘normal.’ Not manically happy or incredibly depressed, but content. I told them that I don’t think I had ever felt that way before. The feeling hasn’t left. I have now been off of all my psychiatric medications for two months. My job is going great, and I feel blessed.” (71)
- “Suicide was never an option for me, but I thought about it and fought against those thoughts for years. In the meantime, I had my good days along with the not-so-good ones. The last 5 years got worse and worse. I finally gave in to the fact that I would end up feeling tethered to a life I hated every day of. … I may never like life again, and this must be what enduring to the end means. I never thought I would like life or enjoy any of it again. I never thought the words I love life would ever come out of my mouth from an automatic thought” => “I can’t sit back and hold this in any longer. People need to know! Depression and anxiety do not need to be a lifelong sentence of misery! Healing—it is possible! I am living proof!!” (109)
A healing work in progress. Some of these people talk about their healing as completed and finished—while others speak of a degree of substantial healing they are still seeking:
- “I pray for healing. Mine has reached a point that, at one time, I would not have thought possible, considering where my long journey started.” (36)
- “I do struggle from time to time … and have learned to be patient. I do believe I will be completely healed from ALL mental health issues.” (102)
Among those still seeking deeper healing, they still speak of the state they are in as new and different:
- “As I changed my life in this way, my depression and anxiety have massively reduced. It isn’t a straight line. I still have bad days—because of personal challenges and because I still live in a culture where all the forces we’ve been talking about are running rampant. But I no longer feel pain leaking out of my brain uncontrollably. That’s gone.” (21)
- “Life has not become less demanding, but it cannot harm me as much anymore—and this makes all the difference.” (46)
- Describing his difficult moments, one man insists that this is “not an experience of depression. I had that for years, but now, when the rain comes, it rains, but it doesn’t stay. It doesn’t stay long enough to immerse me and drown me anymore.” (73)
- “I’m a very happy person now. … I still have ups and downs, of course, but I think no more than anyone else.” (43)
For a condition where relapse is common, the people I studied often point out they are not relapsing. Yet as you can see, this state of deeper healing should not be idealized or overstated. Every one of these people acknowledges some hard moments and times. But these times are qualitatively different than where they were before (which is also common to all these participants).
As you can see, not everyone who speaks about deeper healing talks the same. Some describe depression as something in the past, while others still refer to it as a condition they are “living well” with in their life. As one man, whose story clearly fits within the inclusion criteria, said, “Depression doesn’t define me; it isn’t my identity; it just describes my personal odyssey. … We live with depression as a temporary mortal companion, with healing underway already in mortality.” (6)
Even if complete healing remains a journey, every one of the people reviewed here described having found real healing—and enjoying their continued pursuit of the same. “I’ve always been fascinated by the few souls I’ve met through my life who seemed to be truly happy,” wrote one person. This person continued:
Even when their life was in a shamble, their smile was genuine, and light beamed from within them. Have you ever met people like that? If you have, you’ll never forget them. Even if you forget their name, their face will always linger in your mind when you think of what happiness is. (26)
After recounting his journey of recovery, another person said, “I had no idea I could ever be that happy.” (25)
As I’ve already mentioned, participants needed to show some clear evidence of having suffered from real depression and found some degree of real and lasting healing. Any sign of chronic, enduring disorder was the main exclusion criteria—if that was spotted, they were not included in the review.
The variety of stories gathered. All this is important foreground to the project being reported here—a project that will be ongoing as I collect more narratives of healing from depression and anxiety. (Although anxiety often figures prominently alongside and interwoven in depression narratives, stories that center explicitly or exclusively around anxiety will be reported separately in a future analysis. Although most experiences reflected unipolar depression, there were also a few cases of bipolar depression in this review).
Naturally, the stories gathered vary a great deal. Some of these accounts are more plainly autobiographical and largely centered on sharing experiences, while others are interwoven with life lessons and advice to other sufferers. Sometimes they are shorter, and sometimes longer—with a whole library of beautiful memoirs that we’ve been able to enjoy and review
This points to one of the central limitations of the project. Ideally, each and every person could have been interviewed personally, so they would field all the same questions. These kinds of interviews were conducted with approximately 20 people—but the rest were gathered through a variety of other means. Practically speaking, that means I can only know what I can know from what they share—with areas that remain out of reach. That makes the kind of standardized, statistical assessments impossible.
This sampling approach also disallows other questions that could clear up the relative influence of certain factors in someone’s recovery. As it stands, I was often left to evaluate for myself whether something that took place in their story of recovery pertained to that healing—or was a fruit and manifestation of that healing.
All this is to say, none of what I share will be convincing empirically to those wholly doubtful of the possibility of deeper kinds of emotional healing from even serious depression. Yet the goal of this is not to persuade people through data like a conventional study. That being said, the reality is that virtually every one of the individual themes described below has been confirmed in plenty of other empirical research (see my own reviews here and here).
My specific aim below is to illustrate through people’s own voices and experiences what the pathway of deeper, more lasting, and sustainable healing actually looks like in real color and detail.
On a personal level, reading the stories of these people has been thrilling and exhilarating—moving beyond belief at times. Special thanks to Christian Lippert and Debbie Lathrop for assisting in the review of these memoirs. And I’d also like to express appreciation to the many people who agreed to interviews and who shared their stories with me as part of this project.
What I am sharing here is approximately 120 pages of analysis based on lessons and insights from across 77 stories. What you will be hearing in these reports is my best attempt to paint a picture—a word mural of sorts—of the patterns I’m seeing in these stories so far:
- Retaining Hope in the Possibility of Deeper Healing. Examining the formative role for some kind of hope that anything can be fundamentally different—considering how it influences the progress people make emotionally. This raises important questions about the increasingly common professional judgments about depression as an intrinsically chronic disability.
- Learning and Changing as a Catalyst for Emotional Healing. To learn and grow in virtually anything appears to make a difference for our emotional health. But there are some specific areas, both within us and in the details of our external life habits, that appear to make an especially substantial difference. Here, we explore what participants say about the “Big Three” of nutrition, exercise, and sleep—as well as the basic elements of schedule and financial order.
- The Many Varieties of Internal Work as a Catalyst for Emotional Healing. Of equal importance to the many kinds of lifestyle adjustments is the wide scope of internal shifts that take place for people who find deeper healing. These include the less noticeable “Big Three” of mental diet, mental activity, and mental rest, along with that surprisingly challenging ability to be present in different life situations, including the painful ones. Learning to work with thoughts and emotions differently also appears to make a substantial difference for healing.
- Relationships That Heal & Healing Relationships. If not already a well-established classic observation, it’s become almost cliché to acknowledge the centrality of relationships in human health, both physically and emotionally. By “relationships,” of course, we’re referring to the healthy and nurturing kind. Traumatizing and abusive relationships can set anyone back emotionally, and navigating away and through past trauma was clearly demonstrated again to be crucial for deeper healing from depression.
- Higher Connection and Deeper Healing. Since all these other major factors identified are commonly discussed by mental health professionals, the salience of spirituality has been the stand-out surprise of the study so far. Although I’m a person of faith myself, I’m not accustomed to seeing much attention to God within modern mental health discussions. But over and over, people who had found deeper and more lasting healing described profound transcendent experiences that shifted how they related to God and life as a whole—moments they repeatedly described as consequential to their healing journey. Among other things, these people described no longer feeling alone—and, indeed, feeling profoundly precious, loved, and guided in a life they newly experienced as profoundly meaningful and purposive.
- Increasing Emotional Freedom, Reducing Long-term Dependence. We all know illegal drugs and alcohol can have a devastating impact on people’s emotional health, especially when long-term dependence arises. That’s not controversial in the least. But we have been encouraged to see a long-term dependence on legally prescribed substances differently, and for good reason. Many of these prescriptions have proven profoundly helpful to people in coping and managing in the short term. Even so, the reality is that when it comes to longer-term trajectories, many people report that a path of cautious and gentle tapering off antidepressants can be a helpful catalyst to deeper emotional healing. That’s something I’ve observed in interviews for many years, and it came up again very clearly in this review of accounts. Although this topic has received growing attention among researchers, it has received far less attention among the general public.
I finish this exploration of themes with some concluding thoughts about broader patterns and takeaways, however preliminary. By definition, my attempt will be (inherently and inescapably) incomplete since each of these people has a profoundly rich experience that even a biography-sized volume wouldn’t quite tap. And I’m necessarily only drawing on the fragments that made it into the summaries of their experience that I was exposed to. In some cases, direct quotes have been edited for readability (in other cases, italics are added to a part of a quote for emphasis).
That’s partly why I’m not presenting this report as final and definitive. Rather, it’s a snapshot of what I’ve been able to review and learn so far—with the goal of continuing to gather more stories. Of this writing, I have a number of additional stories to add to this growing analysis, which I will update over time. Please send more stories my way—or any feedback or interest in collaboration as well ([email protected]).
I especially hope what follows will be encouraging to anyone currently grappling with the heavy weight of depression—and those who love them. You deserve more hope and happiness than you have likely yet found. I believe that with all my heart. And I’m convinced that God wants to lead those seeking to follow His ways to deeper healing faster than you know. I hope some of what I share will persuade you of the same and that you will begin to find healing miracles in the new year ahead.
MaryannFebruary 2, 2023
I was disappointed that this article didn't provide us with more specific ways that enabled people to overcame their depression.
Judy PetersonJanuary 28, 2023
This is an excellent article which gives hope. However, I assumed there would be some hint as to what people have done to permanently overcome their depression. This was a teaser without anything that could really help me or give me direction towards healing. Is that coming after years of addition research? It was hollow hope for me.