Is it possible to fully recover from a severe, long-lasting depression?
October 20, 2009 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to fully recover from a severe, long-lasting depression? "I get the sense that you think that one day she will no longer be depressed. If that is the case, I am sorry to tell you that she will always be a depressed person. She may be less depressed at points and more depressed at others, but if her depression is this severe and long lasting, it's here to stay." Say it ain't so.

I want to know that it's possible to recover from a long-lasting, severe depression. I want to know there's more than "less depressed." I want your stories, and I want data.

Thanks for this.
posted by moira to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: no. this is not the case. the worst of depressions can be overcome- its only the potential for depression that doesn't go away. the most important thing for this person is the believe and conviction that the depression can go away if they work on it. so don't try to kill this belief it's like giving poison

i know people who have been very depressed, and now find themselves leading lives full of
(mostly ) happy things

good luck with everything
posted by saraindc at 5:11 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Define "recovered," I guess, I never met anyone I didn't think wasn't to some degree fucked in the head, and I've long been of the opinion that a whole lot more people than would ever so much as consider it would benefit from a fair spell of doing the talking cure. There's no question that treatment works.
posted by nanojath at 5:18 PM on October 20, 2009

As a person who has been depressed off and on for most of my life, I'm going to say that you can overcome it. I agree with saraindc that depressed people are more prone to it and have the potential.

I have to take Lexapro, and employ all sorts of methods (distraction, self-talk, mindfulness, sleep meds for when I can't sleep, the use of a Stress Eraser, stress relaxation cds, etc, and the occasional cup of Kava Kava tea) to battle depression.

I had to learn whatever optimism I have, which does help. Also, I try to keep in mind Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." Since I'm a sensitive person prone to over-analyzing everything, Hanlon's Razor has been helpful.

Another tip for dealing with depression: remember that it's just as easy to fall in love with a nice person as it is to fall in love with an asshole. This has also been key in my life.

Despite a recent and very bad bout of depression, I still consider myself to have a happy life.
posted by Issithe at 5:24 PM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Recovered to the degree that symptoms of depression pretty much entirely eradicated, with no depressive episodes lasting more than a couple of mild days.
posted by moira at 5:26 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it is left untreated for long time, major depressive episodes may lead to residual neurological impairments as a result dysthymic disorder may develop (chronically feeling lower than average). I think that's why palliative treatment is very important even if the actual treatment is not achieved immediately.
posted by neworder7 at 5:27 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I struggle with depression (sometimes crippling) and it's becoming more clear to me every day that it is possible to live with this disease. The trick for me has been to make lifestyle choices that accommodate my disease in exactly the same way someone with diabetes would alter their lifestyle to accommodate their disease.

For me that means having a fairly stringent routine and curtailing bad habits:
  • going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day
  • eating the right kinds of food (not junk food and not skipping breakfast)
  • avoiding pot and caffeine
  • avoiding too much alcohol (one or two drinks max, few and far between)
  • exercise at least 4x per week
  • keeping my things uncluttered, meaning no piles of laundry and dishes
  • getting haircuts regularly and keeping my general physique in order
  • talking to friends immediately when im upset and feel myself regressing/obsessing
  • keeping myself near fresh air and sunlight as much as possible
  • listening to music as much as humanly possible (it muffles the internal chatter)
  • and really try to remember to take myself a little less serious (I got a tattoo to help)

    Depression is beatable, but it needs to be starved and left out to die like a snarling beast. I haven't been depressed (or even mildly depressed) in quite a while.

  • posted by pwally at 5:28 PM on October 20, 2009 [90 favorites]

    Usually, clinical depression comes in the form of major depressive episodes, which is to say long stretches of relative "normalcy" punctuated by several-month-long periods of severe depression, sometimes up to a year." These can be treated with antidepressants, to generally positive results.

    Some people are perfectly happy to stay on the meds for years, others use them for six months or so until they've gotten their lives straightened out and go off, and start taking them again after the onset of another episode.
    posted by Jon_Evil at 5:30 PM on October 20, 2009

    Best answer: I spent -- lost -- over a decade of my life feeling suicidal or nearly suicidal.

    I'm fine now. I take no Prozac, I see no shrink. I wonder what the hell I was thinking, and I grieve for the lost years. I struggle to empathise with people who are currently depressed; I'm so far removed from it that I no longer understand it. (This is unfortunate.) I am easy-going and not prone to upset. When something unhappy happens, I react totally as a non-depressed person would. I am quite confident that depression is not lurking around the corner waiting to pounce again.

    Wish to god I had some advice on how to get from A to B...
    posted by kmennie at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

    Yes. There is life and hope after depression.

    I've struggled with depression for big parts of my life. The SSRIs have been a fantastic improvement, and I'm able to medicate the worst of it. Even though depression is part of my life, it's not the whole thing.

    I believe that the neural pathways established by life, experience and thought become more established if you repeat the same patterns, so it's probably harder to treat depression as successfully the older you are. But not impossible.
    posted by theora55 at 6:00 PM on October 20, 2009

    Is it possible to fully 'recover' from epilepsy or insulin dependent diabetes?

    There are medications that can make life APPEAR normal, but this insidious disease, in its chronic state, does not just get cured. I have had it for decades. Now that I'm medicated, I can function well, and appear fine to others. I have my good days, my bad, days, and my "hide the guns" days.

    I am also attending various therapy groups every week, and individual sessions frequently as well. But I MUST take my medication daily, or my darkness will overwhelm me. I don't really see my 'mental illness' as a stigma. Just my daily meds, and watch for triggers, and be nice to myself on really bad days (And have hubby hide the guns on those days!)

    Luckily, my medication also helps with my fibromyalgia. Which helps me to take it regularly so I don't have THAT pain as well!

    My husband had been on antidepressants when he was going through a rough patch. But he weaned himself off the meds when he knew he was stable, and seems fine now. I know I cannot do that.

    Make peace with it as much as you can. It will always be a dark shadow in the room, but it doesn't have to rule your life! If it is, get counseling or better medications, whatever, but do something! Don't let it grow because it WILL blot out the sun if left untreated.

    It's ok, and it's not perceived as a bad thing in more progressive places. It's a brain disfunction that cannot be cured right now, but can be treated quite well.
    posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 6:07 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

    Best answer: Yes, it is possible. I'm exhibit A.

    Not to say that it's easy, or that you ever need to let your guard down, but totally, totally, yes, yes yes.
    posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Recovered to the degree that symptoms of depression pretty much entirely eradicated, with no depressive episodes lasting more than a couple of mild days.

    Usually, clinical depression comes in the form of major depressive episodes, which is to say long stretches of relative "normalcy" punctuated by several-month-long periods of severe depression, sometimes up to a year." These can be treated with antidepressants, to generally positive results.

    For someone who has been depressed most of her adult life, I have learned to recognize the signs that one of those major depressive episodes is coming on and take action before it ever gets to that months-long state.

    Which means that, the rest of the time, I am just like someone who doesn't suffer from depression at all, except that I may be taking medication to stay that way. I am not recognizable as a depressive. People even compliment me on my bright and sunny outlook, and say they wish they had my optimism.

    It doesn't get harder, like a debilitating disease. In fact, in struggling to overcome depression, I feel that I have become a stronger, more mature and more self-aware individual.

    So--though I know how counter-intuitive this sounds--dont feel too bad for the depressed person, if that person is open to getting help. Things are looking up for us.
    posted by misha at 6:24 PM on October 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

    Best answer: From 11 to about 26 I struggled pretty much constantly with depression. I tried to commit suicide 3 times (seriously) and probably half a dozen more half-hearted attempts outside of that. I was also a BIG cutter - I have scars covering my arms, chest, legs... pretty much everywhere.

    When I met the girl I ended up marrying, there was a point when I realized I was going to lose her if I didn't stop. I can actually tell you the moment it all changed; when we had an argument and I saw a razorblade beside her. Realizing she planned on cutting, something she'd never done before, I reacted very strongly. I slashed my wrists much deeper than I ever had before and tilted right off my little island of sanity and into deepest waters of depression I'd ever, ever been in. Suddenly, the focus wasn't on our argument but on me getting to the hospital. Once there, we decided mutually that we probably didn't have a future, definitely not the way we were. I honestly couldn't feel ANYTHING at that moment. I know I didn't want to be in the hospital but I knew if I left, I'd kill myself. So for the first time in my life, I accepted help. I was committed to a mental hospital for a fwe days and after that, I saw a therapist twice a week and a psych twice a month. I used Prozac with Lamictal daily and the occasional xanax to help me sleep or stop a panic attack.

    After 6 months of therapy, I was done. I quit the pills. That was about 3 years ago. I haven't considered myself seriously depressed at any time since then, nor have I thought about killing myself. I also haven't cut since that fight.

    Which is all the more amazing (to me anyways) given that this has, hands down, been the worst year of my life. I lost my mother-in-law and my father-in-law in the span of 8 months. I was jobless for 9 months. My wife is seriously depressed because of her loss and I struggle every day to try and make life better for her, knowing all the while that it's not anything anybody can do to make you wake up. You have to wake up yourself. You have to want to be better. All those years spent depressed, feeling sorry for myself, HATING myself... it wasn't until I realized I was too tired to keep living that way that I changed.

    So my answer would be yes, anybody who is just depressed, even if it's long-term or clinically depressed, can get better. I did and I know others who have.
    posted by Bageena at 6:28 PM on October 20, 2009 [15 favorites]

    Response by poster: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've been working my ass off on this, and have brought myself up to a shakey "less depressed." I needed this bright shot of hope. If it can be done, I will do it. Thank you.

    (More stories are heartily welcome.)
    posted by moira at 7:41 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

    Best answer: It can absolutely be done. The most seriously depressed person I have ever known, a person who (years ago) made multiple suicide attempts, is now happily married and gainfully employed. His new baby is adorable.
    posted by prefpara at 7:58 PM on October 20, 2009

    I'm the poster of the comment quoted in the OP, so I wanted to clarify my original comment since this was kind of taken out of context.

    Severe depression (like the kind described by the boyfriend in that post) is a chronic condition, and like other chronic conditions, it needs to be managed if life is to return to "normal". A diabetic taking their medication and living a healthy life is still a diabetic. A depressed person taking his or her meds and doing great is still a depressed person. He or she may not be actively depressed and actually feeling pretty damn good, but the potential for relapse is there and needs to be considered.

    I actually get out of bed these days. I shower. I take my medication. I go to therapy regularly. I hold down a full time job, a household, a marriage. I no longer have the urge to kill myself. I'm living a pretty damn good life, one that I never anticipated for myself. But at the bottom of it all, the depression is always still there, like a sick version of an old friend. But I know it's there and I work on living my life, every day, in a way that keeps it away.

    I am in no way saying that all the progress you've made in your situation is for naught, but that you should be aware of the potential that still exists.
    posted by crankylex at 8:12 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Wow, I read that thread and totally missed that comment. I completely understand why that would be a discouraging and overwhelming concept. Yikes! So my two cents:

    While that may be true for some people, one thing I have learned in my own dealings with depression (my own depression and others) is that everyone is different. One person's persistent clinical depression will ebb and flow throughout their lives, while another person might have an extended bout of clinical depression, and after some hard work, probably involving medication and therapy, will "recover" and never relapse. This could happen with or without a lifetime of medications and/or therapy. Sometimes a positive major life change (vocation, where someone calls home, a spiritual awakening) is what triggers and cements recovery for people. Sometimes those changes do nothing to mitigate how depressed a person is.

    From my perspective, depression is caused by so many different factors (chemical, situational, environmental), sometimes singularly and sometimes in combination, that trying to fit all depressed people in the same classification is problematic. Additionally, depression can be intermingled with other medical and/or mental health issues. With so many variables at work, I don't think anyone can say that someone who suffers from severe depression will never be free of it. Everyone is different, and there are also many different ways people manage and think about their experiences with depression, as evidenced by the comments in the earlier thread and the responses you're receiving tonight.

    You've been working hard and your depression has lessened. That alone says you are capable of being "better," and have seen improvement from one moment in your life to another. Keep on putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping for a day when depression becomes a non-issue in your life. No one can say exactly how another person is going to end up, and that unpredictability can just as easily be a good thing. Lastly, if you ever want to talk, please feel free to email me, even if it's ages from now. Best of luck & I hope things continue to improve for you!
    posted by katemcd at 8:23 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

    There are medications that can make life APPEAR normal, but this insidious disease, in its chronic state, does not just get cured.

    WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. My husband suffered a 'nervous breakdown' that resulted in a 5-day hospitalization and a 'lifetime' prescription of Prozac prior to my meeting him. Over the next 10 years, his Prozac dose was raised several times, and eventually Wellbutrin was added to the mix when Prozac appeared to no longer be working. Concurrent to the Prozac use, his testosterone levels dropped to nearly nothing. I saw him becoming old, uncomfortable, and physically compromised. He developed hand tremors from too much medication, yet his symptoms weren't controlled.

    It hurt to see him suffer, and I began to search for a health professional who didn't add drug upon drug from a medical 'cookbook' but would take a holistic look at his overall health and medical condition.

    Since I found that professional about four months ago-- a Board-certified anti-aging and preventative medicine M.D.-- my husband has lost 31 lbs. (and is still losing), feels, looks, and sounds fantastic, and is on the very lowest dose of Prozac just every two or three days. He expects to be off the antidepressants completely before long, and says he feels even better than when he was young and playing semi-pro sports. And mind you, we live in a very-far-north state where the light levels are dropping about 7 minutes a day right now and many of our "normal" residents are taking their winter-only Prozac faithfully to combat seasonal affective disorder...

    I was so impressed with my husband's results that I started seeing the doc as well, and my results have been equally positive. Several of my 'chronic' health problems have greatly lessened or completely disappeared in less than 3 months. The results for us have been nothing short of incredible.

    Mainstream docs may react negatively to anti-aging medicine -- most of ours have been polite but reserved. They have a hard time arguing with the lab and physical results, however. I advise you to take objections from physicians, family and friends with a grain of salt, read the research yourself , give it a try, and see what you think. This book does a great job of laying out the preventative, anti-aging specialty's case, complete with the medical research. The book was actually written for doctors, but is fascinating reading for the patient as well.

    It is indeed possible to 'recover' from severe depression. I wish you the very best as you rediscover good health!
    posted by northernlightgardener at 8:33 PM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

    Best answer: On a side note moira, or if you want another story, here's a good one;

    When I was 20, I dated a girl who was very, very troubled. Not just depression, but manic depressive, bipolar, and she suffered from borderline personality disorder as well. In a word, she was nuts. She was one of the most beautiful girls I'd ever met, but she was completely, completely nuts. Her doctor had her medicated to the gills, not just on normal anti-depressants but on anti-psychotics. She was a cutter, but just saying she was a cutter doesn't actually do any real justice to how badly she hurt herself. She would cut herself and then peel her skin back. She was totally beautiful, stunningly so, but she looked like a burn victim in all the places that clothes could safely cover. I was actually about two years clean from cutting then and was a pretty happy person when I met her
    I didn't realize until about a month in just how bad she was. When she'd wake up in the morning with me, I was afraid. I didn't know who I'd be waking up to, honestly. Sometimes she'd be getting ready and wouldn't like the way she'd look and she would literally, literally smash her head into the wall or the mirror until she was bleeding. I would have to physically restrain her. She would attack me sometimes. She would say the cruelest, most hurtful and painful things I've ever had said to me. Ever. After four long, long months, she finally broke it off with me. I think she realized that I'd never leave, glutton for punishment that I am I suppose.
    I took a two year break after that from girls and dating and all of that. I actually MOVED from the small town where I grew up and where we lived together to Phoenix and moved in with a friend. That first night, I got wasted drunk in a bathtub (I don't drink, btw) and attempted my second serious suicide attempt.
    Years later, I saw her again. She came into town before flying out to Hawaii where she was moving in with her new fiance. She was a completely different person. Happy, excited, hopeful. No meds, no therapy, no cutting. I've kept in contact with her now over the past few years and she's fine. Funny enough, she credits me for her change. I gave her hope that she deserved happiness from life as I gave it to her. I never told her that she was single-handedly responsible for bringing back all my demons.
    Seriously though, I've never in my life been through or met anyone like her when she was in the midst of her problems. It was like she was possessed. I never, ever thought she'd have a normal life. Ever. I spent every bit of myself trying to make her happy and I was very glad in the end to see that in some small way, it helped, but yeah. Don't ever think you can't achieve happiness. It's there for all of us. Keep yourself open for it.

    No more long stories from Bageena for a long, long time. I tell you guys way to fucking much.
    posted by Bageena at 8:34 PM on October 20, 2009 [8 favorites]

    Best answer: "Is it possible to fully 'recover' from epilepsy or insulin dependent diabetes?"
    IANAD, but don't people who have diabetes sometimes recover once they lose weight/make lifestyle changes?

    As someone who was treated for depression from age 6 to my late 20s (including the involuntary hospitalizations), the comparison of depression to incurable epilepsy is really, well, depressing. I haven't taken any antidepressants/etc. in over 10 years and am fine.

    At the risk of introducing nuance into AskMeFi, you need to take into account age, accumulated experience/wisdom, life circumstance, etc. Will I ever be depressed again? Likely, temporarily. Will I ever be completely crippled again by depression? More likely than someone who's never been, but I don't see that in my immediate future.

    "this insidious disease, in its chronic state, does not just get cured." Spoken like someone still in its throes. I sympathize, but don't agree. At all.
    posted by sfkiddo at 9:50 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Amplifying on this answer that I posted over a year ago:
    Yes, I have overcome depression. I was extremely depressed for many years, often suicidal. My depression came to me through both nature and nurture - my father committed suicide when I was 14.
    I've been able to beat the depression completely. Self-hypnosis was a big part of it, as I mentioned previously, but the NLP techniques that I've learned have made the biggest difference. What I've learned is that I have far more control over my own state of mind than I ever imagined possible. NLP is a controversial topic, I suppose, because it means so many different things and there are so many practitioners with dubious skill and qualifications. But I learned it on my own and applied it to myself, so I had the most competent and empathetic NLP therapist imaginable. ;) I'd recommend Richard Bandler's two recent books if you want to get the basics - you'll think the techniques he describes are so simple that they couldn't possibly work. Try 'em anyway. Watch his videos if you can. YMMV, obviously, but to me it made all the difference.
    posted by semblance at 10:03 PM on October 20, 2009

    Best answer: I have bipolar disorder II. So I have long episodes of depression and short episodes of hypomania. My depression first manifested when I was 11 or 12, hit harder when I was 15 and got steadily worse until three years ago, when I found myself suicidal and absolutely unable to work. I was off work for two years, and at one occasion ended up in hospital having to get my wrist repaired after slicing through a tendon. My arms are covered in scars from years of cutting. I've tried to kill myself a few times.

    And in about a month, it'll have been a year since I went back to work. It took the right meds and about six months of therapy to get there, and it's been a long journey to get to the point where I can say I'm completely recovered. After so much misery, there's a steep learning curve to living life in a way that can make you happy. But every step I've taken since then has improved my life. I'm no longer scared of the future. In fact, feeling like I have a future is pretty new.

    So after about 14 years of recurrent episodes of depression, I finally feel normal, functional and pretty much happy with my life. I don't feel like my depression is lurking. It's gone. I think of myself as fully recovered.
    posted by xchmp at 11:58 PM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

    Best answer: I have felt pretty great since I started on the Lithium about eighteen months ago, so yes, I feel recovered.

    But I know that my mental health problems came in waves before. It's important to keep taking care of yourself and to be aware of any signs that you may be on a downward slope. With that sort of self-care and awareness hopefully you can nip in the bud a major episode.

    Look at the Scottish Recovery Network's website - full of people's stories of recovery from mental illness. I think their definition of recovery is very helpful: "Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms. It is about having control over and input into your own life. Each individual’s recovery, like his or her experience of the mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process" Really, deep down, recovery is what you make it.

    (Response to northernlightgardener's book reccomendation - I had a look at it on Amazon, and it seems to be recommending hormone replacement therapy. While there are benefits to hormone replacement in some women there are risks as well (a good balanced piece from Behind The Medical Headlines), and leaping into hormone therapy with the zeal of a convert may be a bad idea, depending on your medical circumstances. Also, as a medical student, if that book was written for doctors I'm the Queen Mother. Everything about it screams self-help.)
    posted by Coobeastie at 7:10 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: Crankylex, I regret having copy/pasted your comment. It smacks of a call-out, and that was not my intention at all. I'm glad you're doing well, and I wish you the best.
    posted by moira at 8:58 AM on October 21, 2009

    What's so wrong with depression? You'll get old and you won't feel a damn thing anymore, and you'll wish for the passion of youth.

    Of course, when you're suffering, you will feel like ending it at any cost. You'll hide in routine, under loud music, television, a panoply of escapes, and you'll silence your screaming soul along with all of its desperate truth -- for "tribulation is treasure" -- and if you do this, you're doomed to fall into the same pit again just when you think you're "better".

    Depression is like a rainy day to be made the most of. Don't curse it. Don't say, "I wish it were sunny that I could go to the beach". Say, I will paint blue monsters indoors. I will make an album out of my facial expressions. I will make a collage out of this awful week's garbage.

    This question is the wrong question. Thinking of depression as a disease is an error of modern society. Depression is a natural state of the human being. The real disease is not being emotionally equipped for rainy days, and the cause is that we are provided with effective escapes all of our lives-- like the goddamn internet-- so that we don't get any practice at living every aspect of our lives.

    To answer your question: you don't have anything to "recover" from. You are blessed with a host of feelings that are your compass for right now, but it takes courage to ride out the uncertainty.

    Good luck.
    posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:00 PM on October 27, 2009

    Response by poster: I wanted to pop back in to thank everybody here for answers that gave me the hope and confidence to persevere. I've had mildly low days here and there, but I haven't been in a full-on depression for many months now. I'm still hacking away at anxiety, but I now know with certainty that I can and will beat it. I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been in my life.

    Bageena, I know you won't see this, but your stories had the most powerful effect on me. Thank you.

    Yours, too, sfskiddo, and I hope you do see this.
    posted by moira at 10:17 AM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

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