Monday, March 17, 2014

The Magic Cure

Not too long ago, I was convinced that by switching degrees, maybe even switching colleges, I would no longer be depressed.

The reasons at the time all came across as very logical to me: I was struggling with relationships among people of my own degree, and at my own college. I felt increasingly cynical about my degree, wondered if it would provide the career opportunities I wanted from it, if it would satisfy me. I became increasingly fearful that if I pursued this degree at this college, I would be unhappy and a failure.

In the light of that, the idea of transferring to another college to pursue another degree seemed attractively simple. From my perspective, the career prospects were better. I would be better fulfilled on this career path. I could get along better with the people pursuing that degree. I would succeed and be happy.

Then I told my therapist.

He pointed out to me that, in my enthusiasm for transferring, I did not think about the finer details. What sort of courses would I take? Would some of the courses I take be ones I would struggle with? I would be going to a new community surrounded by people I did not know. Even though I struggled at my current college, there were people there who knew and liked me. How would I deal with the isolation of being a second year transfer? Was I even fully aware of the demands that this career would have on me?

I hadn't thought of any of those things. As my therapist laid out these options everything became darker. Everything was frightening again. Everything was uncertain. And as I became more frightened and anxious, I realized just how fragile the illusion I built for myself had been. And it was an illusion. It was not a possible choice motivated by reason and contemplation, but by emotion and desperation. It may very well have been a good move, but the way I was thinking about it was not.

It has been almost a month since that episode. I am significantly calmer, and more at peace with my current choice of career and college, though there is still that uncertainty, which may indeed never go away. The problems I struggled with that motivated me to consider switching colleges and degrees are still here, and with time dulling the frenzied emotions, I recognize that even had I transferred, many of those problems would not go away, because those problems are in many ways internal, and very deep-rooted. I was searching for a solution that could come from outside, instantaneously, and easily.

I had been searching for a magic cure.

We've all searched for magic cures at some point in our lives.  They can be hard to identify at times, but a good identifying mark is the phrase "if I just".

"If I just read the right book about dealing with my depression, I'll get better."

"If I just have a relationship with this person, I'll be happy."

"If I just leave home and go to college, all of my problems will be solved."

I have had all of these thoughts. Ultimately, I could either not achieve the "just's" I set for myself, or I achieved them and discovered they did not "just" solve my problems like I had hoped. I scoured countless advice books looking for that one bit of golden cure-all, and came up short. The relationships I wanted did not come about. I went to college, and discovered I had the same problems I did in high school.

That is not to say that such things were or would have been useless. Much of the advice I've found in my searching has been useful in learning how to cope with depressive episodes. Relationships can be fulfilling and its players mutually supportive of one another. College took me out of the stagnant environment of my then-current state as an unemployed high-school graduate and gave me direction in life and motivation to pursue that direction. They did not "just" solve anything, but they did or could help to push me towards better mental health.

Magic cures need not necessarily be about trying to change. Magic cures can also be about staying put and waiting for whatever problems to pass. This can be seen in abusive relationships, where battered victims tell themselves that what's happening to them will past, that their loved one will become nicer, or that the things making them angry will end. Magic cures are about achieving massive results without making ourselves too uncomfortable.

The problem with magic cures is not that what we're thinking as magic cures can't be helpful. They absolutely can. But when we view them as easy cure-alls, they encourage us to think they are all we need to do, and often that they can be done easily and quickly.

We underestimate the amount of effort that goes into them, and threaten to go into them ill-prepared for what we would face. If I actually went through with changing colleges without taking into consideration the things that my therapist pointed out, I would have been blindsided by them, and that could have made my depression worse.

We may feel like we can abandon other, more difficult tasks of self-improvement out of the belief that our one magic cure is all that we need to get better, and as a result we can obstruct our own recovery. They provide us a false hope that will only lead to disappointment when we discover our problems are more complex than a single act can solve.

More than that, magic cures can be dangerous. Magic cures often appear as some major shift in lifestyle or behavior, such as quitting a job or moving to a new town. They are attractive because they allow us to think our problems are caused primarily by external, passing things, rather than something more internal. And sometimes that is the case. An abusive and restricting household, for example, can cause a great deal of misery, and leaving that household for a more stable one can be helpful. Yet other times, we change places only to find that our problems have not disappeared but moved with us, and we are without the old support systems and coping techniques we had before.

The fact is, we can get better. But for most of us, it is not through a single act, but through a series of acts, performed consistently, sometimes begrudgingly, that bring us closer and closer to where we want to be. It can be difficult, but it is not impossible. To get there, we have to expend a lot of time, a lot of energy, and have a lot of hope. When we see something, anything, that promises to solve all of our problems, with seemingly minimal effort on our parts, we threaten to deceive ourselves, and obstruct our own recovery.

We must continually look for ways to get better, but sometimes we need to take a moment and ask ourselves what exactly we're looking to get from our decisions. We must make sure that we are not putting all of our hope in a single option, but continually looking to improve in as many ways as we can. Similarly, we have to be sure that when we make our decisions, we do them from a point of reasoned consideration, not one motivated by emotion alone.

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