The end of depression

“I shouldn’t have done that.” This was the first thought that popped into my head when I opened my eyes. I was laying on top of my mountain bike with my leg stuck awkwardly underneath it. It was broken. I’d been chasing a friend of mine who was about twice as good as I was, and it was my 3rd fall of the day. It was the last one too.

My friend helped me hobble to my car on my broken left ankle and get my bike in. Driving home (and shifting gears without using a clutch that my left leg couldn’t operate) I realized I couldn’t get up the stairs to my apartment. Shit. I needed help. I was 28, an Israeli army leutenant and a startup founder and I needed to ask my parents to take care of me because I couldn’t. My ego wasn’t liking it one bit.

The shame of the embarrasing fall, being immobile, the collapsing economy of late 2008 that caused our startup to grind to a halt and staying in my teenage room that I left with so much flair threw me into a serious bout of depression.

I couldn’t sleep at night, and I couldn’t wake up in the morning. I couldn’t think and I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t focus enough to watch movies or read books. I was running out of cash and needed to start looking for a job, but I just couldn’t get started. I didn’t answer my phone, even when my business partner or friends called to see how I was. I was in the shit.

I was thinking about this story the other day and wondered what would’ve happened if someone gave me a phone with Wuju running on it back then. I would’ve probably taken a look at the list of emotions, clicked on Apathy, saw that “Could you allow yourself to feel the apathy?” question and thrown the fucking phone at the fucking wall because why the hell would I want to do something like that?!! And then I would start to cry.

This could have been the beginning of my journey to heal from depression and reclaim my life. In reality it took another year, lots of meds and another full-on collapse before my journey began in earnest.

Depression might be the result of a chemical imbalance, it might be genetic, it might be the result of trauma or that your life is just shit. In my experience, none of that is even close to the root cause. After looking for answers for more than a decade, I reached a different conclusion:

Depression is our natural response to very powerful emotions, very powerfully repressed.

In Freud’s days the most powerfully repressed emotion was sexual desire, which was why he framed a lot of his thinking around it. In my own life, it’s usually been anger. For others it can be shame, or fear, or – as is the case in some religious families – doubt.

Our culture (and this seems to be true for most of the world, not just the West) only allows us to feel and express specific emotions at specific times. You can be sad at a funeral, angry at a football game or scared at the movies. But try to feel any emotion outside of its socially approved context and you’ll be ridiculed – by your own internal judge if not by the people around you.

We hear it all around us as we grow and we internalize a lot of it.

  • There’s nothing to be afraid of.
  • What are you getting all worked up for?
  • Don’t be so sad, it’s going to be OK.
  • Stop being so emotional!

Everywhere we turn we get told that our emotions are illogical, unreasonable, limit our ability to get ahead in life (or make money) and in general are a huge nuisance that we should ignore, rationalize away and suppress.

They are partially right. Emotions are indeed illogical, unreasonable, arise without cause, and, improperly managed, can cause havoc in our lives. And so, when they spontaneously arise we shove them into a little black box in the pit of our stomach. They accumulate and fester there until we need so much energy to keep everything bottled up that we have no will left for anything else, like taking a shower or brushing our teeth.

Exploring and safely expressing emotions is the common trait in most effective techniques that deal with depression. And when I say effective I mean truly healing, and not just aiding with suppression like SSRIs. Good therapy can help, so can good friends, although both have a limited capacity for our emotions as they typically are repressing some of their own. Therapeutic use of psychedelics can help too, although the experience can be quite violent.

And then there’s Wuju, the app I originally built to help with my own depression and has been helpful to many people since then.

If you’ve been depressed for a while and you want to try it, make sure you take it real slow. Start with Apathy or Tension, peel it back a bit and see what other emotions arise. Whatever arises, whether it’s Fear or Anger or Shame or anything else, go there, lean into it. If you need to throw your phone, aim it at a cushion, you might need it later. If you need to scream – scream, if you need to growl – growl, if you needed to cry – by all means, cry. Make sure you’re in a safe space where you can allow yourself to let go and give yourself all the time you need. You might need a blanket to wrap yourself up in, some water to drink, and a box of tissues. It can be intense, but it usually doesn’t last very long. And it feels amazing afterwards – like a great weight has been lifted off your shoulders.

The emotions will come back. They are our birthright, or most defining human trait and they carry a lot of hidden wisdom in them. You’ll need to come back to Wuju again and again, lean into whatever is going on, feel it, let it go, and then do it all over again. It’ll get easier over time and there will be less to work through, but I suspect it will never fully go away. I wouldn’t want to live without the richness of my emotions even if I have to “manage” them for the rest of my life, and I suspect the same might be true for you too.

Follow me @finereli where I write about emotional intelligence and mental health.