I was a formerly depressed person. Sometime after I stopped taking antidepressants—but was still frequently depressed—Mary Lou Rubenstein, a friend, told me that the trigger for depression is the perception of powerlessness. Everybody in her family was depressed—parents, siblings and children—but she wasn’t. She was a liberal, activist social worker until she was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Mary Lou was an activist; she got things done. When she became a depressed person, she turned to her friend Dr. Alan Yasowitz (https://annecwoodlen.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/depression-what-your-psychiatrist-doesnt-know-or-wont-tell-you-part-ii/ ).
Periodically, the system would get Mary Lou jammed in. She was “powerless” and could not move, except that Mary Lou never saw herself as powerless. She would sit down, take a legal pad, swivel around to look out the window, and she would think. She would think of ways to act. She would examine and reexamine the whole situation until she found the way out—until she found power. Then she would swivel back and say to me, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do”—here’s how we will act.
But Mary Lou Rubenstein had finally met the one thing over which she had no power: death. And she came down with the family disease: depression. Mary Lou always had prevented her genetic tradition from kicking in by acting powerfully in her own life but when confronted by her ultimate powerlessness, she got depressed.
She had a conversation with her friend and colleague, Dr. Alan Yasowitz. Dr. Yasowitz is a neuropsychologist who is always referred to as “the brilliant Dr. Yasowitz.” He explained to Mary Lou that she was depressed because she felt powerless; she, in turn, explained it to me, and I went to see Dr. Yasowitz. He did an enormous number of tests and spent a lot of time working up a report and recommendation for me, even while knowing that I could never give him full payment for his work.
After some marvelous discussions about depression and powerlessness—and my expectation that he would recommend something new, different, and wildly effective—Dr. Yasowitz told me to take more pills. I had told him that I could no longer tolerate any medication for anything, but he didn’t take me seriously (this also is typical doctor thinking). My question here, years after the report, is this: Doctor, if you think powerlessness causes depression, why did you recommend drugs? Why didn’t you recommend a course in power management?
Depression starts with a bad gene and is triggered by powerlessness. Powerlessness is interactive. Being powerless is an event that occurs in the context of the world: you are less powerful than something or someone else. Your depression is not your problem: it is a problem between you and something or someone else. In short, if the sons-of-bitches would just stop screwing you, you’d be all right. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.
In this country in this time, we like to treat depression as if it is cancer: it is in you, the patient. It’s your problem. For example, it has nothing to do with the doctor who is making a lot of money and won’t treat you because you have little or no insurance. They say it has nothing to do with the doctor keeping you sitting in the waiting room, not answering your questions, and not returning your phone calls. Since you have less money than the doctor, and he has so many patients that he doesn’t need you, you are relatively powerless. You get depressed; your doctor doesn’t. Depression is interactive, not in you.
It’s things like this that make one cultivate a close relationship with Jesus who said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat and drink—God knows what you need.’ (Luke 12)
There are alternatives in every situation of powerlessness, including death. The alternative to the feeling of powerlessness that you have about death is to ground yourself in a theology or philosophy that encompasses death as a part of the continuity of life, not as the dead-end that most Americans perceive it to be. Here we’re talking about what causes depression, and powerlessness on top of short genes causes depression.
I spent a lot of time working on these things—figuring out how it all fit together—because I was subject to intense periods of suicidal depression. Twenty-six years of taking antidepressants had created depression in me. Yes, antidepressants do that. I no longer could take any drugs to dampen the impact of depression. So every time I got depressed, I started looking for the powerlessness trigger, and then designing a way to reverse the trigger. It’s a pretty simple equation when you get right down to it: depression is triggered by powerlessness; learn to act with power to reverse the trigger—and I had to, otherwise I was at risk of death by suicide. In those early years after I stopped taking antidepressants, there wasn’t a month that I wasn’t suicidal. To save my own life, I had to learn to act with power.
So that’s who I was but who was Wayne Freeman?
When I got “the bitch” fired from Medicaid transportation, I learned the first step in how to get government systems changed: go over the head of the person who’s giving you trouble. Always—always, always, always—climb the ladder of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Talk to the supervisor, then talk to the supervisor’s supervisor, then talk to the director. Go up the ladder until you come to the person who can make a change.
The second step is to ask questions and listen.