An Escape from Clinical Depression

Picture of statue is a visual metaphor for the insight into a cause of clinical depression.  
I   Introduction
II  Insight into clinical depression
        Negative feedback control
III  Summary of insight
IV Author
Links: a guide to clinical depression (not currently functional)


An insight into clinical depression

Caution: Should the below analysis describe the origin of your clinical depression, it is conceivable that reading it may result in an instantaneous reordering of your perceptions. While the outcome of any such an event would hopefully be a cure, in the absence of further evidence, a resulting psychotic break would have to be considered equally probable.
  1. That in conversations, and other kinds of interactions, we carry on a [communicational] dance with one another during which the person listening, or otherwise being acted upon, is also signaling--signaling his or her desire for more or less of what is being received. These nonverbal (and/or verbal) messages are the up and down regulating signals of negative feedback (NFB) control. (See figure below. See also Criticism vs. Feedback.) This is a block diagram showing a flow of information from the speaking party to the listening party and also a flow of information--labeled up and down regulating negative feedback signals--from the listening party back to the speaking party; it is intended to assist one in understanding a cause of clinical depression.
    The down regulating negative feedback (DRNFB) signals--requesting an end to or change in a conversation, or some other activity--range from being as subtle as an unconsciously initiated decrease in eye contact to as gross as physical assault. (Up regulating negative feedback cues, as the name suggests, signal for the opposite--a sustaining or enhancement of the output of the speaking or acting party.)

  2. Return to top
  3. That my mother misinterpreted DRNFB signals--she perceived in them a rejection of her rather than the intended request for less of whatever she was saying to or doing for another.2 Her defense against the pain of this misinterpretation was a denial of the existence such signals and a continuing with whatever actions or words the DRNFB signals had been a response to. (This gave her interactions with others a quality which was at once both compulsive and dominating.) For example, if you had visited in her living room and she had offered you some nuts which you declined, she would have continued her "offers"--each with the dish thrust ever closer to your face--until, because of your social skills, you would have finally accepted her "offer".
    2My mother had repressed or made unconscious what would have otherwise been an overwhelming sense of inadequacy--almost certainly the result of having been abused and rejected as a child--and put in its place the (fragile) persona of that of a perfect person. The DRNFB signals served to trigger an intrusion of this repressed material into her consciousness, and this is what facilitated her wrongly identifying DRNFB cues as personal rejection--this pairing or co-occurrence of an overwhelming sense of inadequacy with the DRNFB signal. (Because such an intrusion, if sustained, would destroy both her identity and thus her ability to function, she necessarily denied the existence of these signals.)

    Looked at slightly differently, her behaviors--which she claimed were all perfect--were the props for this persona of absolute superiority she had constructed to shield herself and others from her deeply felt sense of not being OK. In this context, she would see DRNFB messages as challenges to those behaviors (and thus also her persona) rather than as the expressions of the needs of others.
  4. Return to top
  5. That when I came into the world with no such social skills, my mother's "not acknowledging" or denial of my DRNFB signals--messages signifying I am full, I am tired of being held, etc.--initiated escalating cycles in which her unresponsive caretaking actions and my DRNFB signals mutually reinforced one another. These cycles would culminate in the temporary collapse of her fragile persona as she experienced the tremendous pain of her (mis)perception that I had rejected her (rather than some particular caretaking behavior.). Using infant feeding as an example, my mother would ignore my signals that I was full. My response to her continued attempt to feed would have been to increase the vigor of my signaling until she faced (transiently) the "reality" of her misperception that I had rejected her (as opposed to further milk in this particular case.)3
    3Contrast her behavior with that of …the ordinary sensitive mother [who] is quickly attuned to her infant's natural rhythm and, by attending to the details of his behavior, discovers what suits him [and what does not] and behaves accordingly. By so doing she not only makes him contented but also enlists his cooperation. John Bowlby, Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (New York:Basic, 1988)

    Bowlby has not only described normal maternal-infant relations but also a system under NFB control. (See figure below.)
    This is a block diagram showing a flow of information--speech or actions--from the mother to the baby. It also shows another flow of information--labeled up and down regulating negative feedback signals--from the baby to the mother. This may help one understand the cause of clinical depression being discussed
  6. That after this cycle was repeated a sufficient number of times, my mother's (formerly transient) resulting misperception of being rejected by me became fixed--it became a delusion. (Because of the pain and shame this delusion elicited, she did not share it with others and thus precluded the possibility of their corrective input.)

  7. Return to top
  8. That my mother then had a new problem: everyone knows that all normal little boys love their mothers, and she now "knew" that I did not love her. This meant something was wrong with her unless…

  10. That because my mother lacked the psychological strength to more than momentarily consider the possibility that the responsibility for the failure of our relationship might rest with her and because she had the authority and power in the relationship, the "something was wrong with" was going to have to be with me. She unconsciously 4 provided for this solution by placing me in binds 5-- performing at random the usual functions of a good mother in such a way as to make manifest that I was a bad child.6 For a few examples, she would cut my nails into the quick and scrub my skin and scalp until they burned. When I would resist these "acts of love", she would accuse me of being ungrateful and then hurl epithets at my mind and her open hand to my face. Return to top
    4For two closely related reasons, my mother necessarily remained unconscious of this behavior. First, she would have otherwise experienced my "terribleness" as the sham it was and this perception would have undercut the ultimate goal of her behavior in this regard--to be able to believe that something was wrong with me (rather than her).
    Secondly, for her to have been conscious of what she was doing to me would have resulted in the violation of the very ideal of herself that her actions were designed to defend--that she was a perfect mother and person. (In this respect, this consciousness business seems a bit like picking out a set of clothes to wear: you select those items which will not leave you exposed and which go well together.)
    (To whatever extent intention can be ascribed to these "acts of love", she certainly did not intend the collection of circumstances--whatever they were--that had conspired to leave her so vulnerable as to facilitate or maybe even necessitate the adoption of such a destructive combination of defense mechanisms.)

    5Sluzki C E, Eliseo V, The Double Bind as a Universal Pathogenic Situation. The Interactional View: Studies at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto, 1965-1974 Ed. Paul Watzlawick and John H Weakland (New York: Norton, 1977)228-240
    6It was Michel Foucault's who formulated the idea that a person's identity is something that is communicated by one's interactions with others--particularly more powerful others. For an introduction to Foucault, see Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader (Harmondsworth:Penguin, 1984)
  11. That in this scheme in which I never knew whether I was going to be the recipient of caring or abuse--and thus whether to love or to hate--I became confused, angry, and ultimately aggressive toward my mother. (This aggression fed into her delusion of rejection, and this is how I came to share in the responsibility for keeping this pathological dynamic alive. 7 See the positive feedback loop on the Summary of insight diagram.) Because all could then see that I was disturbed, her new problem had been solved. 8
    Return to top
    7... The most useful way to phrase double bind description is not in terms of a binder and a victim but in terms of people caught up in an ongoing system which produces conflicting definitions of the relationship and consequent subjective distress. ... the research group prefers an emphasis upon circular systems of interpersonal relations to a more conventional emphasis upon the behavior of individuals alone or single sequences in the interaction. from A note on the double bind--1962 by G Bateson, D Jackson, J Haley, and J Weakland in Communication, family and marriage ed. by D Jackson. (Palo Alto:Science and Behavior Books, 1968)
    8The method she had used to solve her "new problem" was just a covert variant of the normally straight forward character assassination she routinely performed on all those outside the immediate family whom she perceived as having failed to affirm her.
  12. That with the passage of time, the hopelessness of the situation vis-à-vis my mother became internalized and generalized into a world view in which I felt condemned to failure no matter what I did. Because I had learned to be helpless,9 I ceased to act on my environment with the previous vigor and began to express other symptoms of clinical depression.
    9 Seligman M E, Learned Helplessness as a model for [clinical] depression. Comment and integration. J Abnorm Psychol 87(1):165-179 (1978 Feb); Seligman M E. Learned Helplessness. Annu Rev Med 23(1972):407-412

And in that moment10 when I realized that my profound sense of depression, emptiness, and not being OK were the result of my mother's delusion that I did not love her--and thus also a delusion--all of my feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and unworthiness receded before the onrush of forgiveness and joy as I once again experienced my connection with the Universe. I had been blessed with a new beginning.
10 The moment on the beach was not one in which the above words fashioning the nexus of ideas suddenly flashed into my consciousness. It was rather a sudden awareness of the basic ideas, their linkage, and my emergence into the new reality. (Every morning for the next several years, I would awaken in my old reality of depression, hopelessness, and despair. Before getting out of the bed on each of those mornings, I would mentally reconstruct the analysis with the resulting re-entry into the new reality being set for that day. Eventually I began to awaken in the new reality and had no further need to perform this daily ritual.) It was to be another three days before I could present these ideas in a concise manner and 25 years before I could write about them.
Yet still more shims for clinical depression. Return to top

[ Introduction | Insight into clinical depression Summary of insight |  Author | Links ]

Last revision: December 7, 2001
Escape from Clinical Depression
This page Copyright 2001, Jon Eden

This is a Google logo indicating that you can begin a Google search by filling in the adjacent box.
Photograph courtesy Philip Greenspun