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Feature Article: "Depression and the Dilemma of Stories"
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Marty L. Cooper, MFT

(415) 937-1620


4831 Geary Blvd.

San Francisco, CA 94118





October 2015                   Vol. 7, Issue 6   


One of the great difficulties in healing from depression is seeing and accepting that while we want healing, an old, deep, impersonal part of us wants to hold onto the depressive view of life.  So the article in this month's I focus on this dilemma, and on the endgame of healing, which is not simply getting by. 

May your coming Fall be welcome, rich, and usefully challenging.
Best wishes,



P.S.  You can find many of my newsletters, and some articles not posted from Tame Your Mood, at the Psyched in SF site, found here.   

Depression and the Dilemma Of Stories

Today in San Francisco was one of those days that make the Minnesota tourists contemplate emigration. Blue sky, temperate weather, a solicitous sun, and even my typically shivering and jaded fellow citizens were smiling and starting to rethink humanity. I had ridden my bicycle to an appointment, and then with a gap in my schedule, thought I'd take advantage of the day to ride down to Crissy Field, a long public beach just inside San Francisco Bay, overlooked by the Golden Gate Bridge. The place is iconic, majestic. It has boats, people strolling with their dogs, mothers playing with children. And joggers.
I thought, sitting with my tea and croissant, watching two brown pelicans glide towards the bridge, "This really is one of those perfect moments." Then, because I've been musing so much recently about the relationship of depression and the human penchant for stories, thought, "Would this still feel so wonderful if I included some other elements of this scene?"
So I added in some details to the perfect image. I looked at the sparkly, playful young couple on the pier, and thought how they would be dead one day, perhaps soon (then reminding myself that includes everyone enjoying the day, even me). But before that day, the woman has a fair chance of developing breast cancer. He could be murdered for his wallet. Or their sparkliness could be their persona, and they are cruel to each other behind closed doors.
Then I think about nature, looking at those pelicans, thinking how they are flying along looking for fish to scoop up and consume alive, fish who don't want to be eaten. In the water, those same fish (and sharks--11% of the world's shark attacks on humans happen off the beaches north and south of S.F.) are going after each other in an eons-old drama of murder and savagery. And this beautiful city, I thought, not that different from Sarajevo before being laid siege to, and San Francisco is not immune, given the right circumstances, to a similar fate.
It was like scrawling global warming statistics on a digital image of a gorgeous sunset. Yet, I was delighted to see that my enjoyment didn't waver.

Depression and Stories

So this was me on a decent day, and after a lot of work on myself over the years. But in the throws of depression, if I'd even been able to feel the enjoyment of the "perfect day" to start with (unlikely), then running such an experiment would have sunk me. Yet, why would this be, given that few of us are delusional to the point that we wouldn't recognize the truth of these facts of life? We don't deny that those dismal details are actually real elements of, well...reality. But for the most part, most of us will feel irritated, if not depressed, when confronted with them--I know I would have when mired in depression.
Stories are the way human minds make sense out of all the data that comes at us. But more so, story telling is how we manage the anxiety--meaning, the registration of threats that we can't immediately solve--of normal living. Stories are how most of us make it through most of our days. They can be uplifting stories, in which we're the hero, empowered, successful, and life looks great out to the horizon. They can be bluesy kinds of story, where life is a series of hardships that are made meaningful by our stoicism and belonging to a community of struggle. Or they can be dark stories, where we are redeemed (even if life itself is a wash) by our awareness of it as a tragedy, unlike the Pollyanna sheep around us. Regardless, the value of our preferred stories of life are that they define who we are, what the world is, and where we stand in it all.
Regardless, though, of what our particular story is, our deepest survival part wants us to have a story. Our psyches are like those birds that build nests out of whatever material is around, whether that material is soft and downy, or sharp and rough. Without some kind of nest, the bird is without protection; without some kind of definition, our sense of self doesn't exist.
This is a fact of human design for everyone, that we are attached to our core story for survival. But for those whose "stories of life" are depressive ones (i.e., that life and self are futile), this fact poses a really terrible dilemma: we want to not be depressed, but our survival systems don't (at a deep level of self) want to give up the story of depression.
This is a tricky point to make.  Because depressed stories often have so much shame laced through them, to point out our attachment to our story can be experienced as either shaming or judgmental. "Of course I don't want to be depressed!" To which the answer is, "Of course you don't!" But the dilemma is not a personal one; we didn't create it. Our deep nature, our survival nature, doesn't much care whether our story, our nest, is soft or hard, just that we have one. So if our early life experiences, or our genetics and chemistry, or baseline character traits, or who knows, maybe past lives--whatever it is that comes to define us with a depressive story doesn't matter to the survival injunction. If it's what we've got, then that blunt "don't die" part of us is fine with us keeping it, since it sees no alternative.
Therefore, as an impersonal pattern, this conflict between safety and happiness is a dilemma every depressive comes up against. In the stages of healing (after we've learned to regulate our nervous system better, and are able to hold onto some better, counter-depressive stories of life), we will encounter this fundamental problem: having our base story of life being a depressed one, then letting go of that story, letting it decay, is experienced as a basic challenge to survival. Again, the survival part of us believes we can't live without the depressed story, because at that deep level, it's the only story we've got.
Every person I've worked with who has had a history with depression, given enough time, runs up against this dilemma. Apparently, it's both non-negotiable, nor unresolvable by covering it over with a prettier story of life, any more than it's stable to build your mansion on land that's prone to sink holes. Our survival selves know the danger of a weak foundation, creating a deep level of tension in living our lives (the quiet voice that says, "It's just a matter of time..."), and when the house starts shaking, the depressed story says, "See?" Fighting stories with stories is helpful in the medium term of healing from depression, but ultimately doesn't solve the core problem. The challenge of this dilemma, of our survival system's attachment to the depressed story of life, is to clearly, and unequivocally, see that the depressive story is simply not true.
Which is not easy.
Mindfulness and Stories
This problem of stories not being resolved by more stories is why mindfulness practice (of some form) is so essential in the deep healing of depression. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is called vipassana, meaning, "to see things as they really are." It is the practice of training our brains to be able to merely observe reality, phenomenon, as it is, without a story (which is a capacity the brain already has, even if undeveloped). Mindfulness is fundamentally a different mode of looking at the world, different than interpreting the world through the lens of a particular story (whether those are rose or smoke colored glasses), and it's the necessary tool to uproot (rather than cope with) depression.
What happens when we practice with mindfulness long enough, in applying it to our depression-filtered experience of life, is that we actually, in our experience, begin knowing that life and self are not futile, because through practicing mindfulness, we experience times when our depression story falls apart (or temporarily deactivates), without us or the world falling apart. Because our stories of life insist that life be a certain way in order for it to be meaningful or good (e.g., "Life is worthwhile when sunny, warm, and I have free time"), and because we all try to force life to fit our preferred story, and because we depressives are not good at actually doing that forcing (hence depression), to experience life as good, meaningful, not oppressive, enjoyable, when our story is deactivated by mindful awareness--that is the experience which fundamentally uproots depression.
Ultimately, through mindfulness practice, the chronic depressive starts seeing through the depression story itself, which allows for not a new story, but the recognition of the reality that neither life nor our selves are futile. This experience of fundamental meaning and purpose erodes and displaces the depression story; a knowledge of life dissolves the painful story of life, and because all the goodness and meaning that we wanted the story to provide (our stories stipulate that, "I'm happy/safe/satisfied only when...") becomes our base experience of life, the survival self is satisfied and the dilemma of survival trumping joy is solved.
The Resolution of the Dilemma

So, what happened on the beach for me was that those things I reminded myself of--death and savagery and vulnerability--didn't trigger a credible depression story. They actually didn't trigger much more than recognition. My enjoyment of the experience was not depending on a story of life that the moment was conveniently supporting with its sun and nature and good tea. Those were sweet and real as well, but they were augmenting rather than necessary to the enjoyment, which was coming from a more unconditioned place, which didn't need a story to maintain.
Again, to just reiterate, this is not easy. It's taken me, and it's taken every person I've worked with, a lot of work, effort, time and risk to find similar experiences, and a similar stability. But it's important to know, especially against the current dismal expectations of healing within the mainstream of culture and medicine, that this is where the deep work of healing from depression goes. Success is not just coping, or having half as many depressed days, or a statistical drop in vulnerability rates, or shoring up defenses against life's grimness. Those are important middle steps, but the endgame is this deep resolution and emergence from the small world of depression, from the depressed story that (quite amazingly, once your out of it) reveals itself to be utterly untrue. At that point, life just gets to be life, you get to be you, and the joy and relish that we thought depended on sunshine and control emerges from the wreckage of the story, free standing, stable, and incontrovertible.
My Book is Available:

Anxiety and Depression:  42 Essays on Overcoming the Wild Moods

My book,

Anxiety and Depression:  42 Essays on Overcoming the Wild Moods (2011), is for sale as a paperback or Kindle.


It is a collection of short essays, focusing on the challenge of managing, and ultimately, uprooting depression and anxiety.  You can find a few sample articles here, and can purchase the book on Amazon here.

Archive of Past Newsletters
     All past issues of Tame Your Mood can be found here.
Audio Recordings
     Various audio recordings can be found here, including audio
     readings of past newsletters. 
About Marty

I am a San Francisco psychotherapist who helps individuals struggling with anxiety and depression to not only manage these  "wild moods," but eventually learn how to overcome them.  I work comprehensively with mental, emotional, bodily, and spiritual dimensions of anxiety and depression, all of which are necessary to overcome the chronic quality of anxiety and depression.

If you are interested in exploring working together in psychotherapy, please contact me at:


(415) 937-1620,