When I was diagnosed with depression 23 years ago, I was told it was due to a chemical imbalance. Nothing had triggered the depression so this explanation made perfect sense to me.
There were a few pleasant benefits that came from believing this:
- Less stigma. This is medical, not mental, I said to myself as if they’re two separate concepts. Chemical imbalance was a handy explanation to toss to rude people who thought I could snap out of depression. It also made it easier for me and others to understand that depression was not my fault and was not in my control.
- Less effort to get well was required of me. Actually there was nothing to do but try find the right pill or pill cocktail.
- Hope for a cure rested on something simple and tantalizingly close.
If it’s a chemical imbalance, I guess the doctor needs to fix me.
Well the first one didn’t. I got a new one. He didn’t either.
The doctor suggested therapy. This made no sense. Therapy for what? I had a chemical imbalance. My depression wasn’t triggered by trauma or anything that I needed to work through.
Eventually though I noticed I had negative thought patterns which seemed to carry on by themselves and make me feel even more depressed. Huh. Maybe I wasn’t just some victim of bad chemicals. So I got a therapist.
Now I had two people to fix me. So I showed up for my appointments and waited for that to happen.
And then there I was. Depressed but more productive. Now what? This isn’t going to be good enough.
Chemical imbalance and recovery aren’t terms you’ll hear together.
That’s the real trouble with chemical imbalance as a sole explanation for depression. It turns you into a passive patient waiting to be fixed. You are disengaged from your own recovery.
The theory of chemical imbalance as the cause of depression is now recognized as too simplistic.
I was done being a patient. I wanted to be a client.
I decided I would have to drive this. This wasn’t easy in the beginning when I had no energy to drive and no idea where to go but I couldn’t see another way out aside from suicide.
I realized I knew more about my depression than any doctor or therapist. I stopped viewing them as experts who could fix me. Instead I began to see them as advisers and partners whose opinions were no more valid than my own. I listened to them but I made the decisions about what I would do next. I was a client and if they didn’t fit into this new hierarchy I replaced them.
It was frightening to realize they didn’t have the answers and I would have to be responsible for figuring out what to do. It was a significant mindset shift.
It’s important to be aware of where you stand on the continuum of “fix me” vs. “support me”. You may want to challenge some of your beliefs if they aren’t working for you.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Does a chemical imbalance completely explain my depression?
- What role do professionals and medication play in my recovery?
- What’s my role?
- How do I define recovery and is it different from the professionals’ definition?
- Do I want to be engaged or compliant?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions. If you’re not comfortable with commenting, send me a private email. I’ll respond.
About the Author
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.