A Single Step, issue Winter 2007-08
Undoing Depression, Richard O'Connor PhD, Souvenir Press
The book is subtitled "What Therapy Doesn't Teach You and Medication Can't Give You", and I feared it would be one of those self-help books which tell you how easy it is to change your life. In fact, "Undoing Depression" is well-written, empathetic, with a dry humour, and a clear understanding of the nature of depression and the struggles associated with it. The author tries to take a pragmatic approach, saying "a great deal is known about how people recover from depression". In part one, he reviews what is known about the prevalence and possible causes of depression, as background to the core of the book. This, the major part, is how depression affects us, and what we ourselves can do to remedy this. In the introduction, he explains: "I'm convinced that the major reason why people with depression stay depressed despite therapy, medication and support from loved ones is that we are simply unable to imagine an alternative. We know how to do depression....Depression becomes for us a set of habits, behaviours, thought processes, assumptions and feelings that seem very much like our core self; you can't give them up without something to replace them... Recovery from depression is like recovery from heart disease or alcoholism".
The book aims to give us tools for recovery, along with encouragement to use them. There are five major chapters discussing emotions, behaviour, thinking, relationships and the self. Each chapter explores how these can be damaged by depression, gives case studies and suggests exercises that can help us to find better ways of coping. This style carries on into the next part, which looks at subjects such as work, love and families.
Throughout this, O' Connor is at pains to emphasise that the changes he is advocating require hard work, and to suggest that it is simple and easy is insulting. But he also points out that "depressed people work harder at living than anyone else, although there is little payoff for our effort." He challenges us to redirect that work, into undoing depression. The author starts the book with a note on terminology, "as I argue that depression does affect one's character and personality, ...I opt for the term depressive as descriptive of what can become a way of life." Similarly, as he has had his own depression to contend with, he uses "we" throughout whenever discussing challenges to be faced. This is typical of his style, whereby he sets out his views without demanding you accept them wholesale.
What is hard to convey is the feel of the book. It is clear that Richard O'Connor knows the subject, and more importantly, cares. The wide range of the book means that some sections are more relevant than others, but I constantly found myself reading bits aloud to anyone who would listen. And, although depression is not obviously associated with humour, I found myself laughing at unexpected points.
There were some occasional jars; talk of the towers of the World Trade Centre made me check the publication date, which was a decade ago, but this is not obvious throughout, while the fact that it was written for publication in the USA means some specific advice is less relevant here. But these are minor points; I found the book informative, helpful without being condescending, and well worth the read. But the most important measure of this book will be whether the reader finds it helpful in recovery; I am confident that many will.