Letter: Dear Mrs. Curtiss,

I am a student at Augustana College. I am currently taking an independent study course with Prof. Michael Nedelsky. As I think he told you, he is considering using depression is a choice for a class next year, and is testing the book on me currently. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to ask you a few questions concerning it. I realize that you are out leaving the country today, and I don't know if you will be willing or able to reply until your return. Any response would be appreciated!
Nancy 4/15/02

Response: Dear Nancy,

I am always glad to answer any questions. Questions are the most valuable
learning tool. Much more important than answers to questions we have never
asked because, neurotically speaking, where in our brains do we input answers to questions we have never asked. No wonder stuff gets lost. The mind works by learned associations. I have answered your questions within your letter as that seemed the best way to organize an answer to you. 5/15/02

All best,

Arline Curtiss

Letter: Dear Mrs. Curtiss

First of all, I want you to know how much I appreciate a view such as yours; I find it empowering and hopeful. Most of my psychology studies have left me feeling weak and useless, wondering if drugs were not the only way to deal with some situations.

Yes, there is no authority without responsibility. When doctors succeed in getting us to abrogate our responsibility for our own thinking and behavior we feel weak and useless because we have lost the proper authority over our own lives.

Until recently, I did not consider the notion that choice could play a role in most mental illnesses. Most of what people believe to be mental illness is simply security-minded self-bondage to habitual thinking patterns which could be changed as an act of will but are not changed due to excessive fear of failure. The only reason pills work for mental illness is that they power down the fear but medicine cures nothing about our thinking. All mental illness is disordered thinking. Mental illness should not be confused with physical brain injury.

You among others have recognized the importance of staying connected with other people, especially in the face of mental health crises.

We are all afraid whenever we feel alienated from our fellows because we are a herd
animal. People who are mentally ill have not been able to connect properly with their fellows and therefore live in a chronic state of fear. This is the basis for Carl Rogers idea of unconditional positive regard for the patient. Not a bad idea but must be followed by teaching the patient that when we feel alienated it is our self-focus on our fear rather than the other person’s lack of interest in us that is the problem causing our pain. With this knowledge we can remind ourselves, in stressful situations, to get our attention off our feelings and redirect our attention to those around us or the task at hand, which may be the same thing in social situations. I have to do this now and then in social situations myself when I feel stuck. I say to myself. "Uh-oh I’m feeling a bit alienated so I must be self-focusing again. I need to direct my attention outward to these well-meaning people around me."

You mention that it is crucial to find or create obligations to life, and especially to the people in it. As a therapist, what do you recommend to those people who have no children, significant others, or other intimate connections? Where does one begin to look for such things in their absence?

No one lives in a world devoid of other people. Whoever is around you is someone you can start to relate to by redirecting your attention from yourself and your feelings of loneliness to the other person and engaging them in some kind of interaction. In addition you can seek out like-minded people for more in-depth relationships on the basis of your own interests: photography, philosophy, metaphysics, study of history, writing, reading books, civic activities, swimming, fishing, jogging, yoga, whatever. A person who reads can join a reading group or get to know their librarian. Reading groups are usually posted in libraries or local book stores. The Internet can provide information about national groups in areas of interest and direct you to local chapters in your area of these national groups.

You led quite a whirlwind of a life before you realized that you were ultimately in control of your actions despite your moods. Do you think that the answer you've found to your depression could have been had earlier, or did it take all your experiences to reach that point?

I can’t answer that question. Perhaps I was not ready for the information and it escaped my attention even when it was right before me or it just happened that I never ran across the information until very late. In a way it is the same for people who read my book. Many say they just never came across that information before and yet most of the ideas in the book are centuries old and have been noted by other writers and thinkers.

Many people seem to "outgrow" (or at least partly leave behind) their mental illnesses as they age.

I think people do profit from experience and when they make an honest attempt to handle their difficulties they become stronger. Those who don’t attempt to handle their difficulties get worse and worse.

I wonder if this is because the symptoms (be they depression, mania, hallucinations, etceteras) become less intense with time, or because these people have finally learned to deal with them better as a result of life experience?

Certainly people’s life energy lags with age but depression with the elderly is a terrible problem. (Likely a combination, I think.) In short, if someone had put a summary of the strategies you've discovered in front of you in your early thirties, would you have been able or willing to utilize them right away?

I could have profited from some better knowledge about human motivation but I also think there is something magical and mysterious about life. I didn’t have anything in my younger days that I thought I could count on as a bottom line life-preserver when I felt "over my head," so I lived in a state of constant low-grade fear even when I was feeling stabilized. Now I have life tools to use during stressful times so I always convert my triggered fear into positive action: the task at hand; the phrase I’m getting better and better; and I do believe that if I ask for help at any time I will get it.

I ask for help like a person prays. "I’m needing some help here. Can you help me? I’m needing some direction, I don’t know what I am supposed to do." I don’t direct my plea for help to any entity by name, just to life itself perhaps, or sometimes I imagine that there might be higher beings who can guide me. But in addition to my asking for help I continue to devote myself to the task at hand and utilize helpful mantras to calm myself whenever I am agitated. I take it as my responsibility to maintain my sanity regardless of the fact that I will, sooner or later, get help from greater spirits if I ask for it.

I don’t put any time limits on when, where, or in what form the help will appear so I know it is up to me to keep sane in the meantime. I don’t believe I would have done as well had I not genuinely, humbly asked for help. Or to put it a better way. I think I progressed because I asked for help. I think the most important thing in life is for a person to surrender themselves to a higher power which is what one does when one humbly asks for help; even if it turns out that the higher power to whom one surrenders ultimately turns out to be on self It would have to be oneself ultimately, wouldn’t it at the at-one level of being? But I am not an enlightened person so I don’t see everything. The trick to surrendering is that it doesn’t matter so much what one surrenders to as it is in the act of surrendering to "what is" that one ultimately surrenders to oneself and in this surrender gets out of the fearful mind into a more objective reality. When we surrender to "what is," having nothing more to lose, we step outside of our fear. A wise man once said, "surrender to a tree if you are afraid to surrender to anything else."

I appreciate your time, and hope you have a good trip to wherever you are going!