*I've been clinically depressed since I was eleven. My mom has been on Prozac all my life. My little brother just got out of his third trip to the loony bin due to being suicidal. Some fun credentials, eh?
There's only one cure for depression.
It isn't a pill.
Why it's not a pill
The pills can impair your ability to think, which impairs your ability to feel depressed, or at least your ability to dwell on it mentally, thus producing the feedback loop that keeps it going and getting worse. Stopping those thoughts does make you feel better, as long as the medicine is active. But prescriptions can't replace your negativity with happiness. In the end, they're basically the same as any of the other drugs people take for depression: Booze, pot, speed, nicotene, eating, shopping...all variously effective methods of distracting or silencing the thinking mind. But none of them are actually addressing the problem, which is quite simply a mind that's turned on its host.
Depression is simply a proliferation of negativity that often has very little, or nothing at all, to do with the situations that seem to 'cause' it. If you know any chronically depressed people, you know that they can cry over being single one day and cry over being married the next; that getting exactly what they claim to want only makes them temporarily happier, and then it's back to the races. You've heard them lament that they don't know what's the matter -- because nothing is, so everything is. The mind is the matter. How do you say what's wrong with the way the world looks, when the problem is that there's mud on your glasses?
For certain very honest, aware, and ballsy people, therapy might cure it. If you're honest enough to admit that your mind is the only real problem (which is no small feat: most depressed people come to identify quite strongly with their perceived problems), and aware enough to actually catch your mind playing tricks on you, and ballsy enough to ignore your own thinking or forcefully change it, then sure, talking about it might help. I've never seen it work, but theoretically, sure. It seems not to work so well in practice, I think mostly because the "aware and ballsy" parts come in exactly in places where a) the urge to distract oneself is extremely strong, since thinking is hurting you, and b) the will is weak, having been beaten down by self-revulsion and intense inner criticism. So the therapeutic solution is essentially like asking someone to cure their alcohol withdrawal by not drinking.
Why Irrational Optimism Works
In fact, alcoholism offers a fair analogue to what the actual cure is: AA, while certainly not unobjectionable itself, has got one major thing about it right: Irrationality.
What does AA make you do? It makes you give up on thinking your way out of the problem. It forces you to skip the step where you "figure it out" and "take control", and instead makes you admit that you can't figure it out and give up control to The Whatever. This, I suspect, is a good chunk of why it works. (Addictions share some mental components with depression, namely the need to escape some underlying pain.)
The cure for depression is irrational optimism. And yes, only the irrational kind will do. It must be the kind of optimism that you see in small children and batty old ladies, the kind that can say, "Wow, so I'm going to lose a leg? Hey, but wait--look at the pretty flower! No, who cares about the leg; I'm going to sit and talk to this flower for a while."
The reason it can't be rational optimism -- which the depressed often fervently persue; a great example is my own flagrant obsession with philosophy -- is that the thinking mechanism is the problem, remember. Trying to use rational thought to find one's way out of depression is like trying to do leg-presses with your broken leg so that you can walk on it again. In fact, just like the "broken leg press", strengthening one's rational capacity can actually be counterproductive: Depending on the nature of your mind and your problem, you may actually be strengthening the hand that's going to punch you in the face.
How to Be Irrationally Optimistic
It's rather like chess -- it'll take you five minutes to get the hang of how it's done, and potentially years to get the hang of doing it right. The devil is in the details, and in this case the "details" are centered on the fact that your mind, which gets temporarily out of your control during depressive spells, is a necessary part of the task. What you need to do is develop good habits that will operate automatically and get you through the dark places where you have less, or no, control.
A good analogy here is lucid dreaming. The old Zen method of achieving awareness while dreaming was to repeat to yourself all day long, "Am I awake?" and check and see. After long enough (it usually takes about a month to develop a mental habit), you'd get to the point where your mind would automatically call up that question regularly, even when you weren't in control of it -- so eventually, you'd be dreaming and ask yourself, "Am I awake?" and do the check, and upon realizing that you weren't awake, you'd achieve awareness in dreams.
Achieving awareness in the long dark tea-time of the soul is essentially the same exercise. You have to practice unreasonable, stupid, completely unfounded optimism as often as you possibly can. If you're anal enough to do it at frequent, regular times, so much the better. But if you can keep it up for a month or so, you will reach a point where your brain does it automatically -- and now you have a weapon armed. It's a weak weapon at first, but by way of compensation, the fact that you have any weapon at all is likely to shock you right out of the depression at first. An open-handed smack isn't a devastating attack, but do it to a nun and you can grind a whole rowdy room into dead silence. And of course, as "the element of surprise" wears off, you'll get better at balling up your fist and landing a harder punch.
You'll have to find your own paths to irrational optimism, in the end, but I can give you some ideas that have kept the razor off my wrists in the past. The best way to use these is to pick a few that fit your personality, and do them often and well, and preferably regularly. Then, when you feel the Icky coming on, try to grasp one with both hands and ride it out of the fog. (If you can't gain enough control of your brain to consciously reach for one of your Irrational Optimisms, then hopefully the act of doing them regularly will have programmed your mind to return to them at regular intervals -- When they come up, try not to fight them, even though you'll probably want to.) And of course, regular doses of Irrational Optimism are a good preventative, too.
Do note that the following list is just a couple ideas of mine, most of which I've tried but not all. It's not intended to be inclusive, and it is intended to be a bit humorous, because Irrational Optimism is just funny as can be, once you get up close. Also, it's been mentioned to me that it appears that this method is encouraging people to behave like looneys in public, which of course is not true -- the nice part about this cure is that it can be planned and done in private, unlike the disease itself, which often leaves you sobbing on a corner in downtown Ann Arbor with no kleenex and no explanations. Give me a little quirkiness over that, any day.
- Method acting: The crazy smile and/or whackaloon eye-glint. Learn those. Emulate your favorite happy-crazy people in movies, tv, or photographs.
- The Happy Dance: Pick a dance move that makes you feel happy, carefree, give-a-fuckall yay. If you don't dance, consider spinning around in circles until you fall down. (Before you laugh, it's an accepted meditation technique, okay? ;)
- The Ridiculous Song: I use "the song that doesn't end" from that Lambchop show that was one when I was a kid. Only rules for a song: Must be loud, and must make you smile. Sometimes, once you've got it down pat, just humming it is enough.
- Attack Paint! A great one if you've got the room: Make crazy messy paintings (or art of some sort, but the "crazy" is mandatory and the "messy" is strongly suggested). Think "opening scene of Benny & Joon", but with a faster tempo (Joon had a disassociative disorder, so going slow made sense for her, heh). Is inconvenient in that you can't take it away from home and it costs money, but it works quite amazingly well from what I've seen.
- The Overhaul: White-hat MPD. This is another one with downsides but which works like a sledgehammer. The downside is, it can be dangerous if your personality is very addictive. What you want to do is develop a different persona that you can adopt when things get nasty. It's imperative not to take this one too seriously: I suggest cartoon characters, lighthearted fantasy roleplaying characters, and simple stereotypes -- you don't want to go building an actual fake personality that you learn to escape to. The idea is to build a simple platform from which you can step away from yourself for a moment: If you can do Bugs Bunny's voice, and leap up from your chair and sing the first couple lines from "What's Opera, Doc?" while you're depressed, trust me, your funk will wither like a Viking on a Disney cruise.
- And the last good one I know of is Extreme Anthropomorphism: Start talking to the walls. To your pencil. The floor. The sun. The invisible bacteria lining your nostrils. Anything and everything. Tell it jokes. Listen seriously for a few seconds, nod, and burst out laughing. Go on, make some new friends. ;)
One last point to address is the question:
Isn't it a bad idea to act crazy as a cure for mental problems?
And the answer is, of course not, for two reasons. One reason is homeopathy: It's proven that small amounts of the poison will cure you of its effects. And two is that these are relatively harmless types of crazy to have, and since you're manufacturing them, they're not aggravating a condition you already have (unless you have MPD, schizophrenia, or some other severe psychosis, in which case curing depression is kind of far down on your list of Things To Do, isn't it? Right under Stop Talking To The Smurfs and Replace That Curtain You Ate?) ...Just kidding, but seriously, I make no claims about psychosis here, and these are safe things, as far as I know, for depressives to do. In doing them, you're replacing a deep-seated, nasty crazy that might kill you with a half-fake, lighthearted crazy that will make you feel better. You decide if it's worth it; but if you'd rather lay in bed and cry for days than talk to your light-fixtures, hey, it's your choice!