Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I’ve suffered from bouts of depression since I was 13. The black cloud is always there lurking, waiting for the moments when I’m over-tired and stressed, disappointed in life, but it’s only truly debilitating for me at times.
Normally, if I take good care of myself, and the depression is not too prevalent, I am a very happy, perky, glass half-full, capable, type of person. I love to smell the roses, roll around the grass, and pick daisies in the sunshine. I love to dance and smile and laugh.
Possibly my tendency to depression started even earlier. I do remember lying in bed at night as a young child, ruminating. Worrying about my Dad being out in a storm – he had a habit of falling and breaking bones on rainy nights. Worrying about the Earth suspended so precariously as it is, spinning in infinite space. Worrying about infinity, because I couldn’t fathom the concept. I knew there was a big bang, but what was before that? How can something come from nothing?
Worry is encoded in my DNA, inherited and finely-honed by generations of Irish women. It is my gateway drug to depression. Left alone long enough, in a negative mind-spin, and I can go from content to despair in 180 seconds flat.
Here’s the rub. Life can be great. It can be fun and joyous and fulfilling. Life can also be right up in your face all mess and guts and mud. Because that’s reality. And sometimes reality is all those things at once. The love and the stench of life.
Robin Williams’ tragic death this week has got so many of us, me included, all thinking about life and death. And depression.
I guess, for me, it feels like I lost a member of my extended family. I didn’t know the guy, but he featured in my life for three decades. Like the eccentric uncle who lives overseas, who you never actually see, but sends ridiculously funny postcards from exotic locales at Christmastime, and you just adore him from a distance.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but this week quite a few of the people I love are seriously depressed. And even though I have experienced depression, it’s one of those things that when you’re not in it, you don’t really get it. I look at my beautiful, talented, “so much to live for” friends and just think, but why?
If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do. Stephen Fry
I read a great article this week called Meditation Isn’t Enough – A Buddhist perspective on suicide by Lodro Rinzler. He touches on the stigma of depression, not only in society at large, but in the Buddhist community. I have found this to be so in many communities that focus on a spiritual way of life. Many make claims, to which I have subscribed in the past, that if you practise (insert technique/program here) well enough, it will heal all your ills.
I have seen some Buddhist teachers make remarks about depression as a form of suffering; that one should be able to meditate and have everything be okay, in lieu of prescription medication. That is not true; meditation is not a cure-all for mental illness… Buddhists can’t just take everything to the meditation cushion and hope it will work out. When things get tough, as in to the point that you can’t imagine getting out of bed in the morning tough, you need help. And there should be no shame in seeking it. Lodro Rinzler
I have suffered periodic bouts of depression since I was 13. Depression and puberty hit me in one fell swoop and I went from a moody but pretty sparky kid, to a sullen, tubby, and terminally sad teenager.
I was put on antidepressants as a teen after an attempted overdose, but I didn’t stay on them. I’m not sure why. As a young adult, I ‘self-medicated’ with alcohol and recreational drugs, until I found myself in rehab and a 12 step program at the age of 25.
The 12 step program absolutely saved my life from alcohol and drug misuse, but never really addressed the depression and anxiety that underpinned it. As such last year, 14 and half years free of any mind-altering substances, I found myself suicidally depressed. I was also extremely physically unwell at the time. In fact, I basically crashed, broken down in mind, body, and spirit.
My body ached with heaviness and lethargy. I was tired all the time but couldn’t sleep. Trying to talk to people or be out in the world was physically painful. My focus, concentration, cognitive, and speech faculties declined rapidly. I felt completely worthless and alone. And then, it got worse…
Finally a good friend intervened and told me to go to the doctor. She lovingly said to me, “How bad do you want this to get before you admit you need help?” At that stage I was unable to sleep, eat, work, or leave the house. I was having back-to-back weeping or panic attacks.
I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead. Margaret Atwood
My anxiety was such that I would spend the day circling my flat, deciding to do one thing, say a load of washing, then getting distracted by the need to vacuum the floor, buy food, and wash the dishes – activities that only a few months before I seemed to manage with ease. And after telling myself how completely useless a human being I was, I’d end up on the floor in fetal position, sobbing, and thinking that really I should just kill myself because it wasn’t getting better and everyone (my twelve year old son included) would be better off without me.
That to me is the nature of depression. I HONESTLY thought my son would be better off with me dead. That’s crazy town! I know logically no matter how bad a mother I am – and really I’m okay – my family would always rather have me here. Plus the fact I have been very close to families where members have suicided and I know the devastation. Yet, none of that was powerful enough to overcome my depression.
There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer. Barbara Kingsolver
If you are fortunate enough to have never experienced depression, I find this blog post by Allie Brosh explains it rather well…
And people offer all kinds of unhelpful advice, “why don’t you go for a walk?”, “you need a hobby,” ” stop worrying!” “you need to go out and have fun!” “I felt sad when… and I did… and it got better.”
Now while all these suggestions, in addition to good diet and exercise, are wonderful ways to manage inactive depression, when I am in a depressive episode, I can’t do any of those things, and you suggesting I should, only makes me feel even more hopeless and sad.
During this time, my favourite periods were when I was completely numb, all cried out, no real anxiety, just a low level hum. As long as no-one looked at me too closely, or knew me as the vivacious, bubbly, happy sort I could be, I could pretend to be okay.
I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full. Sylvia Plath
Fortunately between my friend’s entreaties and a moment of lucidity where I realised it was possible that if this continued, I could kill myself against my own will, I realised that none of my fears about medication could be worse than this.
As I said, I realise my thinking patterns exacerbate my depression, and I’m sure my days of self-medicating did some disastrous things to my brain chemistry. I have tried to correct this balance with diet, exercise, meditation, vitamins, essential oils, bodywork, and positivity.
However I understand depression is more complex than that, if changing my thinking, my diet, practising mindfulness, and energy work were enough to cure depression, mine would have gone long ago. My depression is a chemical imbalance, a medical condition and like other medical conditions, sometimes medicine is required.
When you’re lost in those woods, it sometimes takes you a while to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore. Elizabeth Gilbert
Colin Wilson has written many books, from his first seminal work The Outsider at 24, to the one I’m currently reading Super Consciousness at 75. His life’s passion has been to understand consciousness through the examination of the great writers.
Why were the existentialists so dark and nihilistic? Why did the romantics, after discovering a world of beauty and love, invariably die to suicide and alcoholism?
Wilson suggests that many artists and writers experience glimpses into another consciousness, a place of such sublime beauty that everyday life seems, by comparison, depressingly bleak and dull. He cites the poems of W H Auden as conveying what he terms ‘life failure’ the sense that all the life force has simply gone out of a person, all the feeling, the passion, the oomph. It’s a rather neat description of depression, isn’t it?
It’s no use raising a shout.
No, Honey, you can cut that right out.
I don’t want any more hugs;
Make me some fresh tea, fetch me some rugs.
Here am I, here are you: But what does it mean?
What are we going to do?
W H Auden
Wilson had much to do with Abraham Maslow – who wrote extensively on peak experiences – but unlike Maslow who believed these experiences were random and out of our control, Wilson was sure that there was a way to create the environment for these experiences to occur.
I tend to agree. While depression is undeniably a chemical and genetic illness, there are, albeit rare, cases where depression has been cured by a spiritual awakening, Eckhart Tolle being the example that springs to mind. Tolle had a spiritual experience at the depths of his depression that not only transformed him, but resulted in many books that have given hope and comfort to many other people.
While I am very grateful to live in a time where I can take medication to alleviate my depressive symptoms, I don’t necessarily equate that with a solution to the underlying problem. Having experienced the states of both ‘life failure’ and ‘super consciousness’ that Wilson and Tolle and many others like William James write about, I want to investigate this more.
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. Rainer Maria Rilke
Wilson writes that the ingredient lacking in ‘life failure’, that is so obviously present in ‘super consciousness’ is feeling. Now, I know folks may jump at me here, depression is full of horrible feelings, but hang on a tick. The feeling he refers to is that sense of feeling a part of all of consciousness, all of life, a feeling of connection. Depression, for me, is the complete opposite of that, it’s like someone has cut the cord to that connection. He also says a key factor is ‘absorption’ – in the sense of being truly engrossed in something we love, for me it would be writing.
These ingredients – or the lack thereof – speak to me of the heart chakra. The connectedness, the deep feeling states, and the love and deep absorption in actions that are ‘close to our hearts.’
Depression for me is associated with lethargy and a lack of will to power. As such I associate it very much with a weak or inactive solar plexus chakra. The solar plexus also governs the intellect, and to me there is no denying that depression is, initially, an illness of the intellect.
During my intensive chakradance work as part of training to be a facilitator, I had some intense experiences with this chakra. Since then I feel my inner fire has been fully ignited and by tapping into that fire, I can produce a state of energy and vibrancy which can override my natural inclination to inaction and depression.
Now, I am not for one moment suggesting I have a cure for depression, Like all medical conditions I recommend expert medical help. I do believe that there are ways to help the energy body become more resilient. For myself, depression is intricately tied to being a deep thinker and highly sensitive empathetic person, as such I am susceptible to other people’s emotions and indeed the emotions of the world as I empathise with the horrors occurring on a daily basis.
In the past, I thought suppressing this “dark side” of my personality was the way. Attempting to distract myself with happy thoughts and gratitude – which are valid practices in and of themselves, not a cure for depression. I realise now, that denial makes it worse, what I seek now, is integration.
“Depression'” means literally “being forced downwards”… When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me, for in excessu affectus [in an excess of affect or passion] Nature reverses herself… Anyway that is what I would do. What others would do is another question, which I cannot answer. But for you too there is an instinct either to back out of it or to go down to the depths. But no half-measures or half-heartedness. C G Jung
In Jungian psychology the shadow is the part of self we try to deny but that must be integrated for wholeness. Depression has been my life-long shadow. Yet I see how it has taught me. Without depression I would not have empathy with the pain of others. Without depression I would not have spent long periods alone, deep in thought in a quest to better understand myself and my place in this world. Without depression I would not have sought with such hunger the words of the great writers and poets and musicians, whose soothing words salved my aching soul.
It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me. Stephen Fry
I need to be careful between the discussion of depression, as in clinical, and a broader sense of ennui or existential despair… I have both so I find it tricky. My friend says depression is not really the shadow, as the shadow is part of our normal self. Feeling bad and down isn’t necessarily a pathology, whereas clinical depression is. Similarly stress and anxiety are entirely normal and necessary responses to circumstance, but an anxiety disorder is a pathology.
The recognition and acknowledgement of my depression, the fact that it does co-exist in me with a very sparkly, bright personality is a good place to start. When I tried to ‘white light’ my depression away, to suppress and deny it, I got sicker. It is vital for me to integrate all parts of my being, to let go of the idea that the sparkly persona is preferable, to embrace myself as a whole self.
The realization of the shadow is inhibited by the persona. To the degree that we identify with a bright persona, the shadow is correspondingly dark. Thus shadow and persona stand in a compensatory relationship, and the conflict between them is invariably present in an outbreak of neurosis. The characteristic depression at such times indicates the need to realize that one is not all one pretends or wishes to be. Maxson J McDowell
So I need to make peace with my existential angst, to welcome it home and offer it a seat at the table with all my other archetypes of self, to hear its wisdom and balance out its rampaging, ravaging pain with other aspects of my being.
This is where meditation and energy work are, quite frankly, da bomb.
Connecting with the earth, the sky and my heart – using meditation techniques like the one I described in my last post – connects me to a deep and abiding source of energy and love. Every time I meditate, dance, pray, chant, or visualise light around me or others, I tap into this ancient wisdom.
My preference is to keep my body as clean of man-made substances as possible, including medication. But there is a point when that becomes foolhardy. Western medicine has saved many lives, that other therapies might have lost, and vice versa. It’s important to me to be open-minded to all therapeutic modalities.
Therapy in-and-of itself can be a mindfulness practice, where you bring your full attention for an hour each week to what is expressing itself in your body and your mind. Lodro Rinzler
It’s not that the medication has taken my depression away, but it has alleviated the symptoms to the point where I can function. To the point where I can read, and focus in meditation and dance, and write and talk. So for now, I take my medication both medical and energetic – and I thank my lucky stars that depression hasn’t taken me out, because boy has it come close at times.
And there’s nothing on my medicine packet to say any of this energetic and meditation stuff is contra-indicated, so if you haven’t already, maybe give it a try.
The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud – the obstacles of life and its suffering… The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life… Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one. Goldie Hawn
Affirmations on depression (adapted from Therese Borchard’s article on Every Day Health)
I am valued even when I’m not productive.
I am loved despite my sadness.
I am not unwell because of a lack of effort or a failure at adjusting faulty thoughts.
I am appreciated even when I can’t contribute much.
I am needed even though I may feel worthless.
I am separate from my depression.
I am not any less of a person because certain people can’t understand my illness.
I have persevered and persevered and can celebrate my tenacity.
I am much more than my opinions of myself.
My brain is my friend.
My pain won’t last forever.
I am resilient.
I am a silent warrior.
I am okay where I am right now.