For 38 years I have lived with a depressive disorder. It’s never been bad enough for institutional admission or attempts at suicide, but severe enough to cause deep misery for days on end. No hope, no light, no desire to go on … certainly more than “being down” and “having a bad day” (as well-meaning voices suggest), nor something to “snap out off” or “get over with.” During such bouts, I’m not easy company and, on occasion and with impatience, people close-by have called me “moody” and “self-absorbed;’ others have given me a wide berth (fearing contamination?).
Over time I’ve tried every therapeutic approach under the sun (short of a lobotomy), driven by the belief that it was either my fault or something fixable if only I’d tried hard enough. I gained some valuable insights into my emotional make-up along the way, even took a degree in counselling without wanting to practice it on others, but depression continued to keep a tight lid on my joie de vivre.
I resisted medication for years until my GP persuaded me with the argument that patients with chronic illnesses (such as diabetes) take theirs as a matter of course–without having to hide the fact. As a result of a steady low-dose I can now experience, for the first time in memory, a sense of well-being and wholeness. Mood storms have become waves, with only occasional flare-ups; side effects of a lowered libido and weight gain are part of the deal. A sustained spiritual practice, including meditation and being of service, contributes to calmer seas within. It makes sense to live alone.
In this context, one of the shining lights has been Parker J. Palmer, a man of Quaker sensibilities and a pioneer in bringing spirituality into the mainstream of education. During an interview he was asked: How does depression affect the way you are today?
What I learned during depression is that the faculties I had usually depended upon were useless. My intellect was useless—this was not something you can think your way out of. My emotions were dead. Depression is not feeling really, really bad; it’s really feeling nothing at all. That’s what’s frightening about it: it’s a void, an emptiness. My ego was shattered, so there’s no ego strength to pull you through. And my will was nonexistent, except for putting one foot in front of the other very slowly to try to start walking into a day. Intellect, emotions, ego and will are the things we normally count on, but I couldn’t count on them when I was in deep depression. . . .
In terms of the larger impact or additional impact of depression, you learn that you have in yourself not only the forces of light and life, but also the forces of darkness and death, and that’s an important thing to know. Each of us contains multitudes. And if we walk around thinking “I am only light and life, and it’s those [other] folks who are creating the darkness and death,” we start engaging in enemy-making, and are drawn inevitably, I think, towards some form of violence. Which is really about our refusal to embrace and acknowledge those forces in ourselves. . . .
To read the interview in full, click here. images: (top): “On the threshold of eternity,” oil on canvas, painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in the last year of his life; (bottom): soundstrue.com.