Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? ~ Keats Have you ever woken up in the night with the feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest, squeezing the life out of you? Or maybe your heart takes off like a wild mustang, thumping for all it’s worth until you think it will beat right out of your chest? Animal metaphors are apt – these are feelings that make you think you’re wild. Of course, there’s the old standby feeling, No-appetite. Or how about Too-tired-to-get-out-of-bed? And then we have everyone’s perennial favorite, Couldn’t-sleep-if-my-life-depended-on-it. Those are oldies but goodies! When every day is a long march through grey mist that obscures all light and hope, then you can be pretty sure you’ve entered that vast land called Depression which is why last weekend’s article in the Times entitled “Depression’s Upside” caught my eye: the existence of credible research that could provide explanation and justification for years of mental cave dwelling would go a long way in eliminating any regret for time wasted. The author plows through various theories and talks with erudite folks to determine whether “rumination [that strange loop known so well to depressed people everywhere] is a useless kind of pessimism” or “does it have a purpose” to provide “insights” or “lessons learned from mistakes.” He says the research “suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose.” He quotes Smart People from a variety of disciplines – Darwin! Keats (as above)!
– until I started to feel like my time in Depression was equal parts quixotic jaunt and brutal but necessary psychological fire walk. I repudiate the notion that suffering makes us better people. We can evolve by keeping open to the range of human emotion and experience (even the shitty parts, like depression), but the glory of martyrdom can be a fancy way of justifying staying stuck in the mud of misery. It’s the staying stuck – fighting it – that causes suffering. Oh, depression is real, to be sure, and its pain is teeth-rattling, but it won’t yield lessons, in my humble opinion, unless we open up to it, process it, and move through it. I see many of us getting caught in one of two traps along the journey: 1) Conceding to a diagnosis of Depression can feel like an admission of defeat. We are capable, smart, strong, and clever people! Depression is a weakness – especially if we endure it with the aid of psychotropic drugs – and we just know we can muscle our way out of it! At a certain point, though, this approach is like fighting the rising tide; it’s the kind of grasping and wanting that leads to true suffering as those calm, collected Buddhists tell us. When we stop shadowboxing with despair, we can move up and out of it. 2) We can wrap ourselves in depression likes it’s a warm blanket. The darkness becomes a familiar, if not entirely comfortable place, and change can be alarming. And in the depths of depression, we only have to cycle through those muffled feelings whereas true evolution requires an openness to the sharp pricks of trickier emotions. Easier to stay put. The New York Times’ ended its discussion on the “upside” of depression thus: “The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.” It’s another way of saying, “lean into the spear.” Whether the scientific research has yielded a definitive answer on this or not, my experience showed me that mindfulness and compassion for the process led me up and out of it (with help!), to better and brighter days. As one researcher quoted in the article said, “This is a very delicate subject. I don’t want to say something reckless.” But it is my fondest wish that those of you who are in the midst of this dark patch will know it can be part of your evolutionary journey with some help and a lot of courage to turn your face to even the faintest light of hope. *Of course, don’t take my word for it – I don’t even play a doctor on TV. I just lived in the Land of Depression for a very long time, so I’m familiar with many of it’s dead-end streets. And you? Have you ever experience depression? Was it a “learning experience?” or was it just like a nightmare?