On Depression

Depression arises to tell you when things have gone awry, and it stops you from moving forward.

Depression derails you, certainly, but what I learned from conversing with depression is that it derails you for a reason.

Something somewhere has gone wrong, and depression’s job is to slow you down or even stop you completely so that you can attend to it.

—Karla McLaren


A great deal has been written about depression in an attempt to describe, define, analyze, explain, or categorize it. It is a difficult thing to pin down because it takes myriad forms and is experienced in varying degrees—from mild to life-threatening— and in particular ways that are unique to the individuals involved. No two people, as Andrew Solomon says, have the same depression.[1] At the same time, paradoxically, there are universal qualities to the experience of depression that can be understood as archetypal, in psychiatrist Carl Jung’s language—the journey through depression also reflects and embodies timeless truths of human experience.

There is such a bias in our culture to be happy and successful, to hold it all together, to be up and in control. Feeling depressed, then, by its very nature is considered a character flaw or a moral failure. But the truth is that sometimes it feels like everything is falling apart. “Sometimes,” in the words of Jeff Foster, “very natural energies —like sadness, anger, frustration, shame and guilt, even feelings of hopelessness and despair, even profound longings for home—just want to move in us, express in us, have their being in us.”[2] But we avoid letting it happen. Avoidance then assumes all kinds of familiar forms, like alcohol, drug, sex, or work addictions, and can take on a life of its own. Trying to make uncomfortable feelings, sensations, or thoughts go away is something we all try to do, but it usually backfires, for when we bury feelings, we bury them alive,[3] or as Jung would put it, what we resist persists. In a desperate effort to avoid the messenger that is depression, we end up feeling incredibly isolated and more desperate than ever.

As human beings, we are wired for connection. But too many people feel disconnected, within their own families, from themselves, and from a larger sense of community. “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis,” Mother Teresa once said, “but rather the feeling of not belonging.” According to a national research study in 2005, “connection” was the word people used more than any other to describe their experience of well-being.[4] The impulse to deny or hide the depressed condition—out of fear, shame, or even the belief that you have no real reason to be depressed and are therefore an ungrateful person—intensifies painful feelings of alienation. The more alone one feels, the more depressed; the more depressed, the more the pain of exile.

The roots of depression are many. Depression is a natural response to loss, both literal and figurative; it can be induced by physical illness or symptoms can develop in response to it; it can involve chemical imbalances in the brain; it results from traumatic injuries or events and in response to them; it can express thwarted desire or outrage, depending on circumstances. Personality can influence one’s disposition to depression, and depression can affect the development of one’s personality. The four temperaments is a proto-psychological theory suggesting that there are four fundamental personality types, sanguine (enthusiastic, active and social), choleric (short-tempered, fast or irritable), melancholic (analytical, wise and quiet), and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful). The Greek physician Hippocrates incorporated these temperaments into his medical theories as part of the ancient medical concept of humorism, that four bodily fluids affect human personality traits and behaviors. From the perspective of mythology, metaphor, and the life of the soul, depression can be viewed as a visit from the planet Saturn, the heavy-leaded one, sometimes depicted as an old man who bestows gravitas or seriousness. Cultural, sociological, and political forces also play a role. Generally speaking, then, depression can result from various combinations of genetic inheritance, temperament, stressful life occurrences, mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual (or lack thereof) habits, and the universal existential quandary of being human.

Because the causes are many, treatment approaches vary. In some instances, those who suffer from deficient brain levels of serotonin or dopamine may “see” more clearly with the temporary or lifelong support of antidepressant medications, like a person with vision impairment who benefits from prescription eyeglasses. The efficacy of pharmaceutical treatment as the sole approach is debatable and highly individualistic. What we know with more certainty is that because depression thrives on secrecy and denial, the cure for depression requires facing the truth of one’s circumstances. In Jung’s view, melancholy and sadness often lead to greater understanding and are a necessary catalyst for insight and awareness. Sometimes it is possible to mine the depths of one’s psyche alone, through journaling, creative artistry, or dream analysis—but this is not often the case.

We are all artists of our own lives. We shape them, as best we can, using our experience and intuition as guides. But we’re also natural liars and we get things wrong. It’s so easy for the internal commentary that forms how we live to become a forgery. Approached in a certain way, depression is a lie detector of last resort…it says: the way you’ve been living is unbearable, it’s not for you…it kicks in when I’m not listening to what I really know…If you don’t listen…it comes back and knocks you out even harder the next time, until you get the point.5

Most people with significant depression benefit from the assistance of a professional therapist and guide who can bear witness and mirror a less subjective, clearer, and more accurate view of their psychic reality. A compassionate therapist listens carefully and, more importantly, teaches you how to listen with compassion to your authentic self—this is what healing requires.

References: [1] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon - An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001), 173. [2] Jeff Foster, “Depression as a Wake-Up Call,” in Darkness Before Dawn, ed. Tami Simon (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2015), 199. [3] Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D., “Attention Toward What Arises,” in A Year of Living Mindfully/52 Quotes & Weekly Mindfulness Practices, ed. Richard Fields, PhD. (Tucson, AZ: Faces Conferences, 2012),  27. [4] Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., “Making Connection & Belonging,” in A Year of Living Mindfully/52 Quotes & Weekly Mindfulness Practices, ed. Richard Fields, PhD. (Tucson, AZ: Faces Conferences, 2012), 116. [5] Gwyneth Lewis, Sunbathing in the Rain (London: Hrper Perennial, 2006), xv.

Copyright Nina Mahaffey, MA, RN, LMFT, (2017)