Depression as a friend (updated)

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
– “The Sound of Silence”, Simon and Garfunkel

Let me preface this by saying that I have never suffered from long term depression, depression that lasted years — unless you count the years of misery that preceded my leaving the religion of my birth.  Okay, yeah, I should probably count that.  Since then, I have experienced long periods of depression in the winter and shorter bouts of depression during the warmer months.  Also, what I call “depression” is rarely debilitating.  I still get out of bed, eat, go to work and so on, although the these activities are impacted when I am depressed.  What helps me survive these periods is my Pagan and Jungian belief that depression, while unpleasant, is not bad.

Over at his blog, Teo Bishop has written a post about what we do when we are “stuck in the winter” of our lives.  Teo’s post is worth reading — as much for what he says about daily personal spiritual practice as anything — as are the comments, many from people who suffer from long-term depression.  One thing that I have learned from the pagan paradigm is that the “fallow tides” of life are unavoidable.  In fact, not only is it not possible to avoid them, but we shouldn’t try to.  The dark times in our lives are part of life.  Our psychic lives are no more meant to be all “light and sweetness” than than any other part of the living world.  This recognition helps me weather these fallow periods with a measure of grace.  I suspect it also shortens their length, although it is difficult to say.   I believe that, if I were to resist these periods, that I might be able to delay them, but not forever, and they would return with a vengeance.

My religion of origin, Mormonism, is what I call a “religion of light”.  It eschews darkness in all forms, including depression and any form of unhappiness.  Happiness, to Mormons, is a sign of grace.  It means that you are living your life according to God’s plan and the Church’s rules.  If you are unhappy, it means you are doing something wrong; it means you are sinning.  It is no surprise then that Mormons eschew psychotherapy, which they see as a poor substitute for “living the gospel”.  Going to therapy would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.  This creates a Catch-22 for many Mormons because Mormon dogma encourages a kind of perfectionism which leads to depression.  Just imagine Pleasantville and you wouldn’t be too far off.  This is why Utah ranks number one in depression (also suicide) [see also this link] and why Utah Valley is sarcastically called “Happy Valley” — because so many people are taking Prozac.

Like Pagans, Jungians believe that depression is not something to be resisted.   Jung wrote that all neurosis (in which we would include depression) has a meaning and a purpose.  (CW 4.415).  He writes:

“Only if we understand and accept the neurosis as our truest and most precious possession can we be sure of avoiding stagnation and of not succumbing to rigidity and neurotic subterfuge. In the neurosis is hidden one’s worst enemy and best friend.”

(CW 10.359)

“We should not try to ‘get rid’ of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is. We should even learn to be thankful for it, otherwise we pass it by and miss the opportunity of getting to know ourselves as we really are. A neurosis is truly removed only when it has removed the false attitude of the ego. We do not cure it–it cures us. A man is ill, but the illness is nature’s attempt to heal him.”

(CW 10.361)

Post-Jungian, James Hillman, argues that therapeutic attempts to eliminate depression echo the Christian myth of resurrection, but have the unfortunate effect of demonizing soulful state of being:

“Depression is still the Great Enemy. More personal energy is expended in manic defenses against, diversions from, and denials of it than goes into other supposed psychopathological threats to society: psycho- pathic criminality, schizoid breakdown, addictions. As long as we are caught in cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology.

“Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul.  Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life.  It moistens the dry soul and dries the wet.  It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness.  It reminds of death.  The true revolution (in behalf of soul) begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression.  Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor theologizing it – but discovering the consciousness and depths it wants.  So begins the revolution on behalf of the soul.”

“Re-Visioning Psychology” (1975).  I can’t think of a better example of the “theologizing” of depression than Mormonism.

David Miller compares depressive states to the “dark night of the soul” in the apophatic mystical tradition and concludes:

“Could it be that the epidemic psychological depression in North America may be a concealed wish for spirituality, but not spirituality in the sense of conventional positive, literalistic religion, nor in the sense of a New Age spiritual transcendence of darkness? Could it be that the malaise so many feel really wants not to be gotten rid of, not healed, but deepened and, like the neurosis, ‘accepted as our truest and most precious possession.’ (quoting Jung)”

“If this were so, then Prozac, New Age remedies, cocaine, martini lunches, counselling, meditation, therapy, religious practice, support and recovery groups, self-help literature–all, if they imagine themselves to be to the purpose of “curing” depression and low self- esteem, may well be not only ill advised, but even counter-productive …”

(“Nothing almost sees miracles! Self and no-self in psychology and religion”, lecture given as the fourth annual Jim Klee Forum lecture at West Georgia College on May 17, 1993.  A print version of the essay appeared in The Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 4-5 (1995-1996): 1-26.)

Certainly, if one is truly “stuck in winter”, this is not a condition which anyone would want to prolong.  However, as a Pagan and as a Jungian, I believe the question we should be asking ourselves is not, “How do I bring this condition to its most rapid end?”, but rather, “What is it that my soul is trying to tell me?”  I am obviously not an expert in these matters.  My own experience includes my own depression and watching many other people struggle with depression.  From I experience, I believe that the way out is not through drugs (prescribed or otherwise) or right living or positive mental attitude or visualizing white light.   Sometimes the only way out of the pit is, as Dante shows us, though the bottom.

As they say, “When you’re falling, dive!”

Monika Wikman writes in her book, Pregnant Darkness: Alchemy and the Rebirth of Consciousness, 

“Our deepest darknesses are pregnant with incredible life energy.

“Cultivating a living relationship with the mysteries of the psyche and psychoid depends on our ability to of into the darkness, dim the light of the ego, and attend to what appears.  We descend into the darkness voluntarily when we meditate or engage in any kind of spiritual practice, dream work, active imagination, shamanic journeying, creative endeavor, and so on.  We descend involuntarily through depression and crises, such as health problems, loss of love, loss of position, and so on. [...]

both of these paths, the active one where we court the soul, and the one in which crisis pulls us into the psyche, can lead us to the source of transformation and renewal.

Is it possible then that depression can truly be our friend? our guide? and “source of transformation and renewal”?

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  • LaurenF

    “Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution (in behalf of soul) begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor theologizing it – but discovering the consciousness and depths it wants. So begins the revolution on behalf of the soul.”

    The first time I read this post, I thought “Mmmm, maybe, I suppose. But that’s not been my experience.” Then I read through it again, and noted particularly the paragraph I quoted above. And then I thought, “Bull. Effing. Shit.” Or something similar. Refuge? Gravity? Weight? No. I went in to get treated for depression because I Could. Not. Stand it anymore. I spent twenty years buying into the “avoid medication, you’re just muting your own soul” crap and thought I was over it. I wasn’t.

    I have a number of friends who also struggle with depression and associated conditions, who have been a tremendous help as I start this. Far from being counter-productive, one has even theorized that had she been able to get effective pharmaceutical treatment earlier in life, she wouldn’t have progressed from simple depression to bipolar.

    I don’t think you meant to minimize depression. But you pretty much did, you and everybody you quoted above. Just take this:

    “From my experience, I believe that the way out is not through drugs (prescribed or otherwise) or right living or positive mental attitude or visualizing white light. Sometimes the only way out of the pit is, as Dante shows us, though the bottom.”

    What the HELL is that supposed to mean, exactly? How does one go through this theoretical bottom? And go back to the first section I quoted, about not jerking out of it, being caught in it, suffering through, etc. So what ARE you supposed to do? Discover the consciousness and depths it wants. Right. Talk about a meaningless collection of words!

    Like I said, my attitude toward depression used to match yours pretty closely, from the sound of it (except cobbled together, as opposed to fed by Jung). No more. I’m sick of being useless. That’s what depression does. It doesn’t give you magical wisdom and insight. It doesn’t transform or renew you. It’s not a winter that you move through to spring, it is a quicksand pit that you move through to drowning. It cripples you, and slowly increases its effects day by day, all the while the society you live in either tells you it’s not happening, it’s not that bad, or that you should just accept it because depression is natural and it will make you a deeper, more soulful person.

    Screw that. If you need meds? Take meds. If you need therapy, get therapy.

    I think you and the voices you quoted may possibly be mixing up actual depression with “not being manically happy all of the time”.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Lauren:

      Thank you for your response. I’ve actually been waiting for someone to respond to this post as you have, someone who has experience with debilitating depression. I draw your attention to the beginning of my post where I was careful to distinguish what I have personally experienced as mild and temporary depressive moods from what you describe as clinical depression:

      “Let me preface this by saying that I have never suffered from long term depression, depression that lasted years … I have experienced long periods of depression in the winter and shorter bouts of depression during the warmer months. Also, what I call “depression” is rarely debilitating. I still get out of bed, eat, go to work and so on, although the these activities are impacted when I am depressed.”

      I agree 100% with you that there is a world of difference between clinical, long-term depression and “not being manically happy all the time”. And it was precisely to the confusion of the two that I addressed my post. The culture I was raised in and, to a lesser extent I think, American culture generally, confuse the two as you have suggested. As I said in my post:

      “Our psychic lives are no more meant to be all “light and sweetness” than than any other part of the living world.”

      But neither, on the other hand, are we meant to dwell in a perpetual winter. For those who are so stuck, I agree they should do whatever it takes to break out of it. My post was not addressed to that issue, but rather to the ordinary and natural cycles of emotion which may be mistaken for pathology, either by a religion with an over-emphasis on light or by a medical culture which pathologizes the natural and then seeks to “cure” us of it with drugs. But this should not be mistaken for a denial that medication can be beneficial to many who truly suffer.

      Having said that, I am suspicious of drug therapy in any case where it is used in isolation from other therapeutic modalities, including but not limited to psychotherapy. I have seen too many miserable people who are medicated for depression to believe that drugs can be a panacea.

      You do not say in your response whether medication has helped you, but I sincerely hope you are finding balance and wholeness through through whatever method you choose.

      • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

        As an example of what I am describing, one of the deepest depressions I experienced was when an uncle of mine, who had been almost like a big brother, committed suicide. But I allowed myself time and space to grieve and came out of it in a very gradual and natural way feeling healed. Had I fought the depressive mood, tried to talk myself out of it or denied the tragedy of his death, I suspect it would still haunt me today. I had no guarantee that I would come out of it, but I had faith in the cycle.

      • LaurenF

        Oh, sorry about that. It actually has made such a difference to me that it doesn’t occur to me that everybody can’t just see into my mind and realise it! I should have mentioned that yes, this is the first time that the fog has really fully lifted in years. One of the hard parts of having resisted medication for so long is that, as the doctors say, the idea is “to get you back to 100%”. Except I have no baseline anymore!

        (I probably should have started meds, oh, 17 years ago. I thought I was fine after high school especially and then after college. You know, except for the terrifying social anxiety and lack of interest in loved hobbies and difficulty finding any motivation at all to do my job. I thought I was just shy and lazy. Since starting the medication, it’s as though I was walking around in fog for years and it’s starting to clear finally. It’s not always painless, since concepts and problems that I’d just decided not to think about are resurfacing, but I don’t particularly mind that since for once I feel like there is… not hope, since I never really felt hopeless before. Something.)

        I think the first time I read it through, the paragraph that provided the coloring for me was your preface piece. That’s why my first response was “Mmm, maybe, but I’m not sure…” It seemed you were keeping the two separate, but as I’ve just discovered, sometimes it can be very hard to tell the difference between when you’re ok and when you’re not. I think also perhaps we have two (at least) definitions of depression in our culture now. One being the clinical type, and another being something else that would be really nice if we used another word for – melancholy, perhaps? The problem is that it can get very hard to tell which definition is meant (close to the same problem scientists have with the word “theory”, where for laypeople it means “just a vague idea” and for scientists it means “solidly tested empirically based model”).

        So then I started re-reading the post backwards, and hit the two paragraphs from James Hillman and suddenly got all snarly. HIS bits sound like somebody who has no experience with severe depression or any other mental disorder except observation from the outside, who has no interest in actually figuring out what’s really going on but is instead just interested in how he can twist the actual people to fit his theory instead of the other way around. Of course, those two paragraphs are all I know of him, so he really could be quite different.

        Ok, I’m tired of thinking now, and I realised I should have put this after your other comment because I had a thought about that one too. So I’m going there now.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          “I think also perhaps we have two (at least) definitions of depression in our culture now. One being the clinical type, and another being something else that would be really nice if we used another word for – melancholy, perhaps?”

          Actually, I was just thinking about that question this morning and I thought of “melancholy” also. Another might me “acedia” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia), although it has overtones of sin.

          “So then I started re-reading the post backwards, and hit the two paragraphs from James Hillman and suddenly got all snarly. …”

          I agree that Hillman’s essay is nothing like a complete analysis of depression.

      • LaurenF

        Oh, it went after there anyway! Oh well.

        In the situation you describe here, it doesn’t sound to me like a psychiatrist WOULD try to fight that mood, with medication or whatever. When there’s very clearly some external force or event causing the depression, then the key to getting around it is to deal with the external force, not change yourself. And as screwy as our society is about grief, we at least seem to have generally grasped the concept that it can’t be papered over or washed away, but must be dealt with naturally.

        So I think the time and space to grieve in this case IS the way of fighting the depression, as it were – not just trying to keep yourself in a good mood day to day, but to get back to the point where you feel whole again.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          I agree, our society has a better handle on grief than depression. Although, depression can be caused by grief. I disagree that we can draw a clear dividing line between external and internal causes though. There is no way to “deal with” the external force at issue, death, other than by changing oneself. I think what you were referring to was situational depression versus non-situational (chemical? biological?) depression. The former tending to be more transitory.

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