Writing is an action that, when it does its job, expresses the unique vision or experience of the writer. How gratifying that in sharing this closely held experience of “melancholia,” I’m once again reminded that it is not unique to me.
The subject of depression resonates with people around the world. I have received many comments in the last few days that humble me with the depth of people’s stories and their expressions of goodwill. I invite you to read these if you ever feel alone in your own melancholia—or want to understand someone else’s.
Many of us have questioned the words “depression” and “disorder” because melancholia of some degree is a universal human reality. I do not think of myself as a Person With Depression. After many years of wrestling with the definitions, finally I think of myself as a human being with individual needs. At the same time, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend clinical diagnosis, and medication, to anyone who wants it—and in particular to anyone thinking of taking irreversible action. This kind of melancholia is not to be taken lightly.
And so. Today and tomorrow I hope to finish what I started, by offering you a list of lessons that support me. Writing this is challenging and draining—but rewarding, because this is a way I can put some meaning into my history. If even one person can glean hope or practical usefulness from this, the writing will have been worth it.
Lesson Number One. Learn the truth about suffering. In our western cultures, we somehow get the idea that if we aren’t gleefully happy, there’s something wrong. We’re “disordered.” Words like “depression” and “disorder” require a standard against which to measure moods. What might that “normal” standard be, and who gets to decide?
Philosophical and spiritual teachers throughout history—as well as literature, the arts, and probably even science—tell us that suffering, not glee, is fundamental to the human condition.
At my daughter’s public school, “grade inflation” means that kids expect an “A”, or top mark, for average performance. They don’t realize that for most people, “C”, or average, is the norm. I feel a kind of similar “mood expectation inflation” has permeated our culture. As one of my readers said, “…we always feel the pressure to smile, showing all our teeth and screaming and shouting, proving we're all having ‘fun’ all the time.”
For me, the message that I “should” be happy itself generates despair by encouraging self-judgment even in the face of garden-variety sadness. I have fought my depression way too much—and what has fighting ever gotten anyone?
Along with several readers and other bloggers, I walue the writings of the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Pema has this to say about suffering:
The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move.”
[Pema Chodron,When Things Fall Apart, p. 40]
The Christian scriptures are full of references of suffering, which, if written today, might be classified as “depression.”
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil…” (Ps. 23).
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4).
As long as I run from suffering, I run from the truth—and that’s as good a definition of mental illness as any I know. For me, running from suffering causes much more suffering. That includes running from depression. It feeds compulsion and addiction. Holding out for an impossible sense of joy and happiness is a setup for disappointment of the highest magnitude.
Does this mean I don’t run any more? Not at all. I still run away every day. But slowly, gradually, I learn that I have choices.
When I turn around and look at the black dog of my suffering, the dog quiets down. Sometimes he lies down with me. Sometimes I cry tears of genuine sadness on his flank. In the process, I gradually heal. This, for me, is not a disorder. This is real life.
Lesson Number Two. Make a commitment to living. I have had two episodes of what the doctors call “major depression.” The first happened in the wake of the birth of my daughter, and the second two years later. During these times I was unable to do much more than sleep, eat, and feel. I was beset with anxiety and sleeplessness and had to let others care for me and take over my responsibilities. Thanks to family members, I never went to a hospital.
Both episodes had advance warning. They followed major life stressors. Each of them lasted a few weeks, and had a rather long healing period during which I suffered from a lot of self-judgment.
Leading up to these episodes, I came face to face with why people take their own lives. Probably, guilt over hurting my mother, and fear of leaving my child motherless, kept me from that brink.
Instead, I lived on a fence right near the brink—ever aware of the brink; ever believing it offered an “option.” It was the ultimate “shit or get off the pot” situation. Unable to live life, yet unable to leave it—this was the place of deepest suffering for me. It was my “valley of the shadow of death.”
It was at a time like this, over nine years ago, that I received a life-changing message. A trusted counselor who was helping me through my second episode told me some appalling news. He said:
“You have to make a real commitment to living.”
At first I couldn’t believe it. Up until this time he’d been guiding me in day-to-day actions I needed to take. This was the first word about the long-term requirements for my recovery. I thought something along the lines of “What? You mean it’s all up to me?”
That is what he meant. But now I understand that what he really meant was that no human being, no medication, no prayer could give me a life if I wasn’t on board. It’s only by a choice of mine that I could back away from that abyss, or from the purgatory of choicelessness. Although it seemed cruel, I now know I desperately needed to hear those words.
It bothered me for days. I am a person who, left to my own devices, shuns commitment. Still, I comprehended that he wouldn’t say this if he didn’t believe I could do it. I asked him if he believed I could do it. He said yes. I asked my husband. He said yes. I asked myself. I said no. But I owed it to my daughter and others who love me to try it. I had nothing whatsoever to lose.
That was nine years ago, and I haven’t had another episode. I may, of course, have one. Today I’ve learned how to see when I’m starting to get too tired or worn out and leading into such a place, and to take measures to correct it. I’m learning many things, every day. Tomorrow—if I’m up to it—I’ll post one more time about some of those lessons.
All text is copyrighted by the Blue Kimono, 2009.