I think it’s a poverty of the English language that we use the same word to describe how a 5-year-old feels when his baseball game gets canceled because it’s raining and the way someone feels who’s about to jump off a bridge because life has become unlivable and untenable.
– Andrew Solomon
I never heard of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness until today, when I listened to the above-linked author interview on NPR. Solomon’s quote brought me back to a time in my own life, soon after Darkness Visible was first published, when I attended a healing ritual led by a highly respected individual at my very first Pagan conference. The room had close to eighty people in it, and after setting the sacred space, the facilitator performed triage to ascertain who was seeking healing, and what they needed help with, so that the energy workings could be organized.
For me to even speak the name of my problem aloud takes an incredible gathering of will, but when it was my turn, I admitted that I suffer from depression.
“Oh,” she said with a smile, “we’ll do you at the end, with ‘warm fuzzies.'”
What ‘warm fuzzies’ entailed, after a couple of hours of working to heal people with cancer, broken bones, chronic pain, and other life-altering diseases, was a group hug and a singalong, the words to which it seemed everyone in the room but me knew.
If you’ve suffered from depression, you are not surprised that I was crestfallen to have my malady so glibly dismissed. If you’ve been depressed, which I describe as having a terrible event in your life precipitate a period of near-paralyzing negative emotion, you may be puzzled. Being depressed, sometimes called “major depression,” is a serious affair, one that starts from a trauma like death, divorce, or something else from which we all generally heal; sooner if we have proper support. Depression (“clinical depression” in common parlance, which already suggests it’s not as much of a problem because of the lack of the word “major”) is not something that is assuaged by support that comes from the community, like group hugs or therapy or venting to friends or being reminded that people care about you. As an animist, I believe that’s because depression is a spirit, while being depressed is an emotional state.
Having been depressed and gotten through it, when one encounters someone in depression there is a sense that they, too, can “get over it,” and that this process can be facilitated with love (as described above) or by getting tough and explaining to the victim that you know it’s hard, but we don’t get given more burdens than we can bear, or that the person needs to stop feeling sorry for emself. I recognize that people who have been depressed have indeed shown remarkable inner strength, and that the emotional support received by the community surely helps in recovering from tragedy, and that because the outward symptoms are similar this is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but it is the wrong one.
Depression is a malevolent spirit which feeds on the strength of the person it rides. It works to undermine each and every tool which might be used to defeat it. What a person in depression experiences isn’t exactly pain, insofar as pain is a sensation, something of the body, but reactions to it are the same as what one might do in response to pain.
- Community values are undermined by antisocial behaviors like argumentativeness, nitpickiness, being demanding, curt, or cross. The result is often isolation.
- Personal strengths are sapped: self-confidence is overwhelmed with doubt, sociability with intense shyness, concentration and creativity with a thick, mental fog. At its worst, depression can weigh down the ridden so heavily that e cannot get out of bed. This serves to intensify isolation and feelings of uselessness and powerlessness.
- Together, the above can make it hard to keep any but the most solitary and menial of jobs.
- Spiritual connections can be completely gutted. Why perform magic if you don’t believe it will work? Why pray or make offerings if the gods would allow you to suffer so? Are there even gods? Get the ridden to this point, and the spirit of depression can feed at is leisure.
What else can it be, if not a spirit? Can a mere illness, or even a severe emotional trauma, work so tirelessly to ensure its own survival? Victims carry a sense of shame which silences pleas for help, and that can’t be blamed entirely on society, which creates stigma by mixing personal experiences of depression with the confusion over the two sense of the word. And yes, I lay that very confusion at the feet of depression itself.
The ridden are often given respite, which tells me that they must recharge if they are to feed the spirit. While suicide is strongly associated with depression, I think it is not the desired goal, any more than a flea desires to kill by spreading plague.
I do not know what makes someone vulnerable to being ridden by depression, but judging by the things it drives from its victims’ lives, it does not thrive in an environment of community support, creativity, and religion. However, therapy and medication — even self-medication — don’t seem to be enough. And as well-intentioned “warm fuzzies” may be, they aren’t enough, either. As we move into and through the darkest time of year for most of the human population, perhaps it is time to reimagine treatment for depression. It must be holistic, treating the spirit as well as the mind and body, and it must never be confused with being depressed, for all it appears the same, for the healing powers of humanity are perfectly cut out for the latter, and are no defense against the former.
I can barely write this post, for even now I am convinced it will result in mockery, or pity, or avoidance. Its spirit seethes within me, as it has for decades, but today, I shall overcome, if only for a moment.