Coming up for air - towards a spirituality of Depression
There can be few diseases more distressing than depression. Not alone has it both physical and mental/emotional components, but it can be notoriously difficult to diagnose. Added to that, there has always been a stigma attached to an illness that might smack of mental instability. Thankfully, due to the persistent good work of Aware, this myth is being slowly and surely eroded. These reflections are occasioned by a severe bout of depression necessitating hospitalisation experienced by this writer. Now a year later I am reviewing this experience and attempting to put some shape and meaning on it. I am attempting to plot the milestones on the road to recovery. What were the signposts that led me from the pit of despair? Yes, there were medical interventions. But there was more. There was also a stripping away of all the more superficial accretions of the ego such as worldly success whether financial or social and a re-appraisal of my ambitions. In short I began a review of my direction in life, to search for priorities that really meant something to me on a personal level.
The medical experts can give all the most learned definitions of depression, but the sufferers can only live with their experiences and hope to describe them as well and as honestly as they possibly can. Most of us resort to images to describe this journey into, and hopefully out of, this frightening experience of depression. The images commonly given by patients are experiences of being in a dark tunnel, being locked in a prison, being left to languish at the bottom of a pit, being in a desert, being lost in a thick fog or mist or being left alone on a huge empty ocean. For me the experience was literally that of being lost in a thick fog. Not alone was I lost without any direction home, but everything I saw was away in the distance behind this impenetrable fog. One of the most appealing and accurate definitions of depression I have come across is that advanced by the psychologist and psychotherapist, Dorothy Rowe who describes it as a lack of communication with the world. That is what is the most frightening aspect of this illness, the gradual withdrawal into one's own world and the inexorable retreat into the distance of the world out there. You are gradually being cut off from contact with society. In short communications are down.
The Dark Night of the Soul
I suppose if spirituality is anything it is most essentially a sense of relationship with the divine, with the source of life, with the Creator of this wonderful, if at times most painful, world. In short spirituality then is about relationship, connection and communication. Depression is the very opposite of all this. It is a sense of lostness, of discontinuity, of disconnection, of lack of all relationship, even a relationship with the self. One is shipwrecked on an infinite grey ocean with no hope of an island of release in sight. For me there were a whole two weeks of hospitalisation which I cannot remember at all. I was reminded by others, both relatives and friends and the nursing staff of the way I was during this time - totally disoriented, unable to recognize others, definitely cut off. The medical staff had assured my family that I should come through this thick fog of disconnection after this initial two week period once the drugs had 'kicked in'. They were correct in both diagnosis and prognosis. Indeed I did begin to get better, and gradually the fog did indeed lift.
It is a great consolation for me that many writers in the mystical tradition allude to darkness and fog and mist as elements through which God can be encountered. In Exodus 19 and 20 Moses goes into cloud and darkness to meet God. In this life the divine nature is not to be held or grasped. Indeed it eludes all definition. It is interesting for me that many of the mystics use some of the images alluded to above to describe the journey to God, i.e., darkness, fog, cloud and desert. I am in no way implying, I hasten to add, that an experience of depression is the same as a mystical experience or vice versa. I am merely pointing out some points of contact or similarity between the two. John of the Cross divides the spiritual journey of the soul into 'the night of the senses' and the 'night of the spirit'. The former stage, 'the night of the senses' refers to the 'death' of the senses to the objects and distractions of this world where the self concentrates its desire on God alone, rather than on any external ends. The 'night of the spirit or soul' is more frightening because the self is stripped of any remaining spiritual gratification. Psychiatrists speak of anhedonia, that is, a lack of interest in anything as one of the distinguishing characteristics of depressed people. All their former interests recede and they are left in a totally indifferent state. In a certain sense, this is a veritable death of the senses. This is an extremely frightening experience because all the pastimes and pursuits and interests which one once held so dear cease to satisfy the restless heart of the depressed. Also frightening is the lack of real contact with friends and relatives. As I said above, I in no way wish to equate mystical experience with depression or vice versa, but what I wish to stress are certain points of contact. I leave it to the experts to say more. However, on a personal level I do get great consolation from reading the mystics, the Scriptures and especially the psalms now that I am a certain distance on the road to recovery.
Trusting the Experts:
The most important milestone on the road to recovery from any illness is most certainly that of trusting the specialist. It is a definite prerequisite in recovering from a psychiatric illness. For me this was certainly a major contributory factor in my getting better. Without that trust or faith in the expertise of the specialist one is without direction. The experts refer to different types of depression: (i) reactive depression which occurs when faced with exceptional loss or profound trauma, (ii) endogenous depression which basically means depression coming from within, i.e., it is basically a chemical or biological type, (iii) manic depression which is also biological in origin and is marked by swings in mood from depression to elation or mania, and (iv) secondary depression which describes mood changes which result from an underlying medical problem e.g., depression following viral infections, glandular fever, flu etc. Mine was diagnosed under the fourth category as it followed a dreadful bout of the flu, but undoubtedly I feel now that there were other contributory factors over the years which obviously left my resistance low and consequently susceptible to viral infection. These factors I now realise were certainly stress related and the result of taking on too many responsibilities. Trusting the specialists meant taking the required medication and being involved in other ancillary therapies like workshops on meditation, creative writing, art, relaxation, music etc. Pray yes, but also take the medical treatment. We hear much about alternative medicine which to my mind is a definite myth as it writes off all too cavalierly the scientific knowledge of generations of medical research. The appropriate terminology is of course complementary medicine. It is definitely a case of 'both-and' rather than 'either-or.'
Courting the creative Muses:
There is perhaps no greater therapy than the discovery or re-discovery of the creative impulses which reside deep inside each of us. For me writing has always been a hobby, from poetry to short stories and articles for various journals. Indeed not all of my creative outpourings have seen light of day, but that really does not matter. Immediately after my release from hospital I set about writing a novel which attempted to deal in some creative way with my breakdown. Whether it gets published or not is really not at issue. It was part of the healing process, a way of coming to terms with what had happened to me. The encouragement of my medical specialist in this enterprise was also significant, as was his patient listening. There is much aggression and no little violence in today's world, and this is because people's natural creativity has been thwarted and even eclipsed by a society governed more and more by materialistic success and progress. The arts in general from music to dance to painting to theatre have all inherent within them precious doorways to the life of the soul and the spirit. It is little wonder that writing, painting and music play such an important role in various complementary therapies.
The Healing Silence of Meditation:
I have found that giving some time to meditation on a daily basis very helpful also. Real silence is a great gift. It is so much more than the mere absence of sound. Being still in the body is a necessary prerequisite to the stillness of mind and soul. Entering the sanctuary of one's innermost self can be at times daunting, but occasionally very rewarding. During my recovery it was with great gratitude that I recalled the sessions on meditation guided by William Johnston, S.J. which I had attended some years previously. His books have since been a constant source of inspiration and guidance. I have also attended courses given by some Buddhist masters of meditation also. Having said this, needless to say, I'm aware of the long tradition of Christian meditation. I also find meditating with music in the background very rewarding and relaxing. Recently I was asked to make a copy of a meditation tape for a friend of a friend who is dying from cancer. I decided to meditate while copying it. This way I felt I had forged some connection with this unknown woman. When I had finished I felt I needed to write a poem about this experience. In this way I had blended both meditation and the creative urge.
Returning to the Scriptures:
The Scriptures have always been a source of much nourishment. The psalms are always brilliant as they can mirror our many moods. Then of course there are our favourite texts from various parts of the Bible for consolation. But for the Christian the focus must always be Christ himself. One of the most obvious ways of meeting him must surely be in the Gospel stories. Who then is this Jesus for me? He is the one who reaches out to all seeking to liberate us from all that oppresses us, whether in body, mind or spirit. The Jesus I meet in the Gospels is a Jesus who seeks to reach out to me, to heal me, to establish communication with me, to listen to me. If depression is at base a lack of real communication with the world at large, spirituality is the presence of a healing communication with others, and most especially for the Christian with the person of Jesus Christ himself.
Coming up for air
The darkest moment, they say, is often before the dawn. Those of us who have at any occasion reached rock bottom in life know that when we do so we also realise that for our own good, for our own health, for our own sanity, the only way is up. It is rather like hitting the floor at the deep end of the pool. In a short while we know we will be breathing air. To come safely through this ordeal requires trust and faith in the medical profession, in our family and in our friends.
The above essay is one I wrote some seven years ago when I was in a Christian phase of being. I am now in my more Buddhist agnostic phase. I re-worked this article, leaving out all the overtly Christian allusions for an article for the Aware magazine, the main journalistic organ of the mental health organization of the same name here in Ireland. It appeared with the following title: “Coming up for air – towards a Spirituality of Depression,” art. in Aware, Spring 2003, Vol. 16, issue 1, p.3.