Mystic Mondays October 24, 2016
“For the soul, depression is an initiation, a rite of passage.”
The above quote is from Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul, a book that has transformed how I think about the nature of diseases, especially related to mental health. I want to state right up front that today’s post is not a rejection of the assumptions that feed the mental health profession. In fact, I have been the beneficiary of many high-skilled therapists and clinical psychologists. I am quite sure that more than one therapist has looked at me and said, “Oh good, looks like I’ll have regular work for awhile!”
Yet I have also discovered that emotional states that the DSM-V (a therapist’s diagnostic tool and bible) might have called a disorder and an unwelcome visitor have often been more friend than foe for me. Three times over the last twenty years I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression in addition to the more sweeping diagnosis of adjustment disorder that accompanies life’s tricky transitions.
In many ways my earlier experiences with depression and anxiety have become gifts in disguise. Like a bad cold coming on I have been able to recognize the subtle signs of depression and anxiety before their full impact leaves me bed-ridden (or just lethargic and emotionally paralyzed). In recent years I have been able to take action before the I-can’t-climb-out-of-this-dark-hole place overwhelms me like it has in the past.
Which tells me something. The depression and anxiety that I have encountered feels less like a disorder and more like a message from my soul that something is not right. Either I am feeling trapped by my circumstances, fearful of my future, or just don’t have the right frame of mind to see and feel gratitude for the life that is presently before me. I don’t want to dismiss in any way those who have fallen into the pit of despair and depression. I don’t want to suggest that just thinking better thoughts is like drinking a magic potion. People who suggest that these “disorders” are just in the mind often multiply the feelings of despair for the person feeling them.
But I also want to say that in every case when depression and anxiety has grabbed a hold of me the final answer has always been either a change in my circumstances, a change in my plan, or a shift in my thinking. The depression has never just gone away like a flu bug that has to run its course. The two times I have been on medication I was thankful for the momentary boost, but the lasting solution was always a shift in my life or my perspective. Recovery for me was never “getting over” my anxiety, but was moving through it.
Which brings me back to Thomas Moore’s quote, “For the soul, depression is an initiation, a rite of passage.” I do think there is a place for the diagnosis of clinical depression and I do think that some people seem more genetically predisposed to anxiety and depression than others. But I also think we often treat depression and anxiety as a disorder when we should be treating it as a “shout out” from our soul. I wonder how often depression and anxiety are just signals that our soul is yearning for something that we can’t quite put into words yet. Moore makes the case in his book that we in the West often look for cures when what we should be doing is offering more care–thus, the title of his book Care of the Soul.
I resonate with his line that depression is like a rite of passage. Whether my depressions have been the two-year variety or the three-day variety I have discovered the same pattern–that is, that I seem to move through them like a baby in the birth canal. It’s uncomfortable, it’s cramped, it can be suffocating, and it’s scary as hell. Yet every depression has resulted in an emergence into a new world–sometimes significant like a job change or a move and sometimes minute like a slight shift in perspective, giving myself a little more grace, or reminding myself to just calm the hell down.
Depression and anxiety can be very scary. I know. They have been irregular visitors in my life for nearly thirty years. But I am learning to treat them more like friends being real with me than like viruses attacking my mental health. Either way it hurts. But the latter assumes that when we can cure ourselves of these emotional states we’ll return to our former feel good state. The former assumes that we are just being unceremoniously goaded to a new place and a new perspective.
None of this negates the need for a good therapist, psychologist and, sometimes, psychiatrist. Believe me, again. I know! But what it does is remind us that depression and anxiety may not be the enemy we often assume. They may be more like the brutally honest friend who invites us to take stock of our lives and make subtle or significant changes.
I will not disagree with any therapist who challenges this based on their clinical experience. Nor will I try to convince any person who is currently experiencing depression and/or anxiety to see their disorder in a friendlier light. I will only say this–that every bout with these two characters has led me every time to either a change in my life circumstances or a change in my perspective. Pills have helped, but it wasn’t the getting over that finally did it. It was the going through.
Depression as a rite of passage? Moore might be on to something here.