Is depression a spiritual problem?
When my brother died suddenly in 2008, I was shocked and bereaved, but what I didn’t see at the time was that my state of mind had opened up a giant crack though which a deep depression slipped and built its nest. Feeling badly gave way to doing badly and until I was able to admit to myself that I was seriously ill I thought I was going senile, or mad. Before the airplane of my psyche crashed into the mountain (a mountain that at one point I was aiming for) I pulled back hard on the stick, just missing it (and luckier than my brother, who had drunk himself to death.)
Sick as I was, being a modern man I reasonably expected to be entirely cured. After all, when I had had my appendix out or had had the flu, I had recovered profoundly and completely. The drugs I took (and I was taking a lot) and the therapy I underwent arrested my tailspin. Since a sense of health (I find) is a matter of one state relative to another, the new strength and energy I felt exhilarated me. I became very productive. Even better, I found it to be very easy to be the kind of person I wanted to be with others. This “ease” infused my spirituality. I can almost say that it was like recapturing the state of mind that I had known when I had had my conversion experience. Being a modern man, I saw this as progress towards a new peaceful maturity.
I relapsed about five months ago and once again it took me by surprise. This time my psychiatrist had to almost double the drugs that I had since stopped taking; it took a lot of chemistry this time to get my undivided attention. These drugs, of course, came with significant side effects that would themselves become a problem when my current wave of depression and anxiety had passed.
My depression did pass and with its passing came my usual spurt of creative energy. Yet something had changed. I could no longer rely on the contrast between the “sick” before and the “well” after. While my confusion, madness, and self-destructiveness was not as deep as it had been before in early 2009, I have to come to terms with a new fact. I could no longer consider myself either well or sick. The contrast between these perceived states would now come moment to moment. I could no longer think in terms of a general state of being.
My therapy had taught me to bracket out my depressed feelings and to just let them wash over me like waves of nausea until they passed. But I also now knew that I could no longer expect this enemy to ever go away for good. Brother D would always be in the neighborhood, just out of sight, waiting to slap me on the back and resume our conversation. Since he was never going to go away, was there a way I could embrace him as a friend?
Depression is a spiritual problem for me, ironically because it causes me to have to fight using pure reason. There is a faith behind this reason, in that I believe that I can and should use reason to oppose the emotions that my depression makes me feel. But everything must now be sorted and weighed. Gone (for now at least) is the buoyant feeling of love that I thought I could just float in. It’s all focus all the time now and I have to now radically discount my desire to crawl away from the world. In a sense I find myself back in my undeveloped childhood again fighting between impulses and rules. My old friend Brother D forces me to live in the present. Not in some Zen way of “be here now”, but in a more primitive way of always arm wrestling with the devil.
And behind all of this my faith has changed. Being a modern man, I want to believe that attitudes precede action. In our culture, this applies to faith, creativity, and to happiness; all will be well if we can just get our mind right (first). Having done this our actions will then flow out naturally in righteous spontaneity. But Brother D causes me to focus on the now. There is no time to get my mind right first. And although he is an exhausting friend to have, like a big dog that never sleeps and always wants to play, I find that at least a little, and a little more each day, I am finding myself blessed to have him around.