Friday, August 20, 2010

In Praise of Depression

This post is inspired by a post by George Amoss about genes, depression, and spirituality found here
I was going to write it all in the comment section but it just got too darn big.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident!" she shouted, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, squeezing her brain. Then she realized Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT

"'But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.'

"For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Dear George,

First I must tell you how really important this post is to me and how very much it not only resonates but inspires, as Poirot would say, "the little gray cells." And speaking of gray cells, I that anyone who is familiar with my own blog knows that I have struggled with depression and anxiety most all of my life. "Struggled", however, is not always the word with the right connotation. I have also noted in my dealings with many Buddhists, and Pagans, and Christians, and even with atheists that my sadness is often counted as a spiritual failing or at least as a barrier to my ability to be joyful/rational/successful. It makes people very uncomfortable to see my sadness. It makes them more uncomfortable, I think, that I am not very interested in ridding myself of it. Alleviate it? Retreat from it? Take a break from it? Sure. But rid myself of it? No way. To quote from Star Trek's boldest captain, "I need my pain!" It is the sensing device I use to recognize my call to service in a battered world. It does me no good to bend to the will of those who want me to medicate myself into complacency. My brain is different. It is not defective. Again from Star Trek (this time Dr. Crusher) "If there is nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with the universe."

There are those who counsel me that my tendency to melancholy and even to occasional bouts of despair is a disease to be treated, a spiritual barrier to be overcome, a darkness upon which light must be shed. But, I don't see it that way. I have seen my own depression and doubt not as a barrier between myself and "God", but my strongest connection. Every moment of profound spiritual revelation has come to me through this darkness. The world and everything in it comes to me in a very raw, heavy, painful way sometimes. But the flip side of that is empathy and compassion. I try to understand the world through my intellect, but the world comes to me through my emotions. Every decision I make is a result of the fact that I know that I cannot shut myself off from the world's pain. As a Pagan, I know the Sacred resides in the body of the Earth, in my body and in the body of my fellow creatures- all interconnected. What harm we do to another we also do to ourselves. I believe that, but also I feel it and so I am very motivated to confront it.

Lastly, I want to mention a few who have inspired me to believe that the brains we have, neurotypical or not, are the brains best suited to answering our spiritual calling: Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Emily Dickinson, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Margaret Fuller, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy...the list goes on. Surely their value in the world was not in spite of the pain they carried, but also because of it.

Thanks, George, for writing as you do, for thinking as you do...Thank you for holding up darkness and difference for healthy examination and for challenging our cheerful brethren to remember that black sheep happen too. Ain't nothing wrong with your brain.

With love,


Morgaine said...

I am prone to the belief that to have great love, one must reconcile also and simultaneously to great pain; and to achieve great happiness, one must be willing to mingle frequently with despair.

I'd be lost if I couldn't dive headfirst into the crevasse of anguish and soar the heights of joy.

Trending toward mediocrity in all things emotional (levelheadedness ???) I have never aspired to. It would create such a sense of vacancy to me, and a loss of the huge palette from which I paint my life's story.

Blessed be, Hystery. As always, you inspire me.

Hystery said...


What you write is just what I believe.

Thurman said...

Inspiration is contagious. As you we're inspired, so have you thus inspired another. Thanks.

natcase said...

I've been close with a number of people with emotional imbalances, both of anger and depression (and it seems to me these are not unrelated). And I hear you about its being a wellspring of understanding. But I also know from watching it that the balance between horse and driver is a delicate, delicate one.

I see a choice that medication can provide: without it, the major Work of a person's life might simply be surviving their condition. Depression can kill you. With medication, you can have the choice of some other Big Work, or you can allow that other work to choose you.

I guess the real question for me goes something like this: Does your emotional life provide an opening to Spirit, or does it overwhelm you like a disease and threaten to kill you? I don't think it's just attitude, I think it's also the individual condition of the person in question. If it's the former, as it seems to be for you, it's a wonderful and terrible gift. If it's the latter, maybe medication will help you find some other Work.

Hystery said...


I have, in fact, tried about a dozen different anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications (prescribed by a g.p., a psychiatrist, and a neurologist) and not only did they NOT work, but they profoundly increased the levels of my sorrow without allowing me the ability to make meaning out of it. I very nearly died as result. I will not go back there. In fact, there was marked, immediate, and dramatic improvement in my health, well-being, and levels of joy when I stopped taking all medications.

I don't stand against the use of medications for all people, but I react very strangely to almost all medications I take (even OTC varieties). I can think of few occasions when I've taken a drug and not had bizarre and alarming side effects or found the therapy had no discernible effect whatsoever. Lucky me. LOL

The medical model of depression is not, for me, a useful tool in creating a meaningful and joyful life and that is very important to me. (Of course, having studied this from postmodernist, psychological, health-nut, feminist, historical and religion studies perspectives for pretty much my entire adult life, I have lots more to say on why this is so in my particular case...But not now. :)

naiadis said...

I found your blog via an old entry on dressing modestly last week (not many current posts come up when Googling for "pagans" and "modest dress", alas) and I've been enjoying reading through your posts (despite feeling incredibly voyeuristic).

Hystery said...


I'm glad you stopped by! I'm always happy to find other Pagans who are drawn to plain dress. It is funny to read someone's blog all at once. It's like some weird crash course on a stranger's inner life.

The other funny thing is that I always write when I'm feeling really emotionally attached to a subject or I force myself into an emotional state so I can write. So you all are going to get a dramatic and distorted look at me.

That's ok. Who wants to read about me washing dishes and reading Star Trek books? lol

Dogaroo said...

I, too, have atypical reactions to most medications. My experiences with antidepressants were pretty much as you described. It's not at all unusual for those of us who are "differently wired" ;-) to have bizarre and unpredictable reactions to medications. When I absolutely MUST take a new medication, my doctor starts me on a very tiny amount & monitors me closely while gradually increasing the dosage.

A few weeks ago I took Ativan (2 mg) before an appointment. After having an interesting discussion with my Dr. about literature and sociology (in addition to the medical stuff), I cleaned my car, finished reading a book & took a walk, then got bored with sitting around (I was told I shouldn't drive after taking the Ativan) so I ran a few errands and worked on a friend's computer. I sure wish I could get as much done when I'm NOT "sedated"!

natcase said...

Hystery: Thank you. The danger in any approach to a condition like depression is that those in pain mostly seek for one comprehensive answer. Having one truth to hang on to makes pain so much easier to bear. And so it is hard to hold your truth, along with the truth of my friends who might be dead if it weren't for antidepressants. This doesn't make what you say any less true as a deep expression of your lived experience.

A friend spoke in worship this morning about her feelings of helplessness in seeing her young adult adopted daughter in a great deal of pain and thrashing-about, much of it surrounding mental health issues. And after reading this last night and hearing her, what I was moved to say to her after meeting, was that it isn't the condition that is the problem, it's the pain it causes. And we all carry some pain, and we all want to find some way be outside that pain, even for a little while, to have a sabbath (to ride my current hobby-horse). Some of us try to run away to a new, better place, as her daughter is doing. Some of us use tools — stories or mind-altering substances. Some of us try to cut that pain out of ourselves, even at the cost of cutting out part of ourselves with it. But what we have in common is that we all want to escape our pain.

Anyway, thank you.

Hystery said...


What you say here is so important. Medication is the difference between productivity and despair or even life and death. I do not advocate against it. It did not work in my case, but I think it should always be considered as one of the therapies/approaches to living with depression. I do think the efficacy of such therapies have been exaggerated by marketers and that outside of creative and comprehensive care for the entire human being, it has a diminished chance of success. We still have such a long way to go in understanding how brains function, not merely in the physiological sense, but also with the brain's cultural context. I hope that many years from now we look back at our medical approaches and see how little we know now relative to how much we will know then.

One of the things that concerns me about the medical model as it was applied to me was that it did not take into account my cultural, intellectual, and spiritual realities. In too many cases, in addition to just not seeming to work with my particular chemistry, it often undermined my ability to use other methods and techniques to heal myself and make meaning out of what was happening.

A holistic approach to mental health that honored my personality might have been far more effective and I might have come out of the postpartum depression much more quickly. But insurance (which I was lucky to have) didn't cover that. I was lucky enough to have a family both emotionally and professionally capable of standing with me as I took over my own case with what amounted to another job as a researcher and healer for myself. Most people do not have those luxuries of time, support, and access to information. They rely on their doctors and must hope for the best.

Hystery said...


Those atypical responses are funny, aren't they? I was given something like a quarter of a dose of a well-known antidepressant and got to experience nightmarish hallucinations. If a half a pill that is considered one of the safest in the market can do that...

On two other occasions, my side effect was uncontrollable drooling. In one case, the drug had been to dry my mouth out so an orthodontist could do his work. Boy, what fun to be an insecure teenager sitting in a waiting room with a towel to my face drooling like a St. Bernard.

sta┼Ťa said...

You go, grrrl.

A few thoughts...

It used to drive me batty when people would throw that old saw about how "you can't know joy if you don't know pain" around. I do now know it's a simple fact that if you're not capable of feeling, you're not capable of feeling, but that's simply not what they meant. *twitch* (And good riddance to them!)

I have a lot of experience working with over-medicated trauma survivors, who as a whole tend to have "weird" reactions to psychoactive medications, and who also tend to get prescribed a lot of psychoactive medications they don't need. I also have a neurological disorder that doctors love to a) misdiagnose as depression and b) even when they properly diagnose it, prescribe anti-depressants off-label to manage it. (For some patients that works; for some it doesn't.)

And I've also seen the very real difference -- sometimes, life-saving -- the judicious use of psychoactive medications can make in people's lives, whether those meds are antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, anti-hallucinogens, sleep meds, meds for ADHD, anti-fatigue meds for MS, or others.

The bottom line is that physical and mental health care must always be a partnership between the practitioner and the patient/client. The practitioner may have expertise in medicine or psychology, but I'm the expert in my body and my experience, thank you very much. If you want the best outcome, you're going to have to put those two sets of expertise together, and that's the bottom line.

Not that my experience has made me opinionated or anything. ;-)

Thanks for this post, Hystery.

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, I'm just catching up after some weeks away, and read this and the preceding blog with a good deal of tenderness. Your approach to living with an atypical mind is brave - and a bit humbling. I am better able to numb out, I guess, than you are. All of life's little anodynes - shopping, chit-chatting, the workaholic fog. But, for you, I hope the balance can keep tipped toward the light, the darkness can keep interrupted with laughter.