Depression. Not illness, but an expression of our humanity

The dominant perception, the ruling paradigm, in our twenty first century western world, says mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, are illnesses, even diseases. The dominant voice in our culture labels people sick when they are frightened, filled with despair, grieving. The talk in our media, even in the parliament, refers to mental illness labels as grave problems to be erased, fixed, we must get rid of them!!! I disagree, in large part, with this common perception of mental health. My position is that this belief, this attitude to people’s emotional issues and struggles, is leaving our communities experiencing larger problems, a belief causing at times unnecessary pain and overriding it all, a failure to grasp the true opportunity and growth that lies in a different perspective on mental health problems, their sources and their meaning.

Depression as a gift of the soul

Depression can be a gift of the soul. Not always, for some it is extremely debilitating, it sucks the life right out of them, it renders life unliveable. So, I am not addressing this level of depression and respect the important difference between serious depression and the depression experienced by most others, us ordinary depression sufferers. However, the everyday depression, that still feels like suffering and is very painful, has another reason for being, other than organic chemical brain changes brought on by disease/illness. This other reason for depression brings us into relationship with depression and that relationship with depression can be transforming

Sources of depression

Deeper sources of depression can be multiple, varied and complicated. They can be social, emotional, cultural and spiritual. It’s a simple solution to point the finger at an individual’s chemical balance, their hereditary brain composition, and avoid the complex and challenging sources of depression that therapist and individual sufferer will engage, if they chose to explore depression in an alternative way. I have discovered some classic causes for depression in my experience, including unexpressed rage (typically female, although not exclusively), despair and hopelessness in life’s limited offerings, a failure (not a bad word!!) to know our own yearnings, longings, needs and not uncommon, not knowing our most heartfelt desires and trauma, both known and unknown.

A common, yet misunderstood source of depression: Self betrayal

There is no bigger invitation to depression than self-betrayal, perpetrated by most of us at some stage in life’s journey, where we don’t listen within, to our voices inside, voices desperate to be heard, to be acknowledged. The problem is not that this happens, that we bring on these self-inflicted wounds, it’s that we ignore these voices, we don’t consult ourselves, there’s no inner listening, no inner dialogue. In stead we consult a medical expert, a general practitioner, a psychiatrist, who if we are lucky, may listen deeply for our heartfelt yet unexpressed needs, unheard losses, but most likely won’t.

The medical doctor does not have time to do this, nor often the skills to achieve this depth of connection. Instead they do what time permits, according to the system they work in, and encourage the completion of a form, find a label for your despair, your sadness, your fear, and send you on your way with a prescription. Your wallet, your bag now transports your new pill, to take and to cure your disabling hurt, your crippling despair, your overwhelming grief, your baffling confusion and unmentionable rage and anger. And, it might relieve your pain for a while, however, it rarely lasts in its length of sedative effect on hurt and anger. The “lucky” ones get relief for some months, a significant proportion receive no benefit, or little. A few feel worse, get “sicker” and some, most horrible of all outcomes, even die. I understand some medical doctors encourage counselling, of consulting a psychologist or healing professional. I know a rare few who discourage use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics. Thank god for these ones, they are precious exceptions to the rule and must be congratulated for seeing the alternatives and recognising the sometimes dangers of a pharmaceutical solution.

But sadly, they are the rare exceptions to the rule, and given most people place their medical doctor as an authority over their own self-knowledge, or the information and knowledge prescribed by those lower on the rank of status and reputation, the greater majority of people accept the advice of their medical professional, take their pills and too often suffer the consequences.

Consequences of pharmaceutical drugs wrongly prescribed

The most significant negative consequence of pharmaceutical drugs being used as a solution for depression is the lost opportunity for sufferers to engage with their depression in a life changing way. Individuals suffering depression may experience a form of transformation as they meet their inner lives, these inner voices and discover new ways of being and existing that can then in the end make significant differences to the person they were previously, a person lost from themselves and their soul needs. This transformation I am referring to is achievable and one I have witnessed often, but it requires a different understanding of our humanity and humanity’s challenges, it requires a new understanding of our purpose and our potential.

Alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs

There’s no point in critiquing the current approach of relying on pharmaceutical drugs, without explaining the alternative. My primary point in this discussion, is that depression, as a human experience, has a purpose. There are lessons inherent in going through a period of depression that will only be learnt when the depression is allowed to work and impact on the individual, much like an alchemical reaction in the scientist’s capped test tube. This transformational process works when allowed to impact a person’s existence, it is then a true transformation of the self can occur. This is not a comfortable experience, as depression is most definitely painful, however, the outcome for the person who comes out the other side can be truly remarkable. In the alchemy of this experience, there are many behaviours and actions that can aid the digestion of the depression into something else, something more, something new.

Actions and behaviours that facilitate the integration of these gifts of the soul

Depression often leaves people wanting to withdraw, from everyday life, from people, from social situations, from their existence as they know it. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Like the Arbor in the cultivated garden, moving away from centre, distancing from others, seeking isolation and removal from being in society, can be instructive, emotionally moving, and even provide for a moment of epiphany in the reflection of aloneness, but also in the experience of loneliness and pain. Not talking to many people, can provide opportunities to hear better the voice of the inner self. Such moments can offer up more creative inspiration, a greater likelihood of taking up pen, of brush, and expressing the darker thoughts and feelings. These darker thoughts and feelings can be most instructive for the self, but also, if later these thoughts and feelings are shared, they can be offered up for instruction, inspiration for others, when their time inevitably arrives.

What do people do differently when drawing on this approach to dealing with depression?

Leaving and/or reducing a focus on the outer world, and discovering an inner world, is a change, an important new reality, for the person who surrenders to depression. People embracing this path may learn to take sabbaticals, reduce work hours, reduce being busy, limit their standards of unproductive perfectionism, leave negative, unfulfilling relationships, embrace the idea of being rather than doing, chose alone or silent actions like reading, listening to music, walking in nature, driving for long distances, listening to birdlife, but most importantly, these people will be purposely listening to self. These discoveries would never or rarely occur without a call to withdraw, separate, take a step away from the outer world. They are the gifts of depression and our existence can be transformed by accepting them as just that. Be assured, no gifts will arise by the avoidance or refusal of this invitation and the understanding of this human condition we all share, will remain unsolved and disturbing in the absence of this new knowledge.

Wider benefits in society for depression engaged with in new ways

Many artists and writers can claim their own experiences with depression as the muse for extraordinary expressions of beauty and wisdom. But the ordinary discoveries for us ordinary folk in the chosen or not chosen period of withdrawal, can also be valuable. There doesn’t have to be a “greater outcome” of public bequeathed art, just a different example of a life lived in a alternative way, a more soulful way, ultimately a more sustainable way. An individual’s experience of depression may be a blessing for the children of the sufferer, as integration has occurred and family legacy of depression has been encountered and reckoned with. This can then no longer be inherited, passed on to the children. The children gain a new model of life and dealing with pain and suffering. Relationships, workplaces, may all benefit from a member gathering of skills and understanding from a depressive episode. The individual who truly integrates the lessons of depression, who surrenders and therefore learns the gifts of depression, will never be the same and will be bigger for it. Next invitations from life to withdraw into dark moods and dark places will not be as frightening, not seen as failures or weaknesses but engaged with as life challenges, intended opportunities, designed to embrace deeper layers of our humanity.

There is a place for medication in some circumstances

I want to stress medication has its place in serious situations. It can save lives, yet conversely, it can also destroy lives. My issue is people are often not given a choice, are not empowered with all the information. They don’t understand the pharmaceutical industry’s role in the dominance of medication as this cultures preferred solution to depression. They don’t understand the relationship between the medical practitioner and the drug companies that court them. Unfortunately, our communities do not understand that much training and information for medical practitioners is provided by these drug companies; that medical events, conferences and research is frequently funded by the pharmaceutical companies. It is obvious, with such vested interests, what the pharmaceutical companies’ recommendations, their teachings, will be. There are some very dark reasons why you may not have been offered alternative approaches to dealing with depression and anxiety.

When you have discovered the alternatives and applied them

For those who do find alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs, and/or have kept their scripts for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in their bags and wallets, the discovery of what you can do to cope, drug free, will empower you and embolden you and prepare you for your future, in a way drugs could never do. This preparation will assist you to face the inevitable return of dark times, because there will be more dark times, that’s just how life works, and knowing you’ve risen and sunk and risen and sunk in times before, removes much of the fear factor, because you know now you can cope, you have the tools to survive, or better, to thrive. The knowledge this experience of depressions gifts, discovered in the pits of loss, fits of despair, howls of frustration, is you’re still ok, life goes on and you did it, you did it with your own , inner resources, resources that belong to you, that can never be taken away, unlike drugs which can be taken away. You learn drugs didn’t save you, you saved you!

A point on what the community looks like supporting this alternative model

Such a model of alternative care through depression, requires supportive communities that engage and care for the individuals in their community who are suffering. There is an inherent problem in our western culture, because our communities have never been less engaged and more disconnected. Individuals are frequently isolated and suffering alone. Even when there are friends and family, there isn’t a lot of contact, replaced maybe with a lot of texting, emails, phone calls if you are lucky. People need other people, face to face connection, they need people even in the situation where they have withdrawn, in order to feel safe and supported, in order to trust their process journeying into the inner life of depression and depressions lessons. This means families, health professionals, clubs, groups, workplaces etc. must have engagement and connection to the person in their community who is suffering. The pill taking society, says “here, take your pill, make sure you do this, it’s your job to do this, now go home”. There is not enough of a supportive community framework for this condition of painful depression, and no acknowledgement of the contributors to depression, these being cultural, societal. We live in this culture of fences, divisions, classes, and ignorance. It’s a culture of the individual. So, in combination with a change in the path the individual takes for alternative healing and acceptance of these gifts of depression, is the need for a culture that cares, that stays involved, that actively gets involved and which doesn’t blame. The ideal is that we see ourselves in the others suffering. Why? Because then we understand it’s all our shared human condition. We all can experience depression. Our brain chemistry and inherited structure doesn’t protect any of us from depression. The human condition is better embraced and understood when we understand this. Denying our humanity causes pain and judgement and a lack of understanding and empathy. Without an understanding of our real, shared human condition, we struggle to embrace our very humanity, and we therefore cannot embrace another, and if we cannot embrace another in their suffering of this shared human condition what is the bloody point!!!!!

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