Depression isn’t just an illness. It’s a messenger.
In his book, Unstuck, James Gordon, M.D., writes:
“Depression is not a disease, the end point of a pathological process. It is a sign that our lives are out of balance, that we’re stuck. It’s a wake-up call and the start of a journey that can help us become whole and happy, a journey that can change and transform our lives. Healing depression and overcoming unhappiness mean dealing more effectively with stress; recovering physical and psychological balance; reclaiming parts of ourselves that we’ve ignored or suppressed: and appreciating the wholeness that has somehow slipped away from us, or that we have never really known”.
If we would but listen, we might find that our depression is trying to tell us something; important insights about our lives and the ways we live it that might be keeping us mired in a soupy gloom.
We often don’t heed our inner wisdom, but keep going full-speed ahead in the wrong direction anyway. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. observed, “Depression is a vicious circle and we keep doing these destructive patterns because “we don’t how to do anything else.”
When we think of depression only as an illness, we oversimplify its causes and remedies. No doubt, it has profound effects on our brains and bodies. Surely, it runs in families and likely has a genetic component. But if it were only that, a blue pill would solve the problem. And it doesn’t.
The pain of depression may be an impetus for sufferers to live a more authentic life. Often people who suffer from depression are living from a wounded place within themselves. Along the way, they learned that they weren’t “good” enough or were “bad people”. As a consequence, they learned to hide their true needs and wants and live an inauthentic life; a life that may not work, but they don’t know how to change.
In this vein, folks can come to think of depression as some sort of punishment: a recompense of some unknown sins from an undefined past. Or, maybe the very real wrongs they may have committed are magnified, as they are prone to be in the mind of a depressive, by the process of generalization: a known cognitive trick of depression where we take a negative incident (e.g. “I lost this case”) and turn it into “Why am I such a failure?”
Depression doesn’t just happen to anyone. Rather, it is the accumulation of a lifetime of varying degrees of psychic pain suffered during a lifetime, often starting in early childhood. In our early years, many learned that it was dangerous to live from a space of our true selves because of a parent who was an alcoholic, abusive or in some way emotional abusive or absent.
Ellen McGrath, Ph.D., writes:
“Scientists know that traumatic experiences such as child abuse and neglect change the chemistry and even the structure of the brain. They sensitize the stress response system so that those who are abused become overly responsive to environmental pressures. They shape wiring patterns in the brain and reset the sensitivity level of the machinery. Eventually, even small degrees of stress provoke an outpouring of stress hormones, and these hormones in turn act directly on multiple sites to produce the behavioral symptoms of depression. They push the brain’s fear center into overdrive, churning out negative emotions that steer the depression’s severity and add a twist of anxiety”.
Our parents, acting out of their own wounded souls, unconsciously played out their unresolved pain with us during our childhood. They did so because of their distorted way of seeing the world; a place that they found threatening, its problems unsolvable and against them at every turn. This hardened them and led them to fail in life’s most important vocation: the nurturance of their own children.
I recall my mom saying to me as a child, “Well, what are you going to do?” While one could say this was the innocuous lament of a middle-aged mother of 5 kids, later in life I learned it was mom’s worldview that there weren’t really solutions to life’s fundamental problems, that we are, at our core, helpless in the face of life’s thorny challenges.
My mom suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression for most of her life. I now see how this passive, victimized way of seeing the world took root in my psyche as a young man. And how hard I had to work to overcome it over the years; how I had to struggle to listen less to the inner voice and critic of my parents and incline my ears toward my true self which was always there waiting to be heard.
In Listening to Depression, psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb writes that depression is trying to tell us something: that we are on the wrong track in life. In this sense, depression can be a teacher if we would only listen to it.
How can we come to see depression as a teacher? Honos-Webb writes:
“Depression can be seen as a break-down in the service of offering the person an opportunity for a break-through. In this way, depression can be a corrective feedback to a life with little reflection. We only reflect on those things that break down in life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.”
I admit that it’s hard to see depression’s value when in the thick of it, the swamp through which we slog with little relief. But there’s much to be said for seeing depression not just as a disease, but as a messenger that our lives need to change for us to heal.