Pharmaceutical wonders are at work, but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghosts your are certain to come again – Jane Kenyon, Having It Out with Depression.
Halloween has always been one of my favorite times of the year. A time for remnants of Snickers bars still stuck between your teeth the next morning, carved pumpkins of the edge of decomposition and a chill in the spooky night that reminds you Winter is to come all to soon. As a child growing up in the country, my hooligan friends and I relished the chance to go knocking on the doors of neighborhood mothers’ in aprons doling out nocturnal goodies.
When satisfied with our sugar-laden sacks of booty, we would scamper to our local graveyard full of old tombstones. Once there, we would dare each other to run through as fast as we could, each privately fearing the claw of a bony hand that would pop out of a grave to drag us to some subterranean place where the dead lived and ate small children.
Walking home, we would walk by a neighbor’s house and swear that we’d seen Edgar Allen Poe looking out the window at the full moon.
A Paranormal Force
Ghosts don’t strike us as happy beings, unless it’s Casper The Friendly Ghost. They frighten us, haunt us. Depression has been referred to as a vile creature, an entity of sorts in our popular imagination. You have to look no further that the National Book Award winner, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon. When I had depression years ago, I was told by a friend he understood that I had to “fight my demons.” As if I were the little girl possessed by Satan in The Exorcist. But he didn’t understand, really.
Depression is like a paranormal force, not something inside of our brains, but something outside of it. In a way, depression is a world inhabited by ghoulish ghosts that haunt us. They sporadically interrupt our lives and won’t leave us alone.
Ghosts are always people that have passed away. Often, these ghosts are haunting others because they’re not at peace. Maybe because they left something unsolved in this world. Or, maybe, because we have not let them go.
The Ghosts of Our Childhood
I think this is a crucial aspect of depression: the trouble letting go, the problem of forgiveness of those who have wronged us in the past.
Depression is a pressing down of sadness. A strategy doomed to failure if ever there was one. While many think of it as only as disease born solely of genetics, its archeological origins seem to have begun in the ghosts of our childhoods.
Researchers now know that many with adult-onset depression have had troubled childhoods of neglect or abuse. The nervous system is spooked by trauma and/or neglect which changes our neurochemistry and even the structure of the brain. Ghosts take up residence in the attics of the brain where they lounge around sipping tea cups of neurochemicals that we all need to feel happy. But just as importantly, trauma creates a well of sadness, terrible loss and wounding of the spirit that lives on with us into our adult lives.
Children who come out of such childhoods often spend a lot of their adult lives feeling like a part of them is missing. It’s a leak in their soul which can’t be plugged.
Elizabeth Wurztel, in her best-selling book, Prozac Diary, describes the difference between sadness and the zombie-like state major depression can create:
“That’s the thing I want to make clear about depression: It’s got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal—unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead.”
Psychologists can act as mediums at seances, seeking to welcome the dead into our presence so we can have it out with them and heal. We can finally let their voices go and live a life that is uniquely defined by the choices we make rather than the ones’ thrust upon us.
Psychiatrists strike me as more like Ghostbuster’s with ray guns of medication designed to blast the depression out of us.
In her book, Unholy Ghosts: Writers Write on Depression, Nell Casey has assembled various writers who write about their experiences with depression. The theme running through many of the writings is the dark, blank state of depression where the pain of it is actually the absence of feeling. One psychologist wrote that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, it’s vitality. It’s the capacity to experience the full colorful palette of emotions that make up a normal human life.
For those who’ve experienced depression, they often run from it because they themselves fear becoming unholy ghosts.
But it’s ultimately in turning and facing the ghosts of depression that these phantoms lose the capacity to scare us, to truncate our emotional vibrancy. We can learn to see them for what they are: voices that aren’t true. Voices that can be left for dead.