Climbing Out of the Well of Depression

Depression feels like falling into a well.  We’re trapped at the bottom with no way out. We look up and see light at the well’s entrance, but it’s so far away.  It turns the soupy darkness surrounding us into a sluggish grey.

We long to feel the sun’s vitality again, a sense of motion in the rhythm of life.  It becomes clear that we won’t get out of the well by our own efforts. We’ll need help – serious help.

Out of the darkness above, a ladder appears.  Others might not see it, but we do.  It’s a ladder meant only for us, as if it were crafted with knowing hands.  Its railings and steps bring hope, a passage to another place above us.  Yet, we must climb each step ourselves, one at a time.

God drops ladders into our wells all the time, but we’re often not aware of them.  Sometimes they’re big, sometimes they’re small.  Sometimes they’re a new medication that brings solace to our pained bodies; sometimes they’re  in moments of mercy like when we share the shy smile of a stranger on the street.

We often can’t see these ladders because we’re on our hands and knees looking for a key to get us out.  But a key won’t work.  We don’t need to turn a lock so much as to rise from our knees. We can surrender our sadness, our weight as we go aloft.  “Come to me all you who are burdened and I will give you rest” said Jesus.  And in the depths of our depressed souls, that’s what we deeply thirst for – rest.

People with depression feel like it’s their constant companion.  In such a relationship, and it’s a relationship of sorts, we need not destroy depression.  We need to transcend it.  We do so by letting go of our relationship with depression and embracing another sort of relationship.

Yesterday, I went to Mass.  Often, I feel like such a dullard in those worn wooden pews.  I understand some of the readings, but much of it I don’t.  But, I often feel a quality of peace.  Maybe, on occasion, even a peace that “passeth understanding.”  I can’t explain this experience, but I appreciate it.  It’s a Mystery which calls to all of us by name. It seeks to give us a new identity and loosen our grip on an old one.  It asks us to let go of all the ways we limit our daily lives because of depression.

Jesus once asked Peter, as he asks each one of us, “Who do you say I am?”  I always understood this question one way: it doesn’t matter what others say about “who” Jesus is; it only matters who we say he is to us.

I now see another way of understanding this passage.

It’s just as important for us to ask Jesus, “Who do you say I am?”

For those suffering from depression, the illness usually responds to this question. It tries to tell us who we are: worthless, weak and undeserving. 

Are we willing to turn away from depression’s voice? Can we surrender it to find our true value as seen through the eyes of God?  He sees us as worthy and precious beyond measure. 

Are we willing to trade the noxious tirades of depression for the soothing and life offering voice of God?

As we climb the ladder, let’s leave the voice of depression at the bottom of the well.  It’s voice becomes faint as we leave it behind.  As we near the light, it infuses us with a true sense of our true value.  We are precious in His sight.  We can finally rest.

When we leave the well of depression behind, perhaps we find a different sort of well and a different kind of falling.  Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and author of the little book, “The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer”, writes:

“The purpose of prayer is the process of falling into God.  As the mystics say, we are beginning to learn that God alone is enough.  The truth is that none of us really knows where we are going and must never take it for granted that we do.  We can plan our lives but we cannot guarantee them.

When our prayers are not answered, we know one thing for sure:  The challenge of life now is to live it differently.  And it will be through prayer that we discover how to do that.  Seeing Jesus being driven out of town, we come to understand that we cannot expect more.  Seeing Jesus depressed is not the loss of faith, it is the moment of faith.  Seeing Jesus lose favor with the authorities, we learn that authorities are not the final measure of our lives.

Then we come to prayer free of the desires that bind us, free to live life in God, free to choose trust over certainty — which really means free to choose God over self.

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15 thoughts on “Climbing Out of the Well of Depression

  1. Excellent entry.

    FWIW, I often find that not only does the daily Mass, when I make it (which isn’t often enough) conveys a sense of peace, that sense is greater than that conveyed from the Sunday Mass. Perhaps that’s simply because there’s so many more people at the Sunday Mass, obviously.

    Another interesting thing I’ve found, in terms of understanding, is that if a person here’s all the liturgical readings in the order they’re set out in, they really work a theme that isn’t obvious from hearing only one. Somewhere along the line in this journey I picked up listening to the podcast of the readings that’s available from the Catholic Bishop’s website. When you hear them in that fashion, it comes across like a complete story, more than an isolated readings.

  2. Daily prayer and regular, strenuous exercise together have worked wonders for me. You are right Dan, God is only waiting like a patient father, caring for his children, for us to look up to Him to ask for help and guidence. People that do not believe are not punished, or sent to hell, they just do not feel the grace of God because they have not asked Him for it… And God for me is Jesus Christ, but it can be Budha, or any other name for God, dependinp upon one’s culture and upbringing… Happy Thanksgiving All!

  3. Great entry Dan. It really says a lot, esp. to those of us who miss the ladder quite a bit and it isnt because of looking for a key, its looking for a key and anything else that can help.

  4. That key analogy is brilliant. I spend a lot of time looking for that key myself. Sometimes I find what I think is a key, and I’m not sure if it’s the right key or the wrong one, or if I should turn it or not. I’m probably often missing the ladder as a result.

  5. I pray a lot to God myself, and honestly it’s so hard. Sometimes I feel like He is cruel because of how indifferent He is – how could He allow me to feel such pain and sorrow as I sometimes do, when I feel depressed?

    But most of the time, I remind myself how infinitely small and nothing I am compared to the One who made the world, and how my complaints must compare to those of people who are, say, starving to death.

    That doesn’t make my pain less or not meaningful. It just makes it easier to bear.

  6. A couple of remarkable chapters of St. Francis de Salis’ book Introduction to the Devout Life on this topic. Well worth reading:

    CHAPTER XI. Anxiety of Mind.

    ANXIETY of mind is not so much an abstract temptation, as the source whence various temptations arise. Sadness, when defined, is the mental grief we feel because of our involuntary ailments;—whether the evil be exterior, such as poverty, sickness or contempt; or interior, such as ignorance, dryness, depression or temptation. Directly that the soul is conscious of some such trouble, it is downcast, and so trouble sets in. Then we at once begin to try to get rid of it, and find means to shake it off; and so far rightly enough, for it is natural 316 to us all to desire good, and shun that which we hold to be evil.

    If any one strives to be delivered from his troubles out of love of God, he will strive patiently, gently, humbly and calmly, looking for deliverance rather to God’s Goodness and Providence than to his own industry or efforts; but if self-love is the prevailing object he will grow hot and eager in seeking relief, as though all depended more upon himself than upon God. I do not say that the person thinks so, but he acts eagerly as though he did think it. Then if he does not find what he wants at once, he becomes exceedingly impatient and troubled, which does not mend matters, but on the contrary makes them worse, and so he gets into an unreasonable state of anxiety and distress, till he begins to fancy that there is no cure for his trouble. Thus you see how a disturbance, which was right at the outset, begets anxiety, and anxiety goes on into an excessive distress, which is exceedingly dangerous.

    This unresting anxiety is the greatest evil which can happen to the soul, sin only excepted. Just as internal commotions and seditions ruin a commonwealth, and make it incapable of resisting its foreign enemies, so if our heart be disturbed and anxious, it loses power to retain such graces as it has, as well as strength to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish (according to an old proverb) in troubled waters.

    Anxiety arises from an unregulated desire to be delivered from any pressing evil, or to obtain some hoped-for good. Nevertheless nothing tends so greatly to enchance the one or retard the other as over-eagerness and anxiety. Birds that are captured in nets and snares become inextricably entangled therein, because they flutter and struggle so much. Therefore, whensoever you urgently desire to be delivered from any evil, or to attain some good thing, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit,—steady your judgment and will, and then go quietly and easily after your object, taking all fitting means to attain thereto. By easily I do not mean carelessly, but without eagerness, disquietude or anxiety; otherwise, so far from bringing about what you wish, you will hinder it, and add more and more to your perplexities. “My soul is alway in my hand, yet do I not forget Thy Law,” 186186 Ps. cxix. 109. David says. Examine yourself often, at least night and morning, as to whether your soul is “in your hand;” or whether it has been wrested thence by any passionate or anxious emotion. See whether your soul is fully under control, or whether it has not in anywise escaped from beneath your hand, to plunge into some unruly love, hate, envy, lust, fear, vexation or joy. And if it has so strayed, before all else seek it out, and quietly bring it back to the Presence of God, once more placing all your hopes and affections under the direction of His Holy Will. Just as one who fears to lose some precious possession holds it tight in his hand, so, like King David, we ought to be able to say, “My soul is alway in my hand, and therefore I have not forgotten Thy Law.”

    Do not allow any wishes to disturb your mind under the pretext of their being trifling and unimportant; for if they gain the day, greater and weightier matters will find your heart more accessible to disturbance. When you are conscious that you are growing anxious, commend yourself to God, and resolve stedfastly not to take any steps whatever to obtain the result you desire, until your disturbed state of mind is altogether quieted;—unless indeed it should be necessary to do something without delay, in which case you must restrain the rush of inclination, moderating it, as far as possible, so as to act rather from reason than impulse.

    If you can lay your anxiety before your spiritual guide, or at least before some trusty and devout friend, you may be sure that you will find great solace. The heart finds relief in telling its 319 troubles to another, just as the body when suffering from persistent fever finds relief from bleeding. It is the best of remedies, and therefore it was that S. Louis counselled his son, “If thou hast any uneasiness lying heavy on thy heart, tell it forthwith to thy confessor, or to some other pious person, and the comfort he will give will enable thee to bear it easily.”

    CHAPTER XII. Of Sadness and Sorrow.

    S. PAUL says that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of, but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” 187187 2 Cor. vii. 10. So we see that sorrow may be good or bad according to the several results it produces in us. And indeed there are more bad than good results arising from it, for the only good ones are mercy and repentance; whereas there are six evil results, namely, anguish, sloth, indignation, jealousy, envy and impatience. The Wise Man says that “sorrow hath killed many, and there is no profit therein,” 188188 “Multos enim occidit tristitia, et non est utilitas in illa.” Ecclus. xxx. 25. and that because for the two good streams which flow from the spring of sadness, there are these six which are downright evil.

    The Enemy makes use of sadness to try good men with his temptations:—just as he tries to make bad men merry in their sin, so he seeks to make the good sorrowful amid their works of piety; and while making sin attractive so as to draw men to it, he strives to turn them from holiness by making it disagreeable. The Evil One delights in sadness and melancholy, because they are his own characteristics. He will be in sadness and sorrow through all Eternity, and he would fain have all others the same.

    The “sorrow of the world” disturbs the heart, plunges it into anxiety, stirs up unreasonable fears, disgusts it with prayer, overwhelms and stupefies the brain, deprives the soul of wisdom, judgment, resolution and courage, weakening all its powers; in a word, it is like a hard winter, blasting all the earth’s beauty, and numbing all animal life; for it deprives the soul of sweetness and power in every faculty.

    Should you, my daughter, ever be attacked by this evil spirit of sadness, make use of the following remedies. “Is any among you afflicted?” says S. James, “let him pray.” 189189 S. James v. 13. Prayer is a sovereign remedy, it lifts the mind to God, Who is our only Joy and Consolation. But when you pray let your words and affections, whether interior or exterior, all tend to love and trust in God. “O God of Mercy, most Loving Lord, Sweet Saviour, Lord of my heart, my Joy, my Hope, my Beloved, my Bridegroom.”

    Vigorously resist all tendencies to melancholy, and although all you do may seem to be done coldly, wearily and indifferently, do not give in. The Enemy strives to make us languid in doing good by depression, but when he sees that we do not cease our efforts to work, and that those efforts become all the more earnest by reason of their being made in resistance to him, he leaves off troubling us.

    Make use of hymns and spiritual songs; they have often frustrated the Evil One in his operations, as was the case when the evil spirit which possessed Saul was driven forth by music and psalmody. It is well also to occupy yourself in external works, and that with as much variety as may lead us to divert the mind from the subject which oppresses it, and to cheer and kindle it, for depression generally makes us dry and cold. Use external acts of fervor, even though they are tasteless at the time; embrace your crucifix, clasp it to your breast, kiss the Feet and Hands of your Dear Lord, raise hands and eyes to Heaven, and cry out to God in loving, trustful ejaculations: “My Beloved is mine, and I am 322 His. 1 190190 Cant. ii. 16. A bundle of myrrh is my Well-beloved, He shall lie within my breast. Mine eyes long sore for Thy Word, O when wilt Thou comfort me! 191191 Ps. cxix. 82. O Jesus, be Thou my Saviour, and my soul shall live. Who shall separate me from the Love of Christ?” 192192 Rom. viii 35. etc.

    Moderate bodily discipline is useful in resisting depression, because it rouses the mind from dwelling on itself; and frequent Communion is specially valuable; the Bread of Life strengthens the heart and gladdens the spirits.

    Lay bare all the feelings, thoughts and longings which are the result of your depression to your confessor or director, in all humility and faithfulness; seek the society of spiritually-minded people, and frequent such as far as possible while you are suffering. And, finally, resign yourself into God’s Hands, endeavoring to bear this harassing depression patiently, as a just punishment for past idle mirth. Above all, never doubt but that, after He has tried you sufficiently, God will deliver you from the trial.

  7. You know, one thing that I find is that I’ll slip back down several runs of that ladder from time to time. I feel that I’m going that right now.

    I’ve heard many times that you can use a “law degree for a lot of things”, or that a lawyer “can do a lot of things”. I sure haven’t found that to be true. I’ve found a law degree allows you to do one thing, and one thing only, be a lawyer, which is like wearing a scarlet “L” branded on your forehead. How frustrating.

    Doggone, I wish there was a key here somewhere. . .

    1. I’m not so sure that I agree, Yeoman. I went to law school intending to start an international import business. I got sidetracked with two babies and stayed in private practice for 20 years.

      The money and the prestige are addictive but it is entirely possible to make other choices, even as a lawyer at mid-life.

      I’ve left the practice and am starting that business. I’ll always think like a lawyer but that’s not bad, is it?

      1. I should note, in addition to my sincere congratulations (and envy, although I myself wouldn’t want to go into the import business) that you’re starting up a new self employment.

        That way you aren’t hampered, I think, by the need to get another employer to overlook your law degree. This is neither good nor bad, I think it just is.

        I really do wish you the best, and I’m happy for you. I haven’t given up hope, although I can’t seem to find a way out of this into a career that I’d like to do instead. I know what I’d like to do, but I’m not having much luck getting myself there.

  8. Well, rightly or wrongly, I set a semi arbitrary date of May 1 to be out of the law entirely.

    Noting my past New Year’s resolutions, I see I’ve had this as an annual resolution (getting out of law) since at least 2001, probably earlier, so I haven’t made much progress on this, but I’m dedicated to trying it anyhow. Perhaps publishing this here is a bit of progress on this resolution.

  9. Daniel Lukasik you hit the nail on the head there!

    You can achieve anything you put your mind to. I usually tell people to be careful what they wish for. You just might get it.

    That’s the same as thinking about something continuously. It becomes part of your reality eventually…

  10. Pingback: Dave

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