Psychologist, James Hollis, describes depression as a “swampland”; a place that’s murky and dark where we’d rather not go. He doesn’t underestimate the power of the physical dimension of depression; the chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating and disrupted sleep. Nor does he dismiss the notion that depression, for some people, has a genetic basis. But what he suggests, which is different than your standard psychological tome on the topic, is that depression can be the result of our psyche, or “true self” if you will, trying to assert itself. We are depressed, he opines, because we are essentially living a life we don’t want and didn’t consciously choose. We are living out a script created for us by our parents and societal expectations to be successful, accomplished and respected in a way that’s not in accord with our real needs and desires.
At some, the psyche protests; it tells the guys upstairs running the ego’s show, “We’ve had enough! We’re staging a work stoppage!” And so the psyche withdraws large amounts of energy from the false life we’ve been trying to construct and live out of. We try harder during a depression to compensate by swimming even harder in the habits we know best: exerting more effort, distractions or maybe even addictions. But, the psyche won’t budge. It wants to take us in another direction; it wants us to pay attention to our own inner compass and turn in that direction. In doing so we are enlivened and a depression may lift – – maybe. It seems like the true self doesn’t give a damn about all of our “career objectives” and false gods. That’s not its objective and it demands to be heard.
In my own life, this most certainly played out in my decision to become a lawyer. As I have previously written, my dad was an unrepentant alcoholic who abused me, my siblings and my Mom. Yet, early in his life, he was a hero in many regards: captain of his football team, a sailor in the Pacific theater during WWII and a graduate of the University at Denver. But somewhere along the way, as he aged and had more children, the wheels fell off. This would have large ramifications in my own life.
I became the hero of my family in a way that my dad never managed to achieve in his adult life. I played sports, was a “good kid”, earned great grades in college, and went to law school. Like many people who do well in undergraduate school, I didn’t know what to do with my marshmallow degree in psychology. So, true hero that I was, I went to law school. I must admit that I didn’t like it very much even though I did well. Its emphasis on rules and analysis, too often to the exclusion of the human journey, sometimes bored me silly. I would often wander off to the undergraduate library and read great works of literature while my orphaned law books sat at the edge of my desk. “Pick me up,” they pleaded. I turned a deaf ear and went back to my novel.
One evening, towards the end of my first year, I went to dinner with my Mom and older brother. I began pouring my heart out to her that I wasn’t happy in law school.
My mom listened half-heartedly. Her eyes began looking around the restaurant to avoid my gaze. “Have they changed the wallpaper in here,” she managed in a sing-song voice. I persisted: “Mom, I really need your help. I need you to hear me.” My brother, who had been sitting quietly next to me, got annoyed: “Stop, bothering mom; you’re upsetting her!” So I stopped. I learned that whatever I was planning to do about law school, dropping out wasn’t an alternative. As the hero, being lost – or worse yet, a failure – was simply unacceptable. I never listened to what my psyche was trying to tell me. That choice would come back to bite me later in life as one of the causes of my depression.
I can now see the unrealistic expectations that my parents unintentionally laid on me. Somehow a “successful” son would make up for all the brokenness in their own lives. It would somehow redeem the pain that our home had harbored for so long.
Now, after years of struggle, I realize I have choices. I don’t have to unconsciously live out my parents unlived lives. I can forgive them and move on. I now choose to be a lawyer, but on my own terms. With that comes responsibility. No one is going to make healthy choices for me. My depression certainly caused a “work stoppage in my life.” It isn’t something I would have ever consciously have chosen – who would have? But I used the experience to go back to the drawing board of my life to figure out what I really wanted out of life. I didn’t want to continue to be stuck in the muck of depression so I had to change. I had to build a life that worked for me.
And that’s still a work in progress . . . .