Listening to Our Depression

Any dialogue about the warp and woof of depression should include something about its value in our lives. That sounds like a bugged out thing for me to say; all the more so when you consider that much of the national dialogue has been dominated by main stream medicine that tells us that depression is an illness – just like diabetes or heart disease.  I have, in fact, been part of this choir at different times.

Leading this charge is psychiatrist, Peter Kramer.  He’s the author the best-seller, Listening to Prozac and followed up recently with, Against Depression.  His conclusion is that we need an all out war, a full fledged armada, against depression which he maintains is “brain damage” which we must stop from occurring in the first place or progressing once it has gotten a foot-hold.  

I think Kramer’s arguments oversimplify the complex malady that is depression.  More than just a biological illness, depression is also a dying of one’s soul.  Indeed, one’s inner self – that which is most vital and true about us – is a casualty of depression.

What if by medicating our depression, or replacing its jagged thoughts with “clearer” or “more constructive thinking habits” (As defined by whom?), we are moved in the wrong direction?   What if medication doesn’t so much result in full remission (i.e. the goal of psychiatry) of depression as a “draw” with the gun-slinging opponent that our melancholy can seem like?

What if we’re not supposed to mute our depression with medication or straighten out our uneven thoughts with a flat iron?  What if we are killing the messenger?

In his book, The Swampland of the Soul, psychologist, James Hollis, sees depression less as a biological phenomenon, than as a psychological one.  Here’s his description of its causes:

“Depression can feel like a well with no bottom, but is a well with a bottom, though we may have to dive very deeply to find it.  Think of what the word means literally, to de-press, to press down.  What is “pressed down”?  Life’s energy, life’s intentionality, life’s teleology is pressed down, thwarted, denied, violated.  While the etiology of such pressing down may or may not be discernible, something in us colludes with it.  We might even say that the quantity and quality of the depression is a function of the quantity and quality of the life force which is being pressed down.  Life is warring against life, and we are the unwilling host.”

What is pushing down our life force as attorneys with depression?  Is it just the long hours, stress and adversarial nature of our craft?  No doubt such factors play a role, just like our biology and genetics. But clearly much of the foundation of adult onset depression has been layered, brick by brick, in our childhood experiences for it is here where we learn how much to value ourselves and others.  If we learn to value ourselves in a healthy way early on in life’s journey, there are fewer impediments in the future to de-press our life’s energy which is trying to express itself.

If we have grown up in a dysfunctional home, as the majority of adults with depression have, it will be much harder to feel good about ourselves and build a healthy life without depression.  This is so because we have learned to devalue our inner experiences and give too much weight to what others expect and think about our life’s value and future course.  After all, all parents are giants to small children.  In a child’s world of magical thinking, there is no way of filtering out parents’ toxic messages about a child; no way of seeing these voices as a reflection of the parent and not a child’s fledging sense of identity.

This was certainly the case with me.  My alcoholic father, who had gaping holes in his psyche and soul, couldn’t nurture himself let alone his five children.  The eldest of five children himself in an era of WWII veterans, his feelings were alien to him.  As time went by, he crumbled under the weight of his disease and growing awareness, on some level, that he was a failure at work and home.  My mother, an equally damaged person who grew up with an alcoholic father, never learned the basic law of reciprocity in love and nurturance. 

No wonder I ended up as a young man after a successful undergraduate career; without an internal sense of who I was or what I wanted to be.  Like many others without a deep relationship to self and my feelings, I “chose” the law because of one thing I could be sure of – it was a chance to serve others, be a professional and make money.  This is, to be sure, why many young people go into this strange business we call the legal profession.

I was estranged from something essential in me for many years, so powerful was the pushing down of my own inner instincts and life force.  I felt defined and limited by who I had been in my rocky childhood, whether I was aware of it or not.  I always felt a gnawing sense that something was missing – that piece turned out to be nothing less than my essential self. 

Dr. Hollis frames the developmental task before us after we have come to sense this elemental truth:

“The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what has happened to us in the past and who we are in the present.  No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me: I am what I choose to become.”  Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond the child’s control.  One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.”

And so begins the journey out of the well of depression for all of us.  We must learn to regain our inner authority – regardless of our biology.  This doesn’t mean one needs to quit the law – though some may need to do so to follow their true path.  It may be a more modest shift in perspective or a reshuffling of our life’s deck. 

Hollis has a great analogy that captures the value of modest changes.  He writes that steering our lives is like a pilot using his navigation instruments while flying.  A one degree shift here or there will determine where he ends up landing; in Africa or in Europe.  

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. In one interview, she summarizes the five greatest gifts as follows:

–         It propels you on a search for the meaning of life

–         It’s nature way of pushing you out of your comfort zone. Depression reminds you that you are losing your life while not risking

–         It’s a breakdown in the service of offering you an opportunity for a breakthrough

–         It means it’s time to reclaim your power to author your own life

–         It alerts you when you have gotten off course and guides you towards self-healing.

How do we come to see these truths?  Honos-Webb says:

“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 without relief.  But there’s much to be said for seeing depression not just as a disease, but as a diminishment of self which makes our world too small.  We don’t have to keep colluding in our own victimization.  And remember this:

You are not what happened to you – You are what you choose to become.

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11 thoughts on “Listening to Our Depression

  1. Excellent entry, as always.

    Allow me to offer a related idea, which is that being out of tune with what we were created to be can be depressing.

    I’ve said depressing intentionally, I’d note, rather than saying “can cause depression”, as I think there’s a difference. And this concept certainly would not apply to everyone suffering with depression. I expect it applies to me, however, which is why I’ve resisted the idea that I have depression, even though I’m pretty sure I’m frequently depressed.

    My depression is entirely tied up with my work. Some might say I’ve focused it that way, but I don’t think so. Prior to being a lawyer, I was very rarely ever depressed. Sure, sometimes I was, but not often. After a few years in, work place depression was frequent, and now I fear its the norm.


    Well, consider this. If you take the tiger and cage him for display at the zoo, he paces, unhappy. The sole reason, really, is that he’s out of his environment. Nature hadn’t designed him to do that, and he doesn’t want to, instinctively.

    That is, I suspect, also the case with many lawyers.

    Lawyers tend to be generalist. I think that the number of lawyers who actually “like” the law, let alone “love” it, is so small that a percentage calculation would be below 1%. That may also be true of many other occupations, but it’s probably unusually so for lawyers, as the personalities that end up in the law are generalist personalities. We tend to like no one thing, but many things, and law is a field for dabblers.

    But that mindset does not prepare a person in any way to confront the reality of a legal practice. Legal practices vary, of course, but as I’m a litigator, and only familiar with that, I’ll note that.

    I like to read about many different things. But I also have an almost fanatic desire to be outdoors. And I hate fighting with people, and I’m very shy by nature. I speak extraordinarily well, but I’d never ever choose to address a group of people in public for any reason. I would never call people I don’t already know.

    My work as a litigator is essentially fighting for hire. I’m always indoors. I have to interact constantly with people I do not know. It’s horrible.

    Yes, this is surely my own fault. But when I was young and a student, I didn’t know what being a lawyer would be like, and now I am having a very difficult time getting out. And, probably liked the caged tiger at the zoo, the forcible suppression of my natural instincts exaggerates them, so that when I’m away from work I don’t want anything to do at all with anyone other than my family and small circle of friends. And so on.

    This is, as I noted, all my own fault. But, I suspect that this is the case for many lawyers. I’d bet that there’s more lawyers with the souls of farmers than there are lawyers with lawyers’ souls. No wonder we’re depressed.

    And, to compound it, after a few years in, society feels that you must be where you are, so they’ll help keep you in your cage. And compounding that further, in this modern world, I suspect we’ve built a world where many of us have no real place left in it, so we’re going to have to compromise on a career no matter what, as there’s very few careers we can get into that would be natural for us to start with.

    That’s what I guess I’m trying to do, find something else that involves less stress, fighting, and meeting. I’m not having much luck at it, but I hope, I guess, for a bigger cage with a little more sunlight.

  2. I find this blog (and the last comment) fascinating, and it’s all making me reconsider my decision to go to law school this coming fall.

    I’ve only been out of school (undergrad) for two years and am about to start law school in the fall. I have never suffered from depression before, except in the last 2 years during which I guess I’ve had what the last poster called workplace depression.

    When LWD wrote that depression is also part of the soul dying, it reminded me of a “joke” going around, about my workplace(government)being the place “where dreams go to die.” People often try to make light of the fact that they have essentially settled for less than they had originally imagined for themselves. At first I made fun of it all with my friends, but after 6 months or so the bleakness of it all seemed to infect me. I’ve been in a fairly bleak depression for nearly 2 years now, having retreated socially from most of my relationships except with my partner who has stuck by me, and feeling hopeless throughout.

    Funny too, because the whole time it has always been my plan to go to school this fall, yet I couldn’t keep that feeling of hopelessness out; like I was one of them, a ‘lifer’. And, this whole time – and this is what makes my partner angry about my depression – my life has looked fantastic on paper: only 2 years out of school and I own a house, have a permanent well-paying job, etc etc.

    So now that it’s almost time to quit and go back to school, I’m afraid that this depression is a sign of things to come if I choose to be a lawyer. My thinking used to be, “once I get into a meaningful job with people who care about their work (in law) I won’t be depressed.”

    But the more I read about law firms, the 7 to 7, and this blog, the more I wonder if I’ll be caught in the same situation post-law school: I’ll get a job in a firm or back in government somewhere, end up being a generalist for longer than I would life, my life will continue to look good on paper, and I’ll hate every minute of it.

    I guess we’ll see what happens.

    1. Sorry t intrude again. You still haven’t posted why you want to be a lawyer, but in reading your comments, I’m struck by your summary here:

      “once I get into a meaningful job with people who care about their work (in law) I won’t be depressed.”

      I’m not saying that people in law do or do not care about their work, but I have to wonder why you have the impression that we care more than others, and if we do, why do we care more than others. Moreover, do you think you’d care more, and why?

      The law isn’t magic, filled with magical people who are in love with the topic because it’s the topic. Some people do love it as they love it, maybe you are one of those. But if you think there’s a certain something else, what do you think it is? If it’s just because the job is “important”, you may have a grossly exaggerated view of the “nobility” of the law, and a grossly unappreciated view of the importance of your own job.

      I do not mean to discourage you. I think you need to figure out, however, if you haven’t already, why you think you want to be a lawyer. You might really love it, you might be a natural, but why do you wish to do it?

      Also, keep in mind, I don’t think there’s such as thing, really, as “the law”. The traditional Commonwealth systems which had solicitors, barristers and notaries was a much better one in my view. My grandfather (I learned after I became a lawyer) was a notary in Quebec, a type of contract drafting lawyer. The American system lumps everyone together, but as a practical matter, very few lawyers do everything.

      I mention this as when people say they’re going to be a lawyer, it might be important to know what they want to do in the law. When I graduated law school, I wanted a job, and took a “good” one with a good firm. Tragically for me, that meant that I was pegged as a civil litigator, where I have been ever since. A barrister, if you will. Part of my problem is that I hate fighting, I hate appearing in public, and I hate stressful contention, all of which, those on the outside tell me, I am very good at. So now, I am valued for qualities I despise, and work at tasks I do not value, do not enjoy, and which are killing me. If I’d been a quicker analyst back when I had a chance of making a happy life out of law, I would have become a solo practitioner, at half my current pay, and been much happier.

      Today, I don’t want to darken the door of the courthouse, I don’t want to ever go in there again, I don’t want to ever take another deposition, or write another argument, but next week, this is exactly what I’ll be doing, and it’s what I’ll be doing every day until I can get out.

      So Dan, in career counseling, to you think you can counsel me out to outdoor employment?

      Also, fwiw, I hope as a prospective law student you do know that in many areas of the country it’s much harder to find employment. That may or may not be a reason to worry about going to law school, but it’s worth noting. Of course, in three years time, that may be all different.

      1. Thank you for your comments and I apologize for not responding earlier.

        I do have specific motivations for going to law school,
        but a few of them are conflicting, and when it comes down to it I’m anxious about not having a clue about what kind of jobs I’ll be qualified for, and what kind of life those jobs will demand. It is probably a pipe dream to both make enough money and yet have enough time to pursue one’s hobbies.

        Yeoman, your described disposition is similar to mine – I know I would be miserable as well in your role as civil litigator for the same reasons, and all I really want in my life outside of my career is time to ride horses and care for my animals.

        As for my conflicting motivations for attending law school: on one hand, I have an avid interest in social justice, Aboriginal and circumpolar law leftover from my undergraduate research foci, as well as some Northern work experience.

        And on the other hand, I have a thing for sport/entertainment law (in house counsel, NHL? hah) – but I acknowledge now that I don’t have the right personality to make it in that world.

        I know now that I don’t want to be a fed or take a “good” job in a big firm like Yeoman (although I’ve also heard advice to cut ones teeth on a big firm job before moving on to what you’d LIKE to do, but it must be hard to leave once you’re in). I also know that I don’t want to travel too much (e.g., practice in the North).

        But what are my other options like? What does being a sole practitioner entail? What about boutique firms? In house counsel? Academia? etc. I know the law and lawyers aren’t magic nor inherently in love with law/their jobs, but I wonder where the ones who have the most satisfaction with their work/lives are.

        I’m banking on meeting a variety of people and resources in law school who will have insight on these questions and more. I suppose I’m just worried about being unable to escape from depression, now that I too frequently am.

  3. Tamorak. In your post, you never said why you think you want to become a lawyer. So, straight out, why do you think you want to be a lawyer?

    I don’t know anything about your situation, and my choices wouldn’t be yours I’m sure, but let’s start there.

  4. These items are very insightful, I must say:

    In one interview, she summarizes the five greatest gifts as follows:

    “It propels you on a search for the meaning of life.”

    I think that’s definately been the case for me, although other factors were at work on that as well.

    “It’s nature way of pushing you out of your comfort zone. Depression reminds you that you are losing your life while not risking.

    This has also been extremely true for me.

    “It’s a breakdown in the service of offering you an opportunity for a breakthrough.”

    I’ve only just begun to see that this is true, but I think it definitely is.

    “It means it’s time to reclaim your power to author your own life

    It alerts you when you have gotten off course and guides you towards self-healing.”

    Again, both very true.

    I’ve realized within the past couple of years, after living with this for 20 years, that law is making me miserable, and it’s getting worse. Some things I can hardly stand to think about or endure now. But probably only now, I have a better focus on what really matters, and know that I need to leave the law.

    That gives me some peace in and of itself, but finding a way out, is very difficult, I’m finding.

  5. As a final comment, on things in general, in this modern post industrial society, how many jobs really fit out natures as we were created?

    You can view it from a variety of ways, but humans beings have something like a 1M year history. For almost all of that time, we were rural in the extreme. For most of that time, our existences revolved around hunting and fishing. More recently, it was around farming. While certain occupations have long histories, law being one of them, it would seem that we’ve created a world to live in that’s not the one that God created us to live in, or so it seems to me.

    So, in terms of “meaning”, how much meaning is there in any modern occupation for most people, the law included. Or perhaps that’s just me. We don’t making anything, there’s never any completion to anything, there’s no big “task” that we finish, just a series of never ending tasks.

    Indeed, in stark contrast to what we experience as law students, there’s never a “big case” that leads to a happy result. There must be a never ending series of cases. You never work on one trial, but on dozens, and you’re always looking past the current one to the next. You must, or you’ll starve. So there’s never any satisfaction to producing something with finality.

    Or at least there isn’t for me. That’s one of the most frustrating things I experience every day. For the clients, it’s their only case. But for me, it’s not, there’s more and more and more. There must be, or I’ll have no work. I’m never at the end of any project, and when one ends, there must be another (increasingly complicated one) just behind it.

    Oh, for the days when most people’s worlds revolved around the seasons, and there was a season for everything.

  6. On the main topic, I’m pretty sure my episodes of the blues are telling me that:

    1. You aren’t cut out to be a lawyer; and

    2. At a bare minimum, you aren’t cut out to be a trial lawyer.

    Much of the worst periods I experience come from litigation related stress.

    So here’s my question for those here.

    How do you transition into something else without going broke?

  7. Tamorak, what do you hope to gain by being a lawyer?

    FWIW, I’m not in a big firm. There’s less than ten lawyers in my firm. And I hear the same complaints I have from litigators in every sized firm. I think that’s the work, not the firm size.

    But not all legal work is the same.

    Still, I’d suggest you find out if there are lawyers who really do what you want to do, and how many law school grads are able to enter those fields. Law schools are full of students with high minded ideals, but people often end up elsewhere. By graduation time, getting a job tends to be the focus.

    And I wouldn’t rely on anything a law school said about the practice of law. That may sound harsh, but law schools are not populated by practicing lawyers.

    So, what I’d sort of suggest is that you define what you think you want to do in the law, and then see what lawyers who are really in that area have to say. You’ll have get to know them, however, as very few lawyers are really willing to reveal any criticisms to an outsider they do not trust, as that’s not in their economic interest. Anyhow, find those people, and see what they say about their work. Find that out going in, and don’t rely on the school or students to fill in the blanks for you.

  8. I agree that dealing with self-talk is the most effective method for reducing depression.I love your point about our positive feelings not showing up as much.I honestly say that this problem affected my life to the point where I did not want to socialize or speak anywhere in public. I became very shy and often wanted to retreat in private.I started having problems relaxing and sleeping at night for fear the condition would suddenly return without warning while alone or sleeping (I thought it might lead to a depression!).one of mine friend gave me advice for non prescription Xanaxwhich helped me most ,the condition never occurred again.

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