I’ve read many articles and books on clinical depression. Thankfully it’s a topic that is addressed more and more openly in our culture. Yet there is still a stigma surrounding it in terms of speaking about it. Unlike a condition like diabetes, or COPD, or even cancer, depression carries with it the aspect of shame and something to be hidden or whispered about.
I’ve been managing clinical depression for decades. This condition has its tendrils throughout my family. In my nuclear family my brother, my mother, father and daughter all have battled with at one time or another. My understanding is that it is commonly hereditary. It certainly seems to be in my case. The phenomenon is far-reaching.
It has been a battle for most of my life. I can trace it back to early childhood when I would feel the need to isolate myself, or would have long bouts of tears for no apparent reason. I had very low self-esteem at a young age, which went hand in hand with the episodes of depression that began early and followed me into adolescence, early adulthood and into my middle and later years.
Ordinarily I am known as a pretty vivacious and gregarious person. I love to laugh and spend time with family and friends. I’m a good listener and a compassionate presence. My husband and I have a wonderful life and people who know us often envy our marriage. Materially we have everything we need and more and enjoy our life tremendously in spite of limited financial resources. My work is a great gift and I’m blessed with the time to pursue many of the interests and passions I once had to set aside for other more pressing pursuits like a fulltime job and parenting. I’ve certainly have had my challenges, ups and downs, gains and losses and continue to work at navigating the curveballs that often come. I’ve gained wisdom over the years and continue to be curious learner and a spiritual seeker.
All of that said, when the clouds of depression gather it’s easy to look at the wonderful state of my life and wonder how on earth I could ever be depressed. In fact that thought often exacerbates an already blooming bout of depression. As many like me report, the onset often accompanies the changing seasons from summer into the winter months. At times it begins like a creeping fog around the end of August or early September barely noticeable and often ignored since the symptoms are subtle at that point and easy to blow off as little rumbles. That’s how it started this time.
The creep began in late August when summer was waning. I began to notice some changes in my energy, extra sensitivity to my surroundings, some sadness at the end of long days and short nights, flowers dying off and trees beginning to change. I love the colors of Fall, yet this year it was reminding me of the tremendous challenges we were facing a year ago and I felt my emotions reflecting on the loss, sadness, chaos and anger that were all part of last year’s events, the events that subsequently brought us to this point. Thankfully I was about to start working with a new therapist and I felt hopeful that I would bypass any sort of downward spiral from “anniversary syndrome”. Ironically our 25th wedding anniversary was on October 14th and we fully expected it would be celebrated with a bang. We were also anticipating a 10-day trip to Sedona at the end of the month as our gift to each other, so there was much to celebrate and anticipate. Unfortunately my expectations were far greater than the reality and the day came and went with very little “bang”…it was more like a little “poof”. I made the mistake of creating some unrealistic expectations that fell flat and when they fell they took my teetering emotions with them. Any hope I’d had of avoiding the spiral was dashed that week and I could feel my footing slipping all over the place. We did go to Sedona and it was a wonderful trip, one of the best we ever had. Unfortunately, the spiral came along and while it wasn’t dominant, it was there and felt. Upon our return it began to spin and the pull began. Shortly after we got home my husband learned that the job that saved him and us a year ago would be coming to an end and he needed to reignite his job search. This brought up some old feelings for both of us and I began to worry that it might usurp the progress my beloved husband had made in recovering from a nightmare experience he’d had in his previous job. I knew my own emotional
well-being was teetering and held fast to the hope that his was more firmly rooted. Thankfully he was/is in good form and is well along the way in his search, with a great attitude and some real prospects.
I, on the other hand, in spite of bringing forth all of the tools I know to employ when the darkness looms, have been making a slow and consistent slide downward, accompanied by the always present guilt and anxiety that goes along for the ride. I thought I was hanging in there and could possibly minimize the trip to the “dark side” when I had a deeply disturbing encounter with a friend that essentially pushed me over, and I landed fully in the downward momentum of my spiraling emotions where I now find myself. I can sense that light is nearby, but right now I simply can’t seem to reach it consistently. The holiday season carries its own challenges and I have been plodding through the dense fog of depression in order to try to be present with my family and friends in their celebrations, even coming up a bit and poking my head out of the dark cave. Yet when I do, it seems as if there is a vacuum that pulls me back into that place and wraps me in a swirling energy of doubt, sadness, suspicion, and negativity.
Luckily, this isn’t my first go with depression. I’ve been in this cave before and managed to crawl out. I know the drill and in some ways I am luckier than others since I know I’ll survive it. Some people call an episode like this a “dark night of the soul”. I remember hearing this term during my seminary training and wondered if some of my trips to the cave qualified. I’ve since learned that for me episodes of depression that take me this deep absolutely qualify as “dark nights of the soul” and have a slightly different quality than those that come and go and hover somewhat higher in depth.
themystic.org defines The Dark Night of the Soul this way: “The dark night occurs after considerable advancement toward higher consciousness. Indeed, the dark night usually occurs like an initiation before one of these special seekers is admitted into regular relationship with higher consciousness. The dark night also occurs to those who do not seek relationship but immersion or unity in the higher consciousness. While the term dark night of the soul is used broadly, its general meaning — in the field of higher consciousness — is a lengthy and profound absence of light and hope. In the dark night you feel profoundly alone.”
It goes on to describe various characteristics: “You see the principles of a higher power at work in your life. Yet, all in all, you find yourself somehow painfully on the outside. You feel caught between your old way of living, your old tendencies and associations, and this nebulous, unreachable realm of higher consciousness.”
The article continues with great accuracy to describe how this way of being manifests, and depression certainly is a worthy tagalong for the process. I’ve been here before.
For me, there has been a notable difference between deep clinical depression and the Dark Night experience. Twice in my life I have found myself in deep clinical depression. This is a place from which it seems there is no doorway out. And for some there is no real desire to come out. That’s how it was for me. I had gotten so far away from light that being in the darkness was where I wanted to stay. It felt safer than the alternative. It was pathological and dangerous, and I was quite ill. Thankfully I had the right people, the right support, abundant love and a great doctor to help me find my way back. It took time and after the second episode I made a solemn promise to myself that I’d never go there again and haven’t. This means I have chosen to recognize the symptoms, acknowledge them, and treat them with respect and appropriate measures. I will not go there again.
And yet, depression is part of my make-up as are some other maladies that I routinely acknowledge and accept as part of the deal. Acceptance is the first step in healing. And by healing I don’t mean curing. To me healing is a term that applies to the ethereal body rather than the physical body. And each time I emerge from a state of depression or Dark Night, I emerge healed in some way. This healing brings with it wisdom and peace. I’m looking forward to that.
For now I’m here in my Dark Night/Depression cocktail. This condition does not respond to platitudes and slogans. How did I arrive here? It’s a long laundry list of circumstances that brought me, beginning about three years ago when my father passed away, followed by a series of circumstances that lined up one after the other and simply didn’t allow me the “luxury” of a full blown breakdown. Instead we installed the “keep going” program to get through it all, putting any sort of breakdown at the bottom of the “To Do” list. One platitude that I will coin here is this: “What you resist persists”, hence the Dark Night of the Soul experience makes it way into the picture and voila, we stop and the spiral takes hold. It feels in some ways like a Law of the Universe. Sooner or later we must stop and be there, wherever “there” is, which will be unique for each person. I am “there”.
The good news about a Dark Night experience, and my present combo plate is that, primarily, I have a support system that is impeccable. I have my best friend and Love who understands and supports unconditionally; I have exemplary medical care that incorporates all manner of healing modalities; I have close family and trusted friends who understand my process and see me and my unique process; and I accept that the process is unfolding in its time and I am allowing the time and space for it do so. The dichotomy here is that this is both the hard part and the easy part. Hard because it’s lonely in here and I feel disconnected from pretty much everything. Easy, because there is nothing else for me to do but surrender to the process. Some days I can go through the motions. Some days not. But, life goes on and my heart still beats, I breathe, I live. I am grateful. History has shown that the light does return and with it comes insight, wisdom, and transformation.
In closing I offer another quote from themystic.org: “You, in passing successfully through the dark night, enter the realms of higher consciousness. You’ve been cleansed of the most deep-rooted sickness: your ignorance of your true nature and your inadequate, often totally wrong opinion of who you are. You now cease your inner conflict and abide serenely in your true nature. The night is over. The dawn of a new life in higher consciousness transforms your bleak life of the past few months into one with a heavenly nature. You have been delivered of the intolerable bondage to ego. Henceforth, you will walk the earth seeing others afresh, living a new life, and abiding in your true nature. You have become a son or daughter of higher consciousness. Now your words and actions will be attuned with your true self. Now you express inspiration and comfort.
The dark night has passed. It is over.”
My hope is that discussions about mental health, the challenges of depression, and The Dark Night of the Soul will increase so that care becomes easily available and consciousness is raised. We are all on the Path in one way or another and when we meet we can honor each other’s trials and triumphs with a deeper understanding.
In the meantime I remain in my cocoon until such time as I emerge with my wings extended fully and I fly once again.
Peace and blessings. ~ FD