(art by Mara Berendt Friedman)
The name of Woody Allen’s famous character ‘Annie Hall’ comes from the Greek word ‘anhedonia’, meaning an inability to feel pleasure in activities that normally would bring enjoyment. Sylvia Plath likened the experience to being in a bell jar, unable to touch the life around you but looking at it through a glassy remove. Robin Williams recently took his own life, in spite of years of making us laugh until we cried, due to his own struggles with depression and anhedonia.
Days after Williams took his life, a dear friend of mine came to visit who I hadn’t seen for awhile due to distance and the fullness of work and family. She shared with me that she had recently been suicidal and was taken to an inpatient treatment facility and diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. One of the things she said over and over again was that she was revolutionizing her own inner world to accept the diagnoses. She had grown up with ideas about ‘mental illness’, and realized that she needed to change her own understanding as well as reach out to others to help them release the stigma associated with her illness.
The combination of learning of my friend’s situation, and hearing about Robin William’s passing, compelled me to share about my own personal experience with depression in the hopes that it will help those who suffer, and to educate others about how to support and understand this experience in loved ones and community members. According to Lloyd Sederer, MD, in a recent article on Huffington Post, “of the estimated one in 15 who suffer with this condition annually … fewer than half are diagnosed properly or at all, and only half of those get any treatment. One in eight gets good care. This is not because of bad doctors or bad patients. It is the unfortunate consequence of stigma, persistent views of a disease as a character fault, and a very broken health and mental health system.”
Like my friend, I wish to help remove the stigma around depression and change the experience for myself and others, so that more people get the care they need and are able to heal and return to wholeness and vibrancy in their lives.
This is the first of three posts on depression, it’s causes, and ways to support remission (I say remission, because, like cancer, in my experience, once someone has suffered from depression, they have to be vigilant in keeping a balance that does not allow them to fall into the pit of despair again).
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20’s. It was a powerful and painful experience and I count my blessings that I am still alive today to enjoy my beautiful family, friends, community, and all the many blessings and trials that life serves up. There were many factors that played into my own experience with depression. I was making a giant evolution in my life at that time, but I didn’t really have the support I needed to do it (even more, I didn’t know I needed support, let alone how to ask for it). I was estranged from my parents at that time and hadn’t spoken to them in years. I had recently separated from my husband, who I had been in partnership with from age 17 to 25, which meant that I lost my best friend, my family (his family, with whom I had been very close), and my partner. After we separated I began to stay out late with friends and then get up early and go to work, sometimes only getting a couple of hours of sleep. I was terrified of being on my own (even though I had chosen the separation) and began to keep a constant rhythm of movement going, as I was too scared to slow down and face the situation I was in. I just didn’t know how. The combination of lack of sleep, lack of support, and unresolved childhood traumas, combined to create the perfect storm. I began to feel like a seething, oozing, mass of misery, focused only on pain and suffering, and became increasingly isolated as I didn’t feel I could connect with others, even folks who had been my friends for years. All I could do was cry, or talk about how horrible the world seemed to be, so I began to isolate myself even more.
I hadn’t gone straight into college after high school, so I was finishing my bachelor’s degree during the time of my deepest depression. Everything came to a halt one morning when the alarm went off for class and I couldn’t move. I was lying in bed trapped by my mind which kept playing like a broken record, ‘I just want to die. I just want to die. I just want to die’, over and over again. Finally,with supreme effort, I got my body to move and made it to the health clinic at Evergreen State College where I was attending school. I asked to see the counselor, walked into his office, and when he asked me what the problem seemed to be, I just sat in front of him and sobbed. I couldn’t say anything. After some time like this, he inquired if there was someone we could call, someone who could come and get me and take me for some help. I managed to call my parents and could barely talk, all I could choke out was, ‘Will you please come and get me?’ (I had renewed my relationship with my parents after my marriage ended, and at this point had been in contact with them again for about a year). My parents came right away, picked me up and took me home, and I stayed with them for the next few months while I tried to get back on my feet. I began taking Zoloft, an SSRI antidepressant, and slept for almost three days straight. My sleeping patterns became more balanced, I started seeing a counselor regularly, and slowly I began to emerge from the depths of darkness back into the light. It was a long slow process, one that, in many ways, continues to this day.
This might surprise you, but today, I view my experiences with depression as profound gifts. I see it similarly to the story of the goddess Inanna (Queen of Heaven) and her sister Ereshkigal (Queen of the Underworld). In the myth, Inanna descends into the underworld, “From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below”. According to Dan Sewell Ward in his wonderful interpretation of the story, the Sumerian word for ear and wisdom are the same, therefore, Inanna went into the underworld to seek wisdom. She had to divest herself of her worldly possessions and royal accoutrements, arriving in the underworld naked and ready to receive the wisdom for which she was searching and listening so deeply. Depression was like that for me, I lost my sense of connection, my orientation in the world, and deep listening, reckoning, relearning, healing, and wisdom came through the process. It was my own soul, my own deep truth (like Ereshkigal, the sister, or shadow side of Inanna), calling me to a profound initiation from which I might not survive (as is the case with many initiations in traditional cultures throughout the world). However, in surviving the initiation, I returned with greater presence, wisdom, awareness, and compassion than I had when I began the descent.
According to S.B. Perera, in her book ‘Descent to the Goddess’,“All descents provide entry into different levels of consciousness and can enhance life creatively. All of them imply suffering. All of them can serve as initiations. Meditation and dreaming and active imaginations are modes of descent. So too are depressions, anxiety attacks, and experiences with hallucinogenic drugs.”
In spite of the profound blessings of depression, I know without a doubt it is a deeply painful process for the one suffering, and for everyone who loves them. But here, I must add, to quote a musician friend of mine, Jennifer Terran, from her album ‘Born from the Womb of Silence’, in reference to childbirth, “What they call suffering, what they call pain, is really just the secret and the mystery of the big bang.”
Natural childbirth (another form of descent), like depression, is a profound initiation, with inherent danger, and amazing gifts on the other side. In fact, my midwife told the story of Inanna and Ereshkigal at the blessing way for my son, which is where I first heard the story, many years after my experience with clinical depression.
There are several ways that I deal with my propensity towards depression today that help me to maintain balance, and that will be the subject of the next two posts in this series.
May you and your loved ones find peace. May your suffering be the instigator of positive transformation, insight, and renewed joy and love of life. May you be supported by your loved ones, by your angels and guides, and by the presence of the natural world. May you feel whole. May you be blessed. ~Liz
(from the British Museum collection, Inanna Queen of Heaven)