My first bout was when I was ten years old.
I remember lying on my mum’s bed alone, with an entire summer holidays ahead of me feeling so low I could barely move.
And since then I’ve experienced many extensive periods of severe depression. I class it as ‘severe’ when I was unable to take care of myself, go to work or pretty much function as a human. Some of these debilitating bouts lasted a good few months.
I’ve definitely experienced depression.
I’ve watched lectures called ‘Depression’, chatted with many friends about their experiences and to quote Ron Burgundy have read ‘many leather bound books’ on the subject.
So, I should, in theory, know exactly what depression is, right?
Well not really no, because what I read, what I experience and what I hear from others comes together to form a very confusing and blurry understanding of what this phenomenon we call depression actually is and how it accumulates. It’s a complex disease no doubt about it. There are many variables to what may cause it, to what degree it is experienced and how exactly you alleviate the illness within you. Sometimes I hear: ‘just work out and you’ll be fine’ (definitely from people who have never been crippled by it no doubt) and other times: ‘medication, medication, medication!’.
So, what is depression? How does a person get depression and how can we heal?
Let’s have a little look at what’s out there.
DEFINE IT PLEASE.
When I try to describe depression I say something like: ‘it’s like you’re treading water in a vast ocean of time, you have no idea which way to go and each direction seems like a momentous ultra marathon’. Essentially you have no energy to look after yourself and no ability to foster any joy in anything you are doing.
You have lost the ability to feel.
Robert Sapolsky, a legend in the field of Biology and Stanford Professor who spends his summers observing baboons in the hills of Kenya describes depression as:
“A biochemical disorder, with a genetic component, with early exposure experiences that makes it so someone can’t appreciate sunsets.”
I love this description. It’s very useful to use at a dinner party should anyone be attempting to understand the mental health epidemic we have on our hands. But it shows there’s a lot to unpack.
But do not worry we’re going to get some clarity. I promise.
The most compelling description I have heard is from Dr Gabor Mate, who explains that depression isn’t an emotion, it’s a state of mind and de-pression means to ‘push down’. So the person is pushing down their emotions as a way of coping with them. This really resonated with me and explains the numbness that is felt in depression.
But, why would a person push down their emotions?
Well we’d have to jump back to childhood when the brain was developing in response to its environment and parental relationships to understand that. This stuff genuinely blew my mind. If you were brought up in a family that lacked intimacy and honesty surrounding feelings, then it’s likely you repress ‘uncomfortable emotions’.
This became very clear to me when recently I was sat in the car with a friend on the way to pick up my cat who was very ill and being put down. The journey was filled with small talk and tense silence for each of us had an inability to express what we were feeling in the presence of one another. I totally withdrew when I got in the car. I felt powerless to this knee jerk reaction.
A child needs two things in their developmental years: Love (affection) and Authenticity (true expression of their intuition). Now if the child is in the presence of a loving mother (or primary caregiver, for convenience I will use the term ‘mother’) who experienced lots of unprocessed childhood trauma herself this can cause real issues.
For example: if the child is authentically expressing the emotion of anger for e.g. ‘not getting a dessert after dinner’ the mother will shut down and turn off her love/affection if she is uncontrollably triggered by rage (due to her upbringing). The mother then sends the message to the child: ‘angry babies don’t get dessert’. But the child receives the message as: ‘angry babies don’t get love‘.
So, what does the child do?
The child shuts off the connection with their own intuition. With their authentic self. So they can receive love. And this is where the foundation for a depressed adult begins! When we neglect our own authenticity.
Just think about it: The opposite of depression is expression.
And this is why ‘the essence of trauma is the loss of self‘. And therefore healing trauma is referred to as ‘coming home to oneself’.
So humans can push down their emotions. And gradually over time we experience the consequences of neglecting to feel these feelings. But where do they go? They don’t just disappear. The emotional residue remains buried deep into the psyche and can do for many years, whilst the person does everything in their power to keep it there. But like hot air, emotion rises, and eventually it will break through to the surface in one way or another. This is why the healing of childhood trauma is formulated on the premise of actually giving yourself the support you never received as a child, for whatever reason, and through this support you send the message to these ‘trapped feelings’ (inner child) that it’s okay, it’s okay to feel. I’m here. This is why yoga, meditation, dance and anything that get’s you moving and out of your head can play an important role in healing, for they bypass the rational mind and can open up a space for buried emotions to be released. They are vulnerable practices and it’s no wonder some people stay very clear of them. If you do not have a support system or you haven’t developed the capacity to support yourself, doing this type of inner work can be dangerous. You are going to places you have never been, feeling things you have refused to feel, initially as a coping mechanism but as time has gone on, the trapped feelings cause long term affects: addictions and dysfunction within the brain.
And dysfunction breeds more dysfunction. Family to family. Generation to generation. The unprocessed trauma can reek havoc and suck the life out of people and cause people with the best intentions to play a part in their own families misery. However, ‘it didn’t start with you, but it can stop with you’ (Mark Wolynn).
And this is the most wonderful thing, for there is a way to break the spell.
We can heal.
How do we heal from our past?
This to me is one of the most invigorating questions. I was someone who went to therapy for four years, meditated, exercised regularly but I still felt this underlying unsettledness and emptiness. All of that stuff was helping to give me relief from my pain but it felt like the pain was still there. I was merely distracting myself from looking at my deeper patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that were all coming together to form a cluster of insecurity and unworthiness (a complex).
According to James Hollis, a complex is:
“a cluster of energy in the unconscious, charged by historic events, reinforced through repetition, embodying a fragment of our personality, and generating a programmed response and an implicit set of expectations”
Oh goodness I can relate to that! This fear, this cluster of energy (I think of it like the green squiggly thing in the film ‘Flubber’) truly does have a life of it’s own. It needs very little evidence to fuel stories in my mind that do nothing but make me feel fearful and horrid. Seeing it for what it truly is and where it comes from is the start of healing. The complex that breeds the thoughts, that leads to the feelings and finishes with an action to get rid of the feelings isn’t rooted in reality! It’s rooted in the past. But each time it fools me into thinking it’s me.
How do we heal a complex?
Seeing is the kryptonite. Once you see something you can’t not see it. (Check out the Fed Ex logo and you’ll freak once you notice ‘the arrow’.) Turning towards our pain and giving it the space to live so it may die. Doing this is an act of radical compassion, for we are facing all the parts of ourselves that we have neglected and showing this shadow it has a part in our wholeness.
As I began to examine what I was doing and thinking on a day to day basis (Dr Mate calls this ‘compassionate enquiry’) some distance between myself and my thoughts started to open up. It was in this space that I’ve been able to disrupt the patterns that kept leading me to the same place over and over. I took myself on a solo retreat in October and this was the first time I had ever spent extensive time with myself without any form of distraction. It completely shifted the direction of my entire being towards this pain. It would be wonderful if ‘I’m working on myself’ was a more common and respected answer to ‘what are you up to at the moment?’. The relationship we have with ourselves is the foundation upon which we experience every moment of our lives. There is nothing more important you could be doing with your time (in my opinion). And this is where all healing begins.
‘The person you’ve been waiting for this entire time is you’.
(Got the above from Katherine Coder’s incredible book on healing).
If the opposite of depression is expression then we need to feel in order to heal (this is from Dr Edith Eger). And that raises the question:
What is getting in the way of me feeling emotions?
The answer: everything that distracts you from the present moment.
When our minds are still we open up the gates of our being and it’s in this space thoughts and feelings can arise. Unfortunately though in the current world we live in and the way it functions you will have to carve out your own time to heal.
When I went on retreat I disrupted the physiological dopamine-reward cycle I was stuck in. Whenever I felt a pang of emptiness or discomfort I’d reach for my phone, for a snack (hummous till I die), for a youtube video etc. etc. and then the feeling doesn’t get felt, it gets neglected and unheard. But this time I decided to not pick up my phone or do anything to distract myself and I felt withdrawal. There was resistance of course! For when you’re releasing old patterns, something has to die and be reborn. I was making a shift from short-term gains to long-term gains and in the short-term this is tough. There was a huge pull to use my tool of distraction but because I had reached a point where I was so fed up with feeling how I was feeling I had the blind will to step into the unknown.
And I got a glimmer of a life minus abundance.
A life where a shower, a cup of tea, a walk, it was all enough! I began to focus on nature and feel entertained, feel at one with it all, the stillness made it’s way into my entire being and I knew my life was changed forever because I could never return. Awareness had awoken. I was starting to grow up. For not knowing ourselves is the essence of being a child and I had discovered a willingness to feel and most importantly listen to my emotions and my pain. And when I did, I could see that the feelings weren’t trying to hurt me! They were trying to guide me to a more wholesome version of myself. Is there anything more benevolent than this? And it’s in this understanding that compassion is born. Compassion for the self and for others. And an understanding that there is no such thing as problems, there are only challenges and in each challenge there is a gift if we are willing to remain open to receiving it.
When I returned back to modern life, this is where the journey home truly began. A journey I’m still on. But for the first time I can say with no doubt in my mind that I’m heading in the right direction.
Below are some videos from some of the people responsible for the incredible work that I’ve written about above. I have also included a list of healing modalities for anyone interested.
Robert Sapolsky on Depression
Dr Edith Eger
Dr Gabor Maté
After The Ceremony Ends by Katherine E Coder
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn