Depression as an Opportunity for Emotional and Spiritual Transformation

Dear Liz,

So over the past few months I haven’t felt like myself.  I’ve realized I’m not the happy, outgoing girl I used to be. I barely ever hang out with friends, and when it comes to making a decision on something simple, I tend to get overly frustrated and break down. I’m afraid to talk to my mom about this because it may not even be a big deal to her. And in the past when I have struggled with my weight, both my parents would tell me I’m too skinny and yell at me to eat more. I don’t know if that plays a role in this situation, and my happiness—I just want this feeling of helplessness to go away. I don’t know how to tell my mom, and need some advice.

Dear Friend,

I can actually feel how much you are suffering, and I am so very sorry.  May I also say how proud of you I am—feelings like you’ve been having often make us feel ashamed and lead us to isolate ourselves, but you reached out, and that shows strength.  I will give you my best in terms of helpful advice, but I am not a certified therapist, so I encourage you to use this column as just one of many resources.

The small bit of information you shared suggests to me that you are depressed.  Feeling helpless, withdrawing, breaking down over small decisions, means we’ve lost the ability to access our inherent life-resources—we’ve become disconnected from them, and in order to restore our ready access to them, we need to do some work, work that in large part is spiritual in nature.  Depression is the end result of unresolved pain.  Whether it is our childhood environment, the messages we internalized in that environment, a more “tangible” trauma, or some combination of the three, when feelings overwhelm our ability to process them and release them, we survive by turning off to them—it’s a sub-conscious maneuver “to avoid,” so to say.  And yet the very process of distancing from those feelings creates disconnect from our true Self, the very source of our healing.  So the recovery process involves “turning back on” so we can re-connect with our Self.  This means plunging into the epicenter of locked away pain, and feeling it.

After reading your question several times, I also felt concerned about the relationship you have with your mom and dad.  While I imagine the struggle you had with your weight worried them, thus the “yelling” to get you to eat more, for you it probably seemed that they missed the bigger picture.  Issues around body and weight almost always involve a deep emotional component, and it seems that piece may have gone unseen.  You also shared, I don’t know how to tell my mom.  While I know how busy and overwhelmed a mom can get, as a mother myself it is difficult for me to imagine my own daughter exhibiting such significant changes in behavior, as you’ve described, and my not noticing.  The cornerstone of maternal energy is the ability to intuit and respond—to feel the child’s interior life and connect.  So I am concerned that either your mom is “emotionally unavailable,” or that you are protecting her from what’s going on with you.

A parent can be emotionally unavailable as a result of their own emotionally burdened interior life, and if that is the case with your own mom, then your depression likely has roots in that unavailability.  Our home of origin shapes our psychological and emotional health—when our interior life goes unseen, our healthy connection to it wanes.  I suggest that you reach out to your mom, if only to place this column in her hands.  She might not react just as you need her to, but do your best to remember that she is human, and your struggles might very well stir personal pain for her—sometimes opening to another means opening to our own fractures, and that can feel too threatening to do.  So be as open and vulnerable as you are able, let her know how much you need her, but be prepared to address your depression without the support you may be hoping for.

With or without your mom by your side, your task at hand is to address the immediate helplessness you feel, which will likely bring you back in time–depression is almost always an invitation to scan our childhood and resolve any pain that may be tripping us up in the present.  Which brings me to my second piece of advice:  it is important for you to connect with a therapist.  A skilled therapist will gently walk you back into yourself, and she will have insights that I am unable to have, because I don’t know the intimate details of your life.  If going to therapy is not an option for you, for any reason, please send me another note and explain what the challenges are, and I will try and connect you with appropriate resources.  If you are still in high school, remember that you can reach out to your guidance counselor or the school psychologist.  If you are a college student, you can receive counseling sessions free of cost, on campus.

Steps to take when depressed

You are not alone in your suffering.  Depression is exceedingly common, and in large part I suspect its commonality has its roots in the very condition of being human.  Depression is a nuanced experience, and each person needs a little something different, in terms of how to go about getting better.  What I am sharing below are suggestions that I believe any depressed person could benefit from.  For now, your goal is to make small efforts, despite your suffering, and to persevere in those efforts.  Here’s what I suggest:

  1. First, come to understand what depression is: once you comprehend what is going on inside of you, you will feel more confident that this is a temporary condition.
  2. Scan your life, your childhood, with the greatest level of honesty you can bear: this is essential work, but as I’ve already suggested, it’s work best done with a therapist.  When we confront the questions:  Was I seen…was I genuinely loved, we need to feel safe.  We also need to give this work time.
  3. Begin to ask yourself the deeper questions about your life: What do you want your life to look like?  To feel like?  What do you long for?  What would bring true meaning to your life?  Once you can envision the life you want, imagine how you would feel when it comes to pass…then stay in that feeling as much as you can, and the universe will respond.
  4. Read helpful books: I read Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life years ago, and have gone on to recommend it to students with great success.
  5. Walk far, and walk in nature (and leave your iPod and phone at home):  nature gives us a protective, contemplative space to heal.

The short term goal is to improve the quality of your life day by day, as you do the “big picture” long term work with a therapist.  Think of this investment in your emotional life as a way to take care of yourself at a time when you are likely feeling not so special.   If your instinct for self-care is gone, then try this:  take care of you the way you’d take care of a hungry, unwell, abandoned newborn kitten (most of us, long after we’ve lost touch with the instinct for self-care, have the ability to access the resources that would enable us to care for a creature so needy, so vulnerable).

What is depression?

One way to think about depression is that it is grief gone unfelt, unresolved, and it is usually a grief over something that is primal in its essentiality.

My favorite succinct definition of depression comes from Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child.  Miller describes depression as the inability to spontaneously feel.  When we come into this world, we are permitted to feel uninterrupted. Just observe the average baby or early toddler—they giggle, wince, cry, yell, tantrum, pout…children, when permitted, will let us know everything they’re feeling, and to respect their reactions and feelings is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children—it keeps them healthy—it keeps the connection between their developing consciousness and their Spirit clear.

But many of us lose the ability to spontaneously feel early on, for any number of reasons.  Spontaneous feeling frequently disarms parents and leaves them feeling frustrated, out of control, and emotionally vulnerable themselves.  This can result in a parent denying their child’s feelings, dismissing the feelings, judging the feelings, or punishing the feelings:  “stop crying or you can go sit in your room…”  This sort of emotional unavailability is a “quiet” form of negligence, and is usually the result of the unconscious narcissism of the less than whole parent.  In a less than healthy emotional environment, children learn to turn inward, to shut down a bit, in order to protect themselves from the self-consciousness, the shame, of feeling and expressing—of just being who they are.  Children readily learn that the adult’s emotional life trumps theirs, but this is a deeply internalized, sub-conscious learning.  As young people, the default position is that there is something wrong with us, even when the truth is, there was something not so right with the adults in our life.

We can also experience trauma in our childhood:  abuse, abandonment, ongoing bullying…when the pain is too much, children are brilliantly adept at shutting down, turning off, and protecting their psyche from a pain overload.  Again, this is an unconscious act, and perhaps an act of saving grace in the moment, but if we stay shut down, this state inevitably leads us into a depressed adult existence, not to mention emotionally unavailable to the children we might then go on to have.

When a child’s emotional life is harmed, when a child’s life has been painful, and that pain is repressed, that child loses their ability to stay connected to their true Self, and when that happens, the joy slowly leaks out, and is replaced with indifference, or anger, or sadness…and eventually depression.

It does need to be said that we can experience a trauma at any age, and be catapulted from healthy into a depressed state.  Rape, miscarriage, getting blind-sided by divorce papers, etc.  Trauma does not necessarily spare those of a more mature age.  But once depressed, we are in the midst of a chronic state of sustaining the repression of un-felt feelings, and this feat requires inordinate energy—it’s exhausting, which is why we often lack energy for life when we are depressed.

The unique condition of being human

I struggled a lot with whether or not to end my response to you right here.  Truth be told, a well-qualified therapist, good books, and long walks in nature will likely restore you to the happy, engaged, young woman you once were.  And yet, it felt to me that if I ended there, my response was nothing short of hollow.  How could my advice be full and genuine, if I side-stepped one of the most important aspects of depression, which is that depression is a gift?  You see, the gift of depression comes in the form of an invitation, a plea actually, to consider the very spiritual nature of your existence.  And so, if I may, I’d like to translate that invite.

We are all spiritual beings having a human experience, and the experience of being human means we have to contend with EGO.  Ego develops as the mind/intellect develops.  The problem is, EGO is restricted by reason as informed by the five senses, thus EGO has a hard time with all things spiritual.  So imagine that—you’re a spiritual being living in a body with a mind/EGO that has a hard time with all things spiritual!  Imagine the chronic internal disturbance that tension creates…that is the condition of being human.

With respect to depression, EGO both creates it and perpetuates it.  This is because EGO attaches meaning to feeling.  It’s not a feeling, in and of itself, that is problematic, but the meaning that tags along with the feeling.  Generating the meaning is the work of EGO, and in this way, EGO exploits the darkest experiences of our life.

Let me give you an example:  Imagine your boyfriend breaks up with you.  This is obviously painful—you heart feels heavy, you are sad and you grieve.  Feeling those feelings is a natural and healthy response to loss.  Ideally, we “spontaneously feel” until the feelings are fully experienced and then let go of—that is optimal emotional health.  But if those particular feelings experienced after a break-up have already had meaning attached to them, then we are set up to “get stuck.”

For example:  Our boyfriend breaks up with us, and that loss brings up the same feeling we had when our father abandoned us.  Catch is, the feeling about dad’s abandonment also carries this meaning with it:  I’m not worth sticking around for; I’m not worthwhile; I’m not lovable.  Now, when our boyfriend breaks up with us, we’re right back in the meaning that comes with being left:  I’m unlovable, or something of the like.  The meaning is re-experienced, like a low grow grade buzz we need to press down—we press it down because to let it rise up is too threatening—that’s the stuck point, and thus we are set up for depression.

So the spiritual work we need to do when depressed is to become aware of the internal tension between EGO and our spiritual Self, and when we spot EGO at work, in all its many versions, we need to gently dismiss it.  Each time we do this, we actively remove the layers of illusion that serve to maintain the disconnect from our true Self.  This is essential work, because there can be no complete healing from depressive disorders until we intimately connect with our true Self.

Every human being engages in the following existential experiences, be it consciously or not.  We can engage these experiences through EGO or through our true Self, though most of us habitually engage them through EGO, because that is what is modeled for us through family, culture, peers, etc.

  1. How we experience our existence
  2. How we understand our own purpose
  3. How we experience the happenings of our life
  4. How we engage with “death awareness.”

If we bring our EGO to these existential experiences, then we end up with these false beliefs:

  1. We are isolated beings, alone, disconnected
  2. Personal worth is a measurable commodity
  3. An “eye for an eye” brings justice
  4. Life is hard
  5. Time is real, and one day you will cease to exist.

If our true Self is able to engage with those existential experiences, we end up with very different beliefs:

  1. My true Self and the Self of every other person has its origin in the Divine.
  2. Worth cannot be given or taken away—I am worth, by virtue of my existence.
  3. Compassion brings justice
  4. I am safe in the circumstances of my life.
  5. Eternal means no beginning, no end. Our true Self is eternal.

You may need to read these over a number of times, because EGO is very seductive, has lots of “rational bravado,” and has no interest in being abandoned.  Stick with it.

Let me end with this:  You are not happy.  I understand.  I know that pain, the weight of your despair.  Here is a promise:  if you shift your perception of your depression, if you can see it as an invitation to fall into the unconditional clarity and Love of your true Self, then hope will be present as you work to restore yourself.  Trust me, you will not only get to the other side of your depression, but if you become one with your true Self, you will unearth a peace, a trust, a quiet joy so big it will swallow you whole.

You are loved.

Love, Liz

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