I don't think anybody who hasn't been through depression knows what it's like to be frightened out of your mind every day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep...terrified that something is happening to you and not knowing what to do. You are in a dark wood; there isn't a path. Nobody is saying 'Go that way.'" Nobody is saying anything.
This is a quote from Lord Melvyn Bragg, a veteran broadcaster of the former South Bank television show (UK) who suffered several bouts of clinical depression, the first one occurring at 14 years old. I found the quote while doing research on depression and it resonated with me, because I too have been in that dark wood as a child and an adult, and I have known that obstinate grip of fear.
Most of my depressions have been existential in nature. I experienced my first episode as a senior in high school when I experienced such intense bouts of ennui, I began to think life had no purpose, immediate or otherwise. I was grappling with a hefty dose of uncertainty as well; I would be going to college in the fall and the sheltered life I lived under my parents' roof would be ending. I remember driving to the mall one January evening, looking at the night sky, feeling as if the car were careening off the surface of the Earth into the vacuousness of space, and it was only a matter of time before I plummeted. I told no one because I was quite certain no one else around me had experienced such angst, but also, I was terrified to speak of it because of what others might think. So I hid it and waited patiently for it to subside, and luckily, months later, it did, after I made the transition to college.
With every new depressive episode, however, I seem to be getting closer to understanding the components. There's usually a trigger, like an impending change, or a profound dissatisfaction with something. Ennui is a key element because it promotes rumination, the modus operandi of depression. Other elements include isolation, rejection, self-criticism, lack of faith, hormones and seasons. Also, it's no secret that depression is common among creative people. According to Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins, artists are eight times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. Neuroscientist Nancy Andresan claims that depression is intertwined with "a cognitive style that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art."
At the heart of this cognitive style is persistence. Andresan conducted a study on 30 writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and discovered that "successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won't go down. They'll stick with it until it's right." And here that inner critic damning everything you do is useful; as Jonah Lehrer says in his NY Time article "Depression's Upside," it's that belaboring inner critic that produces a more refined prose: "the sentences <are> polished by our angst."
The problem of depression for creative people begins when there is no creative vision. It's that feeling of discovery, the clues that point to fruition of a vision that keeps the artist/writer coming back, tolerating blows of rejection and a society unreceptive to the creative life. When apathy strikes and there is no vision, the persistence that drives a creative mind to wander along its inward journey despite all else is the same persistence that allows for the recursive thought patterns of woe. In my novel A Portal to Vibrancy, I call these recursive negative thoughts a "creativity perverse."
In the novel, Jackie, the artist protagonist, speaks of "the devil," a serpentine creature who embodies all of her negative impulses. (If you're a Catholic, this isn't far-fetched). In the beginning of the novel, these impulses or thoughts consist mainly of temptation, like stealing a Reese's peanut butter cup from the drugstore, and sexual acts. Later in the novel, the devil matures along with Jackie and becomes so prominent "he" strikes her down at every turn and is like an oil slick moving into the rippling tides of her thoughts, destroying her clarity, forging guilt, and forcing her into alienation. In this way, Jackie's inner devil is a metaphor for clinical depression.
At this point in the novel, Jackie is not exercising her creativity and the inner critic that would normally keep her focused on perfecting creative tasks has no immediate artistic vision, is out of control, and paving a path of destruction:
Farin and I lie in his bed looking at the ceiling where there is longitudinal cracking in the plaster. I am wide awake and vibrating with fear. The panic comes not only with subway rides but mornings as well. Farin gets up, gets dressed; he wants to start his day, has things to do that don’t include me, favors he must do for his sister or the Dutch woman. I am terrified of him leaving me, of being alone. My mind has divided in two, one side me, the other side, something treacherous. This treacherous thing has me cornered inside my own head. It says that if I don’t watch it, I am going to kill myself.
Like Jackie, depressed people closely adhere to the diatribes and fears of the inner reptile; they are in the dark wood. There is a way out, however.
John D. Dunne, PhD, co-director of Emory University's Contemplative Practices and Studies program is studying the effects of mindfulness and compassion on depressed patients. He exclaims that depressed people "hold onto (negative) thoughts very, very strongly" and "the goal of mindfulness meditation and compassion is to end this self-focus, this negative tone."
The physics of compassion-as-anti-depressant make sense, whether the compassion be received or given. Compassion requires empathy, the ability to see self in other; in this way it eradicates the isolation effect of depression and promotes a sense of connectedness. In A Portal to Vibrancy, Jackie begins to break the cycle of negative self-focus by committing a compassionate act: she plants a garden to lure her agoraphobic grandmother out of her house:
Citronella candles highlight the chins of women, aunts, cousins, women talking about other people's problems, divorced women, abusive men, alcoholics, people not present, "other" people who have screwed up their lives. The possibility that I have become an "other" person flashes across my mind, but I don't focus on it. I focus instead on the garden and my grandmother bending over so I can see the elastic bands of her nylons just below the rim of her cotton house dress. She was in that garden a lot. I decide I am going to recreate my grandfather's garden. I do this for reasons besides my need for vibrancy. I do this because I want to heal my grandmother of the fear disease.
Jackie's compassionate act is meaningful to her and not entirely unselfish. If she can help her grandmother out of the dark wood, then she can help herself. The fact that it is a meaningful act is key.
Mindfulness is also a way of cultivating compassion. By sitting and being with your feelings, they often lose their edge and you begin to see them for what they are, just feelings. This instills well-being while also cultivating compassion; if you can get past your own demons, you would like to see others do the same. But Dunne's cohort Charles L. Raison, MD asserts that "many people with mood disorders find they can't do meditation when they're depressed. Their thoughts are too overwhelming. They are anxious, nervous, and can't sit - and likely they need antidepressants." While I have experienced this first hand, my conviction is that the use of an antidepressant alone is not the answer. Depressives need to not only right their brain chemistry through medication, they need to alter their belief systems with new practices; they need to see that compassion is a valid way of life and positivity has a momentum as well. Good begets good, eventually.