Thinking About Depression

Dear N.,

I am sorry you are so miserable. “Depression'” means literally “being forced downwards.” This can happen even when you don’t consciously have any feeling at all of being “on top”! So I wouldn’t dismiss this hypothesis out of hand. If I had to live in a foreign country, I would seek out one or two people who seemed amiable and would make myself useful to them, so that libido came to me from outside, even though in a somewhat primitive form, say of a dog wagging its tail. I would raise animals and plants and find joy in their thriving. I would surround myself with beauty – no matter how primitive and artless – objects, colours, sounds. I would eat and drink well. When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me, for in excessu affectus [in an excess of affect or passion] Nature reverses herself. I wold turn in rage against myself and with the heat of my rage I would melt my lead. I would renounce everything and engage in the lowest activities should my depression drive me to violence. I would wrestle with the dark angel until he dislocated my hip. For he is also the light and the blue sky which he withholds from me.

Anyway that is what I would do. What others would do is another question, which I cannot answer. But for you too there is an instinct either to back out of it or to go down to the depths. But no half-measures or half-heartedness.

A letter by C.G.Jung on 9 March 1959, C.G. Jung, Letters, p. 492-493

I’ve been doing this blog for awhile, and I do not fool myself that it has a huge number of readers.  On the other hand, I do get some very wonderful responses, and that means a lot, because I have this compulsion to tell the truth and be exactly who I am, here. and that seems to make some people relax and feel that they can be themselves, too.  I also get a number of letters from people who are in pain or confusion, who want advice.  I am a psychologist who is not currently psychologizing, i.e., in practice.  I am writing a book, and I happen to be ill and disabled, which is another interesting experience… but I digress.

As I said, I hear from people who want advice, and given the time and freedom I have, I usually try to help, even if it is to try to point them in the right direction of getting the help they need from a more appropriate source.  So I am, today, thinking about depression, in response to several conversations I’m having.  I also tend toward depression, but I suppose most introverts do.  I’m one of those introverts who is good at appearing an extrovert, though, and it’s the same when I’m depressed:  no one will believe me!

Well, then.  Depression.  So many theories!  I really like Dr. Jung’s words above; he always goes right to the depths, and depression, perhaps more than any other disorder, is a profoundly existential and spiritual problem.  Or is it a problem?  Perhaps crisis is the better word, in that crisis connotes opportunity, and although it can seem like the ultimate dead end, depression can lead one to a tremendous alchemical change if, as the good doctor says, one does not try to run from it.

The question is, though, how do we know when our depression is of this kind–a spiritual emergency, as it were–as compared to what might be called situational?  For instance, many of the depressed people I have worked with over the years have been very angry people.  Depression, “they” say, is anger turned inward.  Get in touch with what you’re really royally pissed off about, and–bingo!  Obviously, it isn’t always that easy, but finding out what is not being acknowledged, or what is being pushed inside to fester, and then figuring out what to do about it can be incredibly freeing, assuming one does not create more problems for oneself.

Then, there is depression which is endogenous, i.e., nutritional or biochemical.  This one is more and more interesting to me, as I have in the past year radically changed my diet and lifestyle in order to be as well as I can be while I’m sick….or, maybe, to get well entirely, although that remains to be seen.  But I have seen that eliminating certain substances–and I’m not going to go into this too deeply, there’s another post on that, and I don’t want to be too much of a cheerleader for my current “food guru”–can bring about wonderful changes.  I more and more doubt the current medications for mood disorders that the pharmaceutical guys would like us to spend our money on, but they sometimes have their place.  I would, however, exhaust all other avenues before using them myself, unless things were truly at crisis point, i.e., I–or a client–were suicidal.  In any event, there are numerous factors to be considered in depression, such as possible systemic imbalances or depletions, the resolving of which may prove that the depression was easily resolved.

Let’s see, what else can feed depression?  Well, I will say that I believe that depression is a normal part of life and absolutely necessary to change and growth.  It’s that alchemical thing again:  in order to find the light, we have to go through the darkness, and in the heart of pain is found joy.  All change is preceded by some depression:

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.  –Tao te Ching

With its usual facility for bridging the mundane and the sublime, the Tao brings us to the most worthwhile kind of depression, the true spiritual emergency.  I really believe that sometimes depression is of a more collective nature than we might think, i.e., sometimes our feelings of sadness are related to our perception of the grief of the world, as if we are given the opportunity of sharing in the suffering of the planet and its denizens.  I suspect this is true more often than we might think, and it’s good to keep in mind.  But sometimes, depression is the springboard to enlightenment, as the crucible of the soul ignites and then immolates the raw material of change, so that its pure substance can become evident.
Whatever explanation we can find for our occasional or, for some of us, chronic feelings of depression, it still hurts, and it can cause us to forget that life is worth living.  I find that leaning into it, as one leans into a wave of the ocean, standing up to it rather than allowing oneself to be washed up on the shore of life, helps one to get the best from it.  If we don’t penetrate the heart of darkness, how can we find the corresponding light?

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Depression

  1. Nina

    Hi, I read this post and I liked it a lot. I think I may have depression cos im showing almost all the symptoms. I feel lost, numb, i blank out all of a sudden, have been crying uncontrollably for 3 weeks for no reason at all. I have become scared of certain things as well, such as paintings on the wall, people on the street, and sometimes, to even go out socially. I just can’t control all this.

    I would like to seek help but I do not know where to start.

  2. Hi. It sounds like you are having a simply awful time. Please write to me personally ( and I will try to offer some suggestions for finding help. Don’t give up, whatever you need is right there waiting for you.

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