All the Way Down
DEPRESSION AND THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
by Parker J. Palmer
When we know the pain of abandonment, loss,
or rejection, there is hope for us as well . . .
We need patience and a deep respect for the time it
takes to grieve our real losses and to own them as
our own. We need lots of time and support to give
us our expectation that someone can erase or
change what actually happened that wounded us.
We need to share and ask for support in our
network of friends, of family, church, or
community where people will not be scandalized
when they hear that our once cherished
relationships are complicated, difficult, less than
perfect, or gone altogether. And gradually, when
the time is right, we need encouragement
to step through and beyond our grief into new
and renewed relationships of trust, where we
once again recover our ability to care for others
and our sense of humor.
Sue Mosteller, CSI
When I was invited to contribute to this issue of Weavings on “wounded healers,” a tribute to Henri Nouwen, it was not easy to say yes. As much as I wanted to celebrate the life of this remarkable man, my mentor and my friend, I knew that I would need to write about a painful passage in my life — my journey into depression.
Henri himself spent time “on the dark side of the moon,” and he talked and wrote openly about it. And yet, during the years when Henri and I saw a great deal of each other, I rarely spoke about my own darkness: Even in his gracious presence, I was too ashamed. I am no longer ashamed, but depression remains difficult for me to speak about because the experience is so unspeakable. Yet Henri’s spirit continues to call me and many others to more openness, more vulnerability, more shared humanity, even — and perhaps especially — when words fail.
My only fear about publishing these reflections is that someone may take the wrong counsel from them. Depression comes in many forms. Some are primarily genetic or biochemical and will respond only to drugs; some are primarily situational and will respond only to inner work that leads to self-knowledge, choices, and change; some lie in between.
Though I needed medication for brief periods to stabilize my brain chemistry, my depression was largely situational. I will tell the truth about it as far as I am able. But I am not writing a prescription — I am simply telling my story. If it illumines your story; or the story of someone you care about, I will be grateful.
THE MYSTERY OF DEPRESSION
Learn to embrace mystery
Twice, in my forties, I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul. Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die, sometimes so feeble in my resistance that I “practiced” ways of doing myself in. I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.
I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: They need the rest. But I do not understand why others are able to find new life in the midst of a living death, though I am one of them. I can tell you what I did to survive, and eventually to thrive— but I cannot tell you why I was able to do those things before it was too late.
Because of my not-knowing, perhaps I have learned something about the relation of faith to depression, as this story may illustrate. I recently met a woman who had wrestled with depression for much of her adult life. Toward the end of a long and searching conversation, during which we talked about our shared Christian faith, she asked, in a voice full of misery, “Why do some people kill themselves while others get well?”
I knew that her question came from her own struggle to stay alive, so I wanted to answer her well. But I could come up with only one response.
“I have no idea. I really have no idea.”
After she left, I was haunted by regret. Couldn't I have found something more hopeful to say, even if it were not true?
A few days later she sent me a letter saying that of all the things we had talked about the words that had stayed with her were I have no idea. My response had given her an alternative to the cruel “Christian explanations” common in the church to which she belonged— that people who take their lives lack faith, or good works, or some other redeeming virtue that might move God to rescue them. My not-knowing had freed her to stop judging herself for being depressed, and to stop believing that God was judging her. As a result, her depression had lifted a bit.
I draw two lessons from that experience. First, it is important to speak one’s truth to a depressed person. Had I offered wishful thinking, it would not have touched my visitor. In depression, the built-in bunk detector that we all possess is not only turned on but is set on “high.”
Second, depression demands that we reject simplistic answers, both “religious” and “scientific,” and learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists. Mystery surrounds every deep experience of the human heart: The deeper we go into the heart's darkness or its light, the closer we get to the ultimate mystery of God. But our culture wants to turn mysteries into problems to be solved or breakdowns to be fixed, because maintaining the illusion that we can “straighten things out” makes us feel powerful. Yet mysteries never yield to solutions or fixes— and when we pretend that they do, life not only becomes more banal but more hopeless, because the fixes never work.
Embracing the mystery of depression does not mean passivity or resignation. It means entering into a field of forces that seems alien but is in fact our deepest self. It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge we can — and then making choices base on that knowledge, no matter how difficult. We again the slow walk back to health by choosing each day that which enlivens our selfhood and resisting that which does not.
The knowledge I am talking about is not intellectual and analytic but integrative and of the heart, and the choices that lead to wholeness are not pragmatic and calculated, intended to achieve some goal, but simply and profoundly expressive of personal truth. It is a demanding path, for which no school prepares us. I know: I had to walk that path a second time because what I learned about myself the first time frightened me. I rejected my own knowing and refused to make the choices it required. The price was a second sojourn into hell.
FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
True self is true friend
It is odd that some of my most vivid memories of depression involve the people who came to look in on me, since in the middle of the experience I was barely able to notice who was, or was not, there. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection— it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.
I do not like to speak ungratefully of my visitors. They all meant well, and they were among the few who did not avoid me altogether. But, despite their good intentions, most of them acted like Job's comforters--the friends who came to Job in his misery and offered “sympathy” that led him deeper into despair.
Some visitors, in an effort to cheer me up, would say, “it's a beautiful day. Why don't you go out and soak up sunshine and look at the flowers? Surely that'll make you feel better.”
But such advice only made me more depressed. Intellectually, I knew that the day was beautiful, but I was unable to experience that beauty through my senses, to feel it in my body. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair.
Other people came to me and said, “But you're such a good person, Parker. You teach and write so well, and you've helped so many people. Try to remember all the good you've done and you'll surely feel better.”
This advice, too, left me more depressed, for it plunged me into the immense gap between my “good” persona and the “bad” person I then believed myself to be. When heard these words, I thought, Another person has been defrauded, has seen my image rather than my reality— and if they ever saw the real me, they would reject me in a flash. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.
Then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel . . .” Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have been headed toward, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew those words were untrue: No one can fully experience another person another person's mystery. Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was over-identification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.
Having not only been “comforted” by friends, but having tried to comfort others that way myself, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: Avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must sometimes do is to be present to another person's pain without trying to fix it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of his or her mystery—and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels, and our unconscious need as Job's comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.
In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me—not you— free. If you take my advice, you may get well, and if you don't get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing I can do about it. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.
Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a man who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by late every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the only place in my body where I could still experience bodily feeling—and feel connected with the human race.
He rarely spoke a word, and when he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: They reassured me that I could still be seen by at least on person, life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is almost impossible to put into words what my friend's ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now understand the Biblical stories of Jesus and his foot washings at new depth.
The poet Rilke says, “Love . . .consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” That is the kind of love my friend offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice, but simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey— and the courage to let it be— that I myself needed if I were to endure.
This kind of love does not reflect the “functional atheism” some of us practice— saying pious words about God's presence in our lives but believing, on the contrary, that nothing good is going to happen unless we make it happen. Rilke describes a kind of love that neither avoids nor invades the soul's suffering. It is a love in which we can represent God's presence to a suffering person, a God who does not “fix” us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another's solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.
Amazingly, I was offered an unmediated sign of that love when, one sleepless night in the middle of my first depression, I heard a voice say simply and clearly, “I love you, Parker.” The words did not come audibly from without but silently from within: They could not have come from my ego, which was too consumed by self-hatred to utter them.
It was a moment of inexplicable grace—but so deep is the devastation of depression that I dismissed it. And yet, that moment made its mark: I realized that my rejection of such a remarkable gift was a measure of how badly I needed help.
FROM THE INSIDE LOOKING OUT
Acknowledging my need for professional help was not easy. I had believed that going into therapy was a sign of weakness, and that weakness was bad. But once I got past that barrier, I ran into another one: Since “professional” has come to mean a person with a bagful of techniques and fixes, it is not always easy to find a professional who fulfills the original meaning of the word— a person grounded in a profession of faith, faith in the nature of ultimate reality, in the matrix of mercy in which our lives are embedded.
I had abortive meetings with a couple of psychiatrists, whose reliance on drugs and dismissive attitude toward the inner life would have made me angry enough to get well just to spite them— had I not been terminally depressed! But finally, and blessedly, I found a counselor who understood what was happening to me as I needed to understand it, as a spiritual journey.
Of course, it was not the sort of spiritual journey I had hoped some day to take, not an upward climb into rarefied realms of light, not a mountaintop experience of God's presence. In fact, mine was a journey in the opposite direction: To the inner circle of hell and to a face-to-face encounter with the monsters who live there.
After the hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me, eventually to reclaim my life. “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,” he said. “Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”
Amid the assaults I was suffering, the suggestion that depression was my friend seemed impossibly romantic, even insulting. But something in me knew that down, to the ground, was the direction of wholeness for me, and something in me allowed that image to begin its slow work of healing.
I began to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe. The problem with living at high altitude is simple: When we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple: When we slip and fall it is not fatal, and it is possible to get back up.
The altitude at which I was then living had been achieved by at least four means. First, I had been trained as an intellectual not only to think--an activity I greatly value— but to live largely in my head, the place in the human body farthest from the ground. Second, I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God, a fact that now baffles me: How did so many disembodied concepts emerge from a tradition whose central commitment is to “the Word become flesh?”
Third, my attitude had been achieved by my ego, an inflated ego that led me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been. Finally, it had been achieved by my ethic, a distorted ethic that led me to live by images of who I ought to be, or what I ought to do, rather than by insight into my own reality, into what was true and possible and life-giving for me.
For a long time, the “oughts” had been the driving force in my life— and when I failed to live up to those oughts, I saw myself as weak and faithless person. I never stopped to ask, "How does such-and-such fit my God given nature?” or “Is such-and-such truly my gift and call?” As a result, important parts of the life I was living were not mine to live, and thus were bound to fail.
Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand— the ground of my own truth, my own nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.
Eventually, I developed my own image of the “befriending” impulse behind my depression. Imagine that, from early on in my life, a friend standing a block away was trying to get my attention, shouting my name, wanting to tell me some hard but healing truths about myself. But I—fearful of what I might hear, or arrogantly trying to live without help, or simply too busy with my ideas and ego and ethics to bother — ignored the call and walked away.
So this figure, still with friendly intent, came closer and shouted more loudly, but I kept walking. Closer yet it came, close enough to tap me on the shoulder, but I walked on. Frustrated by my unresponsiveness, the figure threw stones at my back, then struck me with a stick— still wanting simply to get my attention. But I despite the pain, kept walking away.
As this scenario continued over the years, the befriending intent of this figure got lost in the frustration caused by my refusal to turn around. So—since shouts and taps, stones and sticks, did not do the trick— there was only one thing left to do: Drop the nuclear bomb called depression on me, not with the intent to kill , but as a last-ditch effort to get me to turn around and ask the simple question, “What do you want?” When I was finally able to make that simple turn, and start to absorb and act on the self-knowledge that became available to me, I began to get well.
The figure calling to me all those years was, I believe, what Thomas Merton calls “true self.” This is not the ego self that wants to inflate us (or deflate us, another form of self-distortion), not the intellectual self that wants to hover above the mess of life in clear but ungrounded ideas, not the ethical self that wants to live by an abstract moral code. It is the self planted in us. By the God who made us in God's image, the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.
True self is true friend. We ignore or reject such friendship only at our peril.
THE WAY TO GOD IS DOWN
When I was finally able to turn around and ask, “What do you want?”, the answer was clear: I want you to embrace this descent into hell as a journey toward self-hood— and a journey toward God. This is a paradox that Annie Dillard has described with precision and power:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has
warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with
them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences can-
not locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether
which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and
evil its power for evil, the unified field: Our complex and inex-
plicable caring for each other and for our life together here. This
is given. It is not learned.
Here is a remarkable image of the field of forces surrounding the experience of God, a dangerous but potentially life-giving place to which depression may take us. It is a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart, special, or superior, but a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light— a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.
I had read somewhere that humanity is central to the spiritual life, which seemed like a good idea to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble! What I did not know is that for some of us the path to humility goes through humiliation— being brought low, unable to function, stripped of pretenses and defenses, feeling fraudulent, empty, useless—that allows us to regrow our lives from the humus of common ground.
The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes, and one of them that the humiliation that brings us down— down to ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall— eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self. When people ask me how it felt to emerge from depression, I can give only one answer: I felt at home in my own skin, and at home on the face of the earth, for the first time.
Florida Scott Maxwell put it in terms more elegant than mine: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done . . . you are fierce with reality.” I know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light. I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it, to embrace it all of it.
Some may say that this “embrace” is just fancy talk for permission to sin, but that is not how I experience it. To embrace weakness, liability, and darkness as part of who I am gives that part less sway over me— because all it ever wanted was to be acknowledged as part of my wholeness—and at the same time makes life more demanding. This is the paradox described by John Middleton Murray: “For a good man [or woman] to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which his [or her] previous rectitude was flowery license.”
Others may say that “embracing one’s wholeness” is narcissistic, an obsession with self at the expense of others, but again my experience is to the contrary. When I ignored my own truth on behalf of a distorted ego and ethic, I led a false life that caused others pain—for which I can only ask forgiveness. When I stated attending to my own truth, more of that truth became available in my work and my relationships. I now know that anything we can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.
One of my most painful memories of my sojourn in hell is of a part of me that wanted to stay depressed, for as long as I chose a living death, life became less demanding; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others. I had missed the meaning of those words in Deuteronomy that I had always dismissed as a truism; “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Therefore choose life. . .”(20:19, KJV). I had not understood the perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing a living death that exempts us form the challenge of living our lives.
I was finally able to say yes to life, a choice for which I am grateful beyond words, though how I found that yes remains a mystery to me. At one fork in the long road back to wholeness, I had an experience that led to this poem. I offer it, along with my unknowing, as a word of hope to anyone who may be enduring the harrowing of depression:
The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year's growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scared.
Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that's to come
I plowed to unearth last year's reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.