Depression – weird friend, good teacher
Depression: weird friend, good teacher
In this series called Stuff I’d Rather Not Talk About, Rebecca Ryan Roshi offers her Zen perspective on different everyday experiences of being human. This month her talk is: “Am I Depressed?”
[If you or someone you love needs mental health help, please use the Mental Health hotline or its equivalent in your country.]
In January my doctor prescribed anti-depression medicine and reminded me how common depression is. It helped to hear her say “You’re not alone.” None of us who experience depression are alone, doomed, or bad Buddhists. Millions of people experience depression and the overwhelming majority of us find a path through it or learn to work with it.
This is about my experience with depression, so far.
It started as a slow drip-drip-drip that neither my wife nor I noticed for several months until late December when I was so irritable and paralyzed by grief and overwhelm that I felt I’d been body-snatched.
Andrew Solomon’s explanation of depression resonates:
It’s an experience of finding the most ordinary parts of human life incredibly difficult. Finding it difficult to eat. Finding it difficult to get out of bed. Finding it difficult and painful to go outside. Being afraid all the time and being overwhelmed all the time. And it’s frequently quite a sad experience to be afraid all the time and overwhelmed all the time….[but depression] isn’t primarily an experience of sadness.
Looking back, the signs were there. I’d stopped washing my face before bed sometime in the fall. But that’s because I was working long days and just wanted to collapse into bed at night, I told myself. I’d stopped prioritizing zazen. But that’s because I was under deadlines and needed mornings to meet work demands. On weekends, I isolated myself in the guest room and had more headaches and stomachaches. I was just overtired, I thought.
Life became colorless and drab, like looking through a lens smeared with vaseline. I became easily overwhelmed and paralyzed by indecision. If I had several things to do, I couldn’t prioritize. If I make the wrong choice, I’ll screw up my entire day! Then the torture started: What the hell’s the matter with you? You really are worthless. One Saturday morning, I went to zazen and felt like my cushion was a life raft and I was drowning.
Something was off, but what?
When our holiday vacation was rescheduled due to Omicron, I bottomed out. Everything hurt. Everything felt personal. There is no membrane separating me from anguish. Although I never thought about hurting myself, I understood why people would: the depressed brain is one of those County Fair fun houses with distorted mirrors and dark forces waiting to lunge.
By Christmas morning, I wondered if this was it, I was losing my mind.
My wife was ballast. She reminded me, “You are not a bad person. Your brain chemistry is off.” This was a tiny crack of insight – to recognize the space between the horrible thoughts and feelings I had and “me.” I was experiencing depression – altered brain chemistry – but it wasn’t who I was.
Soon after I made a “flip” which turned out to be profound: I decided that rather than be afraid of my brain’s chemistry, I would get really curious about it.
It’s physically impossible to hold your hand open and clench your fist at the same time. The same is true with your thinking mind. When you’re sincerely curious about your brain’s chemistry, depressive feelings temporarily recede.
I dug in. I did research and I ran experiments.
- Why did I feel better after intense exercise? There are at least seven brain chemicals that induce “happiness” and they are tied to intense exercise, setting and achieving a challenge, having sex, dancing, cuddling with an animal, or yoga. Most of these had silently slipped away during the months prior to my diagnosis. I experimented. I increased my pace during walking, and my low mood lifted somewhat. I emptied my bookcase, cleaned it carefully, and only re-added the books and mementos I cherished. I felt a bit better and the bookcase was less cluttered, creating more space in my mind. The more experiments I ran, the more I learned about what worked for my brain chemistry.
- I wrote in my journal, “I can’t be mentally limber when my hips are this tight!” My posture – even while sleeping – has become hunched and closed. When I open my posture or did Strozzi stands, my body and mind respond. Thoughts receded, connection remained.
- My body could serve as a barometer, sensing when a low-pressure system of grief was rolling in. I let myself cry when my body needs it. I can experience intense grief without making a story about it. That is key: if I simply experience grief, it burns clean. If I make a story about it, I get stuck.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes:
We’re just here, practicing. Everything in life is being offered. Pain and suffering are openings to the field of life. Our lives are gradual paths of groundlessness that open our hearts.
In my experience, a feeling of groundlessness often precedes an intense breakthrough. On the day I bottomed out, I wondered if I was losing my mind. I was groundless – overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness and paralyzed to do anything about it. This is depression’s sneaky move: it hides your coping mechanisms and pushes you into a dark vortex of self-loathing.
It’s been months now, and I’m no longer upset that I’m experiencing depression. I’m relating to it like a weird friend, the kind who makes you wince but can also drop a truth bomb. And if I get very “Zen” about it, I feel grateful for this experience. So many people are experiencing depression and poor mental health. Why shouldn’t I experience this, too? What else can this depression teach me?
In our lifetimes, many of us will experience depression. Even more of us will love someone who is suffering from depression. How can we help them?
Parker Palmer tells a powerful story about a friend whose help deeply impacted him during his depression:
There was this friend who came to me after asking permission to do so. Every afternoon at about 4 o’clock, he sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense from time to time he would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today.” He would hardly say anything. He would give no advice. Somehow he found the one place in my body, the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. The act of massaging - in a way that I don’t have words for - kept me connected to the human race. What he mainly did for me was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. [...] And it became a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way - a community that is neither invasive of the mystery, nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a sacred space of relationships where somehow this person who’s on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.
May you know when you need your feet rubbed, and when you need to be the person who silently rubs another’s feet.
- Watch the talk that inspired this article, hosted by Chosei Zen.
- Chosei Zen offers free public talks and daily zazen.
- The Beck’s Depression Inventory and the PHQ9 assessment can help you assess your symptoms.
- Andrew Solomon and Parker Palmer’s reflections about depression are from the Soul in Depression episode of the On Being podcast.
- Andrew Solomon has written an excellent essay and an award-winning memoir about his experience with depression.