I’ve been looking back at the way I’ve thought about depression and my stance toward dealing with it, and I’ve started to wonder: Could I imagine and adopt in my life a different approach to this illness?
What starts me on this track is my encounter with the experiences of so many other thoughtful fellow-sufferers who have achieved a way of living with depression that finds some positive value where I find none. What are they seeing that I’m missing? As I’ve indicated repeatedly, I see depression as an intruder, a trespasser that steals the vital energy of creativity that is its opposite. My last post recognized that while others whom I respect may have very different experiences, I have always wound up cheering on a Jane Chin or Therese Borchard or Peter Kramer who see depression as a disease that is just as welcome in life as cancer. – Ah, cancer—well, that gives me pause. I find a similar tension in the experiences even of terminal cancer patients. Some kick at their condition in anger and bitterness while others find a transformative spiritual experience in what they have to endure. This has nothing to do with the fact that cancer is a disease; it has everything to do with adapting to the experience of living with a potentially deadly problem. My own experience with cancer brought out a fighting spirit that got me through and that persists in my stance toward depression. I firmly believe in the need for using all available treatment options in responding to depression -it is an illness that can kill me. What I’m thinking about now is the way I live my life with this condition as a permanent part of my mind, body and soul. Can or should I adapt to it in a different way?
I’ve been trying to pull together my own sense of how my imagination has brought about my current adaptation to illness with ideas from Donald Karp’s intriguing book, Speaking of Sadness. The results are surprising.
Karp detects a pattern in responses to depression among the fifty people he interviewed, patterns that resonated with his own long experience of living with the condition. The pattern begins with an effort either to deny that depression will interfere with normal life or to seek diversion or escape from pain though intense involvement in other activities. When those strategies failed the people in his interviews, they tried hard to fix the problem by getting help from therapists and medication or alternative remedies. Sooner or later, they were forced to realize that these methods could only alleviate but never cure the problem. Faced with the reality that depression was not going to disappear, they set about finding strategies of coping and adapting to a life lived on different terms. What Karp found most often was that this last stage led people to see an advantage in their condition, either a special sensitivity to life, a creativity or a deeper spiritual awareness that non-depressed people seemed to lack. This is exactly what I have not found, or at least I have never imagined my experience in this way. Perhaps imagination is the key.
There are elements of our mental and emotional experience we want to disown, others we want to claim. When I am in a creative mode, I’m truly experiencing things in a different way than I usually do – it is part of my soul I want to cultivate, own, prize. When I am in depressed mode, I’m also experiencing things in a different way from “normal” life or thinking or feeling, yet I want to fight, disown, expel it. In this blog, I’ve often imagined depression as a person I fight in anger, sometimes as a pair I have to stumble around with, always as a presence I am trying to get rid of. My creativity is part of the real me, depression is a diseased burden I’m trying to cut out.
This way of imagining and feeling about depression has been a powerful tool in keeping me functional, and it’s been an adaptation that has generally worked. But the question I am asking myself, given the differing experiences of others, is: Could I come up with another strategy based on a different way of imagining what’s going on in my psyche, mind, emotions, soul?
One aspect of my current adaptation is that I live in cycles with highs of intense creativity and lows of intense despair with normal functionality on the way up and the way down. I feel the highs and relatively normal periods as the real me and the lows as an alien personality that is stealing my place in the world.
Is it possible to imagine and really experience all this not as an opposition of forces, a constant battle, but rather as a unified psyche through which different forces flow at different times? Is it possible that it’s neither “creativity” nor “depression” that I’m reacting to and experiencing but an underlying power of life that wants to push itself into the world? A power that sometimes terrifies and paralyzes me, even when I recognize it as creativity?
I don’t know, but I’m exploring the possibilities. What do you think?
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by Karo666 at Flickr