By definition, depression is about the loss of power. Somehow power has seeped out of your veins. Which is why you just want to lie down. Go to sleep. Give up. Die. It is all too much. You no longer have the energy or the will to take it on. It is psychological defeat. You are the vanquished. What is this battle that you have lost?
I dare say that it is the battle for your own power, your own will, your own efficacy to have life flow with your deepest desires.
A strange paralysis of feeling, or a deep insecurity that can lead almost to a sense of nullity, may sometimes be the result of an unconscious opinion. In the depths of our being, the voice whispers: “You are hopeless. What’s the use of trying? There is no point in doing anything. Life will never change for the better.
Adapted from C.G. Jung. Man and his Symbols. 1964.
How did this happen?
When he enters my room, he is wearing a white t-shirt with a print of black skulls and bones. The mood of the t-shirt is reflected in his posture as he slides onto the armchair, only barely managing to remain seated. I have a sense that he could easily slide off the chair, and land on the floor in a slumped heap, where he would stay. This young man, in his final year of school, has thoughts of death, including the magical idea that he could kill others with his thoughts.
His story is marked by disempowerment. He remembers being bullied in primary school, and his hippy pacifist parents advising him to “do nothing”. He also remembers wanting to call his parents “mom” and “dad”, but them insisting that he calls them by their names. And that when he started taking drugs at age 13 they, knowingly, did nothing. A child who had the double-whammy of not experiencing parental power on his behalf (it is not a long way for the mind to go from “do nothing” to “I am nothing”), and being powerless to have his pressing needs met (for advocacy in the face of adversity, for the need for parents to be parents, not buddies – so much can be in a name). The young man had not only lost the link between I desire and therefore I am able to achieve what I deeply desire, it had become distorted into a negative impossible (“I can kill people with my thoughts”). In my final paper in this series, I write about how we have to engage with imagery to heal. I will then write more extensively about how this young man was rescued.
A woman comes to see me. She comes because of high anxiety that is threatening her daily existence. No longer able to make even the simplest choices, e.g. what to make for supper, her anxiety about her own anxiety is now putting a stop to any attempts to live a ‘normal’ life. I have previously written that anxiety and depression are twins. Here we can see the connection clearly: The father was physically and verbally abusive. An unstable man, whose moods could not be predicted. Unpredictability in a parent causes high levels of anxiety in children. It converts into a set point of hypervigilance. Such a child is always on the lookout for telltale signs of a potential threat. Children of alcoholic parents have this same hypervigilance. Going home from school, they are already tense. What is it that they will find? Or when a parent comes home from work: How will it be today? Such children often go into fawning, to appeasing the other. Natural reactions go underground, as they are perceived to be too dangerous to be an option. Over time they may no longer ‘know’ what their natural reactions in a situation would be. Such a child grows up compromising their own needs, and when faced with adversity, will either overcompensate in favour of the other, or at times ‘lose it’, and react like the feared parent.
Depression is inevitable under such cases. The connections to one’s own natural reactions and a positive form of assertiveness have to be learnt anew.
In my blog on suicide, I wrote about the successful man who came to see me because he was gay and could not come out. He was a man who was loved and revered, both by his family and his colleagues, so it was not as if he could rebel against negativity. Coming out would mean such hurt to his wife and children as well as his parents, that he could not do it. His family was deeply religious, and believed that homosexuality was against God’s will, his wife was a good woman who loved him dearly. His children looked up to him, he was his parents’ pride and joy. The impossibility of it all led to deep despair. Here we have a person who had to deny a deep longing in himself. Depression always has this component.
Depression at heart, I believe, is the dampening down of early spontaneity, whether through cultural or familial factors, especially with regards to our liveliness, our power, our identity, and our natural drive for exploration. This loss of spontaneity of being and of the power to affect our deepest longings, is a substantial loss. If the inherent human responses to threat are flight, fight, freeze and submission, depression has them all. Siblings and peers can play a scandalously underestimated role. They can prevent us from being ‘ourselves’ as much as parents can. Siblings can block your natural path, even before you take your first steps out into this world.
Peers can deny connection, or demand such a high a price of falsification, that it mocks your very being.
The dampening down of the ability to affect change in your own best interests, whether through cultural and/or familial factors, are the precursors of the shutdown in spontaneity that marks depression.