Depression: Can It Be An Opportunity?
By Michael Lopukhin
With comments by Daria York, Chairman of the Lay Ministries’ Task Force on Ministry to the Ill and Disabled.)
Many of you know friends or family members who struggle chronically, intermittently or occasionally with depression of varied severity. Some of us, ourselves, struggle with this common mental dysfunction. In a previous “Family Life” article by Albert Rossi, “Issues in Mental Health - Dealing with Depressive Disorders” (1987,1), some of the characteristics of this disorder were described. Some ideas were shared as to how we as Christians might respond to this struggle in others.
Those of us seeking to relate to persons who are depressed are often torn between frustration and confusion; frustration at not being able to affect any change and impatient at the apparent “self-indulgent” behaviour; confusion about the relationship between the theory of the biochemical origin of mental disorders, especially depression, and the popular idea that “all he needs is to stop feeling sorry for himself.” Where do the elements of self-will and spiritual growth come into the picture?
Depression affects as many as one in every twenty people in this country. More than fifty per cent of Americans will suffer from a serious chemical depression sometime during their life. (The Physician’s Handbook on Depression, Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1977) Given these facts, it behooves all of us who seek to “love one another” to look at this condition from all perspectives in order to be of help to others. As lay ministers, we must arm ourselves with the knowledge of these conditions. We must also pray for the wisdom, patience, and love needed to cope with persons who struggle with them.
In the following article, Michael Lopukhin addresses the issue of humility and spiritual growth in relationship to depression. He suggests that rather than looking at depression as just a medical problem, it also be considered as a spiritual struggle for humility.
Depression is often an unavoidable reaction to life’s occurrences such as the death of a loved one or rejection by someone admired. It is also an important and natural component of the process of change. We all have experienced “feeling depressed” when unrealistic expectations are smashed and we are forced to see things as they really are. Adolescents get depressed because they feel that they are not as tall or as beautiful as they wish they could be. Later, such reactions may be in response to shattered hopes about a spouse. Then, depression is part of the process of adjustment and a symbolic burial of unrealistic hopes for ourselves or of wishes that cannot be fulfilled. Following such acceptance, we become more realistic, more humble about ourselves.
Depression can be viewed as an opportunity to be “more” as a human being, to be a fuller and more accomplished person, to be wiser, to be more awareto be a better husband or wife, to be a better employer or employee or parent. It helps to know more about the process of depression to be in control of it.
GETTING IT OUT IN THE OPEN
Not unlike other types of inner tension (anxiety, irritation, fear), depression is likely to be avoided, dismissed, suppressed or rationalized. Opportunities to learn more about ourselves are therefore missed. Phrases such as “it’s just a phase” or “it is laziness” or “I’ll wait till tomorrow,” “I’m simply tired and got upset” or “I just need a good night’s sleep,” as helpful as they are when they reflect reality, can be traps to prevent us from becoming aware of issues that can lead to depression.
Symptoms of depression - excessive laziness, tearfulness, persistent boredom, “burnout,” hopelessnessare signals that it is time to reflect, time to examine the soul more closely. It is time to look inside ourselves for shattered illusions about our lives, for hidden unfulfilled dreams, for anger in love, for things we are too proud to admit have affected us.
Depression is like a symbolic cork in a bottle of fine wine that does not allow us to share and enjoy the fruits of ourselves. The essence, flavor and energy remain unconscious and unused when our own preconceived notions prevent psychic energy from liberating itself. Denial, rationalization, suppression - all these can serve the purpose of keeping depression intact.
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH IT?
The first step in dealing with depression is to acknowledge and accept the fact that it is not just a “phase,” and that we have a problem that needs to be dealt with. Second, we should examine ourselves realistically and honestly to discover what really bothers us. Issues that cause depression are hard to see. They do, however, invariably come back to haunt us.
A striking example of how depression, when resolved, becomes a source of creative energy occurred when Dostoevsky’s three-year old son died of epilepsy. Already prone to depression, Dostoevsky was especially devastated because he was sure that he had transmitted the disease to his son. His wife became very alarmed and with a friend’s help, urged him to go to Optina Pustin, a monastery famous for its “startzy.” (Startzy were elder monks who gave wise spiritual counseling. They were the “therapists” of that time.) Dostoevsky spent several days there and returned, having fully recovered from his depression. The result was his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, his last and, to most, his best work. Dostoevsky’s creative genius was freed when depression stopped using it up. He could expand his boundaries once more.
A SPIRITUAL APPROACH
The “startzy” of 19th century Russia were quite familiar with depression and had their own special approach to dealing with it. They considered it a symptom of pride, and the cure for it was humility. Staretz Macarius wrote to an obviously depressed person: “You say your incapacity to resist temptation, your slowness to conquer your passions and your general moral debility depresses you greatly, which only proves that you count on acquiring salvation by your own merits . . . how can we acquire humility unless we are constantly humbled through being ourselves as we really are - the worst of sinners.” Macarius saw as this man’s “cork” his denial of his own “badness,” and knew that his acceptance of this reality would be instrumental in lifting his depression.
All of us go in and out of depression. Yet, invariably, we fall into the trap of thinking that it will soon go away by itself and that life will return to normal. We look at our state seriously or seek help only when it begins to damage our lives. The “startzy” saw depression as an opportunity to be more humble and thereby closer to God. Contemporary therapists see it as a denial of an unconscious process which, if allowed to become conscious, will not only relieve the depression, but will also make us more able to live a satisfying life.
There are many ways of looking at the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Albert Rossi and Michael Lopukhin look at the problem from different, yet in some ways similar perspectives. What is important is that we as Christians, in our lay ministry, see the depressed person’s problem as both medical and spiritual. We must take it as seriously as we would someone dealing with cancer or chronic lung disease. Depression is a condition which disables a person and affects the entire family. Hence they are truly persons with special needs - needs that require the patience, love, and direction that can be provided by their spiritual community.
A good book to read that interrelates Biblical teachings with current psychiatric theory is Happiness is a Choice, recently written by two Christian psychiatrists, Dr. Minirth and Dr. Meier, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.