A friend has spent the last two months “on the dark side of the moon,” a term used by those who experience the debilitating effects of severe depression. He’s been there before, but it’s been years.
All of us get down from time to time, but severe depression is another world altogether. And when a friend who has enriched your life suddenly gets sucked into an emotional black hole, the tendency is to want to “fix” things, maybe offer pearls of advice that will rescue him from his despair.
But I’m told that just doesn’t work. As a wise man once said, you can’t reason someone out of a position he didn’t reason himself into. So it is with deep depression, which afflicts people without much notice or, for that matter, reason.
According to Parker Palmer’s classic book, Let Your Life Speak (about the process of discovering our true vocation), severe depression, which Palmer suffered twice in his 40s, can be biochemical (genetic), situational (internal and external issues) or a combination thereof. Every person is unique, so offering one-size-fits-all counsel usually falls short.
Palmer warned even against drawing conclusions from the story of his own entrapment in “the snake pit of the soul.” Medication helped, but ultimately, it was his internal journey to self-knowledge that enabled him to move forward.
“Most of us,” he writes, “arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free ‘travel package’ sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage — ‘a transformative journey to a sacred center’ full of hardships, darkness and peril.” He calls this the “journey into darkness,” where “challenges, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge.”
It took Palmer two episodes to learn the lessons depression was teaching. Concerned friends visited and offered advice, but that only made him feel worse about himself. With depressed people, he says, “the built-in bunk detector is not only turned on but is set on high.” Depression “demands that we reject simplistic answers, both ‘religious’ and ‘scientific,’ and learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists.”
Embracing that mystery, he writes, “means moving into a field of forces that seems alien but is, in fact, one’s deepest self. It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge one can — and then making choices based on that knowledge, no matter how difficult. One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not. … It is a demanding path, for which no school prepares us.”
Palmer had to walk that path twice because what he learned about himself the first time frightened him, so he rejected it. “The price,” he said, “was a second sojourn in hell.”
So if advice doesn’t cut it, what can friends do to help? A friend of Palmer’s, after asking permission, came by every day, knelt in front of him and silently massaged his feet for half an hour.
“He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling — and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.” Palmer quotes the poet Rilke, who wrote, “Love … consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”
Palmer’s friend “never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he 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.”
Eventually, Palmer found a counselor who recognized that he was on a spiritual journey, and after listening to him for a number of hours, asked if, instead of seeing his depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush him, “Do you think you could see it as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”
I had lunch with my friend last Saturday and we talked awhile. Then I invited him to go for a walk.
Too cold, he said.
I gave him a rain check.
For when it thaws.