If you ever found yourself as a child terrified and alone in an unfamiliar dark space… if you were ever lost outdoors on a dark night when the other kids had run off and left you far behind … if your mother died and left you or you were really sick and in quarantine so no one could hold you at night…. these may be some of the images we carry as almost archetypal hells. Who knows – perhaps some of them linger from infancy. Experiences and terrors like these may engulf those who are deeply depressed.
When adults or adolescents “fall” into depression, they often struggle to capture the essence of what they are experiencing. Images and metaphors emerge: heavy, dark, lost, abandoned, trapped, empty, alone, in exile, numb, cold, exhausted, drowning, hopeless, hurting.
With the best of intentions, family and friends try to pull their loved one out of this pit, which only deepens a sense of shame and isolation. Everyone else seems to be living in a world with color and light and movement and purpose. “I am in my own dark hell. I don’t know why. I can’t get out.”
A word of caution. People use the word “depressed” in a wide range of ways: in our world it seems to be an accepted description of a host of mental and emotional states. I’m depressed because I’m bored today, or can’t find a friend to go to a movie with, or don’t like my job. It’s crucial for helping professionals (and loved ones) to find out more. “What does that feel like? Emotionally, and in your body? What does it mean to you? What are you thinking about? How long have you felt like this? What other words might fit how you’re feeling? Sad? Lonely? Discouraged? Tired? Frozen?”
For some, spirituality or religion may be the only source of sustenance. When nothing in the ordinary human domain can touch this profound aloneness, a mysterious sense of presence may be discovered in a sacred hymn or song, a holy image, a dream of being touched or carried. Somehow that which transcends human life – a divine source – may be both vast and near enough to penetrate the darkness and embrace the one who feels lost. A desperate and even unintentional prayer may be spoken in the heart, without hope of answer, and yet a felt sense of response arises. Sometimes a kind of whisper is heard – which may feel as if it is melting the numbness a bit, if not too quickly dismissed.
For those of us who are helpers and supporters, we are called upon to listen closely for hints, to be open to this kind of connection. If we can summon an authentic curiosity, we will serve as respectful witnesses, inviting deeper exploration. It is also true that the loss of such a spiritual/religious connection may be part of the descent into depression, and this too deserves our full attention.
Depression varies in depth and duration, even within the category known as clinical depression. For many, it is a profound and long-lasting experience that affects body, mind, emotional heart – and “soul.” Sometimes even spiritual or religious resources remain out of reach. Parker Palmer, author, educator, and activist, was only able to talk about his two long episodes of depression after years had passed. One of the most powerful things he says is that in the deepest depression it is not so much like feeling lost in the dark: it is more like becoming the dark. There is no space between you and the dark, no sense of a self being “in” the dark, no possible way of witnessing or making meaning out of the experience.
For him, as a person recognized for spiritual wisdom, this inability to draw on spiritual resources was a source of heavy shame and pushed him further into withdrawal. Indeed, for many who belong to a religious community, the prospect of being honest about one’s suffering may be overwhelming, for fear of being judged as weak or as having insufficient faith to find healing. This too we need to recognize when it appears.
Even so – sometimes the one who has experienced this annihilation emerges (much later) with the sense that something significant has shifted. Palmer found in himself a deeper sense of compassion and empathy. One has been hollowed out. The heart has been broken open. And the one who felt so isolated now recognizes him/herself as part of the human race, sharing a bond with others who have known this kind of suffering. There is a new and growing experience of belonging. Other qualities and capacities may also begin to emerge. Parker Palmer speaks of courage: having survived this deep dark, almost anything becomes possible. Some speak of a new sense of purpose, commitment, love, openness.
These kinds of developments are being explored in the growing literature on resilience. Such capacities cannot be taught or planned, but they can be recognized, supported, encouraged, and validated. It’s important for us to become familiar with this growing body of research and reflection.
We are all familiar with experiences of dark and light, aloneness and connection, in a variety of forms. Some may draw on the powers of reason, some turn to tried and true relationships, some have various sources of comfort and inspiration – time in the natural world, music, creative expression, meditation, prayer. And some can only surrender without hope of help.
While this feeling of being lost and alone in the dark is usually associated with individuals, it may also be experienced on collective levels – in communities that have been abandoned, persecuted, left behind, forgotten. In future blogs, I want to take a deeper dive into the fear, aloneness, and sense of desperation that is entering our lives in the context of climate change. Facing an unknown future, can we bridge the gaps among us to support each other and explore possibilities together?
For an interview with Parker Palmer (and others), see Tami Simon, Ed., Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression. Boulder Co.: Sounds True, 2015.
Jane Clayson Johnson, Silent Souls Weeping. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2018. (Depression among members of The Church of Latter-day Saints.)