What I Learned About Depression

by Francisco Stork on February 6, 2014

For the past three years I’ve been working on a novel about a young girl who suffers from depression. The idea, as it was first proposed to me by Cheryl Klein, my editor, was to depict an “organic depression” as opposed to a depression that is caused by a particular traumatic event. As it turns out, Vicky ends up having a depression that is both organic and situational in that the natural mourning after her mother’s death six years before turns into an abiding and debilitating depression. In any depression, the chemical origins and the life stressors are hard to separate. There are people and events in Vicky’s life that are stressful but there is no ongoing trauma. Her family is well-off. She attends an exclusive private school. She is the first to admit that she is very privileged. And yet one evening she swallows enough sleeping pills to end her life. The book starts on the day after her suicide attempt and follows her stay at the hospital, her stay at a “recovery” ranch and her return home. Vicky’s story is the story of her struggle to “be friends with life.” Whether she succeeds or not is the driving tension of the book.
I’m one of those who agree with Ursula K. Le Guin that “one of the things fiction does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before.” I thought I knew about depression before I started writing the book (my long-time experience with this illness was why I agreed to write it), but there were attitudes, feelings thoughts about depression that I now recognize for the first time. (The fact that it has taken me three years trying to “get it right” is some indication of both the complexity of the illness as well as, perhaps, a personal hesitancy to go deeply into the dark belly of the whale). I found out, for example, about the heavy, dragging weight of pretending you are “okay”. I discovered the anger and frustration that depression can evoke in others. Most of all, I glimpsed at some of the tools needed to, if not overcome, at least live and function with depression. Yes, medication is needed. Medication is essential in organic depression. But along with medication, surviving depression in the long term requires a shift in the way we see the world. I’m going to call this shift “accourage” because it consists partly in accepting that life is hard (abandoning the expectation that it should be easy and totally likeable) and partly in courageously proceeding to try to be useful, as best we can, despite life’s hardness. But how do we get accourage? What I learned from writing this book is that accourage comes eventually from the daily decision to live for an ideal. What ideal? It’s up to you. You create the ideal you want to live for. An ideal is an image of who you want to be. It is more than a belief system or a moral code in that an ideal tugs at your heart and soul and not just your mind. The ideal can be based on myth or religion or history or your imagination. You choose it and then you do your best to embody it. The only rule is that the ideal you follow has to be large enough, better enough, true enough to what is best in you and human kind to exert a pull on you and fill you with hope. The ideal has to be worthy enough for you to want to be like.  Gustav Jung said about patients in the second half of life that “there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.”  This is what I most learned about depression from writing my book: that learning to live with and even prevail against depression depends on finding a “religious” ideal. Religious not necessarily in the traditional sense of a faith in a body of beliefs, but religious in the root meaning of the word, re-ligare, as in we need to re-connect, bind ourselves, with mind, heart, soul and strength with an image that embodies kindness, and courage and sacrifice and dedication. An image of someone  greater and deeper and truer than our hurting selves.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

arlet landman May 29, 2014 at 5:58 am

hello Francesco,

what a beautiful website you have..
I read you’re “column” about depression and I very much agree with the idea that we have to reconnect with heart, soul, mind and strenght with the oneness of all, as I see it.
The problem with this is often that people are very busy with there minds and forget to develop their hearts.
best wishes for you and your wife,
Arlet (we met in Enschede in the museum)

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