Like many other words, “depression” is over-used to the point of fatigue. What does it mean to be depressed? All of us feel down at various times in our lives. Those ups and downs are perfectly normal, and in our modern world we’ve come to believe that any down might qualify as a condition to be treated; that we deserve or are meant to be happy all the time.
We’re not meant to be happy all of the time, and normal down cycles aren’t depression. So, first of all, let’s do ourselves the favor of not treating less-than-ideal normalcy as a disorder.
The way that I understand depression is chronic (repeated, prolonged) low emotional states, to the point that your emotional baseline is in the negative for a significant period of time, especially if this state is repeated. It’s a larger-scale pattern of repeated and prolonged low emotional states, not individual occurrences.
Our society thinks about depression as something to be fixed regardless of the cause, and we treat it by treating the symptoms. But most of us are depressed for a good reason. The idea that the 13% of Americans that take anti-depressants (CDC: Antidepressant Use Among Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2011–2014) have a pre-existing chemical imbalance is absurd. As Johann Hari explains so well in his excellent book Lost Connections, most of us are depressed because we lack agency, community, self-expression—because we lack freedom—overall—because of how we’re living. Most of us are depressed because we’re not living well. Turning it around, “living well” is a pretty good antonym for depression.
I know how it feels
If feels terrible. If feels hopeless. Anything positive seems like a distant fantasy. From this depressed point of view, it’s often impossible to imagine a different state of mind, let alone how to get there. It’s hard to see a different normal from inside of our current normal.
That said, it’s very important to resist the temptation to treat depression as a thing, a condition, or even a state of being all to itself. Depression is the yellow, orange or red flag being raised by our subconscious, by our intuition, to indicate increasingly dangerous conditions. The sailor does not react bye trying to lower the flag; she reacts by adjusting the sails or altering course to avoid danger and aim for a more pleasant journey. The problem is not the flag.
This is not to say that depression doesn’t feel like shit. It most certainly does. I am often touched by periods of low affect, and in this state, I am reminded how sad, lonely, lost and hopeless it feels. I don’t blame you for resenting, even hating that state of mind, and for desperately wanting to escape it.
It’s important to emphasize that I’m not just talking about feeling down. “Some depression and anxiety is just plain healthy”, (Wilmer: Practical Jung) part of the cyclic nature of human being. No animal can or is meant to survive in a state of chronic depression. This is a human condition that we have brought upon ourselves, individually and societally.
Depression is a message
Like fear and anger, like all emotions, depression is a message that we would do well to listen to more closely. We have created a world that is trying to destroy us (again, see Hari: Lost Connections). We have set ourselves up for chronic depression. Safety is not real security.
You are the captain of your ship, and there is no one else who can set the course of your life. Ask yourself: how are you living? If you are feeling low, chances are that you will find the cause in a truthful examination of your daily practices. Only after assuring yourself that how are you are living is contributing in all possible ways to a healthy state of mind should you consider the possibility that you may be unusually predisposed to atmospheric lows.
It can be very difficult to do this, but the most likely first step upwards from depression is to pause and consider the message that you are being given, rather than discard and wallow in the ache and loneliness.
Depression is a whirlpool, a negative feedback loop doing it’s best to suck us in deeper. It feeds on itself, on sadness, inactivity, and poor habits. If you can’t yet hear the specific message in your own depression, you can do no harm by doing something active in nature, with other people. Get outside and move your body, ideally with people that love and inspire you.
Depression + alcohol = a toxic combination
Finally, I’m sure you’ve heard this misleading term: self-medicating. You can treat your own depression with exercise, meditation, changes in your diet, by examining your thoughts and beliefs, by spending more time in the meaningful community, by maximizing the amount of time that you spend doing things that you authentically enjoy—but if you are “self-medicating” depression by drinking alcohol, you are adding fuel to the dark fire. Alcohol is a toxin and a neurological depressant, and while it may seem to provide some short term relief, beyond that, it will contribute to further depression.
Three more things to understand about alcohol and depression: First, depression can actually be caused by long-term use of alcohol. Alcohol clouds our perception, saps our energy, and leaves us in pain. While it may seem like ‘just a hangover’, the long-term effect of this repeated daily bummer can drag us down to the point where our baseline is too low to maintain a healthy outlook. Once the negative feedback loop gets going, it can accelerate, and it becomes more and more difficult to reverse.
Second, if alcohol is part of most of our friendships and relationships, we’re not making real connections. This leaves us disconnected and lonely, and it may not be clear why we feel that way, because it seems that we have a ton of friends. The loneliness is for a good reason: alcohol is getting in the way of building the authentic connections that we all need to survive and thrive as human beings, and this lack of connection and community is a major cause of depression.
Finally, depression and intuition are closely related, and depression can be exacerbated by a low-functioning intuition (which can also be caused by use of alcohol). If our second sight isn’t working for us, we can’t hear the subtle voice of our heart’s desires announcing themselves—and without this voice of inner passion, it’s no wonder if everyday life lacks purpose and luster.
Starting to see the light
Depression is a slow process of calcification. Once we harden and freeze, motionless, cold and alone, it can be nearly impossible to make any change at all. This is what depression wants, because this is all it knows. It is trying desperately to tell you something, and the only way that it can send its message is to make you feel terrible, to paralyze you, to lock you into the false and empty safety of motionlessness and emotional death. In doing so, it will have proven its point, that there was really something wrong.
Over the past several years, I’ve gone through an intensive process of discovering what was making me depressed, how I got that low, and how to move through it. This included years of therapy and analysis, but I had to learn many things on my own. It turns out that most of the causes of depression originate from our own behavior. The good news is, we can change how we live. As hard as it may seem from the dark side, we all have the freedom to make choices that result in living better. If you’re depressed, the hard truth is that you’re probably going to have to change how you’re living. The good news is that you can, and that it will make you feel better.