Vincent van Gogh's 1890 painting "Old Man with his Head in his Hands (At Eternity's Gate.)"
When I think about depression, and about the writers I've encountered who are able to write about it in a meaningful way, I always think of the poet Jane Kenyon, may her memory be a blessing. Her poem Having it Out with Melancholy is extraordinary. I have read it countless times over the years, and every time I read it, it teaches me something new about depression and about being a human being who suffers. (I also love her poem Back, which is about healing from depression. Both of these poems can be found in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, published by Greywolf.)
Depression comes in many forms. Acute depression and chronic depression. Depression which is situational, and depression which is existential. I'm neither a therapist nor a psychologist; these gradations aren't my bailiwick. But as a pastoral caregiver, I think often about the people in my care who struggle with depression. I wonder when they most need to hear that I have been there, too -- and have, thank God, found my way back. I wonder when they most need to just speak their experience, without hearing about mine.
Often all I can do is listen. Listen, and say "I hear you." If they can't access hope that things will get better, I can hope it for them. If they can't find their way to prayer, I can pray on their behalf; can pray that they find their way back to being able to connect again with God, whatever they understand God to mean. I can be kind. I can urge them to try to be kind to themselves.
I can hold them in my thoughts and in my heart; I can hold them in prayer. Sometimes I don't believe that intercessory prayer makes a difference in any tangible way, and yet I can't imagine not doing it. My teachers taught me to pray for the people under my care, and that includes my congregants and friends and loved ones who live with the shadow of depression peering over their shoulder or stealing their breath. The black dog; the shadow; the fog.
The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is said to have suffered from terrible depression. And yet he is often remembered for his powerful teachings about the importance of joy. (Many of these teachings are collected by Rabbi Debra Orenstein on her page Reb Nachman's "Rules" for Joy.) Some say that we teach best what we most need to learn; maybe he wrote so beautifully about joy because these were the teachings he needed to receive. "Depression," he wrote, "does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy."
Rabbi Debra also offers Reb Nachman's prayer:
God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. [We must] overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.
I wonder how I would have responded if I had read this prayer when I was struggling with postpartum depression. I suspect that the words wouldn't have penetrated the fog. My inadequacies felt insurmountable: there I was, a new mother, supposed to be enjoying the precious moments of my child's infancy, and instead I so often felt broken. I am grateful even now for the family members who convinced me to seek the help I needed.
But reading Reb Nachman's prayer now, I'm struck by his insistence that we must live with joy, not despite our sorrow -- not in a way that ignores our perceived inadequacies -- but because doing so is central to spiritual life. "Joy," he writes, "is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital." Maybe the most fervent prayer I can offer on behalf of those who struggle with depression is: may the clouds lift so that you can once again remember how to access joy.
No one "deserves" depression. The voice of depression often whispers, insidiously, that this is who one really is, this is what life really is, that anything which has seemed pleasurable or joyful was merely an illusion -- but it's not true. Depression does not mean that you are weak-willed or not trying hard enough. Depression is real and it is awful -- and there are ways to banish it. If one way doesn't work, there are others. Always.
For many of us, one of the challenges of depression is the fear that one's friends and loved ones don't want to hear about it. The little voice that whispers, "No one likes you when you're like this." I am here to say: that isn't true either. The people who love you may be worried about you; they may be frustrated with themselves for not being able to magically make you feel better; but that doesn't mean they don't want to hear.
We want to hear. Even if we can't fix it, we will sit with you in your suffering. We will not judge. We are here.
Depression: Supporting a family member or friend, from the Mayo Clinic staff
National Institute of Mental Health page on depression (includes a downloadable booklet on depression and treatment, with information about getting help). Also: How can I help myself if I am depressed?
On Being (NPR show): episode on Depression. "Nearly ten million Americans are diagnosed with clinical depression. As a society, we're increasingly aware of the many faces of depression, and we've become conversant in the language of psychological analysis of depression and medical treatment for it. But there is a growing body of literature by people who have struggled with depression and found it to be a lesson in the nature of the human soul. Krista engages some of these voices experiencing a range of varieties of depression and religious perspective."