Depression: You Keep Using That Word, But I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

You Keep Using That Word, But I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.


It does not mean sad.

It does not mean upset.

It does not mean “blue.”

It does not even mean grief.

Unfortunately, that is what the world equates the word with today.

Serious clinical depression also is not fixed with just a couple of pills. Mild depression may be dealt with in this way, and treating mild depression with medicines may prevent the clinical form of the disease…much like cholesterol drugs can help prevent or stave off heart disease. However, sometimes even with these drugs, a heart attack happens.

But serious clinical depression is not this. Serious depression is hopelessness.

Serious clinical depression affects everything.

It affects the one who has the disease.

It changes the world as it was once known.

Spouses and children become caregivers.

And even if they don’t really know it, it touches family and friends.

It even alters the air in the room.

And while it affects the body and mind, its biggest impact is on the soul.

And it is exhausting – for everyone.

In fact, author Parker Palmer states the following in talking about his episodes with debilitating depression: “People walk around saying, ‘I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.’ Well, I understand perfectly why people take their lives. They need the rest. Depression is absolutely exhausting. It’s why, day by day for months at a time, I wanted to take my life.”

Andrew Solomon is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, for which he received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He came to this conclusion about depression. He concluded the opposite of depression is not happiness; rather, it is leading a life human vitality. And in a life of vitality, even pain has its place. Depression takes away all of that—happiness and pain—and leaves a gaping dark hole of nothingness.

Solomon states that depression is “an experience of finding the most ordinary parts of life incredibly difficult: finding it difficult to eat, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult and painful to go outside, being afraid all of the time and being overwhelmed all the time. And frequently, it’s quite a sad experience to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time. Nonetheless, those are the essential qualities of it. It isn’t, I think, primarily an experience of sadness. And it teaches you how big emotion is. The profundity of the inner self, I suppose, would be the best way of putting it.” 

The poet and psychologist Anita Barrows shares that “Suddenly, in depression you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered, and you’re just thrown into this place where you’re ravaged, where the wind rips the leaves from the trees, and there you are. Yeah. Very, very much the soul in depression.”

So as you can see, depression is hard to describe if you have never experienced it.

But looking for words to describe depression is important.

Because statistics say one in ten people and, even more dramatically, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will experience clinical depression during their lifetime.

And for those who need to express what happened, or is happening, in their lives, the word depression without further explanation is inadequate.

Yet if we read them with fresh lenses, even the scriptures show that the disease of depression is a plague…in fact a plague only outdone by death itself…

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—a darkness that can be felt.’” (Exodus 10:21)

When clinical depression strikes, it is a darkness that can be felt.

Even Christ knew anxiety that led him to isolation and despair. He even became so anxious as to experience hematohidrosis —a bloody sweat caused by extreme anxiety and fear—in the Garden of Gethsemane. Scripture states that even in the midst of his disciples, Christ felt alone. Though perhaps not clinical depression, the recognition that God knows the darkness that can encompass provides hope to those who battle the demons of serious depression.

If fact the good news and hope from both the Old and New Testaments is that it the darkness does not have to be victorious…but as with fighting any physical disease, the ultimate journey to healing and wholeness requires lots of struggle…lots of patience…lots of ups and downs…trial and error…successes and setbacks…and—perhaps the most necessary of all—the gifts of time and of presence.

Parker Palmer shares this powerful story that describes how a friend was able to help him through his journey of depression.

There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.

Depression—the world keeps using that word, but I do not think they know what it means. Anita Barrows, who is also a lover of language, perhaps best shares this idea when she complains “that the word ‘depression’ itself does not do justice to this human experience.”

Deep depression is a disease. A disease of the mind, body, and soul. A darkness that can be felt. The Psalmist says over and over it is “the pit of despair.” And it impacts all those who come in contact with it.

It should not be minimized… if it is to be overcome, it cannot be minimized. Instead depression must be treated with the same compassion given to anyone experiencing any lethal physical disease.

The world should know that in order to gain remission the war with depression requires all the tools the community has available–medication, prayers, therapy, rehab, lifelong monitoring and real empathic kindness. Most importantly, it requires letting everyone going through the darkness know that you are present with them all as they go—that they are not alone as they struggle.

Clay Gunter


Resource used for this entry:

On Being A Podcast hosted by Krista Tippett
The Soul in Depression – Andrew Solomon, Parker Palmer and Anita Barrows
February 26, 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *