This is depression: walking the dog down beautiful paths where delight once thrummed through your veins, but feeling an ache in your throat instead. The paths are the same. The dog is the same. The weather is lovely. The only variable in the equation is you.
For a long time I took shelter in beliefs about my self. I believed that I would always delight in life’s small pleasures. I believed that my silver-lining outlook would protect me from the full onslaught of life’s pain. I believed that my faithfulness to spiritual practice would correspond to a steady trajectory toward awakening, and that with awakening comes abiding joy. I believed that my role in life was to bring light. Thus darkness came from outside of me, and as I walked through it the light would shine all the brighter.
I had walked through painful passages: divorce, perplexing physical impediments, a difficult move, the death of dreams. But heretofore I’d been able to see the sources of my pain. This time it seemed to arise spontaneously from within me – I felt that it was me. As far as I could tell, the light that was supposed to shine in the darkness was snuffed out altogether.
I alternated between self-pity and shame. I’d imagined my life to be built on solid ground, but perhaps I’d merely walked a wobbly plank of naïveté, and now I’d stepped into reality. The swamp extended as far as I could see. No one could convince me that I’d return to solid ground. Even if I did, solid ground would never feel solid again.
Tara Brach uses a great phrase: “real but not true.” She means that suffering – the flagellating story I tell myself – is real. I am really experiencing it. But the story itself is untrue. I’ve listened to Tara Brach for years, so this notion certainly occurred to me many times as I waded the swamp of depression. But it didn’t help much.
Making it through depression is a slog. Getting out of bed is the worst part, until you have to face yourself in the mirror, which is a little bit worse. Then there’s meditating, which feels like a ridiculous farce. Then the breakfast you don’t savor, the loving husband who cannot help, the dog walk with the lump in your throat. You get the idea.
So what were the uses of the depression? What brought me through?
Let me be clear: no one could give me magical advice. Presence is all a friend can offer in the face of helplessness. It may not seem like much, but it is enormous. With presence comes trust that love is still the heart of life; with presence comes trust that the trapped person can and will clamber her way to freedom.
As my wise life coach Bridget told me, “Emotion is like GPS. We are not our emotions, but emotions can point us in the right direction.” I knew early on in my depression that much of my anguish centered on vocation. I continued to garner approval as a teacher even as my creative energy drained from that sphere. But what else could I do?
I researched other career options: music therapy, social work, mental health counseling. Nothing felt right. One evening I told my father-in-law, “I just wish I could have a sign.” That night I dreamt of being in a chaplaincy program. Depression had made me desperate enough to make a big change; the dream gave me a first step.
I was accepted into the Beverly Hospital Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. The darkness began to lift, oh-so-gradually. With the brightening horizon came determination to understand my depression: to scour it for all the shadowy lessons it offered.
One of the big lessons is well articulated by Pema Chödrön, in her book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change. “But if, instead of thinking of these feelings as bad, we could think of them as road signs or barometers that tell us we’re in touch with groundlessness, then we would see the feelings for what they really are: the gateway to liberation, an open doorway to freedom from suffering, the path to our deepest well-being and joy.”
Yup, she used the word groundlessness. Which means that in my darkness, I was right about some things. Solid ground will never feel solid again. Turns out I’ve never been on solid ground. Now I face the day-by-day practice of welcoming dark emotion, of trusting it as the path to my deepest well-being. I don’t expect to master this practice.
But when I do it – when I let myself feel the physical sensations of emotional pain, when I offer tenderness to the frightened part of me that shrinks back from discomfort – I taste freedom. Often the throat-ache returns when I walk the dog. Every time, I get to practice honoring it.