In the year following my 21 year-old son's death, I sunk into a black depression. I'd followed the usual route that grieving people follow after the loss of a loved one; I experienced intense anger and flat denial, and when these walls that blocked off the pain finally fell away, I was consumed by a suffocating darkness that I would not escape until I had absorbed all of its lessons. In this place, I discovered something very important. Depression cannot be understood by anyone except those who have journeyed in its depths. The psychiatry profession does its best to comprehend it, but to understand this state of the human mind requires a departure from intellectual reasoning, and an insight into the mechanics of the human soul. Most psychiatrists have no such insight, which is why depression is mishandled in our society today. The reason I am posting this blog and others of a similar nature, is not to teach those who cannot resonate with this state of mind. That is an impossible task. It is to offer hope to those who are struggling with depression. I describe my journey and my perspectives with the intent to throw some light on answers that sometimes get hidden by our anguish, and are perhaps drowned out by the voices of those around us who cannot understand what we are going through.
When using the term 'depression', I am not referring to what people loosely term 'mild' depression, or 'melancholy', states that are remedied fairly quickly by a change in circumstances. I'm talking about the type of depression that debilitates, that cuts people off from the world around them. The kind of condition that the medical profession believes can be 'healed' with drugs, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In this and following blogs, I want to share my journey through depression. I want to share the wisdom that I gained through this experience.
To my mind, depression is not an illness. Depression is not a condition that requires healing. I found it to be a rite of passage, a necessary stop in the long journey that the soul takes to its resting place. I found depression to be a location that we are pulled to, a place where the usual glamours of life lose their lustre and our focus is placed on something of far greater significance. Depression is the place where the illusion of life is revealed and the sham of human existence is exposed. It is like going to a glamourous nightclub in the daytime; instead of the shimmering coloured lights and plush furniture, we see the truth. Worn, drink-stained seats flank drab walls adorned with faded fabrics and posters. Stale alcohol and cigarette odours reveal the illusion of the night's entertainment for what it is.
In depression, we are forced to question everything that we believe in. Often, we cannot cope with the gap between what we once knew to be real and what we now know to be sham, and we go into denial about what is happening to us. We feel safety in telling ourselves we are sick, and we hope with all our hearts that a time will come when we will be 'healed'. What we refuse to acknowledge is that we are in the painful process of awakening. We feel isolated and alone and desperately try to 'get back' to what we once were. We try to conform, try to believe what we once believed, not understanding that our prolonged suffering is down to us not being able to let go. People around us also cannot cope with our perceived negative outlooks, and reinforce our belief that there is something 'wrong' with us. We take pills and walk through life a zombie, frightened to death of moving into a new way of being.
Sometimes the experience is overwhelming, and many of us have to live out an expression of this blackness in the way that we dress, the music that we listen to and the people that we mix with. These 'dark' people are misunderstood, and rightly so, for unless one is a denizen of that deep dark place in the soul, their perspectives cannot be shared. For some of us the experience is extended over an entire lifetime because the point of our journey is to finally understand who we really are, and what we really are not. We live like this our whole lives because we are terrified of internal change, and living out the fear and unhappiness sends the message to some resistant part of our brain that denial is futile. Others move through an intense period of depression and emerge with an entirely new perspective. I am one of those who went through the Dark Night for a number of years and when I found the light again, saw a whole new world. This is my story.
In that year after Zak’s death, the grief swallowed me up completely and I found myself in an alarmingly black space where I was forced into complete stillness in order to confront what was happening at the deepest level of my soul.
At that time, every aspect of the life Lance and I had constructed was falling apart. We’d run our own consulting business for the previous thirteen years, and we were no longer getting any new contracts; new South African policies were making small businesses like ours impossible to continue. We were unable to pay our creditors, as the banking system that had promised to assist us through troubled times, had turned its back on us. Lance, being heavily qualified, applied for more than sixty jobs but didn’t get even one interview. The country had a stiff affirmative action policy in place at the time, and unemployed White males in South Africa had little chance of getting work.
We tried absolutely everything to keep our life together. We changed our business strategy, Lance invented unique marketing techniques, I tried to offer spiritual courses and counselling sessions, but Life, in spite of our best efforts, brought everything down. We lost our home, our car, and most of our valuable belongings. At the age of forty-eight, with a long successful career behind us and with an admirable list of achievements, we found ourselves completely broke and with none of the usual material possessions that reflect the journey of one’s life. We moved into a small cottage at my parent’s home, where Lance continued to fight to reclaim our lives, and where I was consumed by the darkness that held the key to our deliverance.
Life for me lost all meaning. The world had become a grey place filled with people who hadn’t yet discovered how fragile Life was. I found no joy in any activity that I performed; I simply didn’t have the energy to muster up any enthusiasm for things I had once enjoyed. I couldn’t be bothered to go out with my family, or friends. I wasn’t interested in watching new movie releases, or in keeping abreast of the latest fashions. I stopped exercising my body, and I discontinued dieting rigorously the way I’d always used to. I just couldn’t see the point anymore. I felt no sense of anticipation for up-coming festivities, and I shied away from major family get-togethers. I stopped going out with Lance or Annabel, for the sense of futility that accompanied an outing was so painful, I preferred to avoid it. We were once a family of four; now with only three of us visiting our usual entertainment haunts, I felt an emptiness that stabbed viciously at my heart. I would start to panic, wanting to get home where I could just fall apart without anyone witnessing my grief. I didn’t want to pretend, to make the best of things. This was how things were and it felt right to surrender to my sheer misery.
My friends, I’d long abandoned. I’d never had ordinary relationships with these friends. Most of them had been students in my spiritual courses over the years, and we always related to each other on that level. In our get-togethers, we spoke of ordinary things, but searched for meaning and purpose in everyday events. We were all on a journey together; in our day to day struggles with life, we assisted each other with sage advice and spiritual support. Now, I couldn’t be the person they’d once known me to be, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. In speaking to me, they still addressed the person that had died with Zak. I’d been a friend and spiritual mentor, someone who listened to their problems and sometimes had answers to life’s dilemmas. I knew they still needed that person, and I was mortified that I no longer had anything to offer. In being with them, I was an imposter; my life was a lie, and I was discomfited that I couldn’t make sense out of anything that had happened.
Furthermore, I was embarrassed by the complete and utter breakdown of my life. We had no money, we were driving one of my father’s rather beat-up run-around-town cars, a great contrast to the luxury cars we were used to, and we did not have our own home to which we could invite friends. I was tortured by an acute sense of failure. I hadn’t been able to hold on to my son, or at least keep a decent life for my daughter, and the spiritual ideals that had defined me were now reduced to dust. I was an animal that licked its wounds in private. I hid from the world, not willing to reach out and share my pain with others.
These sensations of joylessness were not entirely new to me. Throughout my life they had loitered in that black hole in my soul. Before Zak’s death, I’d managed those vague feelings, keeping them in the background of my life. Whatever happy events took place those sensations were not far behind, taking the edge off the happiness. It was as if a dark form shadowed my footsteps, reminding me that any joy I felt was not real, that it had no substance, that something inexpressible was far more important.
Now, it felt as if that dark form had engulfed me; it had taken possession of my soul and had cut off the life-line to any kind of joy whatsoever. It was deeply frustrating and horrifically painful to have all my senses dulled in this way. Unable to do much else, I turned my mind to my condition in a desperate attempt to understand it. I felt my way around my feelings and emotions, and realised my depression to be a dimension of experience rather than a condition of the mind. The darkness, the hole in the soul that had always troubled me, was a locality in the space that my mind inhabited. Here in this dark place lay my past, present and future, my choices throughout time, the self that needed to die, and the long-imprisoned part of me that needed to be reborn. I realised that for me, depression was a temporary jailer, locking me into this strange locality in order that I contemplate its contents. In this place I was disconnected from my ordinary perceptions and I was forced into a review of my life, challenged to see things differently.
I had transformed into an alien that inhabited a world to which I could not connect. I floated alongside other human beings, a ghostly apparition unable to empathise with their emotions. They’d become a strange species to my mind, reduced to a contemptible laboratory specimen, exposed to my bitter scrutiny. I couldn’t feel what they felt. I just could not relate. I was perpetually angered by people around me. To me their lives were pointless; their continual striving in a meaningless universe, futile and just plain stupid. I listened to their empty conversations with a gripping coldness in my heart; they had no depth, no insight about anything worthwhile. All these pitiful human beings were robots, living their routine lives, complaining about idiotic things, completely unaware that tragedy could strike them in any given moment.
I watched people going about their activities and wondered how they got through their day. I simply couldn’t remember what had ever motivated me to get through mine, even when Zak was here. I couldn’t recall the feeling of being happy; it seemed that the person I had once been had only existed in a dream and now that I was awake, the memories of joy were lost to me. I searched myself for the spark of life that gives purpose to our movements, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I realised then, that human beings have a will that is a burning flame within. Enthusiasm is borne of this internal fire, and without different levels of enthusiasm we would never do anything at all. In this dark location of my mind, there was no fire. The physics of this strange dimension did not allow the usual dynamics of the body to be catalyzed. Instead, it produced a startlingly altered perspective on the world, one which could not be viewed in any other way.
I didn’t take any medication. Having once been in the pharmaceutical industry, I knew exactly what mind-numbing effects anti-depressant drugs had on the physical body. In addition, I had a brother who suffered from a mental disorder, and was taking a range of drugs, some of which heavily sedated him. He slept his life away, and when he was awake, was so slow in his responses, he found it difficult to interact with people. I watched a once intelligent out-going man become indolent and child-like. He couldn’t reason any more, and was aggressive and unpleasant to be around. He put on a lot of weight, and his health deteriorated. Most importantly, the issues that caused the mental problem in the first place were never able to be addressed because of his sluggish state of mind. Observing my brother’s experience, I understood that the critically altered perspective that depression gave me could never have occurred if my mind had been fogged by drugs.
I tried one or two herbs and homeopathic remedies, but none had much effect considering I had a lot of emotional and spiritual issues to deal with. While I have respect for conventional medicine, alternative therapies are always my first choice of treatment if I or my family get ill, and I am especially attracted to natural herbs and their healing powers. I know without any doubt, however, that no remedy works, either alternative or conventional, if the emotional causes of the disease are not addressed. And I was not inclined to imagine that I was suffering from a disease. Depression, I came to understand, was a location in which I had to process the events of my life.
I also knew that contemporary counselling couldn’t go where I needed it to. My issues were rooted in places that most psychologists didn’t even believe existed. I wasn’t living in a world where help could come from an external source. My challenge was to reach inside myself and find the answers there.
Most days and nights I stared into the endless darkness. I was in a cold dark place in my soul and there was no light in the distance. Everything was gone. Everything had fallen to dust; my life, my beliefs, the person I’d once believed myself to be. It occurred to me then how our beliefs shape us, how we identify with them. I sunk further into the gloomy depths as I realised that my personality was nothing more than a set of beliefs that changed over the years. When I cast my mind to the people around me, I found the same thing. None of us were real. We were puppets that danced to the rhythm of a bunch of ideas. When those ideas were studied closely, they didn’t really exist at all. Yet we lived by them, celebrated them, cried over them and half the time were willing to kill or be killed for them.
I’d believed in many things in my journey through Life. As I drifted out on an eerily silent sea, a lonely ghost on a rudderless boat, I thought about my life. I was compelled to recover my footsteps and examine the beliefs that I had picked up along the way. It was important for me to hold those ideas that defined me, then drop them and see what happened. Somewhere in that voyage into the past, I’d find a clue as to where I was now headed. I would examine my ideas, and look at who I had been at various times of my life. And when I returned to the present, I would look at who I became when every idea was gone. It was a scary thought, but here I was, trapped in this dark and desolate landscape of my mind, with no-where else to go, except right back to the beginning.
To be continued