Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

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Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

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From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

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2011A-rainbow.jpg

Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.

Introspection & narcissism

In August 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks wrote about the differences, if any, between narcissism and introspection. His opinion column explored whether self-questioning and rumination might lead to self-centeredness rather than self-discovery; he begins the column with the concept of the personal journal or diary and whether that practice has value or not. (Certainly there are other methods of introspection, but for a literate society it is writing that first comes to mind).

Citing research from several psychological studies, Brooks states:

We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts.

Interestingly, this suggestion more or less jibes with the multiple-levels-of-self version of consciousness as theorized by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

Writing as a means to recover from trauma or to “make sense of the world” seems most effective when the writer puts some reflective distance between experience and feeling (see The Writing Cure), although James Pennebaker’s research argues that even immediate expressive writing can help psyches and bodies to heal. Brooks outlines three ways, different from the microscopic introspection of the narcissistic diary-entry, that self-reflection can develop into something other than self-absorption.

One of them is narrative, which makes perfect sense to me–human beings are story-makers. In fact, all three approaches to introspection Brooks mentions find expression in poetry, storytelling, fiction-writing, creative nonfiction, and in good journalism.

Creating our narratives from a reflective “step away” from intense analysis helps human beings to navigate the inner and the outer worlds.

I’m seeing this approach in action with my college freshmen this semester. More on that in a later post.

Circle Game

Mandala: मण्डल

ann e michael

Sanskrit for circle. Symbolic of completeness, unifying principles. The container that holds the center. The cosmic center and the spiritual center, including the void (being able to recognize that the “self” is also a void, a construct).

This deep practice–the emptying of self and the entering into completeness and unity with everything (becoming One)–intrigues me but seems very far beyond my grasp. If consciousness can be envisioned as a set of experiential layerings that the mind braids into a narrating self, illusory but convincing, I can imagine feeling One with them. But that’s theory, not genuine practice.

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” ~Alan Watts

I am a physical being in the universe; this, too, I understand. Somehow, that doesn’t make meditation easier for me–even though I have always been a highly reflective person.

Trying too hard to empty the mind defeats the purpose, of course. The practice of compassion as meditation (see Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön)  seems a more effective way for me to enter into a sense of oneness and completeness. I am definitely experiencing beginner’s mind, perhaps complicated by my interests in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and art.

So I turn, constantly, to nature for an immersion in something other than the human self: completion of the cycle evident in every plant and creature. See the mandala of the sunflower above. Contemplate the circle–what it contains, in this case, pollen, seeds, a tiny bee; what encircles the circle: the petals that fade so rapidly, the sun, the air.

And then I turn to my reading again. Hungry mind (appetite). But I found this wonderful column by Kate Murphy in the recent New York Times:No Time to Think.” Quite fitting, given these recent ruminations!

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And thank you, Joni Mitchell, for the title and this song:

Poetry and art

A colleague pointed out art critic Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece as a must-read for me with my interests in both disciplines. Here is the link to Cotter’s essay in the “First Crush” series the Times runs: Cotter August 13, 2013.

Cotter says the first love was language, specifically poetry, especially Longfellow and Dickinson.

“If you fall for Dickinson early, you’re committed to language for life, and almost unavoidably to Dickinson’s kind of language. It’s more concrete than just words on a page or in the air. It’s language as a physical material, a substance so concentrated that you can all but hold it in your hands, turn it over, feel its textures.

And it’s addictive. Once in your system, it’s impossible to shake, like a neurological imprint. In my experience, Longfellow’s intensely visual poetry was like a mural or a movie. You just wanted to stand back and let it happen to you. Dickinson’s language was visual, too, but in a startling, flashbulb way — a bang of illumination after which your vision took time to adjust to normal light.

Poetry, in general, made me sense that language could be about big, urgent subjects, the kind that ruffled even a 9-year-old mind. Will everyone I love always be here? If not, where, exactly, is heaven, and what does it look like? Perhaps most important to a writer in formation, Dickinson’s language felt personally usable. It made you want to write, made you think you could. So I did, just for the pleasure and power of creating pictures from words.”

What can I add but “Amen to that”?

It interests me greatly, though, that Cotter made his trajectory from poetry to art; my path went the other direction. I began with a fascination for and study of art and ended up as a writer.

Overlaps and linkages, interdiscipline & creativity. Big, urgent subjects…a kind of power. That’s art.

More on the English major

The New York Times commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote about the “decline of the English major” in an opinion piece titled “Why the Humanities Still Matter.” I am offering a link to the letters to the editor concerning that essay [which includes a link to the opinion piece as well]:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/opinion/why-the-humanities-still-matter.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

Another article, this time in the Chronicle of Higher Education, makes the point that employers often want qualities in their employees that the English major supplies…but that employers may not realize that! (One commenter suggests students major in business or biology or whatever and minor in English).

Those of you new to my blog may wish to look at the archives here on this topic, which include:

“Reasonable, Calming” http://wp.me/p1RDyQ-go

“Just-so” http://wp.me/p1RDyQ-cI

“Defending the Poetry major” http://wp.me/p1RDyQ-6z

“Learning the literary analysis” http://wp.me/p1RDyQ-je

“Philosophy & English are friends” http://wp.me/p1RDyQ-hk

I’m a philosophy and literature major who is also a poet; and I’m not starving to death, and I like my job. Can the cynics please stand down? Learning matters. True education makes us into better thinkers. Society benefits.

End of story. Now, go read a book!