Author’s note: I wrote this article a few years ago. I am posting it again because I think that many approaches to self help for clinical depression trivialize the overwhelmingly dark nature of the beast of clinical depression… especially if it is of the more severe variety. If a person is going to muster the courage to learn how to fight depression, they need to know something of what they are up against. Or, more precisely, the support people in their lives need to know something of the extent of the challenge. The kind of depression described below requires support people in one’s life, but they must be people, (1) who care; and (2) who don’t say things like, “Why don’t you just snap out of it?”
A Moonless Night
Imagine trying to sail a small boat during a violent storm. There is no moon out. It is pitch black. The waves that swamp your boat every five minutes give no warning because you cannot see through the blackness.
Now imagine the moon rising. It’s not daylight, but you can see what you are dealing with. You are able to make slight adjustments when you see a big wave coming. You are still getting wet, but you have a fighting chance to keep your boat from being swamped. Which situation would you prefer, if you had to choose? Many people actually prefer to have the waves hidden from view.
Why would anyone prefer the blackness of a moonless night? The answer is simple: many people would rather not see how bad the storm really is. They prefer the illusion of safety.
Sometimes there is a way to prevent depression from getting worse. Sometimes there is one small thing that we need to understand about ourselves in order to position our boat before the waves crash again. A woman who loves to draw and paint finds that she feels much better when she is doing what she loves to do—even if her depression robs her of half the pleasure that she would normally feel. A businessman who loves sports feels irritable and cynical when he neglects to take time to play, but he doesn’t see the connection. He sails in the blackness of a moonless night.
Most people can find something creative or playful that fits their uniqueness as a person like hand and glove. When Gina writes poetry it is not hard for her to say, “I have been designed for this.” When Jessica works on her scrapbooks, it feels like clothing that fits just right. She feels satisfaction fulfilling part of her nature as an artistic historian. When Larry hits a homerun on Saturday with his middle-aged friends, he feels more alive. When Bob takes the job offer that pays less, he feels a surge of energy because he knows that the new job will allow him to implement his own creative ideas. All these people battle daily and weekly storms. But the moon shines and gives them just enough self-awareness so that they can maneuver the waves of unpredictable events.
Tom is depressed and is dreading having to work 70 hour weeks to complete a major project. But his depression is manageable because he defies the group and takes a lunch break. During lunch he does something he loves. While he eats he sketches plans for his dream house. There is something of an architect in Tom. Most importantly, Tom understands that and works with it. It is not a magic pill that removes his depression, but it plants the seeds of recovery every time he feels a glimmer of pleasure. He has learned how to use the moonlight of his own self-awareness to sail through his own personal storm. None of Tom’s friends get it. But if they did, something deep in Tom would answer back with a resounding, “Yes!”. When we dare to become more aware of who we are and how we have been wired we stand a better chance of sailing successfully through the storm of depression.
What if you don’t know, but would like to find out? How can you make use of the light of the moon? There are two important steps:
(1) Begin a process of becoming more aware of the deeper parts of who you are. This can be as simple as keeping a journal of your random thoughts;
(2) Experiment with small changes to your daily routine.
Try different things until you find something simple, good, and pleasurable. Then, muster the courage to do it, even if other people think it is odd. Don’t worry. When they find themselves in their own moonless night they may ask you how you pulled it off in such a violent storm.
The most challenging part of all this is to find the courage to face yourself–to know more about who you really are. It requires courage because the same moonlight of self-knowledge that illuminates your boat also lets you see the staggering height of the waves. This can be frightening, since denial often shields us from what is real. But it is a world of rest compared to the blackness of a moonless night.