What if Depression was Necessary?
A different way to frame it
Whew, I am finding it really challenging to find time to write this summer! Our schedule is packed with work, travel, visitors, social engagements, and the like. So, this month, I’ll be sharing some shorter posts that aren’t quite fleshed-out essays—they are more like questions I’m still pondering, so please feel free to chime in and offer your perspective!
We’re all pretty familiar with the common framing of depression as mental illness, depression as horrible disease. And those things aren’t wrong, exactly—they certainly point to the suffering that depression causes—but what if we looked at it from an entirely different angle and considered some other possibilities? Such as:
Depression results from unexpressed emotion.
Depression is a necessary developmental stage (that can occur repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime). We need to go through it in order to grow.
These two thought-provoking statements came to me via my therapist. When she brought up this idea about unexpressed emotion causing depression, I was like OMG YES. That immediately resonated with me, a person who once prided herself on being stoic and level-headed, never showing “weakness” (aka DO NOT CRY in front of other people EVER), and suppressing my feelings whenever they might inconvenience others (aka pretty much all the time). I had decades worth of unexpressed anger, sadness, frustration, grief and shame that had accumulated like layers of sticky brown sludge, clogging up the inner works of my psyche until it just couldn’t function anymore.
Depression is what stopped me in my tracks and forced me to deal with the sludge. I probably never would have faced it otherwise, and it would still be in there, gumming up the works. So this idea of depression being developmentally necessary totally tracks for me, because (now that it has waned, anyway) I can see how essential it was for my own evolution. It was a journey to the underworld that was incredibly hard and painful—but the nuggets of wisdom that can be found there cannot be attained any other way.
The thing is, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the underworld. To wander those sludgy corridors certain that you will be trapped there forevermore. This is why it is essential to get help from others. Everyone going through a depression/loss/grief journey needs lantern-carriers who will walk with you as you stumble through the dark.
I really like this way of reframing depression, because:
It normalizes the experience. Is there anyone among us who doesn’t go through life holding in our “inconvenient” emotions and accumulating traumas? If we had a cultural understanding that going through dark times in which we deal with these things (instead of suppressing them and hoping for the best) was normal and necessary, maybe depression wouldn’t be burdened with so much stigma.
It shifts the focus away from figuring out how to get rid of it forever (and then feeling like a failure when it returns) to managing it when it comes, knowing that it will ebb and flow over time. I know that is really not a comforting thought. But realistic expectations are ultimately more empowering—I’ll take them over false comfort any day.
It points at the simple-but-not-easy way through: all that pent-up emotion has to come OUT! (Ideally, in a safe environment that does minimal damage to others.) Moving through emotions clears up a whole lot of mental space, and that makes it easier to see everything in a way that isn’t clouded by guilt and fear.
If we looked at depression as a universal experience instead of a problem affecting some individuals (therefore implying that there is some inherent failing in people who struggle with it, and that it is their individual responsibility to “fix” it), it could lead to broader societal changes that benefit everyone. Imagine if we learned from a young age how to find safe pressure valves for releasing our emotions… if we could recognize when others were in one of their “depression seasons” and reach out to offer support without them having to ask… if we generally made room for the full range of possible emotions, even the “negative” ones… wouldn’t that be transformative?
Having been through it, I can attest that depression forced me to face the inner narratives that were holding me back (and that I actually had the power to change). At the same time, I don’t want to put too rosy a face on it. While you are deep in its throes, it certainly doesn’t feel like anything positive could possibly come of it, and that’s important to acknowledge. It’s a long and lonely and dangerous road, especially if you don’t have anyone to walk it with you. But if you do have good support, you can emerge from the descent having gained a new understanding of yourself—and that can be life-changing indeed.