The gift of depression
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going?” – Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
My journey is one of belonging. It is one of belonging because in my human distraction, noise, busyness, frustration, hardness I often forget that I – or a part of myself, or a part of another – belongs.
I was thinking of belonging this evening as my 7 year old son lamented all the frustrations in his life – his fear and discouragement about saving up enough money to go to China to visit the temple of his kung fu master (saving $3000 feels impossible to him); all the ways his feelings had been hurt by some classmates; his frustrations with his family.
As I listened to him, what was interesting to me was realizing that he, too, was speaking of belonging. Here are some quotes: “Since I started kung fu, I don’t play dress up anymore. My friends might laugh at me.”
“Home is where I feel safe, where I feel like I can be myself.”
“When my friend climbed the tree higher than anyone else at school, I got mad at him because people stopped being my friend and became his instead.”
And, “Some people’s houses feel cold and empty, even when it’s warm outside.”
At one point he asked me, “Why should I be who I am when people might laugh at me?” A pretty poignant question. I thought about it a moment and said, “Well, when I don’t feel like I can be myself, I feel empty inside, like I’m missing me.”
Whether it’s our dreams, our hearts, our emotions, our bodies, or struggles, or our quirks, we long to belong – to feel that we can be who we are; that there is room for all of us. Without this invitation, our hearts cry out in longing. We long for an invitation that accepts all of our humanity.
One of my parts that I have hard time including in my circle of belonging is depression. It’s a part of me that I have valiantly tried to overcome and cut out and make disappear. Oh, how I have gone to war against this part of me. Like my sensitivity, it’s the part of me that is most tied to my shame.
I call this part of me the black hole, for when this part of me flares, it touches a deep, hollow, dark, place. It’s one of the loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced. When I’m in the thick of it, it’s hard to remember that I’m not alone, and because it’s so vulnerable – and because other people’s comfort with my darkness is only equivalent to their comfort with their own – it’s equally hard for me to reach out and reassure myself that I’m not alone.
Today the black hole appeared. I don’t choose it; it arises from somewhere deep in my psyche on its own accord. When it does, it’s one of those moments, of, “Oh, okay there you are,” and then to soften, soften, soften my heart in order to make room for it.
So I called my grandma and listened to her stories of growing up in the depression. (This is a picture of she and I from a few years ago.) I called one of my childhood best friends. I cried. I laid on my bed. I ate the soup I’d made yesterday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (It was fortunate most of my kids didn’t like it, for there were lots of leftovers.) Eating soup feels like getting a hug on the inside, in my belly.
There is something very healing about giving yourself soup and phone calls and – yes, yes – especially tears when you hurt.
Later on, I went to the grocery store while my son was at kung fu. Among other things, I needed a birthday card. While I was looking at the cards, I noticed the gift books nearby.
I flipped through one, read a few lines about gratitude, peace, and finding serenity in God and noticed that my heart felt squeezed and sore. That’s because I was feeling anything but peaceful or grateful or serene or surrendered to God. I felt empty and lonely. And honestly, I felt a tiny bit ashamed because of this.
Then I heard a tender voice, there in the grocery store aisle: “Sweetheart, this belongs too. Everything belongs.” It struck me so powerfully that tears filled my eyes. I felt my whole heart and body soften, and as I drove to pick up my son I felt the same warmth I receive from a bowl of soup: the warmth of nourishment and belonging and rest. Sweet, sweet rest.
Everything belongs. Even my depression. Even my darkness. Even my pain. All of me. All of you.
In the Sufi tradition, one of the basic prayers says, in so many words, that there is no god but God. It reminds me of the Jewish prayer, Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They both speak to this unity, this Oneness – that everything is included, is dear, is precious, is held: that everything belongs.
There are no outcasts from Love. There is no god but God.
It is good to remind my heart of this. When I forget this truth, I go to war against my darkness, against my depression, against my own heart. Healer, writer and mystic Rachel Naomi Remen says it like this: “We are not a kind culture. We have contempt for the parts of ourselves that are capable of suffering.”
One of the ways that I show contempt for my suffering is when I try to portray it as something that I’ve overcome. I ache and feel a bit (okay, a lot) uneasy when I try to package up my life in a before and after snapshot: this is how bad it was – this is my messed up self before. And voila! Here I am now, all fixed, all ducks in a row. As a writer and teacher, I have at times felt pressured to package up myself in that way. It never feels very good. I suspect it doesn’t make anyone else feel good either.
It also feels off, as if this linear progression of before and after misses the circles and cycles and seasons that feels like a much more accurate description of my or anyone’s actual experience. I look to Nature as a teacher, for it seems to offer a grounded rendering of life as it is and points to the mystery that underlies it. What the cycles of Nature tell me is that there is no before and after, there is only an ebb and a flow, a season for everything.
In my heart, I know there is no before that I have triumphed over; there is only a deeper inclusion, a greater integration of what heretofore had been cut off and fragmented. There is only belonging where there had been separation. Sometimes the instigator of this belonging is my own heart; sometimes it’s another’s; sometimes it’s life itself.
Packaging my journey as a before and after severs my belonging. It separates me both from my wounded parts as well as the wisdom and growth and gifts that have been born through my inclusion of these parts, through my walk with my deepest challenges. Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner says it like this: “If you manage to put behind you the painful things that happen to you as if they never really happened or didn’t really matter all that much when they did, then the deepest and most human things you have in you to become are not apt to happen either.”
The deepest and most human things in me have been borne through my sorrow, through things like depression: “May this suffering awaken my compassion.” It’s how I’ve grown a bigger heart.
In my journey of belonging, I find it and feel it most powerfully not with my strengths or when I’m having a proud parenting moment or on those days when all feels well. I find it on the days when I feel a little tender, a little lonely, a little lost. I find it with the least of these; with the outcasts of my own heart.
Last night, the temperatures here in Texas finally cooled, and we pulled out our sweaters, socks, hot apple cider and a puzzle. Because the summers are so long here, we get as excited about wearing our cozy clothes as we once did about wearing our summer gear in Montana. We even played a few Christmas carols.
Okay, I admit that Christmas carols are some of my favorite music, no matter the season, but something about the cooler weather brings to mind the holidays, so we went with it. As we listened to “O Holy Night,” I was struck – as I always am with this song – by the line “and the soul felt its worth.”
When my black hole parts appear, it is a chance to belong. It is a chance to soften my contempt for my suffering parts, to bow to what is, and to make room for this part of me. It is a chance to stretch my heart.
This heart stretched space is where I feel the worth of my soul. It is where I feel and know that I belong. It is where I feel and know that everything belongs.
Thank you for this–especially the part about feeling like you need to present pain as if it’s in the past, already overcome. This is the reason I have not maven forward with a lot of things that would make me a more public person. I believed that if I could not honestly paint a picture of someone who has overcome it, no one would want to listen to me, and that until that time, I really have nothing to offer. It’s not true, but the belief is strong.
Ah, Kellie – I almost wrote those very words in the article, because it’s one of the reasons why I can feel shy about showing up and sharing my gifts. Yes, the belief can be so strong. I hope that hearing my story and seeing the love others are showing you here will nourish the courage in your heart to venture forth and share all that you are. One of my therapists once said to me when I was feeling mired in shame about my struggles, “Karly, you would be so boring without them.” I think that’s true of all of us. Your humanity will help people feel more connected and entrusted to you, not less. Please share all of you – I for one want to see it! Much love, Karly
Just beautiful. Thank you. I love the concept of no before and after, just ebb and flow….
Hi Miriam, I’m so glad that resonated with you. It felt like such relief to my heart, too. Love, Karly
A deeply beautiful piece Karly , thank you for your tenderhearted honesty. x
You’re so welcome, Michelle. I enjoy our chats here in the comments. Love, Karly
This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I’m really exploring my past hurts and sadness and depression right now, and I think it’s an incredible concept to include it in your whole self. I too struggle with this idea of before and after – I certainly have come a very long way from where I was emotionally a few years ago, but I still have bad days, bad weeks, and sometimes I’m just sad for no reason and eat way too many cashews (that was last night haha). I’m never going to be an “after” because there is no “after”. “After” is when you’re dead because that’s the only time when you have no more room to explore and improve and embrace yourself.
This is one of those articles that really hit home for me and I will need to read a few times in order to really grasp what it can mean in my life. Thank you so much!
I love cashews too. 🙂 And sometimes I feel sad for no reason too. And sometimes when I’m sad I look to things to soothe me.
I’m so glad that this post was nourishing to you and that the idea of including every part of you was so healing to you. It is a revolutionary idea, isn’t it, and goes against our instincts to control, suppress and cut out.
The “before and after” view of myself held such appeal because it would eliminate my vulnerability – I wouldn’t have to be a vulnerable human being like everyone else; I would somehow be over my humanity rather than in it. I think that’s why it’s so appealing to everyone.
I sometimes think of the healing process as one of collecting all the various parts of ourselves that we’ve outcast and bringing them back into the fold, to make room for them, to include them, to accept them. And in doing so, we shed the false beliefs that we’ve collected along the way – beliefs about how we don’t belong because we feel anxious, or sad, or angry, or whatever we think is unlovable or unacceptable.
“I call this part of me the black hole, for when this part of me flares, it touches a deep, hollow, dark, place. It’s one of the loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced. When I’m in the thick of it, it’s hard to remember that I’m not alone, and because it’s so vulnerable – and because other people’s comfort with my darkness is only equivalent to their comfort with their own – it’s equally hard for me to reach out and reassure myself that I’m not alone.”
You so eloquently captured the essence of my darkness.. Today and most days.
Camille, I’m so glad that you felt seen and understood in my post – thank you so much for sharing that with me. (This morning as I woke I had a vague memory of a dream where I was trying to erase the post before anyone had seen it!!) It was one of my hopes in writing about my own depression – that anyone who had stumbled in the dark would find rest and acceptance. I hope that reading about my own experience with the black hole helps you feel less alone in your times of darkness. Love, Karly
Thank you for posting about this Karly. I know this place too and its cousin anxiety OFTEN. One of the hardest things for me to work out is when to let something belong that is mine, a true sadness, loss, grief, and when I am hurting because I am allowing a darkness to belong that came from somewhere else…and put my ‘real self’ to sleep or in a place of shock. I still so struggle to know when the darkness comes from becoming identified with early words, wounds..messages sometimes explicit and other times implicit. Does that make sense? I find it so daunting that after so long my core still does not know itself very well and when I connect to what or who I feel is ‘real’, the place where my real self is, it is very young, as if I stopped somewhere. Do you know a good way to steer between the two? Thank you for sharing your journey. Its precious.
What you describe makes perfect sense, and I think many, many people would be able to relate to your words and experience. It has been a big part of my journey, as well – you articulated my experience, as well.
I’ve often thought that the word depression is too narrow of a word to describe the various forms of depression that I’ve felt. Sometimes it is a feeling of despair, a deep loneliness where I feel in pain and completely alone or abandoned. Sometimes it is a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling of being in pain and being powerless to stop it. Sometimes it is a feeling of sadness and loneliness and separation. Sometimes it is a feeling of buried grief or sorrow that needs to arise.
And yes, sometimes it’s a pain that comes from carrying a sense of responsibility for other people’s pain or for taking on what is not mine. With my sensitivity and porousness, I tend to go towards self attack, to absorb other people’s projections of me. I can easily take it all on, and in. It’s not so much that I feel sad but bad – a deep, deep shame and guilt.
No matter the cause or type of depression or the reason for feeling the way I do, I find it healing to analyze less and just feel more. To simply make room and welcome whatever I’m feeling. I often find that my analyzing can be a way to make the feeling go away or to help me feel less afraid – if I can explain what I’m feeling I won’t feel so afraid or overwhelmed by it.
Can I let all of it belong – whether the depression is arising from a sadness in my own heart or a sadness from something that I’ve carried from others? It’s a bow to the heart of, “This is how it is right now,” and to make room for whatever I’m feeling. Because no matter the cause, the feelings are real, and are here. It’s the piece of life that is showing up in me, at this moment. And it needs to belong. To feel love. To feel caring. To feel acceptance.
After I’ve made room for my feelings, that’s often when the insights come. This is when I move to act, to do – when I recognize what’s coming up and what I’m needing. In the case of depression that is due to my carrying the projections of others, often what is needed is a boundary. Often what comes roaring to the surface is my inner lion that roars and says, “No, you shall not pass,” as Gandalf did with the Balrog, to separate out what is mine from what is someone else’s. There is a lightening and a relief that comes from this healthy separation – like removing the weight of 1,000 boulders from my soul! It is a shedding of what was not mine to carry. But I could only shed after first making room for the feelings themselves, and letting them belong.
At the same time, sometimes I may never know or understand why or how certain feelings arise. Lately, I’m coming to a place of acceptance about this – that some things are shrouded in mystery. So I’m slowly letting go of knowing and focusing more on relating. No matter what arises, can I simply offer it my care? Can I offer love to my own being?
I am finding tremendous rest in that, because the need to know can become its own burden.
With this acceptance of the mystery, I find that I feel more and more confident about trusting life and Love as my leader – that it will show me what I need to know. That my heart will guide me and reveal what needs to be revealed – that I don’t need to force this process either. And that if it’s in the dark, perhaps it is for a reason, and to trust the greater wisdom and Love that holds my heart in safekeeping.
I hope this helps!
I feel prompted to share Tara Brach’s podcasts with you – I have a hunch her work may help you in this area – it has been life changing for me.
Much love, Karly
Thank you Karly for your response..SO so helpful in many ways. You’re absolutely right about using the analysing as a way of not feeling, of containing my alarm and feeling less afraid. That part of me that can welcome and be the wise loving parent to those inner parts of me and the overwhelming feelings needs growth and courage and love. Its been a habit to jump into thinking ‘about’ the feelings rather than feeling them. I smiled at the picture of the inner lion and the Gandalf..way to go! In the fight, flight freeze scenario I am definitely a freeze..whilst another part of me hops around..pleading with the frozen part to wake up and do something when paralysis sets in! Welcoming and relating to the feelings, being compassionate and attentive..I would love to do this more. Thank you also for the link to the podcasts. I listened to one today.. I loved it. Love Pauline
I had a hunch you would like Tara – I’m so glad. Your description of your inner life is so beautiful, and as I see it, so tender. I think you are doing it, lovingly parenting all those small parts that long for this embrace. From my point of view, you are in the river of compassion and acceptance already. Love, Karly
Dear Karly thank you for that beautiful, powerful, oh so wonderful piece. My youngest child suffers from anxiety and depression especially during the winter months and your insight has given me the opportunity to see what he may be feeling. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings while putting this all into perspective. We sometimes have the attitude of “buck up” put it all behind you as oppossed to embracing the feelings. Your perspective, so amazing. Thanks.
I’m so glad that this perspective is healing to you and helps you understand your dear child. My depression would typically worsen in the winter, and so the impending winter would bring much anxiety as I braced myself for the coming darkness. So I can understand how they tie together.
I think the idea to invite and to embrace and accept our emotions and our humanity brings tremendous peace and rest – both for ourselves, and our loved ones. And you’re right – it is so counter cultural, at least in the West. It’s taken me years of fighting and resisting to come to a place of greater acceptance and welcoming.
Reading this sentence made my heart ache – in a good way – “your insight has given me the opportunity to see what he may be feeling.” Because in your empathy and understanding, your son belongs and is not alone. Beautiful. And it made me glad I wrote this peace, because it was a bit vulnerable to publish.
This is just beautiful, Karly. THANK YOU for *sounding your note in the world*….as you can see, it resonates with so many…which I think tends to happen when we speak our truth 🙂 There is so much in our culture today that encourages us to airbrush our experience, smoothe out any rough edges and wrinkles (often literally!), and, as you say, to act as if any bumps in the road are in the rear-view mirror. Your voice is contributing to the possibility of more truth-telling–in the self-help community and in the culture as a whole….Brava! with much gratitude, ~Abby
Thank you, Abby – your words mean so much to me, especially as you have been one of my teachers in truth telling, making room for the full range of our humanity, and honoring the full journey. Your words feed my courage to continue to keep writing from my heart, and trusting that it will and can resonate with others far more than a “how to” article ever could. To everyone here, Abby’s work is so beautiful, and deeply impacted my heart and life – I highly recommend it – http://www/deepriverwithin.com. Love, Karly
Wow, I am always so touched by your blogs. Thank you so much for sharing so deeply. I have been struggling with depression my whole entire life and I keep trying to find out “why” so aggressively… Is it a mental health issue? Is it my hormones? Is it just life itself? Karma from a past life?
So there is some rest and solace in what you’re saying. I do try to let it be, but I’m afraid it will engulf me and overtake my life as it has in the past. What a delicate balance.
I also have thought…it will disappear when I get the husband, when I get the new job, when I move to Hawaii, when I just get that best friend… but I now realize it may always be part of me and it is something I may have to surrender to because unfortunately has it has been a constant in my life (granted I don’t have the husband yet
Oh yes…and I call my gram when I’m lonely too. So grateful for still having her in my life!
Maren, grams are wonderful, aren’t they? Love, Karly
I’m so glad my story resonated with you and has helped you find some ease – and solace – in knowing you’re not alone, and knowing that you are deeply loved and okay.
Oh, yes it is a delicate balance – to lean into our pain and to not let it engulf us. It’s a great point, Maren. I think that’s probably something I will be learning throughout my entire life.
And I, too, have had those thoughts of, “if when” – some future point when life is perfect and how then my human experience and pain will disappear. It has a lot of appeal!
Much love, Karly