Two Spaces: A Developmental Perspective On Depression
I doubt there is anyone reading this, professional or otherwise, who has not come into contact with depression, either inside themselves or affecting another. It diminishes our spirit, our appetite for life. It corrupts and contaminates our perspective, contracting our world into one of overwhelming pressures and barely manageable demands and expectations. For some it is a veil dimming the light of their soul, for others it is worse than that, a dark and impossible weight under which even basic rituals of communication and self care feel impossible.
I talk about 'it' this way intentionally because depression, especially severe depression, can feel like an entity, attacking us, diminishing us, disabling us.
There is no doubt that there are physiological components to depression.
Research suggests the limbic system, neurotransmitters including serotonin and hormones like cortisol all play roles in clinical depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) especially demonstrates the physical actuality of depression. For some people the drop in serotonin that comes with less light on the retina is a terribly serious business. One day everything is fine, the next the world is a much darker place. Sleep, light, exercise, contact with loved ones incl pets, the right diet; all are invaluable factors in treating and managing depression.
Whatever the physiology of depression, it cannot be separated from the psychology, and both are indivisible from the sufferer's life experience. My premise in this article is that depression is not an arbitrary force that appears out of nowhere and strikes us down. It is rooted somewhere in our past, most likely our childhood or a traumatic event, and is actually a survival adaptation; the best we can do with the tools we possess at the time. Depression is not a hormonal aberration, or bad wiring, it is a strategy! It is meaningful, nature's way.
It is never easy to acknowledge that there is logic in a situation that is painful for us. How could we do this to ourselves? Why would we? Anyone who has suffered depression of any kind knows the horror of it. Well to answer these questions I must briefly explain a simple concept; a world of two spaces. Resistance and acceptance.
Developing in a fundamentally safe and loving environment a human 'being' feels at one with his world. He is not trying to control life because he knows intrinsically that he is a part of life; so he engages with it, in faith, feeling curiosity and excitement at what is to come. He is secure in himself, trusting in his own worth, safe in a world in which he has learnt to predict that his needs will be understood and met. He lives in a space of acceptance; of himself, his world, his life.
Developing in a fundamentally unpredictable and controlling environment a human is less 'being' than 'doing'. All systems engage in strategies designed to optimise survival and comfort. Thoughts, feelings, behaviour; all are subsumed in the effort to make sense of what feels nonsensical, to control what feels uncontrollable. In reaction to the resistance a child has experienced to her own needs, unconditional worth and innocence, she develops her own methods of resistance; to feeling the pain within, to seeing primary others as inadequate to her care, to trusting life. As within so without.
If a child has developed mainly in a space of resistance (space R) then their ability to relax will be severely compromised. This child will be using lots of energy just to stay still. Constantly trying to control what is uncontrollable is draining and exhausting. At some point this child, often when grown up and dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood, will reach an impasse, a stuck place. Maybe a relationship ends, or work is going nowhere, or a dream dissolves. Resistance breaks down. The old strategies fail to provide solace one more time. This time is one too many. But to let them go is terrifying. All those hidden feelings have turned into an ogre that threatens to overwhelm, even destroy.
At this point it can feel as if there is nowhere safe to stand. To be here, open to new life and connection, seems impossible. It is as if, just at the point when we feel our weakest and most afraid, we are asked to step forward into an unknown world. This is especially difficult as the only blueprint we have of that world is the one we have resisted facing, the map of a scary and lonely place.
So we try to hide. Just like a child with nowhere to turn for relief. We turn in on ourselves and use what energy we have to keep the world out and ourselves locked down. It makes sense doesn't it, to shut out light when when we feel unbearably exposed by it?
I see depression as a massive energetic refusal to be here. A final stand. It is an unconscious act of resistance so strong that it is almost a refusal of life itself. The little child within the adult is unable to cope any more.
It is important that I explain that even if we have not developed in a space of acceptance; even if our brain chemistry, our hormonal balance, has adjusted through the mechanisms of resistance, the space of acceptance is always present and available. In nature, in eyes full of compassion, in music, in another's care for us; in the present moment. Brain chemistry can change, hormones adjust.
I believe that when space R has shrunk into a black prison, an opportunity presents itself in a way that it cannot at any other time. Yes we have failed to feel okay, to cope, but only because we were doomed to failure the moment we set up to resist life, to fight it or deny it or avoid it. We did what we had to do. We survived. We made the most we could out of life. But in the end, if we are not part of nature's flow then we are in it's way; and what we may experience as bad luck or misfortune is actually just nature asking us the question. 'Will you join me, or keep fighting me?'
It is my opinion that, perhaps paradoxically, a lasting and life changing step into space A is most likely to be made from deep within space R. I think this is partly because our options are exhausted. The problem is that we generally do not know how to make this step, or even that it exists. Well space A is always here, now. It is possible to change our centre of gravity from resistance to acceptance. The first step into space A is always the same; to accept ourselves as we are right now. “ I accept I am depressed, I feel hopeless, tired, numb, alone. I don't like myself, I struggle to cope with any demands, or look after myself. That is true.” Then the second step. This could be to cry, to run a bath, to go for a walk, to look for a counsellor. Then the third step. And so on. Small steps in space A are like sips of water for a man dying of thirst. Eventually that man is strong again, standing tall, moving forward.
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