You might have noticed recently that the lights have gone dark at Drinking to Distraction. I could make excuses: I’m busy with work, traveling more, doing fabulous and enviable things around New York City. But the truth is that I have been depressed.
Depression, much like alcoholism, is not something people are eager to talk or hear about. It’s not eminently discussable, and is rather something people suffer with privately. I have struggled with depression since I was a child, and I learned it was something to be whispered about and overcome. Yet, with the number of people affected (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 6.4% of US adults had depression in the year 2008; I was unable to find any statistics on how many have experienced depression at any point in their lives but I imagine it is a much greater number), it is also one of the most common health problems. And this reticence to address it directly and publicly seems a dangerous paradox.
After many years of living with it, I realized that depression may not be all bad. Many of those who suffer with depression also have a level of sensitivity that predisposes them to great empathy, compassion, and creativity. In his Shambhala Sun article entitled “Depression’s Truth,” Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses another potential benefit of depression – clear seeing:
According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive—the world we interact with and live in—is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world, like a spell has been put on us by the allure of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, though, we begin to see through that—we are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. Depression, when we work with it, can be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It reminds us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.
The author goes on to say that depression can present unique opportunities, if faced fearlessly and with courage, awareness, joy, love, and compassion. One of the main ways of doing this is through meditation: through remaining open and aware to the present, observing the moment to moment variability in depressed feelings, and being willing to look at things in a different way.
When I began practicing meditation almost 2 years ago, one of the first benefits I noticed was the opening up of space. Space between habitual thoughts, space between judging things as good or bad, space in which I could be rather than just do. As a result of this newfound space, I have become more compassionate and aware. I have cultivated the ability to observe myself encountering discomfort and to watch urges – to drink or zone out – rise and fall without reacting to them.
When this latest depression began, my first clue was an utter lack of space. I could locate no gaps in the negative soundtrack running in my head, telling me how awful, burdensome, boring, lazy, undeserving, and unlovable I was. I could not find the space to take the good with the bad and thus fixated on the negative aspects of every experience, real or imagined. I could not find the space to do the things that made me happy and kept me healthy – to exercise, eat well, read, write, or laugh. Even the space that allowed me to stop what I was doing and sit down to meditate diminished. I continued to sit, however, hoping to overcome this darkness and to find the space that would allow me to observe myself once again and make skillful changes. This did eventually happen but the change I kept coming back to wasn’t one I was ready to make.
For several years, before I quit drinking, I managed my depression with antidepressant medication. One of their earliest benefits was the quieting of that chorus chanting “you suck you suck you suck.” As a result, I became unstuck and faced some real challenges head on. But a part of me yearned to come off the medication, to be “pure,” and to experience my life’s highs and lows unmuted.
When I was struggling with questions of whether or not I was an alcoholic, one of seemingly few “solid” reasons to quit drinking was the possibility to stop taking antidepressants. And 5 months after taking my last drink, I began to taper off antidepressant meds. Much of what I write about here has been my experience since then, which for the most part seemed to be a story of successfully navigating the world with neither alcohol nor antidepressants. Until recently.
Through meditation, reflection, and discussions with people who love me enough to say “this isn’t working; it’s time to try something else,” I realized I needed to consider medication again. Even though antidepressants had helped me in the past, the idea of going back on them made me feel like an utter failure. I was also confused as to the Buddhist perspective on treating depression with drugs. According to my fledgling understanding of Buddhism and specifically the Four Nobel Truths, it is the relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort that is the source of life’s suffering. What then are antidepressants but an FDA-approved affront to the second noble truth?
My confusion brought me, as it often does, to the Internet, where I found a 1993 Tricycle article by the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein called “Awakening with Prozac.” Epstein writes:
There continues to be a widespread suspicion of pharmacological treatments for mental anguish in dharma circles, a prejudice against using drugs to correct mental imbalance. Just as the cancer patient is urged to take responsibility for something that may be beyond her control, the depressed dharma student is all too often given the message that no pain is too great to be confronted on the zafu, that depression is the equivalent of mental weakness or lassitude, that the problem is in the quality of one’s practice rather than in one’s body.
One of the only concrete things worth learning in all of [my] years of training was that there actually are several psychiatric conditions which can be cured or prevented through the use of medications and that denial of such treatment is folly. This is not to say that it is always so clear when a problem is chemical, when it is psychological, or when it is spiritual. There are no blood tests for depression, for example. And yet, the presence of certain constellations of symptoms invariably point to a treatable condition that is unlikely to resolve through spiritual practice alone.
There are undoubtedly dharma practitioners who are depriving themselves in the same way, out of a similar faith in the universality of their ideology. Such people would do well to remember the Buddha’s teachings of the Middle Path, especially his counsel against the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism, which he called “painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” To suffer from psychiatric illness willfully, when treatment is mercifully available, is but a contemporary ascetic practice. The Buddha himself tried such ascetic practices, but gave them up. His counsel is worth keeping.
At the same time I sent a text message to my meditation instructor asking, “What would the Buddha think of my going back on antidepressants?” Her response, “He would be delighted for you to do whatever you need to create stability and thus find it easier to experience gentleness toward yourself and others. But just a guess!!!”
Once I gave myself permission to treat my depression and perhaps actually thereby further my dharma practice, I began taking an antidepressant. Though it takes several weeks for the medication to have its full pharmacologic effect, I noticed subtle changes steadily taking place. First the breaking up of the cloud that had settled over me like Eyeore, the quieting of my self-deprecating Greek chorus, and the breaking down of barriers to doing the things that make me feel good, capable, and whole. After one month, I find myself picking up a book rather than zoning out in front of Bravo TV, going for a run rather than remaining chained to my desk, choosing to lighten up on myself rather than running myself into the ground for the slightest perceived fault. Pema Chodron writes:
Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax. When we do that, we gradually discover that clarity is always there. In the middle of the worst scenario of the worst person in the world, in the middle of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.
Once I stopped struggling against my confusion and recognized what was true for me in that moment, the answer became clear and a space continues to open up before me. As with all things, I needed to find my own middle way and just see where it takes me.
Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been struggling with depression since childhood as well and have been in a “funk” for the last few years which has been getting progressively worse. I also struggle with the medication path…does a little pill really make things “all better”? I feel I can overcome my inner obstacles but do wonder if meds would be beneficial (I’ve tried them in a past here and there but haven’t had a great success story…yet). I can so relate to zoning out in front of Bravo vs going for a walk/run I literally laughed (out loud) when I read it.
I wish you peace and comfort.
Again, thank you for your rawness on this piece of your life, I appreciate it more than you know.
Thank you, Kristina. I wish you the same.
Some of us are self recognized addicts who see that the addiction that we quite today becomes the new addiction of tomorrow. Here’s my list which began at the age of about 12:
Pot and other drugs
Bad (Bravo) TV
I have struggled mightily for years and years with this question of “Is it ok to medicate?” and “I should be able to handle my depression and self discipline on my own”. And I do – for a while but always (and usually quite quickly, revert to the patterns.
The thing that is so perplexing is how well I can feel when I do manage to do all the “right” things ie: exercise, meditate, eat the right food and not too much of it etc etc etc……….
I think I need an appointment with Mark Epstein. It’s hard to make a traditional psychiatrist understand the desire/conflict for well being AND a spritiual path. Usually they know the latter out of the discussion – almost as if nothing about it had been expressed.
What a wonderful essay. Thank you for sharing it. I know that when I was in my deepest depressions, there was absolutely no way I could meditate unless I was first medicating with an antidepressant to manage my illness. I couldn’t even get to my cushion to sit. I still meet too many practitioners who dismiss medication out of hand, even when they are truly suffering. Thank you for being so generous with your experience.
Thanks for your comment, Rebekka. I keep finding that one of the most difficult things is figuring out where I am in the gray area – in this case, when has depression become so oppressive that no amount of sitting, exercise, or dark green leafy vegetables are going to make a difference. I’m so glad that you found this post helpful (it was helpful to me to write it!).
Forgot to finish the thought about feeling so well as a result of doing the right things:
My reasoning says “if you feel so good, better than you ever felt from a drink or from food or any other substance, then why oh why do you quit doing the mediation/exercise/eating right?”
Makes no logical sense – of course.
Wish someone could explain to me if this is self sabotaging behavior or a chemical imbalance, a combination of those, or something else. But, another problem that I have is in trusting the (professional) person who might try to tell me what they think.
Thanks for your comment, Tori. I think there is a lot more to this situation than we currently understand. Some of the research I’ve read suggests that chemicals (neurotransmitters) are indeed responsible for our decisions to do what is “good” for us versus what isn’t. Like a lot of things (addiction included) I feel it is a combination of nature and nurture, of chemicals and choices, one doesn’t necessarily define the other but they cannot be fully separated. That said, sometimes just making the slightest move in the direction of things that ultimately make me feel better can open up the space that allows me to do more of that. I really appreciated your thoughts. Best wishes!
So glad you’re feeling better, Jenna. Wonderful, courageous piece. My son is going to Yale in the fall and I imagine I’ll be in the city a bit in the next four years. Maybe we can grab a coffee!
Jenna: So glad you’re feeling better. Thanks for a wonderful, courageous post! My son is going to Yale this fall and I imagine I’ll be in the city every now and then. Maybe we can grab a coffee!
Lizerella! Thank you for your support. I’d love to see you and catch up. Congrats to your son!
I stopped drinking about a year ago and have been on an antidepressant for a few months longer than that. The first one I tried made me feel almost nothing negative…it was lovely at first, but the drug also made me want to eat like there was no tomorrow. I switched to another one that gave my emotions back, in addition to motivation, energy and clarity. It’s funny how differently just those two antidepressants reacted with my brain’s chemistry. Eventually I’d like to wean off my current medication, but I’m not sure why I want that. I feel good…right…you know?
Really loved your meditation instructor’s text. Such wisdom there. You could just suffer, but it seems to a loving outsider that perhaps it’s better not to. Thanks for sharing your experience here.
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This post is so timely for me. I started anti-depressants again this very week – and felt as though I was giving in to failure when I took the first pill. I was comfortable with “I just take them to deal with SAD”…and felt that I had no excuse for taking them in the summer. I am trying to be gentle with myself and look at this as just another step in the journey to getting better.