June 25, 2011

The Noonday Demon.

Cognitive psychology has become aware that much depression is maintained, even generated, by getting caught up in negative patterns of thinking. –Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

I struggled with depression for several years. I cannot say for certain how long, because it took me a long time to realize that I was depressed. I just thought everything sucked. Like Hamlet, I found weary, stale, flat and unprofitable all the uses of this world, and it took a long time to figure out that the problem wasn’t with the world, but with me.

While Clare was still a baby and before Sophie was born, I began wasting time. Lots of time. I spent hours and hours playing computer solitaire. When I became aware of YouTube, things went downhill very fast. Although I have never owned a television, and prided myself on never having seen Friends or Seinfeld or Survivor, I have watched over 5,000 videos on YouTube.

I was self-employed for many years before I began teaching, cobbling together a livelihood out of composing, performing and temp work. I was always unusually self-disciplined; during grad school, I regularly rose at 5:00 a.m. to write. But during the last six years, I became unable either to face my obligations, or to take pleasure in constructive diversions. It was as though my mind were in open rebellion against the things I was asking it to do.

Screwtape, the senior demon invented by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, wrote to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter out on his first assignment, about people like me:

As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness,…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. … You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”.

Ultimately, between the fatigue brought on by staying up late every night—on top of the fatigues of having an infant and a toddler in the house—my corrosive shame and the weariness of hiding it, I became irritable and intolerant with my family, lashing out in self-righteous impatience at the least provocation. By the grace of God I woke up enough to see what I was doing to my family, and realized that I needed help.

I found a therapist and got a prescription for a mild antidepressant, which took the edge off enough for me to think a little more clearly. But I discovered that while drugs can help manage negative feelings, they can do nothing about negative habits. You have to tackle those yourself.And even now, with the apathy and despair gone, when I no longer want to sleep all day and am no longer smothering under the weight of a leaden sky full of black clouds, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers called “afflictive thoughts.” I may be out with my children, taking them someplace we all like to be on a beautiful day, and the thought “I’m so unhappy” will come out of nowhere. Or “I’m so miserable!” Literally, those words. And the strange thing is that the words aren’t true; I’m really not miserable. But I’m in the habit of telling myself that I am. These thoughts –and doubtless many, many others, unlanguaged and unrecognized–slide unbidden down tracks I laid for them long ago. And it takes colossal effort to pull up those tracks, and constant vigilance over what I am thinking, so that I now understand the challenge in Paul’s advice to “take every thought captive for Christ.” Vivekananda said that most of us are like spoilt children, and we let out minds think whatever they want to. Not letting the mind default into old destructive patterns is a huge undertaking which, though made more doable through the relief offered by chemical intervention, cannot be accomplished except by laborious effort.

The yogis call these patterns samskaras, or “volitional formations.” The idea behind karma is that everything we think, do or will leaves “traces” in the vritti, or mind-stuff, which will pre-dispose us to continue to think, act and will in those ways. (“The dog returns to its vomit,” as the Hebrew Bible colorfully puts it.) Once samskaras—literally, “what has been put together”—have been established, they must work themselves out completely. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children; as you sow, so shall you reap; what goes around, comes around. Only grace can break the cycle.

Though the acute emotional distress of my depression is in remission, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called acedia—what the Western Church has, as one of the “seven deadly sins,” translated as “sloth,” but is actually much more: a deep spiritual lassitude that is a near relation to depression. It is always worse after a period of progress; Mother Theodora nailed it when she said, “You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through acedia, faint-heartedness, and evil thoughts.” This is why the Desert Fathers and Mothers calledacedia the Noonday Demon: it comes at mid-day to undermine all the resolve of the morning.

I knew someone who, because of what I had experienced myself, I was convinced was deeply depressed. The hole he couldn’t climb out of was so familiar to me, I wished I could convey to him the fruit of my own struggle. It was terrifically frustrating knowing that some medication could have lifted the bell jar enough so he could breathe, allowing him to get out from under his feelings enough to take steps toward managing his thoughts. But in the end, he had to choose to do the work himself; no one could make him accept help.

Jesus couldn’t. “Do you want to be well?” he asked the paralyzed man at the well—not, presumably, because he didn’t know the answer, but because he needed the man to own the question. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…again and again would I have taken your children to myself as a bird takes her young ones under her wings, and you would not!” And God can’t force it on us either, or doesn’t; we have to seek and accept the grace ourselves.

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