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5 Insights on Depression From Someone Who Suffers

Here are five writers who have helped me survive -- poets and spiritual teachers, some who have known depression intimately. Use their words as you like. Disregard what doesn't speak to you. This is not a self-improvement program, only a suggested reading list. Ask for help. You are not alone.
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Don't do it. Don't go on Facebook if you're feeling depressed. The worst thing about social media is the illusion it creates that everyone else is happy and successful. I'm as guilty as the next of crafting a digital façade of well-being -- posting beautiful vacation photos and sharing Book Tour accolades. I keep to myself the rejection letters and job refusals, the family conflicts and money stress, the self-lacerating doubts and fears about the future. Not to mention the little mundane assaults of ordinary life: parking tickets, broken appliances, temper tantrums...


But I'm done with my Instagrammed lies of omission. I want to come clean and say I've been sad. Not just sad. I pulled the 8 of Swords in the Tarot deck -- depression, entrapment, extreme sorrow. Call it cyclical psychic pain -- or what poet Jane Kenyon dubs "the bile of desolation." More than 14 million Americans experience depression, and women get depressed at twice the rate of men.

Many of us suffer in solitude and shame. After a recent barrage of writing rejections, I wanted to turtle under the covers and never come out. This instinct for isolation is one of the hallmarks of the disease. But I'm going to resist it and write about it, give voice to the shadow that always plays alongside the light.

Here are five writers who have helped me survive -- poets and spiritual teachers, some who have known depression intimately. Use their words as you like. Disregard what doesn't speak to you. This is not a self-improvement program, only a suggested reading list. Ask for help. You are not alone.

Jane Kenyon- "Having it Out with Melancholy," from Constance

When I read this poem, I recognized a kindred spirit. Jane Kenyon speaks directly to depression -- "the anti-urge,/ the mutilator of souls" -- in lines that are spare and honest. She reveals the bare details of her illness without drama or self-pity and lists the "pharmaceutical wonders" that have helped her recover. I especially love the ending, the possibility of healing, the return of the life force:

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Rainer Maria Rilke- Letters to a Young Poet
My mother gave me Rilke's book when I left for college, and the German writer's famous quote became a mantra throughout my 20s. Re-reading it now, his voice still feels generous. What if it's okay to be open-ended, to live the questions in middle age and beyond?

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and learn to live the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Mary Oliver- "Wild Geese," from Dream Work

Many of us live with a tormenter inside our heads. When I'm suffering from acute self-criticism, I take comfort in Mary Oliver's transcendent lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves...


Pema Chodron- When Things Fall Apart- Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Sometimes I strive towards a future in which I'm utterly free from angst, depression, or struggle. Then Buddhist nun Pema Chodron gently brings me down to earth. Pema weaves humor, compassion and insights in her remarkable book:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen...

Eckhart Tolle- The Power of Now
Admitting depression in our happiness-obsessed culture can feel failure. But what if we need to move through the lows as well as the highs? Eckhart Tolle gives us permission to accept disintegration, and embrace our essential wholeness:

There are cycles of success, when things come to you and thrive, and cycles of failure, when they wither and disintegrate and you have to let them go in order to make room for new things to arise, or for transformation to happen. If you cling and resist at that point, it means you are refusing to go with the flow of life, and you will suffer.

It is not true that the up cycle is good and the down cycle bad, except in the mind's judgment. Growth is usually considered positive, but nothing can grow forever. If growth, of whatever kind, were to go on and on, it would eventually become monstrous and destructive. Dissolution is needed for new growth to happen. One cannot exist without the other.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.