underworld journey

Reply: Guardian Weekly <weekly.letters@theguardian.com>

9th December 2013

Dear gentleperson

A two page spread on depression, written exclusively from the point of view of health professionals, is as diminishing as an article about women citing only men; it leaves me feeling usurped, silenced and reified into a problem that needs fixing (Antidepressant use rises in rich nations, OECD finds. Medication of misery blamed for pill count. The drugs do work, but they can’t cure unhappiness. 29 November). Surely the many of us who inhabit this territory, this particular way of being human, are the real experts here?

One of the difficulties with any discussion on depression is the word itself, which lumps together conditions as distinct as a bad hair day, existential sorrow, and life-threatening biochemical meltdown. Exogenous depression, caused by stressful life events, requires a very different approach to my own endogenous variety, where neuro-transmitters innately awry shape temperaments characterised not so much by unhappiness as by lack of robustness, and by anxiety, not enough ballast, and porous boundaries. Artists, mystics, prophets, introverts and canaries in the mine cluster at this part of the human spectrum.

In my case, the chronic flares into the acute every couple of years, and I fall headlong into my own black hole. It’s both pathology, and underworld journey as rigorous and transformative as Persephone struggling through Hades. At one level it’s malefic; inner terrorists running amok, sectarian warfare, hate-filled voices yammering night and day. But if instead of resisting, I can surrender to – even trust – descent and disintegration, there are gifts and insights here, great stars in the darkness. Given that dreams predict, mediate, signpost and resolve these months-long journeys, I can only assume that somewhere in my sub-conscious there’s not only a template but purpose.

I don’t find mainstream medicine particularly helpful at any stage of the cycle except as a source of baseline chemicals; I’m both immensely grateful to the support offered by SSRI’s, anxiolytics and sleeping pills, and think they’re almost as primitive as strait-jackets. Cognitive behaviour therapy, much touted by professionals, seems to me trivial and ineffective; it tries to use ego to fight ego and in my experience, real change only happens at a much deeper, trans-verbal level of the psyche. Acupuncture and cranio-sacral massage are my current therapies of choice; their very different contexts are lifegiving, and large enough to make sense of me when I no longer make sense to myself.

Don’t just consult the anthropologists, talk to the indigenes. Or read them; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson; the novels of the Brontës and Doris Lessing; William Styron’s harrowing and beautiful autobiographical classic, “Darkness Visible”.

Peace be robustly with you all.

Annie March



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