Telling a depressed person that things are hopeless is generally ill-advised.* And yet it is exactly what Buddhist nun Pema Chodron recommends in her book When Things Fall Apart (which is not a Chinua Achebe novel): “Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”
In a sense, it’s what my therapist has been telling me all along. We can’t really change our feelings, we can only change how we respond to them. There’s nothing to be gained by having second-order sentiments about our sentiments: of feeling guilty or angry about feeling shitty, on top of the shittiness itself. I’m still a far cry from being a practicing Buddhist—I’m too restless for meditation—but there are moments where I’ve embraced the hopelessness Chodron recommends.
In some ways, it’s a huge relief to downshift my expectations of myself, to accept myself as living with depression rather than relentlessly struggling against it. There’s even more to recommend that path of acceptance. Research shows that depressed people have a more accurate perception of the world around them than their non-depressed counterparts. As one wise commenter pointed out to me, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” The world provides plenty of evidence for the Buddhist insight that suffering is an indelible part of the human experience.
But how much suffering, give-or-take, should I be willing to accept? This question has, in the last few weeks, become much more than just philosophical. You see, I’m one of the lucky ones: anti-depressants—the really, really strong ones—appear to work for me. So much so, in fact, that by mid-November, I boldly wrote the phrase, “I am no longer depressed” in my journal. I felt so good that, under pressure from those that tell me “the less medication the better” combined with my unvarnished hatred of the pharmaceutical industry, I cut back on the drugs as soon as I could.
It took almost precisely the amount of time it takes for Remeron to leave my system for me to be curled up, once again, on the living room couch, cradled by parents who couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t stop crying. When my psychiatrist told me we would ramp up my medication again, I felt like praising the gods of Mirtazapine and sending a thank you note to Bristol-Myers Squibb. A few days later, and I can already contemplate work and social interaction and the future possibility of happiness. At least for now, it’s hard not to see some truth to her promise—so common in Western medicine—that suffering is not inevitable, so long as we can just find the right mix of neurotransmitters.
There is wisdom to be gained from pain, yes, and I hope that—as my condition continues to improve—I don’t miss the chance to reflect on some of what the past few months have taught me. But for now, two roads diverged in a wood, and I have chosen the Western one. I chose it because it’s easier and I’m not ready to let go of the person I was and the dreams I had. I feel hopeful—and guilty at the same time.
*Although a psychiatrist did that to me this October.