For women – and men – with depression
Mental illness, in all its various manifestations, is a heavy burden to bear. Certainly for the sufferer herself. But, also for those who suffer along with the one afflicted with mental illness — family and friends. It’s an illness that’s still regarded with a stigma by many.
My thoughts for the present column on mental illness refused to jell until I picked up a new book written by Maura Hanrahan, the award-winning author of Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster. It’s entitled Spirit and Dust: Meditations for Women with Depression.
Depression affects women and men differently; there are different causes and different effects. Hanrahan directs her book, made up of meditations from Christian women mystics, at women living with longterm or chronic depression.
She uses her own experience, writing, “Episodes of serious depression took over my life three times. The last was over four years ago and I have enjoyed life as never before ever since.” She also uses the experience of other women to explore both the practical and spiritual aspects of depression.
I asked Hanrahan if men can also profit from her book.
“At its core,” she responds, “depression is depression. The bone-crushing feelings that are at the centre of depression are there in both men and women. Perhaps that’s why some men can relate to the book.” I, for one, have benefitted greatly from and highly recommend her book.
I wondered if faith in God, however God is understood, plays a role in helping the sufferer cope with, and perhaps heal, depression.
“It could go either way,” Hanrahan says. “It could be another force of personal oppression, as organized religion often is, or it could be a prop, something to lift you up, or even an agent of healing.” The Christian women mystics regarded God as “ love, mystery, mother, father, but always love. They were able to realize that no matter what, God had not abandoned them; God was there with them.”
I personally have often wondered about why the “why” question, in relation to depression, is so very difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Pat answers just will not do.
Hanrahan has a useful answer to this troubling question: “It’s so hard to answer because we can never be certain of the answer. And maybe because every depression has more than one cause: genetics, trauma, bad luck, too much stress, lack of support, poverty, and so on.” Indeed, she suggests that “the bus strike in St. John’s is contributing to depression in many people because they cannot take part in life as they did a few months ago.”
She herself has asked the same questions many times. “ When I stopped intellectualizing it and deconstructing the ‘why’ of it, I got more energy to use on healing myself. I was able to focus on coping with the effects of depression and learning what I could do or what I could try to prevent relapses. But maybe ‘why’ was a stage I had to go through to come to grips with it.”
Therapy and antidepressants have the potential of helping some sufferers. However, they only marginally helped Hanrahan, which again makes me wonder. She feels that, on a “more mystical level it almost felt like the depression was a visitor that had come to me and left when it was finished with me. It was as if the depression had some unknown purpose that it had fulfilled and was now leaving.”
Interestingly, Hanrahan found that cognitive therapy, or changing one’s thought patterns, helped her prevent relapses. Involvement with support groups can be very inspiring, if nothing else. She learned from her experience that “people with depression and other mental illnesses are so resourceful and resilient.” Finally, love, whether the love of a spouse or God, can play a significant role in the sufferer’s journey to wellness.
Hanrahan draws strength from the Christian women mystics, who remind her of God’s love. Blessed Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.” Saint Jane de Chantal said, “Be gentle with yourself.” Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing affright thee.” Hanrahan characterizes their sentiments as “simple yet profound stuff and very much worth dwelling on. So comforting.”
Some years ago, while I chatted with a psychologist, he asked me, “Burton, what would you do if you had a broken leg?” “Go to a doctor,” I replied. “ Well, then,” he asked, “wouldn’t you do the same thing with a ‘ broken mind’?”