There are dreams, bad dreams, and nightmares. And then there's depression.
That's the picture of despair painted by so many who have suffered from a malady that the rest of us too often underestimate as something that others should just snap out of.
It's not that easy. Depression is far more than simply a bad case of the blues. It weighs its victims down unbearably - the mental equivalent of landing on a planet where the gravity is many times stronger than the earthward pull we are used to.
Many struggle with depression today. And according to a Royal College of Psychiatrists study of students this leads to a greater risk of substance abuse and poorer choices for coping with emotional pain.
The research was cited on the Healthline website, which also reported that depression is "an epidemic among college students":
- 1 out of 4 college students suffers some form of mental illness, including depression
- 19 percent of young people in the United States either contemplate or attempt suicide every year
Too few of these young sufferers seek help and when they do the care on offer is often inadequate, according to a recent LA Times opinion piece.
This commentary only saw the lack in terms of the availability and quality of medical care, but what about other ways of responding? For while meds might soothe the depression of some, others have found their nightmare worsening when they accept such treatment.
That was the experience of Patricia Brugioni, who struggled with manic depression throughout her teens and twenties. Now a thirty-something professional living in Chicago she is happily married and something of a world traveller. She takes a spiritual joy with her wherever she goes and shares it generously.
I recently asked her how that transition out of such mental darkness came about.
Patricia: Firstly, I want to say I'm so grateful for a growing acknowledgement among the medical community of the need to uncover the "layers of difficulty and untruth in the human heart", as one doctor recently put it.
That's certainly what I needed as a high-schooler tormented by sadness and depression. Instead, when I was sent to a psychiatrist I right away got a sense there was no listening going on. I was simply being analyzed to see what pill would fit the bill. I tried to explain my misgivings about taking a pill in order to change how I felt, because I knew there were unresolved things in my heart, like huge whales swimming beneath the surface of my thought. And I absolutely knew that a pill would have nothing to do with solving that.
In fact, I voiced the idea that I didn't think any effect from the drugs would be "real". The response came back: "What do you mean by real?" I didn't even know myself what I meant, but that's what I felt in my heart. I well remember the sinking feeling when I was given the drugs and told I would not only lose the lows but also all the highs.
Eventually I went along with the medication. But years later, reading back through my journal, I realised it had only been at this point that my depression turned suicidal.
Tony: What happened next?
Patricia: I started hiding my pills, putting them in potted plants and flushing them down the toilet. I was told I was "resisting recovery", and things kept spiralling downwards. I'd been drinking since I was 12, but I started drinking more heavily. Then an eating disorder developed which took me down to 90 pounds. These actions seemed to give me some temporary sense of control over how I felt, but ended up making me even more desperate and sick.
I struggled for many years, trying to get by. Things were also troubled at home, but the love my mom struggled to express, no matter how messy things got, helped prepare the way for my healing. Her deep desire for my sister and me to break free of a history of problems prevalent in our family foreshadowed what I was going to learn spiritually, that nothing can stand in the way of Love.
Looking back, I can see my family and friends did the best they knew how to help, but eventually I felt impelled to move away and try to work things out for myself. It was then I reached rock bottom. Yet at that very point I had what I call a "window experience" in which spiritual light, deep wisdom and peace suddenly broke through. For a while I felt more alive than ever before. A clear sense of being loved dawned on me and I felt a pure spiritual awareness.
One thing I heard so clearly at that time - as if someone was whispering it into my ear - was: "This is what the world looks like without fear."
There was light, peace, grace, joy - everywhere. If I'd been familiar with the Bible I might have said: 'Ah! That was "the still, small voice of God" communicating, and the veil is being lifted. I'm seeing the kingdom of heaven on earth. It's here!' But I had no words for it. It was all so new yet also familiar. Later, when I read what Jesus said about the Comforter coming to bring all things to our remembrance, I knew that was what had happened during this period. I was being reminded of who I truly was.
Tony: Did you think of this as a religious experience?
Patricia: No. All of this seemingly came out of nowhere and I didn't know what it meant. In fact, I even wondered if maybe I was going completely crazy. Yet I knew insanity doesn't have such intelligence, light and love as I was experiencing.
This got my attention and I wanted to feel this fearless love and healing presence again.
Tony: What did you do to pursue that end?
Patricia: About a year later I was led to join a support group whose daily practice was to have you surrender to the care of God by writing out whatever your fears appeared to be at that moment. Then you asked that the fears be removed and prayed for the understanding of God's will, and for the power to carry that out. Before this point I would've said I had no fear. But as I wrote I discovered there was more fear there than I had been aware of. The writing flowed and the effect was immediate. I lost all desire to drink, and not long after my smoking fell away effortlessly. Then the eating disorder went, too. All of this just by exposing my fears, and willingly surrendering them to a God who I'd had no belief in up to that point. I found I was learning of God by seeing how God works.
Tony: Was the depression also over at that point?
Patricia: No, not yet. But I was flooded with power and joy and a new sense of courage because I now saw that I had a way to get free - not through trying to manipulate my thought or change my brain chemicals, but by facing up to, and getting rid of, fear or "false evidence appearing real", as I've come to think of it.
Tony: So what was the final turning point?
Patricia: There wasn't any one particular moment, it was more along the lines of a dawning. Gradually, and irresistibly, the light washed over everything, and the shadows had no choice but to disappear.
However, there was a woman in that support group who was pivotal in me experiencing that.
She was a Christian Scientist, but at first that didn't mean anything to me. I was not "the religious type". But over the course of those first few years of sobriety I would be in meetings and I gradually noticed something different about her when she spoke. She was like a steady rock rising above the waters while the rest of us seemed to get pushed around by every wave. I found myself feeling this deep peace when I was listening to what she shared, and yet after she finished I couldn't seem to keep hold of what she had told us. Finally, one day, I had a remarkable experience where I knew ahead of time I would understand what she shared that day, and as she spoke it was like there was a spiritual meeting of minds - or a shared consciousness of the one, divine, Mind. I understood what she said, and I did retain it.
Tony: Was she sharing her faith with you in any formal way?
Patricia: No, not at all. But someone else in the group had given me a copy of the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and following that experience I read it from cover to cover over the course of a few weeks.
Tony: Did its ideas resonate with you?
Patricia: Absolutely. It was profound. I felt like I'd been prepared for this. I'd already been spiritually shown so many of the things I was now reading. So having these words in front of me was like having the travel notes for the ground I'd already covered, yet it also showed me where I was and where the path would lead from there.
Up to this point I still had a repetitive impulse to want to kill myself, but as I read, I lost all faith in self-destruction as a means of change. Instead, a new hope was dawning. It was a hope in the purely spiritual, indestructible, unconditional identity - and ever-active divine relationship - that Christian Science teaches we all have. Not only that, but the author of Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy, felt like a soulmate because she'd clearly had the same deep yearnings and insatiable need to understand that I have.
Tony: What happened next?
Patricia: I moved to a little apartment on my own to have a quiet place to study. I just read and read and was alone with God. It was heavenly. As I read the room seemed to be filled with pure light. I was held in that "secret place of the Most High" that the Bible talks about, and felt as if I was being spoken to directly in my heart of hearts. Everything was being washed and sifted within me and so much was being revealed. It was literally like coming home.
Tony: What was the outcome of that period?
Patricia: I saw that the depression was just the false dead weight of materialism and I was lifted above that. I was being removed from the gravity of materialistic thinking into a buoyant, diviner consciousness. From that vantage point I felt touched by a fresh, pure sense of myself and of everything else.
In an article titled "The New Birth" by Mrs Eddy, there's a line that reads: "the new birth is not the work of a moment, it begins with moments and goes on with years." This was one of those pivotal moments for me. I realized my completeness and freedom as a child of God.
Tony: Where has your journey of spiritual growth taken you since?
Patricia: I feel like my feet are firmly planted on solid ground. And my heart feels stable because I've been turning to God with all of it, instead of trying to do everything by myself. I've learned that such humility is great strength. It is the opposite of the "self-sufficiency" that passes for strength in the world. Above all, I now know we can always get still and truly know the great "I Am", as the Bible puts it - the one and only "I Am" of all of us, the purely spiritual identity we each have.
Tony: Is it possible for others find such healing?
Patricia: Mary Baker Eddy once wrote: "Wholly apart from this mortal dream, this illusion and delusion of sense, Christian Science comes to reveal man as God's image, His idea, coexistent with Him — God giving all and man having all that God gives" (Miscellany). If that's true for anyone, then it's true for everyone.
When you are suffering from depression you can feel so beyond hope, worth or ability. So our honest and natural willingness to see beyond that to someone's innate spiritual worth, no matter how covered up or lost that seems - and to respond with unconditional compassion wherever they are in their struggle - is the greatest gift we can give. It can stir the recognition of a familiar innocence and blaze through the material sense of darkness to open the troubled heart to a light already within.
That divine light - "God giving all" and we each having "all that God gives" - is the irrepressible truth of who we each actually are.