I’ve gotten interested in depression. I’ve written recently about a friend who passed away a month ago, and the terrible depressions he suffered from. That made me wonder just what causes depression.
Like other forms of disease, there may be a variety of causes. I’ve had my own experience with depression, and as far as I can tell, the cause is usually bad choices on my part. This clearly is not the case for everybody. My friend got depressions every winter. That’s not too unusual, and in some cases it has to do with there being less sunny weather than other times of the year. He told me that didn’t apply to him, because it had happened once when he was living in Arizona. No shortage of sunshine there. So that raises the question of just what causes such seasonal depressions.
It seems likely that there’s some kind of physical mechanism that produces it, but when searching online, the explanations are frustratingly vague. One source says that some mental structures may become different. Another says that an MRI shows a difference between a depressed brain and one that is not, but the differences aren’t clear enough to be the basis for diagnosis. Another talks about lower levels of serotonin in the depressed person, but then says that researchers aren’t so sure how much that has to do with it.
I recently heard that some women, perhaps a considerable minority, go into depression every month because of their periods. That seems to indicate that hormone balances have something to do with it, but apparently no one knows exactly what.
Treatment generally consists of either medications or talk therapy, and use of both is recommended, but that’s palliative. There doesn’t seem to be any real cure for depression that’s more than temporary. Some have some level of depression all the time, others may have bipolar disorder, where depression alternates with mania (which may be more enjoyable, but is no better for the person experiencing it), still others may have depression that recurs irregularly.
I had a horoscope made for me by a friend, who said that the stars were in a bad configuration for me from about the time I graduated from high school till about 15-20 years later. From my perspective, my depression during those years (and I wasn’t depressed all the time, though I was depressed more often than not) resulted from bad choices on my part. If the stars had anything to do with it, it’s not perceptible to me. Obviously, this is not true for everyone.
If the physical aspects of depression are unclear, the psychological aspects may be more understandable. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whatever the cause, could certainly be a progenitor of depression. People who have been abused, whether in childhood or later, would be liable to experience it, as would people who have experienced any kind of severe trauma. Soldiers are the people one often thinks of in this connection. Being in a foreign country and experiencing threats that come from anywhere from anybody at any time would put one in a heightened state of alertness from which one would feel one could never relax. We’ve probably all heard of veterans who have experienced flashbacks after returning to civilian life, where the dangers of war presumably no longer exist. On a deep level they can’t believe that, though. They would undoubtedly like to, but are unable, so they often self-medicate to relax. The same would probably be true of anyone who experiences abuse. Some may be able to heal, and reach a more or less normal level of being; others seem unable to do so.
So what, exactly, does someone who is depressed feel? Sadness would probably be one feeling, perhaps more or less predominating, but there would also be others. Fear might be another. Fear of expressing what one feels, fear of being punished, whether for the expression of feelings or for having done something wrong, or for having not done what one ought to. And with that sort of fear would come guilt.
I suspect that guilt may be the main common denominator of depression. Guilt for being evil, whether that guilt is deserved or not; guilt for having done wrong, and feeling one deserves to be punished; guilt for feeling things one believes one ought not to feel. The guuilt may well be irrational, but that doesn’t stop one from feeling it.
Soldiers, and others who have experienced brutality, are often said to feel survivor’s guilt. Why should THEY have survived when others didn’t? A friend mentioned Victor Frankl to me, whose books I haven’t read. Frankl was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and apparently he felt he survived because he had a purpose: to tell about the horrors he’d experienced, in the hope that no one else would ever have to experience it. That may have been enough to balance any guilt he may have felt that he had survived when others hadn’t.
But it’s also said that children who have been molested or otherwise abused often feel that it’s somehow their own fault. This is obviously irrational, since children don’t have the power to control adults who wish to abuse them. Apparently they know something wrong has happened, but are unable to see it clearly enough to avoid feeling guilt about it. No one should have to suffer abuse, but children are always the most vulnerable to it, and as long as there are adults who are irresponsible, or possibly have been abused themselves, that will unfortunately continue.
Such children may grow up to feel guilty and angry, and be afraid to express either feeling. Or they may go to the opposite extreme and express it too violently, or in otherwise inappropriate ways. This may simply add to the guilt they already feel.
It’s not easy to be psychologically healthy, especially if you’ve experienced trauma. It requires balance and the ability to forgive both one’s self and others. Not everyone finds that possible. A book I read about forgiveness, which I wrote about here, said that it takes time and effort. The woman writing the book told of the man who had molested her when she was in her early teens, and that she’d discovered that it was difficult to forgive him for it. In her case, the man was sorry for what he’d done, and was willing to stick with her through the process, in the hope of making up for his bad behavior. In many cases, that wouldn’t be true.
Some wouldn’t have the strength to go through the process alone, very likely most. Some wouldn’t have access to anyone with the ability or willingness to help them. Depression at least at times would be inevitable in such a situation.
The mechanism of seasonal depression remains obscure. Lack of sunlight may be understandable to a degree, but when that’s not the cause, it’s more difficult to understand. The part that is understandable is that winter is the season most people don’t care much for. At least in the temperate zones of the world, the weather is cold and uncomfortable, and there’s more darkness. Though lack of sunlight might be unpleasant, when that’s not the real issue, then what is?
Winter symbolizes death. Life dies in winter, and is reborn in spring. The fertility religions celebrated this with religious rituals that often included human sacrifice and sexual rituals. Sexuality was a means to magically petition the gods to grant fertility to the community, in both the fields and the beds. The community needed their crops to grow, and children to be born. The whole year was seen as a cycle that repeated forever. This is probably one source of our feelings about sacrifice.
Robert Graves described, especially in The White Goddess. how kings in agricultural societies reigned for a fixed period of time: sometimes a year, sometimes half a year, before being sacrificed, and a new king enthroned to marry the goddess, in the person of her priestess.
Graves said that this system became eventually degenerate. Kings wanted to reign longer, and have the power themselves, instead of merely being companion to the queen. So they negotiated longer reigns, and then often sacrificed others in their place, often children. It’s not hard to see the precedent set playing out in our own time.
It’s uncertain if there’s a link between these ancient behavior patterns and contemporary depression. I think most of us fear death, to one extent or another. If we identify winter with death, which would be quite natural, then the resulting depression would have something to do with death. Fear of death itself, fear of punishment associated with death, fear that we’ve done wrong, and wish to escape just punishment…Lots of possibilities, and none that I would unhesitatingly endorse.
There are other contemporary possibilities. Depression isn’t uncommon after childbirth. This probably has a physical basis, having to do with hormonal balances. Pollution is another possibility. There are many chemicals and heavy metals in our environment now that may affect us in all sorts of ways we’re unaware of. One author suggested the role of artificial fertilizers and insecticides that artificially promote good crops, but may do so in conflict with the chemical configuration of the soil in any particular place. He suggested there may be a plan for why particular mineral deposits are in various places in the world, and that when we exploit these deposits, we may be tinkering with natural balances we know nothing of, which may come back to harm us. If any of these ideas is valid, there may be many unknown elements to depression.
The part we understand to some extent is the emotional part. We do know that talking about emotions can be helpful. Whether this can lead to an actual cure, or only a degree of relief in any individual case, let alone in general, isn’t something we know enough about to say. Medication can help too, but just how much it does, and how it does are difficult to say.
The ancient Greeks said, Know thyself. Good advice for anyone, and especially for someone having hard times. Knowing ourselves, and how we contribute to our own troubles makes it possible to learn to behave in more positive ways. Struggling to overcome makes us stronger too. These are pretty obvious suggestions, not necessarily very easy to carry out.
Part of the question may be the whole concept of good and evil. If one feels beset by evil, or feels that one IS evil, it’s difficult to feel good about one’s life. George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the 20th century, was unique, or close to it, in his lack of emphasis on evil, including the devil. He saw the problems of mankind as part of our contracted consciousness and automatic behavior which makes us machines rather than real human beings. To struggle against our flaws and try to become more conscious would be what Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan called, A path with heart. One that would not necessarily succeed, but would be worth putting all one’s effort into.
Again, easily said, not so easily done.
So I continue to wonder just what caused my friend, and so many others, to suffer so deeply. From my perspective he couldn’t have done anything so wrong that he deserved to suffer so. But that’s only my perspective, and there are many things I don’t know. So I have my own struggles to undertake.