What tyranny still surrounds depression, the ‘illness’ generally considered to be endemic to Western culture, and what fear and loathing.
How quickly we defend against our trips into the cold reaches of Saturn, with manic entertainments (Saturnalia) and the ritual consumption of pills. At work a sad demeanour is treated with suspicious sympathy at best, sliding quickly into judgement and advice. We hear the dread exhortation, ‘Cheer up, it might never happen’ and, almost worse, ‘We’ve noticed you’re not really yourself at the moment’ (at a time when we are really most true to ourselves if the culture could but acknowledge it).
I’m broken, please fix me…
When I was still working as a therapist, one of my visitors mentioned that to help with his depression he had been using David Burns’ self-help book Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy, the book that popularised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in 1980. I had a look to remind myself of its style and came across the BDC, the Burns Depression Checklist. Of course, I did what so many of us do, I rushed to score myself, and I was entertained to find that my result of 63 out of 100 categorised me as suffering from ‘severe depression’ and that I should seek professional intervention forthwith.
A severely depressed therapist? Oh yes, and one of a great many ‘wounded healers’. Burns writes, ‘The negative thoughts that flood your mind are the actual cause of your self-defeating emotions […] These cognitions contain the key to relief and are therefore your most important symptoms’.
The state of my psyche then, and now, is not news to me. There is good reason for my depression and I felt a stab of anger that not only should the life changing events of people’s complex lives be regarded in such a baleful and intolerant light, however well meaning, but that sufferers should also be blamed as the unconscious authors of their own distress. Even more alarming was Burns’ suggestion that a score of 6-10 could do with some attention and that 0-5 was the target because ‘most people with scores this low feel pretty happily contented’.
Burns’ work, as with other cognitive and behavioural models, is Apollonian. When we are in the mode of Apollo, we value order and harmony. An Apollonian way of being prefers to examine what presents rather than what might lie beneath, and it is assessed objectively (e.g. through scoring) rather than subjectively. It is accountable, which is both a value and a problem, because as soon as something is deemed to be accountable it needs to be tracked, measured and assessed. But with therapy the effects may take years to come to fruition. Seeds are sown, sometimes they take time to germinate.
Examined on its own merits CBT looks attractive, promising fast results and offering a ‘tool kit’. We have become accustomed to viewing our minds and bodies as mechanisms that can be engineered, tuned and generally spannered into well-being. Most people enter therapy with an intellectual understanding that it will take time, but emotionally they are hungry for the scalpel that will cut out the faulty part, and the forceps that will retrieve it, dropping it with a clatter into a kidney dish for grossed out inspection.
There are alternatives.
The consort of destruction
To see Saturn as a metaphor for depression is to reach back into a long tradition and to give depth to a state of being that often feels overwhelming.
The long trip to Saturn and back, often repeated, is an invitation not just to melancholy or detachment, but also to creativity. The Roman god himself was a deity of agriculture, a figure who was credited for raising the Romans from barbarism to civilisation and social order, though one wonders what might have been lost in this transition (see my piece on Zombies in popular culture and the Neolithic bargain). In the ancient Assyrian language of Akkadian, the planet we still call Saturn (long thought to be the most remote) was called kaiamanu, literally “constant, enduring”. In Sanskrit, Saturn is called Shani, the Lord of Saturday (Saturn’s Day), literally ‘the one who moves slowly’ and who figuratively represents longevity and learning things the hard way. But Shani is also associated with the crow, a bird of ill-omen in many cultures, so there’s a darkness there, a negativity.
In Greece he was known as Cronus (sometimes also identified with Chronos, and there’s the theme of time again), and in both the Roman and Greek myths Saturn/Cronus ate his children. This is Saturn as devouring Monster. Depression slows us and devours us, we slow down and digest life’s events. This is the importance of the negative against which we continue to defend ourselves.
It is interesting to note that while Saturn was paired with the Goddess Ops in later Roman times (a figure related to wealth and abundance), his original consort was Lua, a goddess associated with destruction, dissolution and loosening.
The importance of being earnest
David Burns correctly identifies ‘negative thought’ as important, but he proceeds to attack it rather than ‘keeping faith’, and being a ‘consistent, chronic companion’ as James Hillman has it. You may argue that the book was written twenty-five years ago, but let us not forget that CBT is the therapy most commonly delivered in the NHS, and for every warm and capable practitioner who struggles to deliver meaning in six sessions, and for every proponent of CBT who uses a modified form with wit and intelligence, I suspect there will be a third who is compiling a spreadsheet of ‘scores’ and working against the depression rather than with it.
Shortly after my experience with the Burns book I came across this interesting piece by SE Smith in the Guardian. She writes of having to ‘perform’ her sadness so that others will understand that she is depressed, and that unless she does so she won’t be taken seriously.
I liked the piece, it made sense to me, but in a way I wondered if SE Smith was describing (in part at least) a valid way of ‘being’, a response to the world, rather than depression. If we take a look around, and we’re honest, what is there to be happy about? Climate change, globalisation, inequality, fundamentalism, pollution, abuse, poverty – only by being in denial of these things can we say that we are content. As I have written previously, ecopsychology holds that we are all suffering at some level for the loss of the other than human, the sixth great extinction event that is a consequence of human agency.
In to the woods
By happy chance (or more likely synchronicity), I had a third discovery: the first line of Mary Oliver’s prose poem ‘How I go to the woods’ quoted on Twitter. Here’s the full piece:
How I go to the woods
Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.
Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
See how uncompromising she is? I understand her completely. There are very few people I would really want to go into ‘the woods’ with, very few who really understand reverence and stillness. Most of us defend ourselves against the contact of the natural world, the discomfort that it brings to our Apollonian need for order. So to go into ‘the woods’ alone, or with someone you love very much, is not a surly misanthropy or an anchorite reclusivity, but rather a careful observance, a paying of attention, that puts us at the level of what we witness rather than above it, and I believe that it needs to be taught in our schools with considerable urgency.
Some practical ideas
Carl Jung wrote a chatty and only partly gnomic letter to a person known only as ‘N’. His advice, clearly not for everyone as he is careful to say, is a remedy for depression that works. It works because it helps to take the patient out of himself or herself, out of the cold orbit of Saturn. It is a method that has sustained me and countless others.
I am sorry you are so miserable. “Depression” means literally “being forced
downwards.” This can happen even when you don’t consciously have any feeling
at all of being “on top”! So I wouldn’t dismiss this hypothesis out of hand.
If I had to live in a foreign country, I would seek out one or two people
who seemed amiable and would make myself useful to them, so that libido
came to me from outside, even though in a somewhat primitive form, say of
a dog wagging its tail.
I would raise animals and plants and find joy in their thriving. I would
surround myself with beauty – no matter how primitive and artless – objects,
colours, sounds. I would eat and drink well.
When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and
ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me,
for in excessu affectus [in an excess of affect or passion] Nature reverses
I would turn in rage against myself and with the heat of my rage I would
melt my lead. I would renounce everything and engage in the lowest
activities should my depression drive me to violence. I would wrestle with
the dark angel until he dislocated my hip. For he is also the light and the
blue sky which he withholds from me.
Anyway that is what I would do. What others would do is another question,
which I cannot answer. But for you too there is an instinct either to back
out of it or to go down to the depths. But no half-measures or
With cordial wishes,
C. G. Jung
Letter by C. G. Jung written on 9 March 1959,
C. G. Jung, Letters, p. 492-493.
Simple advice, grow plants, raise chickens if you can, get a cat, help a couple of people who will appreciate it. You will feel valued, you will value yourself.
Melting the lead
But what did Jung mean by ‘with the heat of my rage I would melt my lead’? He spent many years in the study of Alchemy, seeing it as a bridge between ancient thought and his modern theories of individuation and the unconscious. Alchemists used this symbol to denote both Saturn and Lead:
It denotes Matter (the cross) taking precedence over Mind or human spirit (the crescent sickle of Saturn). This is an exact illustration of depression, the state of being in which mind and spirit cease to function and are displaced by heaviness and stuckness. We feel as if we are wearing boots of lead stuck with gobbets of freezing mud as we trudge through the literal or figurative urban wasteland. Jung says that he will melt his lead, his Saturnine depression, through anger, and depression is often described as anger turned inwards, so to make that anger conscious, to allow oneself to be propelled by it, is another way out of the orbit of Saturn. And to renounce everything, to give up manic consumerism, all the little complexities of life, and go to dig a hole, or walk twenty miles in ‘the woods’ is called for.
There’s something else, particularly for men. The mythological day of Blanchefleur’s death, when she left her son Tristan alone to become a knight amongst men, also marked the death of the feminine principle in the West. The tragedy that followed, and the outcome of our corrupted patriarchy, could not have happened in a balanced culture. Instead of relating to each other as human beings, Tristan and Iseult drank of the Queen’s enchanted potion and fell in love with impossible romantic ideals. Men’s projection of the feminine principle in themselves onto women and the figurative worship of Apollo by both genders have had a calamitous effect on the collective psyche.
The psychologist Ginette Paris alerts us to the absence of the goddess Aphrodite:
As far back as the ninth and tenth centuries, the Arabs understood that flower gardens, poets, musicians, and an attractive table were essential to a hospital. In such a culture as ours, which gives precedence to the civilizing quality of Apollo, most of the hospitals, and too often the habitations, in spite of their functional sophistication completely lack an Aphrodisiacal quality.
Ginette Paris, Pagan Meditations (trans. Gwendolyn Moore)
Our return from Saturn can never be a return to the world we knew before. A shift is required, Aphrodite must appear, we must listen for the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you read this and you are depressed, please take a moment. It can get better. You will see the light and the blue sky. You are loved, right now, this minute, you are loved. While I wrote this piece a young person who I worked with about a year earlier took her own life. She was a wonderfully warm, spirited, affectionate and caring human being – and she suffered from depression. For some reason she wasn’t able to see the person that I could see, she couldn’t locate her power, she couldn’t believe that she was loved. Dear Anna, this is for you.