For a couple of weeks I’d taken snapshots of glorious dawn skies from my bedroom window and posted them on Facebook, to modest acclaim from a few faithful friends.
But skies change and I’d woken up to heavens which were the epitome of dreariness – grey, leaden, a real joy-dampener. Photographing and sharing that morning’s daybreak would have been a complete waste of digital space.
Until, that is, the sun obligingly punched a tiny hole through the monochrome. The breach grew, broadening into a swathe of brightness that, in turn, suffused the encircling grey with a transforming light. Indeed, the vast greyness itself became a canvas onto which the day painted its promise.
That scenario brought to mind a phrase that had stuck in my mind since reading an articleon Prozac’s 25th birthday. The question posed by the piece was whether the drug helped painters, musicians and writers struggling with depression to be creative. One ‘profound’ sufferer, novelist Amanda Craig, told fellow author Alex Preston that the drug did, indeed, enable her to function. Yet she also confided that ‘it dulled everything’ including what she described as ‘the shafts of joy that gradually pierce depression’.
Shafts of joy? Is there really a hope of such liberating illumination? And, if so, where would it come from? Craig either wasn’t asked or didn’t answer – although she clearly contrasts such uplifting glimpses of wellbeing with the deadening effect of the pharmaceuticals. And she’s not alone. Those on Prozac-like drugs report ‘a general reduction in the intensity of the emotions’, according to an Oxford University study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They felt ‘dulled’, ‘numbed’, ‘flattened’, or ‘blocked’.
Nevertheless, antidepressant use keeps rising in the wealthier nations, according to Health at a Glance, a report released last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Additionally, data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows more than 50 million antidepressant prescriptions in the UK last year, up 7.5%, fuelling the concern of many doctors that the pills are being prescribed to many who don’t really need them.
Among those concerned British physicians is a Harvard expert on placebos, Irving Kirsch, who also cites the very modest gains from antidepressants compared to the medically inert tablets. In his 2009 book The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant MythPprofessor Kirsch reported that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence had ‘acknowledged the failure of antidepressant treatment to provide clinically meaningful benefits to most depressed patients’. Consequently, the UK government had ‘instituted plans for providing alternative treatments’.
For those with ‘mild to moderate mental health issues’ those plans are well underway now, including NHS prescriptions of talking therapies – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling – and recommended self-help books.
Several people I know have also gained their full freedom from mental health problems through gaining a more spiritual sense of themselves, including some who have plumbed the depths of depression, even struggling with repeated suicidal urges. Slowly but surely, they found a way to let in shafts of ‘spiritual joy’ that displaced the profound ‘loss of human peace’, as Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy put it (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures). Even though release wasn’t quick in many of these cases, those ‘shafts of joy’ gradually pierced the solid slab of grey, and finally replaced it.
One of those friends, artist and musician Alex Cook, has graphically described how he clawed his way out of the depth of depression through just such a spiritual transformation. His book, The Beauty. An account of spiritual battle and victory, follows what he calls an ‘arc from dark to light’ over several long years.
He credits both ‘beauty’ and ‘a growing sense of God’s absolute and unshakeable love’ as being the ‘tools’ of his recovery.
‘I fought for my life and ultimately walked away purified and transformed,’ he wrote.
Speaking of the book’s essays, poems and drawings, he added: ‘I hope these expressions may be companions to you in darkness and in light – assurances of the fact that light is there to be found and kept.’
Finding and keeping that inner light of spiritual understanding can be like the heavy clouds of a dreary morning slowly yielding to the inevitably present blue sky and sunshine until, as the Bible poetically puts it, ‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand’.
This article was first published on the Huffington Post UK as ‘Seeking a Light Beyond Depression’.
Here is another encouraging story of someone emerging from a deep depression brought on by grief.