lightworker? let’s be clear, the real work, is shadow work


Lightworker? We don’t need lightworkers we need shadow workers — people with the courage and skill to move right into the darkness and assist in bringing people out. “Lightworkers” talk a pretty game but also talk about avoiding negativity. If we want to heal our species we need to be fit to feel everything and avoid nothing.

That which we avoid is right inside of us hiding — waiting. Let us make it conscious. When we know our own darkness the darkness “outside” can be neutralized.  That is Shadow work.

Self-protection is often necessary. That’s okay. One can still work towards being able to be with and transmute all the ugly in every encounter that we might not need to avoid anything at all.


The more we avoid the dark and ugly the worse it gets…there’s the rub…we really do need to be able to look into shadow. Our darkness and the darkness of others too (it’s the same thing!)…

There is little will to do that all around…and among those of us who actually claim to love and want to change the world it’s often the worst. It’s possible to face the dark, in ourselves and others, and be at peace both. When we deny the reality of shadow aspects we inadvertently feed it. I challenge all of us to not only look at the darkness but to love it with all our hearts.

The dark wants more than anything to be LIT.  Let us light up the world. 

More on topic:


****And we could really use some financial support at the moment! I do this all for no other compensation that what the readers want to offer in support.  Thank you!****

Support Everything Matters: Beyond Meds. Make a donation with PayPal or Enter Amazon via a link from this blog and do the shopping you’d be doing anyway. No need to purchase the book the link takes you to. Thank you!

For a multitude of ideas about how to create a life filled with safer alternatives to psychiatric drugs visit the drop-down menus at the top of this page or scroll down the homepage for more recent postings.

S.A.D? (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or might we be fighting nature?

Healthline, which features my site along with nine others on their best of depression blogs has sent me a couple of emails asking if I might share a post from their site about “Seasonal Depression.”   —  I don’t use the term depression for my experience,  but I do find that there is a big natural shift in winter that encourages going inward and slowing down. I have found for a long time now that moving away from the pathologizing of my experience has been a healthy move for me and many of the folks I advocate for.  It strikes me that our culture is sick and we need to find ways of going back to basics and our true nature.

I often speak to the changing of seasons on this site and how I see the natural contracting that happens in winter as a part of being human. It’s a sad reality that our society largely doesn’t know how to deeply and profoundly meet the human animal and so it forces most of us to do far more than our animal bodies want to do to also stay healthy and balanced. This means that folks who cannot keep up with the rat race end up believing and being told that they are sick and disordered. It’s a shame, really. All of life contracts in the winter but we humans are supposed to be separate from this web of life. This is how I’ve come to see my natural change of pace in the winter.

I see “S.A.D” not as a pathological process, indeed, not as a disorder, but as our bodies flowing with nature in a natural way … if we let it. Fighting it will, indeed, make us sick, that strikes me as the disorder. We all fight our natural way of being in this culture. We’re all conditioned away from who we are to the point of truly making ourselves unwell. I understand that sometimes framing one’s experience as illness in these contexts is helpful to some folks. I’ve not found it to be for myself and I tend to speak from this alternate framing of these phenomena on this site.

My healing process from psych drug injury, more than anything, has been a coming back to my animal body that knows how to be in this life. It’s a beautiful process really, but oh, man, has it been a long hard haul.  In surrender I am now finding this winter beautiful as I slow down and go inward with a deep gratitude to be alive. After almost dying last winter I am indeed rather pleased at the change this year. Pleased is an understatement but it’s hard to make clear just how I feel because truly coming into the body and being here now is also a bit anticlimactic. No bells and whistles, just grounded pleasure to be alive.

So if all of nature contracts in winter…why shouldn’t we also do the same?

In any case the items listed in the comfort kit in the post from Healthline is quite good for supporting our natural contractions in winter regardless of how we choose to frame what is happening. Most of what it suggests I either do or have tried at one time or another. Anyone who has read me for long knows I love epsom salt baths!  Also getting out in nature is a critically important part of my life all year-long.  And mindfulness and meditation is an all year long 24/7 affair for me as well. I wouldn’t be here without my process. It’s foundational.

I don’t, on the other hand have any interest is filling up my social calendar and that seems like something that is very personal. I didn’t even know I was an introvert until I started my healing process. I believed I should be out there mixing with humanity far more than is actually healthy for me, so getting stuck at home ill helped me find that aspect of myself too, so that’s not something I need to pursue more than what comes naturally … Number 6 in the post from Healthline is filling up the social calendar. I can tell you when I need to go inward ( — a deep dive into myself, getting quiet) … socializing a lot is the last thing I need or want. I do, however, participate in the local ecstatic dance scene a couple of times a week as part of my mindfulness practice and it’s lovely to be connected to my community there. Of note, I can go or  not go as my body dictates and desires and so there is no pressure to show up. It’s certainly nice to be around my community when I’m up for it. I love it and it’s a very important part of my life.

Spring and summer is like another world. I am intimately part of the world around me. (posts on the seasons here and here.)

I hope we can all learn to enjoy the quiet darkness of winter.



For a multitude of ideas about how to create a life filled with safer alternatives to psychiatric drugs visit the drop-down menus at the top of this page or scroll down the homepage for more recent postings. 

Support Everything Matters: Beyond Meds. Make a donation with PayPal or Enter Amazon via a link from this blog and do the shopping you’d be doing anyway. No need to purchase the book the link takes you to. Thank you!

Depression as pain

By Giovanna Pompele PhD

So much talk of disease these days. Depression is a disease. Mental illness is a disease.

The language of disease is soothing: there is nothing wrong with you, you are not crazy, you are not different, you are not “less.” You just have a disease. Like diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition: you take your insulin, you are fine (well, sorta: you also have a shorter life expectancy and likelihood of nerve damage, eye damage, etc.). So is the “disease” of mental illness. Nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, or that someone hurt you. It’s no one’s fault.

So here’s what’s wrong with this lovely, guilt-free approach to mental pain. one: it dooms you to a lifetime of disability. You are a lifetime depressive, bipolar, OCD sufferer, schizophrenic. The disease is here to stay. (I would like to acknowledge all of those who “had” the disease but are now okay: clearly, there are cases in which the disease goes away, unlike, say, diabetes and more like, say, cancer — those useful medical metaphors; but indulge me for a bit and let me simplify things).

Two: you’d better stay on your meds. This presents a host of problems. Like, meds have shitty side effects. Like, you need a mental health professional to prescribe them to you. Like, you may not want to take your meds (they have undesirable side effects). Do you know that, increasingly, you can be made to take your meds? doctors can force you to take your meds and if you don’t take them you can be hospitalized against your will.

Psychiatric hospitals are not the loving, caring places you expect them to be. They are glorified prisons and you get treated pretty much as you would if you were in prison. Why this should be the case baffles me endlessly, but, hey, don’t take my word for it. There are many first person accounts of psych hospitalization. Read Kate Millet’s The Loony-Bin Trip. Read Daphne Sholinski’s The Last Time I Wore A Dress. Read Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold.

And if your doctor finds you particularly “noncompliant” in taking the medication that is apparently so necessary to the treatment of your illness, he or she can go to court, and, more and more, a judge will put you under court order to take your meds (or run your course of ECT treatment). Go to and click on the “personal stories” tab.

Three: there is no medical marker for mental illness as chemical unbalance. That’s right. none. it’s a good, absolving theory, but it has absolutely no empirical evidence. Read Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America or Anatomy of an Epidemic. Read the pieces published a few years ago in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. This is not a secret among psychiatrists. They are desperate to find the evidence. But it’s kept secret from you because…

Four: psychiatric medications are top-selling drugs in America. According to IMS Health Abilify, an antipsychotic, is the highest selling drug in the United States in 2014. The American Medical Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America are among the top ten lobbies in the country. The USA and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medication. Ask yourself: why do I “know” that psychiatric illnesses are lifetime diseases caused by a chemical imbalance for which a lifetime regimen of medication is necessary, when there is in fact not a jot of evidence for it?

Five: there is serious evidence that psychotropic medication alters your brain chemistry in ways that make it very hard (and in some cases extremely dangerous) to discontinue it. There is conclusive and observable evidence that, under the right circumstances, antipsychotic drugs can cause irreversible brain damage.

Six, and most importantly: we are doing away with pain. Human pain. Sorrow. Grief. Inner lacerations. Confusion. Loss. Thought distortions that result from the mind’s attempt to adapt to intolerable circumstances. We are doing away with all that. It’s a disease. It’s an illness. Take your meds. (Notice how regularly we use the word “brain” when we really mean to use the word “mind.” “Brain” has become the default terms for the locus of one’s thoughts and feelings. We no longer talk to people: we do brain scans.)


I am not sure what we all mean when we talk about depression. There are some feelings or mind-states we describes as if their commonality between all human beings were understood: love, grief, sadness, jealousy, envy. Depression. But all of these feel so dramatically different to each one of us. Just ask someone to tell you why they love someone else. Allow them to get to the nub of it. Give them time. What they tell you might surprise you. If they manage to come up with anything at all.

So: depression. Depression is a catch-all term for all sorts of different feelings and mind-states. Depression can be profound sadness; loss of meaning; not wanting to live; feeling too much; feeling too little; not being able to get out of bed; not being able to sleep; being unable to eat; eating too much; not being able to move; exercising compulsively. How do we catch in one word the mystery of human pain? How do we dare?

And how do we dare offer clear and final solutions, as if what works for me should automatically work for you?

Why not, instead, listen? Pace the American Medical Association, pain doesn’t sprout in the brain like a fungus, like a virus, like a metabolic disorder. Pain has a history. Our entire culture is hell-bent on making us deny the existence of this history. Don’t over-analyze. Don’t blame. It’s no one’s fault. Nothing happened. I wasn’t raped/abused/maimed/bombed/starved. I’m okay. Stay positive. Don’t go down that path. Think happy thoughts. Go out and take a walk.*

Listening is a scarce commodity. We are all in a hurry. People drown in sorrow but there is no time. I’m not blaming anyone except a culture that is designed to keep us apart. And policy. The cuts to mental health. Imagine a society in which, when life becomes really, really bad, really, really intolerable, you are guaranteed a nice bed in a nice room, paid leave from work, reliable social services to take care of your family’s needs, a professional who’ll sit down and talk to you while you rest and catch your breath and grieve whatever it is you need to grieve. Imagine a society in which long-term, respectful, listening therapy is available and affordable, and professionals of all stripes (we don’t all have the same needs) can sit down with you for as long as you need, without driving you to bankruptcy.

There are countries where this happens. No, seriously. All of it. Including substitutes for your job. Paid substitutes taken from a pool, while you go on paid sick leave. Countries in which the presence of subs is taken for granted so no one complains (no more than that regular complaining that characterizes us as human). Countries in which getting sick or feeling too sad to work is considered as much part of the human experience as being well and ready to take on the world.

We need to refashion our culture’s understanding of mental pain. We need to move away from made-up medical models. We need to move away from the omnipresence of drugs. We definitely need to move away from coercion and fear. And we absolutely need to clamor so that our legislators will copy what Finland, Italy,** and many other countries are already doing without financial loss and with great human gain.

Will people stop killing themselves? Will people stop suffering terribly for myriad reasons? Of course not. It’s all part of the human condition, alongside love, happiness, companionship and a feeling of being accomplished. But we need to put way more energy into helping each other or, at the very least, soothing each other. We need to acknowledge that inner pain exists and make proper room and accommodations for it. We need to staunch the bleeding. Because we are not doing well, we are not doing well at all.***

* Walks are often a good idea!

** i’m mentioning these two countries because i happen to have direct or indirect knowledge of how their mental health systems work.

*** Most of the links in this article are provided by the blog owner. 

More by Giovanna Pompele on Beyond Meds:

More on Depression from Beyond Meds:

Depression Delusion: an introduction by the author, Terry Lynch, MD

By Terry Lynch, mental health activist, author, physician, psychotherapist

Terry Lynch
Terry Lynch, MD

I am a mental health activist, author, physician and psychotherapist. I am also a husband, father, piano player, animal lover, among other things.

I almost died 4 years ago. Three days after beginning a health kick, I was in hospital with a perforated bowel, secondary to diverticulitis I did not know I had. Apparently, little seeds can cause havoc with diverticulitis, and I went a bit overboard with the healthy seeds.

I needed a colostomy bag for six months. The day I woke up with that bag post-surgery, my wonderful surgeon told me that I would become very depressed. He was not a man given to exaggeration, so I took his words seriously. I thought for a moment, looked him in the eyes and replied, “Whatever happens, I will not become depressed”.

unnamedEmotional and mental health has been a great passion of mine for most of my life. My life story has probably contributed to this. In 1962, when I was 4 years old, my 4 siblings and I were sent from our home in New York to live with our (marvellous) granny in Co. Clare, Ireland. I still remember being on that plane, sitting with my sister, mother and granny. Just before they closed the doors for take-off, my mother got up without saying a word and ran off the plane. Airport security was different in those days.

Our parents remained living together in New York. They visited us once a year, for about two weeks at a time. Usually, one parent would come for two weeks in summer and the other at Christmas, perhaps in an attempt to cover the bases. Throughout my childhood and teens, Shannon airport was regularly a place of either unbridled joy or profound sorrow, depending on whether we were visiting the arrivals or departures area.

It was in my teenage years that I suffered most. Adolescence, puberty, the transition into adulthood is challenging at the best of times. My life situation resulted in loneliness, fearfulness and lack of support. I experienced a great deal of sadness, unhappiness and anxiety in those years.

We never found out why our family was fractured so profoundly. At least this all helped me, when I had become a doctor, to empathize with people in distress who walked in my door. Feeling so unprotected in my childhood and teens, I developed a determination to act on behalf of the vulnerable and unprotected, and a determination to challenge the status quo when this served the dominant, the powerful, more than its recipients.

For about ten years after I qualified as a doctor in 1982, I was an enthusiastic believer in the medical approach to emotional and mental distress. By 2000, I had lost virtually all faith in the medical approach, which I now know is very seriously misguided. To increase my understanding of emotional and mental health, I completed a Masters in Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy in 2002. But my greatest teachers have been the people who have attended me over the years. For the past 13 years or so, I have provided a recovery-oriented mental health service in Limerick, Ireland. For the past 3 years I have been joined in his work by my wife, psychotherapist Marianne Murphy.

Regrettably, neither our mental health systems nor our Western societies support recovery. I know people can recover fully having received diagnoses of depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. I know because I have seen this, both in my work, and through contact with people over many years. Full recovery is possible. Hard work, but possible. The common medical response to recovery – that it must have been a misdiagnosis and the person never actually had that condition – does not suffice. The people I am talking about met all the medical criteria for these psychiatric labels. Psychiatry is the only medical specialty where the mindset does not routinely include aiming for the best possible outcomes.

Depression Delusion Volume One: The Myth of the Brain Chemical Imbalance is my third book. Publication date 02nd September 2015. Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Distress, my first book, reached no. 3 in the Irish non-fiction best-sellers list in 2001 and was shortlisted for the 2002 MIND (UK) Book of the Year Award. My second book, Selfhood: A key to the Recovery of Emotional Wellbeing, Mental Health and the Prevention of Mental Health Problems, has been described by many Amazon reviewers (mainly UK) as one of the best mental health books they have ever read. The most common feedback I have received about that book is people feeling like they are reading themselves on virtually every page.

Global mental health, with psychiatry as its lead, is way off track. Steeped in its own biases and priorities, psychiatry and the drug industry has successfully convinced the public that psychiatric diagnoses are primarily biological. Although the biology of psychiatric diagnoses has been researched intensely for well over 50 years, nothing definite has shown up. The idea that psychiatric diagnoses are fundamentally biological has become accepted as truth, as established fact. Yet there is not a shred of reliable scientific evidence to verify this belief, upon which the entire global system of mental health understanding and treatment—in “developed” countries, at least—is based. There are of course some physical elements to all experiences.

The psychiatry-led approach to mental health is fundamentally faith-based rather than evidence-based, since there is no actual evidence to support the fundamental conviction of this system—that biology is the core and most important consideration in mental health. Just as there is no evidence on a global scale to support the biologically dominated psychiatric model of mental health, doctors have no way of confirming any biological abnormalities in their consultations with individual people.

As a group, psychiatrists and GPs have a grossly inadequate training in and therefore understanding of human emotionality and psychology. Consequently, their evaluation of people’s experiences is seriously compromised. Their perceived and self-promoted level of understanding and expertise greatly exceeds their actual level of understanding and expertise.

Psychiatry’s position as the top source of expertise in global mental health is based on their perceived and self-promoted level of understanding and expertise. If based on their actual level of expertise, psychiatry would not at all merit this dominant position.

Their evaluations are further distorted because of their biases, to which most are blind. In particular, their bias toward biology—primarily biological “problems” requiring primarily biological solutions. It is out of this biological bias that the “brain chemical imbalance” arose. It fitted with the medical preference for biology, and benefitted the medical profession enormously. It sounded impressive and persuasive. But it was—and is—false.

The medical profession has played a very major part in creating and maintaining widespread false beliefs about depression and brain chemical imbalances within the public mind.

One of the ironies in mental health globally is the dominance of a psychiatric system that has no scientific underpinnings to its core beliefs, yet other features that are virtually always present are routinely missed or undervalued with this system. This regrettable paradox occurs because (a) doctors are not adequately trained to identify these features, (b) proper recognition of these features would inevitably result in public questioning of the psychiatric model, so doctors don’t want to go there.

There features are (1) trauma/woundedness; (2) distress in its many forms, caused by trauma/woundedness; (3) defense mechanisms and coping strategies that we humans may put in place to minimize further wounding and distress, and to reduce our contact with woundedness and distress already experiences from which we have disconnected; (4) our patterns of choice-making, which are often greatly influenced by the previous 3 features. None of these issues are fundamentally biological.

Trauma/woundedness, distress and defense mechanisms are at the heart of mental health problems. I don’t believe biologically biased psychiatry can or will ever acknowledge this reality. Therefore, the current system is incapable of being what it should be, what the public assume it to be—an independent unbiased system whose only priority is to provide the best service possible for the people they serve. This is a very serious matter. Society’s focus on mental health is just plain wrong.

My new book Depression Delusion Volume One: The Myth of the Brain Chemical Imbalance is an exposé of the brain chemical imbalance notion about depression, and much more besides. I set out how this falsehood emerged and was widely promoted as a fact by drug companies and many influential doctors. I describe how mainstream psychiatry ignored the cautions of many expert scientists, psychiatrists and psychologists.

American psychiatrist and author Peter Breggin described Depression Delusion Volume One: The Myth of the Brain Chemical Imbalance as “an inestimable service to humanity”. Psychiatrists Joanna Moncrieff (UK) and Pat Bracken (Ireland) have also strongly endorsed the book. So have psychologists Lucy Johnstone (UK, author of Users and Abusers of Psychiatry), Brent Slife (psychology professor, USA), Mary Boyle (UK, author of Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion?), Brian Lennon (Ireland), founder of William Glasser International), mental health activists Ted Chabasinski (USA), Julie Leonovs (UK), Mary Maddock (Ireland), Nick Redman (UK), Leonie Fennell (Ireland), Ramo Kabbani (UK) and R. B. (“Trthman 30”, Ireland).

In this book I describe a better way to understand and respond to depression, including many case histories that illustrate what is possible when a broader understanding is applied. I describe how the brain chemical imbalance falsehood meets all of psychiatry’s criteria for a delusion, hence the flat earth image on the front cover. The experiences and behaviours and very real. I am not for one second questioning the existence or importance of these experiences and behaviours. However, our fundamental approach to depression needs major revision. Depression is not a known brain disorder. As I discuss in the chapter The Medical Profession and the Brain, if depression was a known brain disorder, neurologists would be treating it, not psychiatrists.

In my new book, I include a chapter in which I explain why the commonly-made comparison between depression and diabetes is scientifically and logically untenable. I discuss a telling recent development; the withdrawal of many drug companies from psychiatric research.

Antidepressants do not work by correcting brain chemical imbalances. Such claims should never have been made by the medical profession, since the so-called “imbalances” have never even been demonstrated to exist. Any doctor who tells a depressed patient that they have a chemical imbalance, and that antidepressants will correct this imbalance, is misleading their patient, whether intentionally or not. Misinforming people in such a fundamental way about the nature of depression and the mode of action of medication raises major issues about informed consent to treatment.

In the book, I discuss the enormous consequences of the 50-year domination of this falsehood. The delusion has spread from the medical profession and drug companies to aspects of psychology, psychotherapy, major mental health organisations, important aspects of the nutrition industry, the media and many public figures. I describe the new delusionary ideas already being promoted – not least, by the US National Institite of Mental Health (NIMH) – to take the place of the brain chemical imbalance falsehood.

I never did become depressed during those years. I cried, I screamed, I laughed, I felt angry, sad, scared, but I did not become depressed. I put what I had learned about depression – including how to not become depressed – to good use during those often very challenging times.

On a milestone day for me in late 2012, my surgeon discharged me from his care. That was 21 months after my first bowel operation. I had 4 operations in total, within 16 months. That being our last meeting, I asked him about the comment he made the day after my first surgery; that I would (not “might”) become very depressed. He became quite animated, and replied that I was the only person upon whom he had performed that surgery in over twenty years who did not become severely depressed.

Over the next ten years, I intend to write 12-15 more books. These will be about depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders and suicide. The first draft of next book, provisional title Depression: Its True Nature, is already written. If you would like updates on my work and writings, subscribe to updates at my website,, and receive a free chapter from each of my books Depression Delusion and Selfhood.



Non-medication ways to relieve depression: online course CE/CME available


The director, Ryan Nagy introduces the conference via video here with lots of details and you can REGISTER HERE  too

Keynote: Michael Yapko

  • Treating Depression Hypnotically and Strategically: The Power of Experiential Learning in Teaching Mood Regulation Skills

Bill O’Hanlon

  • Out of the Blue: Six non-medication ways to relieve depression

Carolyn Daitch

  • Getting Your Life Back:  Healing Depression with Hypnosis

Carol Kershaw and Bill Wade

  • Hypnotic Brain Change for Depression: Help Your Clients Practice Positive Mental Habits.

Steve Andreas

  • The Many Faces of Loss, and how to resolve it.

Rob McNeilly

  • What Can Solution Hypnosis Contribute to The Treatment of Depression?

Lynn Johnson

  • Altered States: Why Hypnosis Helps Depression

The director, Ryan Nagy introduces the conference via video here with lots of details and you can REGISTER HERE  too

Depression (psych labels in general) reflect the dis-ease of civilization

Depression---what-is-itDepression (psych labels in general) reflect the dis-ease of civilization: we are disconnected from who we are in multiple ways

I’m republishing this as it’s another post that looks at a foundational social aspect to that which gets labeled pathological by psychiatry. This also supports the collection here: there is no such thing as a monolithic state called depression. 

Dr. Stephen Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology and the author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University in 1995, and has since served on the faculties of the University of Colorado and (presently) the University of Kansas. The author of over 40 professional articles on mental illness, Dr. Ilardi is a nationally recognized expert on depression.

Hat tip for the video from Mad in America: Living in an age of melancholy: When society becomes depressed

To read more about this idea do read the below article where Douglas Block talks about some of the many ways we’re disconnected from life and each other.

His conclusion resonates strongly with the work here on Beyond Meds:

The theme of this article is that we can no longer afford to view depression solely as a problem of the individual. The health of the society and the health of its individuals are inextricably linked. To end the worldwide epidemic of depression, we must combine individual psychological therapies with new social and economic systems that respect the earth and more fairly distribute the worlds resources. Such models already exist. What we need is the political will to implement them. If we can do so, we will be able to create a more equitable culture that optimizes the mental and emotional health of each of its ciitizens. (read more of Douglas Blocks article here)

Joanna Macy does work that supports this perspective as well:

How do we get disconnected? Looking at trauma is one way into the puzzle.

And for more on the topic of depression and what it might be and alternative ways of considering it as well as healing, visit today’s earlier post here on Beyond Meds: there is no such thing as a monolithic state called depression. It includes commentary and numerous links to additional information.


Is This Depression? Or Melancholy? Or…

 By Will Hall


It’s a word I put in quotes because, like so many words we use to describe our mental health experiences, it has as much power to confuse as it does to clarify. We live in a culture bombarded by media and sped up by rapid-fire social interactions. It’s definitely useful to grab hold of a simple, short, sound-bite term, to quickly describe what we are feeling or suffering. “Depression” is such a word – it evokes and encapsulates, conjures the images of that ugly pit of despair that can drive so many to madness and suicide. Yet at the same time the words we use, strangely, become like those pens deposited in medical offices and waiting rooms around the world: ready at hand, easily found, familiar — and tied to associations, marketing and meanings we were only dimly aware were shaping how we think.

So in my work, when I hear the word “depression” I don’t assume I know what it means, or that I have a sense of things just from the use of the word itself. And that is where the difficulty often arises. Like much human pain, depression is something we are eager to avoid, ignore, rush past, push aside. We want to get to the fix and the solution. Naturally; of course we do. We are in pain. So we reach for a quick simple word, assume we know what it means, and then we are headed down the path of associations set up like marketing pens deposited in offices, a trail of breadcrumbs laid out to subtly push us in a certain direction of thought. We don’t do the difficult exploration of what is actually going on.

Today the very human sense of self is a brand. We are trained to use language by our advertising saturated culture, and we are unconsciously manipulated by marketing strategies leading us quickly to ways of thinking, products, services, and prescriptions. The word “depression” is very often repeated in a get-medical-treatment-your-brain-is-malfunctioning-get-on-medications message environment. We think we can use the word and have it mean what we really might want it to mean. Often we can’t. We have to listen more deeply.

So I often ask, What kind of depression do you have? And I then watch myself be surprised. I thought the person might be low energy: instead they describe a state of high stress. I wondered if they might be grieving or sad: instead they begin talking about intense bottled up rage. I associated the word with sadness: instead I hear a story of fear. I imagined they were isolated: instead they tell me about complicated relationship conflicts. By moving from the sound bite term to the person’s actual definition of what they mean, I begin, like a character in a 1950s film that suddenly goes from black and white to Technicolor, to see an actual human story before me, not a brand or a soundbite.

And I am usually surprised. People tell extraordinary  accounts of their lives that one would never anticipate from the word “depression.” If I had taken that word and begun a symptom assessment and DSM comparison and traced along a discussion of neurotransmitters and possible anti-depressant cocktails, I would miss those accounts. I would miss the person and be lost in my assumptions.

One of the great sadnesses I encounter in my work is when people, struggling to find their own language, have adopted the language of others, or doctors, or the media in a way that only obscures and confuses the sense of who they are. Their very description of self has been usurped. I don’t have contact with the person, I have contact with a cloud of terms and jargon repeated from someone else. But just using the word “depression” does not always have to mean someone else’s language – sometimes people have their own definitions that are clearly personal and intimate revelations of their direct experience. I can’t assume one word is better than another because it has a set definition, instead I have to listen for how the person relates the word to their own lives. I have to listen for the definition the person themselves gives to a word.

I have met many people who use medical language – “I have an illness,” for example – in ways that nonetheless deeply honor their own unique meaning to that language, rather than just parroting meaning they have been given. But usually – not always – the presence of that medical terminology does, like the marketing pen, link back to the marketing strategy, And it takes some time, and some listening, to find the person beneath the branding.

Depression – what it is and what it isn’t and how to talk about it –  has been a longstanding interest for me — in my own pain, the lives of friends and family, in the community, in my work as a therapist, and on Madness Radio. I interviewed the ever-thoughtful Gary Greenberg on some of the history of the “depression” diagnosis a few years ago, for example. And I just finished a new Madness Radio interview with Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk takes an intriguing look at depression from a very different angle: the biography of US president Abraham Lincoln.

I admit to not being much of an historian, and so I am not in a position to really offer much insight into the historical legacy of Lincoln as a politician. He is certainly revered – almost deified – in US political culture, and so it is easy to overlook that he had his many critics in his own time. Significantly, slavery Abolitionists of the era saw Lincoln as too slow and unmotivated to ending the traffic in humans, and considered him too wrapped up as a politician in the slave trade, which was the very foundation of the plantation based capitalist economy of that time (and formed the basis of the US rise to power that exists today). We think of Lincoln as a man who freed the slaves, but he would be better understood as a system politician who led a country through the transition from slavery to its end. He did that through war, political maneuvering, the force of his leadership and all the things we think of as politics today. That the war was won by the good guys and keept the Union together and ended slavery shouldn’t obscure the complex moral and political realities about who Lincoln was.

At the same time, by any measure Lincoln was an extraordinary human being. Reading his writing, for instance, is to be in the presence of a master orator with a first rate mind and deep human sensibility. His political leadership was in a time of intense social turmoil and political violence that demanded exceptional personal qualities to navigate. His life story is evidence of exceptional perseverance, ambition, service, humor, courage, interpersonal savvy and spiritual faith. Too bad, we might think, that he also suffered from depression, which we must imagine got in the way of these more positive aspects to his personality.

And this assumption – that depression is an overall negative in a life – turns out to be, once again, borrowed from soundbite and marketing. Certainly nobody wants to suffer. No one wants to be in pain. Of that we are clear. “Depression,” however you define it, is horrible. Read a few accounts if you haven’t been there yourself. Slowly burning to death locked in an oven would be, for many of us who have been through depression, an apt analogy.

Yet Lincoln’s life reveals, in Josh Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, something far more complicated and interesting than depression as a broken part of us holding us back. He describes how Lincoln had a life. Intense despair, suicidal pain, sadness, frustration, demoralization, powerlessness, exhaustion – the states of depression Lincoln went through were the life he lived and learned and grew through. Shenk documents how the very strategies Lincoln was forced to develop to combat his depression were the source of those personality qualities now considered part of Lincoln’s greatness. The pain of depression is a life experience we endure and struggle with, and through that struggle we might also discover and develop who we are.

It would be too simple to say that for Lincoln depression – or melancholy as it was referred to in his time – was what led to his positive qualities. Again a life is too complicated for such an equation. But Shenk’s biography explores not only the capabilities that depression fostered in Lincoln’s personality, but also how Lincoln himself rejected the idea of depression-as-simple-failure and instead saw his melancholy as a personal and spiritual challenge to rise to greatness. He learned endurance, faith, strength, service, compassion, hard-nosed realism and personal responsibility to make some impact on the world — all, at least in part, from the same “depression” that much of today’s sound-bite and marketing culture would brand as something to just get rid of. Happiness, in Lincoln’s life and in the lives of many of us, is not the highest ideal. Happiness is sold relentlessly in the capitalist marketplace, but some of us prefer to pursue not feeling good, but feeling human.

Living with a purpose. Serving others. Rising to personal challenges. Learning what it is to be human. Finding meaning in life. Facing hard truths with integrity. Though I certainly don’t want pain or suffering any more than anyone else does, I’ve found that pain and suffering – and depression – continue to visit me and continue to be part of who I am. Life seems to do that. Life hurts. And so I want not just to feel better, but at the same time to also, in a way, welcome depression and melancholy. I want see the suffering of being human not just as something to get rid of, but as there for a reason: to teach me something.

You can check out the Madness Radio interview here: Lincoln’s Depression | Joshua Wolf Shenk | Madness Radio

More on Beyond Meds: Rethinking depression

Josh Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Rocks in my Pockets: a crazy quest for sanity

This film is delightful and profound both. I hope you can enjoy it like I have. I may write more about it later. I’m taking a bit of a break right now from writing and the blog. I never know how long those might last as this healing journey (called life) demands my moment by moment attention.


Rocks In My Pockets

“Rocks In My Pockets” is a story of mystery and redemption. The film is based on true events involving five women of the filmmaker’s family, including herself, and their battles with depression and suicide. It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA. The film is packed with visual metaphors, surreal images and a twisted sense of humor. It is an animated tale full of art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature, adventure and more. Subtitles are available in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Russian. For streaming (Rental) click on your choice. For downloads (Buy) subtitles should be downloaded separately then played with the film. The DVD (Store) has two versions of “Rocks In My Pockets,” one in English, the other in Latvian with subtitles available for both. The DVD has an All-Region NTSC format. If you live in a PAL country and would still like to buy the DVD, click over to a NTSC country (like the United States) and order from there. The DVD will still be shipped to wherever you may be.  Purchase: Rocks In My Pockets

The trailer:

Lincoln’s Depression | Joshua Wolf Shenk | Madness Radio

joshCelebrated US President Abraham Lincoln also suffered from life-threatening depression. Did he view his “melancholy” as a treatable illness, as a punishment from God — or as a source of his gifts? How did Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership abilities arise from his struggle with extreme pain?

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, explores the famous President’s battle with despair, suicide, and intense sorrow, and discusses what people with depression – and the medical establishment empowered to treat them – can learn from Lincoln’s suffering.


listen here or download this show at Madness Radio


Joshua Wolf Shenk

Lincoln’s Great Depression, The Altantic, by Joshua Wolf Shenk

What Makes Us Happy?  The Atlantic, by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: