Easter Saturday: The Wilderness Experience and Depression

Today is Easter Saturday, the day after the Crucifixion and the day before the Resurrection. It is a day of wilderness.

In my psychoanalytic practice I liken depression to such a wilderness experience – a state of stasis, un-sured-ness, inability to respond to our particular circumstances in life, not understanding conflicted feelings and unconscious motivations, unable to move forward, having lost agency in life.

For these reasons I am not a proponent of antidepressant medication that is commonly prescribed for depression, as I believe that there is a better way.

A writer to the Women’s Weekly’s Open Line, is a perfect example, and it is worth re-producing her letter here in full. She titled her letter “How I Changed my Life”.

“I love that the Weekly isn’t afraid to address issues so many of us sweep under the carpet. “Beating depression drug-free” (WW November 2013) is a prime example. In almost all cases of anxiety or depression, there is something in your life you need to change or fix. It could be being in a bad relationship or, in my case. spending ten years getting what I thought was my dream job and realising, after a year, I no longer wanted it. Finally, after a year trying to make it work, and even an MRI to see if there was something lurking in my brain, I quit and became a farmer – the one thing my parents never wanted me to do. It took me two weeks to become the person that I was, the person I had thought lost forever. (Leonie Smith, Ravensthorpe WA)

I see Leonie’s experience and her articulation of her cure as a perfect example of her experience of depression as a wilderness experience. It reminds me of the case of the New Zealand poet Janet Frame, who had been scheduled to undergo lobotomy surgery. When she visited the doctor, taking her poems with her, he read them. He cancelled the surgery and counselled her to “Go home and write more poetry”.

Would anti-depressants have assisted Leonie Smith, or Janet Frame? Clearly not, in my view. Or at least, would not have led them to make the changes that they did – changes to their advantage. But how does one come out of such a wilderness unassisted when it’s axiomatic that one is stuck there, in wilderness?

In my work, I use a particular framework to assist my clients – the framework designed by Chilean economist Artur Manfred Max Neef. I use the framework of the Nine Fundamental Human Needs. There are nine – Permanence, Protection, Participation, Understanding, Affection, Creation, Identity, Leisure and Freedom. So, in your state of wilderness, make a list of these, and ask yourself the questions:

  1. PERMANENCE: Are there things in your life that are enduring, that have lasted a long time, such as family, housing, employment, career, friendships, or have you undergone constant change?
  1. PROTECTION: Do you feel safe in your life, or are there risks to your well being such as perhaps insecure work, insecure income, insecure housing, ill health, violence in your family, bullying at work, or being overlooked for promotion?
  1. PARTICIPATION: Are you connected to life around you and do you participate in life with friends, family, work, political activism, volunteering, church activities?
  1. UNDERSTANDING: How well do you understand yourself, your world, your history, your family, your friends, your religion, your politics – the world you live in?
  1. AFFECTION:  Who do you love, and who loves you?
  1. CREATION: What is there that you make, or do, using your own talents, independently of others? Do you propagate plants, write, compose music, make pots, paint, design furniture, crochet, knot, blow glass?
  1. IDENTITY: Do you know who you are? Do you know your heritage – Aboriginal, Ethnic Australian, Australian, English Welsh, Afghan? Do you know your gender, your sexual preferences, and where you fit into your family tree – brother, sister, mother, aunty, father, uncle? Is your work part of your identity? Motor mechanic, ballet teacher, farmer? Does your religion contribute to your sense of identity?
  1. LEISURE : How do you break away from the unrelenting demands of the minutiae of life? Do you have “fallow” days during which you may restore and rejuvenate your energies? Do you have “shaggy dog” days during which you can simply go and explore in your own way, in your own time, ‘following your nose’ as it were. Do you surf, swim, jog, cruise, dance, or play sport or chess or bridge. Do you sing in a choir?
  1. FREEDOM: Are you free to do what you want to do? Are you free to speak your mind without fear of punishment? Are you free to form and hold your own opinions without fear of repercussions? Are you free to do the things that you think are important? Are you free to engage in the work that you want? Do you feel free as a member of society or do you feel that you are somehow not deserving of life?

In psychoanalysis it is sometimes said that one has to be sane to be depressed in our weird modern world. The psychoanalyst James Hillman describes the state of depression as one into which one must delve in order to understand the psyche’s call to action – a call out of the wilderness state.

So on this Easter Saturday, the day of wilderness between death and resurrection, between loss and renewal, consider the steps that you might take, like Leonie Smith and Janet Frame, to step out of that wilderness into another, authentic, responding life, your own resurrection and renewal,


About lalegale

Legal and psychological advocate for freedom of political communication.
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