The Noonday Demon.

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Cognitive psychology has become aware that much depression is maintained, even generated, by getting caught up in negative patterns of thinking. –Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

I struggled with depression for several years. I cannot say for certain how long, because it took me a long time to realize that I was depressed. I just thought everything sucked. Like Hamlet, I found weary, stale, flat and unprofitable all the uses of this world, and it took a long time to figure out that the problem wasn’t with the world, but with me.

While Clare was still a baby and before Sophie was born, I began wasting time. Lots of time. I spent hours and hours playing computer solitaire. When I became aware of YouTube, things went downhill very fast. Although I have never owned a television, and prided myself on never having seen Friends or Seinfeld or Survivor, I have watched over 5,000 videos on YouTube.

I was self-employed for many years before I began teaching, cobbling together a livelihood out of composing, performing and temp work. I was always unusually self-disciplined; during grad school, I regularly rose at 5:00 a.m. to write. But during the last six years, I became unable either to face my obligations, or to take pleasure in constructive diversions. It was as though my mind were in open rebellion against the things I was asking it to do.

Screwtape, the senior demon invented by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, wrote to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter out on his first assignment, about people like me:

As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness,…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. … You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”.

Ultimately, between the fatigue brought on by staying up late every night—on top of the fatigues of having an infant and a toddler in the house—my corrosive shame and the weariness of hiding it, I became irritable and intolerant with my family, lashing out in self-righteous impatience at the least provocation. By the grace of God I woke up enough to see what I was doing to my family, and realized that I needed help.

I found a therapist and got a prescription for a mild antidepressant, which took the edge off enough for me to think a little more clearly. But I discovered that while drugs can help manage negative feelings, they can do nothing about negative habits. You have to tackle those yourself.And even now, with the apathy and despair gone, when I no longer want to sleep all day and am no longer smothering under the weight of a leaden sky full of black clouds, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers called “afflictive thoughts.” I may be out with my children, taking them someplace we all like to be on a beautiful day, and the thought “I’m so unhappy” will come out of nowhere. Or “I’m so miserable!” Literally, those words. And the strange thing is that the words aren’t true; I’m really not miserable. But I’m in the habit of telling myself that I am. These thoughts –and doubtless many, many others, unlanguaged and unrecognized–slide unbidden down tracks I laid for them long ago. And it takes colossal effort to pull up those tracks, and constant vigilance over what I am thinking, so that I now understand the challenge in Paul’s advice to “take every thought captive for Christ.” Vivekananda said that most of us are like spoilt children, and we let out minds think whatever they want to. Not letting the mind default into old destructive patterns is a huge undertaking which, though made more doable through the relief offered by chemical intervention, cannot be accomplished except by laborious effort.

The yogis call these patterns samskaras, or “volitional formations.” The idea behind karma is that everything we think, do or will leaves “traces” in the vritti, or mind-stuff, which will pre-dispose us to continue to think, act and will in those ways. (“The dog returns to its vomit,” as the Hebrew Bible colorfully puts it.) Once samskaras—literally, “what has been put together”—have been established, they must work themselves out completely. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children; as you sow, so shall you reap; what goes around, comes around. Only grace can break the cycle.

Though the acute emotional distress of my depression is in remission, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called acedia—what the Western Church has, as one of the “seven deadly sins,” translated as “sloth,” but is actually much more: a deep spiritual lassitude that is a near relation to depression. It is always worse after a period of progress; Mother Theodora nailed it when she said, “You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through acedia, faint-heartedness, and evil thoughts.” This is why the Desert Fathers and Mothers calledacedia the Noonday Demon: it comes at mid-day to undermine all the resolve of the morning.

I knew someone who, because of what I had experienced myself, I was convinced was deeply depressed. The hole he couldn’t climb out of was so familiar to me, I wished I could convey to him the fruit of my own struggle. It was terrifically frustrating knowing that some medication could have lifted the bell jar enough so he could breathe, allowing him to get out from under his feelings enough to take steps toward managing his thoughts. But in the end, he had to choose to do the work himself; no one could make him accept help.

Jesus couldn’t. “Do you want to be well?” he asked the paralyzed man at the well—not, presumably, because he didn’t know the answer, but because he needed the man to own the question. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…again and again would I have taken your children to myself as a bird takes her young ones under her wings, and you would not!” And God can’t force it on us either, or doesn’t; we have to seek and accept the grace ourselves.

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anonymous Jul 3, 2011 5:21pm

Scott, what a great post. Thank you.

Have you listened to The Moth's recent podcast on acedia? (It was under the theme "sloth," but the storyteller, as you have, provides the etymology.)

    anonymous Jul 5, 2011 6:00am

    Thanks, Vanessa; I'll look (listen?) into it.

anonymous Jul 3, 2011 3:00pm

[…] The Noonday Demon. […]

anonymous Jun 29, 2011 9:11pm

Nicely done Scott! Way to share deeply, you will help many.

    anonymous Jul 5, 2011 8:00pm

    Thanks, Tamara; that is certainly my hope!

Bob Weisenberg Jun 28, 2011 8:47am

Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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anonymous Jun 27, 2011 2:10pm

Scott, thank you so much for taking that big step of translating your experiences into such tangible and eloquent words. I am already on my 4th read-through myself. And very importantly, I have brought this piece to the attention of three other friends who all share those same traits with you – brilliant active mind coupled with powerful creative urges. They give their thanks, and note that it will receive multiple read-throughs. Your contributions on this planet are much appreciated! All best to you, and to your family. And thanks again for your recent visit to see us! Love, Sondra

    anonymous Jul 5, 2011 8:00pm

    Thanks very much, Sondra; Clare and I both enjoyed the visit, too!

anonymous Jun 27, 2011 12:59pm

Thanks, HP.

Bob Weisenberg Jun 26, 2011 8:57pm

Deeply moving, Scott. Thank you.

Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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anonymous Jun 26, 2011 5:30pm

thank you for your words, which help illuminate a path for others

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 8:12pm

    That's good to hear, Carol; thanks for writing.

anonymous Jun 26, 2011 9:27am

Scott, this is at once a somber and gorgeous depiction of the deep sorrow that is becoming more prevalent as disturbing man made and escalating natural events, bear down on all of us whether we have a chemical imbalance or a delicate or sensitive emotional make-up.

It is a wake up call to those teetering to recognize the symptoms. I think most of us, even the most emotionally sound, will find something in this, for ourselves or someone we love. Thank you for thoughtful work here., Hilary

anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:31am

Thank you, Scott. Best wishes to you and to all of us.

anonymous Jun 26, 2011 5:13am

Beautiful article and one which will resonate with many who struggle with depression. I was particularly intrigued by your inclusion of "sloth", which I would call paralysis, and the corrosive shame. It IS always worse after progress. For me, though, it is worsened by my significant other, who never fails to respond to my increase in energy and period of productivity with ferocious recriminations for all my failings (over the last few years; puzzling as I was, too, disciplined and capable of hard work rewarded by achievement) which throws me back into the pit. For me, it is the Morning Demons undoing the resolutions borne of hard won effort during the day. You allude to the issue of time, an aspect of the disease which has always intrigued (and horrified) me. Time seems to disappear while I accomplish nothing; I look back and think, a year? How can it be a year? The days seem so full that nothing can be squeezed in, yet nothing is accomplished. It is the weight of all that I have not done, all that is now monumental after periods of not doing, that is overwhelming.

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 9:00am

    I am so sorry to hear that your significant other makes things worse for you; it's hard enough to deal with one's inner demons, let alone an unsympathetic partner. I wish you the strength and focus to not internalize what your partner is saying.

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:44pm

    I'm sorry to hear that about your partner, Barb; that's surely the last thing you need. And yes, I can certainly relate to your struggles with time!

anonymous Jun 26, 2011 3:16am

Hi Scott. This is beautiful and offers a lot of wisdom and courage. I can definitely relate to this in many ways. It's always something to know we are not alone and when we share something like this, it offers hope. Are you on Facebook? If so, please find me.

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:42pm

    Thanks, Tanya. The not-being-alone part is the main reason I do this; when it comes to blogging, I find that the more it's about me the less it's about me.

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 10:03pm

I'm sorry, I just have to say it's "As ye sow, so shall ye reap" as in to plow a field, not "sew" as in to put a garment together. Although the point is taken. :o)

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:41pm

    As ye sew, so shall ye rip!

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 9:58pm

you reap what you sow not sew , so sorry , great article however ,

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 12:14pm

    As you sew, so shall you rip!

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 9:33pm

Thank you for your brave, open and underbelly, exposed self here. What a great reminder that depression does not just happen to us, and we are not just victims in it's grips. Beyond medication, we can learn to ride on top of the beast, lasso it with our thoughts and mindfulness.

    anonymous Jun 27, 2011 7:26am

    Very true, art; thanks for writing.

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 9:20pm

great read scott. the last line has hit me on the head…needed to read that badly. thanks.

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 9:10pm

Great thanks from a fellow seeker for whom it seems to have been high noon for months now.
Gratitude for fellow journeyers on the path, and may your burden lighten day by day.

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:41pm

    And yours also, Chayah; thank you.

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 9:01pm

This is one of the best articles I have ever read on Depression..The ancient Desert Mothers and Fathers term..”NOONDAY DEMON” perfect description..thank you for sharing you personal journey and rich insights…

    anonymous Jun 26, 2011 7:40pm

    Thanks very much, Cheryl. Quirky as they were, I think they had a lot on the ball!

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 7:33pm

Thanks–and glad to hear that "replacement therapy" is working for you!

anonymous Jun 25, 2011 5:50pm

Dear Scott,

This is an excellent and enlightening reflection! And it surely deserves more than one read. Thank you!

Warm Regards,

Sunita Pillay

anonymous Jun 26, 2011 8:13pm

Thanks, Peg; that's what I'm in it for!

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Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs.