There’s a story from the Buddhist tradition that you may know: the one about the guy with the arrow.
Basically, a guy gets hit with an arrow and it hurts like hell. Some people show up to help. “How did it get there?” “Who shot the arrow?” They start asking questions. “Look at that, I wonder if that arrow was made by so-and-so, he’s a great arrow maker.” “I don’t know, the markings aren’t characteristic of so-and-so.” Meanwhile, our poor friend is screaming. “Just pull out the damned arrow!”
Depression was my arrow, only no one could see it. It was a blessing in that I started my spiritual journey at a very young age. Even so, the illness remained a dull throb through adolescence. I practiced yoga, fasted, read spiritual texts, and that eased it and made it manageable. Then the arrow rusted and the wound infected.
When I turned 21, I was so agonizingly insecure and depressed that I could no longer live with myself—I had to seek help, or die.
Let me go into detail: I graduated with a weighted 5.0 GPA from high school, and attended the flagship university of the state with tuition covered. I did not lie in bed all day or sink so deep that I couldn’t eat—I carried on.
From the outside, I had everything that ‘makes you happy.’ Underneath my façade, I was drowning.
It was in the evenings when I would reflect on ending my life. I held fast to the promise of relief from yoga and other spiritual pursuits, without much luck.
To give you an idea, this was my routine: I woke up and meditated for two or three hours in the morning. I devoured book after book on every spiritual topic and self-help subject I could find throughout the day. I practiced yoga for at least an hour, six days a week. I was also a practicing vegetarian and bought mostly organic.
Sometimes I would find that rapture, where everything in the world was perfect, and for a few minutes, the pain left.
Then it was back.
I did everything those famous spiritual speakers tell you to do. You know who I mean—everybody and their mom has some spin on depression nowadays.
At a dead end, I went in to see the psychiatrist and therapist. They were markedly friendly and compassionate. They diagnosed me with dysthymia, or chronic, low-level depression. Bottom line was that I was clinically, scientifically, medically depressed. And I’d received more compassion from clinical professionals than anywhere in the spiritual world.
It’s a disease…it’s an arrow and it makes you bleed.
To be precise, it’s a malfunction of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. As much as the yoga magazines promote it, staying in wheel for ten minutes is not going to give you tons of energy and renew your life. I had fought medication for years, largely due to what I had read from fellow seekers. Skip medication: just eat kale! Depressed? Try this new yoga sequence! I tried therapy first, because I was still resistant. When it failed, I knew I had no choice. I started on medication.
A month after I started taking it, I could only ask why: Why is this such a big deal?
It occurred to me that there is a taboo in our culture, and it exists especially in spiritual people. We believe that we deserve to suffer. We believe that suffering has some mystical lessons to teach us, or that it’s our karma, or that we can just meditate out of it. Let me ask you this: if you are shot in the arm, are you going to do bridge pose to alleviate the pain? No. You go to a fucking doctor.
Shortly after I started taking anti-depressants, my life changed.
I suddenly wondered why I’d been in so much pain all those years. I couldn’t figure it out. Instead of wanting to murder myself every evening over a nice Chianti, I was going out and dancing.
Two months after I started, a romantic relationship fell into my lap. I joined a community service group and became a voice for those in need. I started coaching my peers at the university. Life had flavor again.
I became more spiritual than I ever had been. I was more mindful during yoga, as my attention was not consumed by a mysterious unholy pain. For the first time in my life that I could remember, I was actually happy.
About six months after I took the plunge, I had another kind of rapture: this is what life is supposed to be like. This is what it’s like for normal people!
I’m taking meds now and I don’t plan on stopping. Why would I? Whenever someone admits, with a guilty glaze over their eyes, that they take meds, they’ll say: I’m taking them, but just for a short time. Why are we ashamed? Imagine a type 1 diabetic obsessed with eventually going off insulin. Just a few more weeks of shots, then I’m back to myself again! It’s a little silly. My family suffers from depression; it’s a genetic issue that affects me at a biological level. If this is resonating with you, then chances are, you’re in the same boat.
Then you get the hecklers: “Sometimes you just gotta pull yourself up by the bootstraps!”
I like to tell those people, “Sometimes, the horse tramples you and breaks your legs and ribs. You’re lying in agony, and your goddamned bootstraps are broken. Please shut up and help.”
So let’s start pulling arrows out.
Get help—and stick with it. Stop trying to be a hero. There is a lot of snake oil and a lot of shame.
There’s absolutely no reason for it.
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Assistant Editor: Terri Tremblett / Editor: Cat Beekmans
Photo: Tom Vargo/Wikimedia Commons