In Ideology and Insanity, Thomas Szasz expresses concern over classifying people with mental illness. Szasz noted how classifying a person has a direct influence over their self-image, and what they believe is possible. Decades later, research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, captured in Mindfulness, shows the extent people unconsciously adapt their behaviour to their identity. We are what we think, and the concept becomes reality, a lens through which we see the world.
“When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time,” Langer writes. “Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case.” My meditation made me aware of variability and started the slow deconstruction of the myth of depression. Piece by piece, the construct fell apart. Before my very eyes, I saw how identifying as a depressed person became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how underneath the label were ever-changing and ever-moving fragments of experience.
Deconstruction “reduces (something) to its constituent parts in order to reinterpret it.” In Mapping Depression Beyond The Chemical Imbalance Myth, I deconstructed the conventional concept of depression and the wider context within which the map was created. Here, I will explore how I deconstructed the concept of depression from within, through the practice of meditation and self-enquiry, and explain why this was vital for my self-actualisation.
Exposing the myth
From a Buddhist perspective, attachment to beliefs, ideas, and concepts is the cause of unnecessary suffering. Attachment is a way of identifying, or “fusing” with phenomenon, through indulgence or aversion. This relationship applies to single thoughts, as much as it does emotions, sensations, and wider concepts — including your ego (the story of who you are) and your worldview. All of these mental constructs exist mostly in the unconscious, their subtle manifestations influencing behaviour, and often mistaken as truth.
Meditation is training in the observation of the self. Over time, as you witness more of the mind and its contents, and revelations surface from the unconscious, its nature becomes clear. Then deconstruction happens as part of the psyche’s natural tendency to return to wholeness. I could see the patterns in my psyche that matched the label of depression. Think of this like a recipe; a sprinkle of unresolved grief, a dash of self-deprecating thoughts, marinated in the spices of self-judgement. Depression was the final meal.
Clearly, Szasz’s intention was to empower individuals, not minimise the impact of mental illness, and his approach was filled with compassion. The deconstruction of depression from within affirms the subtext of Szasz’s powerful analysis of mental illness as a myth:
“Mental illness, of course, is not literally a ‘thing’ — or physical object — and hence it can ‘exist’ only in the same sort of way in which other theoretical concepts exist. Yet, familiar theories are in the habit of posing, sooner or later — at least to those who come to believe in them — as ‘objective truths’ (or ‘facts’).”Thomas szasz, The myth of mental illness
Exploring depression’s atomic structure
Working with depression on the deepest level requires an exploration of its atomic structure, like a scientist. Like all systems, these parts are related, and exploring this relationship is part of the process. I would notice differences between correlation and causation; not having daily structure, eating poorly, and drinking alcohol, all correlated with lower mood, but they weren’t direct causes. That came in the form of unprocessed trauma, unregulated emotions, low-stress tolerance, and habitual thinking patterns.
When breaking down the patterns of depression, you realise that depression doesn’t exist as a tangible ‘thing.’ It’s an illusion, a concept, a category, a myth, a phantom of the opera of mind. When I viewed depression as objective truth, supported by the chemical imbalance theory, I let depression define me. The myth became a scapegoat, a get-out-of-jail-free card, a full stop to further exploration. Once you identify patterns (or a doctor does that for you — one of the most popular diagnostic tools in psychology is a questionnaire) and have a label, with a lack of vigilance, your subjective experience is overridden.
Deconstruction allowed me to see what was embodied, and what is an idea, to develop an accurate picture beyond the relics of a worldview that had settled at the seabed of my psychology. If I traced beliefs to their root, I’d find that I never agreed, analysed, or thought them through. They bypassed the gatekeeper of my conscious mind. Like a journalist on a mission for truth, I started to challenge the narrative and find counter-evidence. I used this as a springboard to build momentum in my development.
The emotional and psychological comfort zone
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”Carl Jung
The purpose of deconstruction is to allow for reinterpretation. When it comes to depression, this isn’t an intellectual pursuit, but a process of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual transformation. Witnessing the myth of depression, and the detailed content beyond the label, I was now free to choose a new interpretation. I had to face up to my responsibility, and mine alone, to heal. The hero’s journey had begun.
The journey didn’t start smoothly, though. Depression had become my comfort zone and venturing outside of this territory was intimidating. Most of us think of a comfort zone as actions we take. My comfort zone was mostly psychological and emotional. I’d gravitate towards familiar thoughts and feelings, and flee from those outside of what was normal, including glimpses of peace, happiness, or joy, or ways of talking to myself that were more compassionate. Expanding this comfort zone meant challenging habitual patterns, over, and over, and over.
This required me to know what my comfort zone was. I spent a lot of time trying to meet external standards. But trying to exist within society’s comfort zone can lead to stagnation, helplessness, or feelings of failure. I had to make peace with my starting point in order to progress. Some self-development or spiritual concepts overlook this. Even with the best intentions, there’s a tendency to conflate anything is possible mantras by assuming everyone starts equal, or effort alone results in instant transformation for everyone, which isn’t true. It’s a form of spiritual bypassing, magical thinking, or over-simplification.
A gift from God?
Even when seeing beyond the myth, and deconstructing the structure of depression, it takes time to overcome. There’s no snapping out of it or just being in the now — that stigma existed when I first spoke out about my struggle and it’s damaging — but space to invite creative steps forward, with patience and gentleness. Awareness is always the first step, but insights have to be followed with action. Understanding my unique experience of depression showed me what was required to heal; like psychic inoculation, the disease contains the cure:
“Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginning of its cure. The fact that they are unwanted makes them all the more a phenomenon of grace—a gift of God, a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.”M. Scott Peck
No person is a label, a concept, or a diagnosis. Deconstructing depression revealed this truth to me. It provided solid ground to reinterpret the concept, to create a new myth, not one of pathology or illness, but an opportunity to transform, to uncover the treasures of the soul. Seeing depression as an illness caused me to overlook its potential as an act of grace, a gift of God, calling me within to find answers to life’s most potent questions.
Depression is intrusive, unsettling, and profoundly difficult. For years, my process was survival and understanding. But its deconstruction revealed another quality; it wasn’t to be feared or ignored. It was a messenger, a teacher, a call from my higher self. Once the call is answered, a lifelong inner journey begins. Limitations lift, and the journey doesn’t stop at normal but continues towards increasing joy, freedom, and enhanced beauty and richness.
As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “What is appearing as poison in the beginning, that will prove nectar at the end.” What’s beyond the myth of depression? The promise of sweet nectar, once the poison is understood.