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  • Writer's pictureMadison Kolla

Depression - the Underworld Journey

I covered a community acupuncture shift recently - seeing folks at a far quicker pace than I have been in the past year and a half. With much less extra space to hold what's up for them, to meet it and speak to it. And I left with one person still tugging on my heartstrings. One navigating the depths of depression for the first time in their life. A professional helper, someone who found themselves really struggling in a place they'd guided so many others through. I tried to take the time afterwards to convey something, but I don't know if I didn't find the right words, or we didn't have the right connection, or they weren't in a place to hear it - so this has been left bouncing around, wanting to be communicated, heard, understood. And at this time of year, when the SAD flares for so many of us, maybe it's worth releasing into the ethers for anyone else who might need to find it.

Don't rush through this. Don't wish it away. Take a moment to pause here. There is undeniable value in depression, in grief, in heartbreak, in freeze. The underworld is a place worth visiting and getting acquainted with. There are even gems to be found in the dark depths, for those brave enough to look. In this fecund place of transformation, this place that sows new ideas and versions of ourselves, if only we give it a little (or more) time. Nothing moves quickly down here. Decomposition is a slow process. Compost can't be hurried.

This is a profoundly uncomfortable space, and everything in our culture tells us to "snap out of it" or do or medicate or meditate away from it. Even our attuned helpers are often focused on how to change the situation, instead of trusting that the intelligence that brought us down here just might have a purpose. It's harder to trust when a week turns to a season, and winter lasts a year or more. There's only so much suffering any human heart can hold, and I'm not suggesting that we grin and bear it in silence and solitude - that can quickly turn deadly. Sometimes we go deeper or longer than anyone can handle, and it's necessary we get pulled back up again. And sometimes medication is the wisest and most self-compassionate choice.

I'm just suggesting that we honor it - depression, grief - as a teacher, a wise and tough one. And with hopes that as we venture into the depths, we are well equipped - preferably with a guide who has walked this rocky, treacherous path before, or at least with supports to lean on, comforts to protect us, lights to bring down into the darkness. If we do have what we need for the journey, we can find so very much here. Power, yes. And the unshakable steadiness that comes after having made it through. The knowledge that once having survived, owned, claimed your underworld journey(s), there's not much the world can throw at you that feels more destabilizing, more challenging. That having been there and found relative acceptance at the bottom of the pit, we know that we are always actually moving through (even when it feels the most minuscule momentum is being made or we're stalled completely or even moving backwards at times) - and that eventually the depths will spit us out again, having done their work on us.

For me, most of the suffering found in depression is around feeling like I shouldn't be depressed - like it isn't an allowed state, not a normal part of the glorious spectrum of human experience that we all dance through. I suffer, feeling like it is "bad" to be depressed, like there are things I should be doing to make it go away, to get back to normal or happy or some other place that would feel more okay. And the truth is, it's okay to not be okay. And as lonely as it feels there, you're not alone - the vast majority of us will spend time in the underworld at some point or another. Some of us just get invited down for longer and more often. Are there ways we might be more curious about our experience here instead of fighting it? What might we learn if we lean into our depression as a wise guide down into the depths of human experience? What losses might we be actively grieving at this time that need more space and time to be actually felt?

Grief comes up around much more than lost human life, and asks everything from us - it cannot be smoothed over in a couple of counselling sessions or support groups, needs more time than weeks or months. And despite prolonged grief being recently transformed into a so-called disorder by psychiatry, it is a necessary hollowing out. It digs us out so completely, emptying everything for a time, only to enable us more space to hold compassion, care, and yes - eventually joy again. But for now it asks, just be here. Stay with me. In this cool, moist darkness, surrounded by all the undoing and breaking apart that is necessary to feed life. The letting go, the churning under, allowing the mysterious process of rot and ruin to work us over and render us fertile and ready for growth once again ... eventually.

Besides grief, what traveling companions might we find in the depths? Often anxiety - a potentially crippling one. Mine is usually asking me to slow right down, asking if there's anything I can set aside entirely. It forces me to go against my trauma urge to do-do-do, go-go-go, hurry-hurry and demands that I just Be. Right here. Right now. Just this. Get as comfortable as I can in the discomfort, the potential agony. To breathe here with it for a minute (and then maybe compassionately disengage and go self-soothe by staring at a screen and eating chocolate).

Plenty of old emotional storms get shoved down to our underworlds, down into the dark. Anger and tantrums, suppressed since childhood. Rage - that fierce, angry banshee - screaming, tearing at her hair, wildly out of control. I see how many meltdowns my 4 year old has every. single. day. and can only imagine how much most of us have stored away, backlogged, if they weren't allowed to be expressed in our families of origin. And with them, Shame - the hot burning, a deep empty pit in the solar plexus/gut. For the feelings that are Not Allowed. Are Bad. Feelings that make us Wrong.

And this is where so much of our power lies, stifled, unwelcome, too much. Those powerful and necessary emotions, when not permitted to move, to be, to be seen, suck away with them so much life, so much of our vitality, our juice. Without them we are flattened, pleasant, palatable, barely even living. We are zombies. We are nice. Fuck nice.

What if these uncomfortable feelings were not just allowed, but actually engaged with - as beings we can relate to, learn from, be guided by?

We need our righteous rage and anger - it allows us to stand up for ourselves and others when we're wronged. Allows us to not feel totally powerless in the face of horrific injustices in the world.

We might learn to better care for ourselves through our anxiety - it's trying to teach us something about our own needs and boundaries. And we deserve to take our time and feel our grief and honor all the losses that tear us to pieces - depression needs our tending.

This is what our underworld journeys truly give us - the chance to (eventually) re-emerge, to come back fully ourselves, fully alive and human and messy, holding all the lost pieces we disowned and hid away for so very long. We find ourselves, wild and wide awake.


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