“Why were you ever prescribed Zoloft?” I asked the 32 year old mother of 2 who had been taking the med for 10 years, unable to successfully taper off on her own. “That’s when my mom died and my internist…whom I love…said, ‘Do yourself a favor and take this.’”
Pain. Suffering. Struggle. Why deal with it when there’s a way out?
Is Zoloft right for you? Seems like the answer is yes for a growing proportion of the American population. With the fifth edition of psychiatry’s diagnostic manual – the DSM – there has been a “lifting” of the bereavement clause. What that means is that if you are struggling with 5/9 of the following:
- Low mood
- Loss of interest
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in activity
- Feelings of guilt/worthlessness
- Poor concentration
Even if you have just suffered a trauma or the death of an intimate, you can be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, the gold standard treatment of which is an SSRI antidepressant.
There is an ever-narrowing bandwidth of behavior that supports the dominant narrative in our culture today. We all need to act a certain way to protect the foundational beliefs of our time – that “science” has it all figured out, that rules keep us safe, and that it’s us vs. them (insert germs, terrorists, pests, and other “enemies”). The guild of psychiatry has been appointed to delineate the boundaries of normal, dangerously, from a presumptive perspective that its diagnostic standards derive from an objective science rather than a multitude of sociopolitical factors influencing the perceptions of a handful of old white men around a table.
But what are the consequences of this? What is this sadness and where does it go if we bandage our consciousness with business, medication, substances, or general avoidance of our real human experience?
Who Says What’s Normal?
Perhaps this is one of the most grave problems with the practice of population control masquerading as medicine: as Charles Eisenstein writes in the epic tome Ascent of Humanity, “[t]he reason that conventional psychiatry – whether pharmaceutical or psychoanalytic – is powerless to substantially help the vast majority of patients is that it does not, and cannot, recognize the wrongness of the world we live in.” If we don’t fundamentally acknowledge that something is deeply missing, deeply amiss in our experience on the planet today, then how can we interpret healthy, let alone normative behavior?
Our planet is sick. All you have to do is pull up some images of oil spills, deforestation, species driven into extinction through industrialization to feel the pang of it. But is it a coincidence that we are sick as well? That we are sicker, in fact, than we’ve ever been in our history? Amazingly, however, chronic degenerative diseases hold us in a purgatory of graceful opportunity. It’s as if we are being told – something is wrong, and before that something kills you, here is your chance to wake up to what that something is and to save yourself. The symptom, therefore, is the solution, the opportunity for healing.
What do people who recover from terminal and degenerative illnesses have in common? They have woken up to the abundant gifts in their midst and they have decided to honor their organism, their connections, and to look at what they were running from. They eat mindfully, they move their bodies, they care about the consumer choices they make. They love better, and they often seek communities of like minds and more purposeful vocations.
The Opportunity to Wake Up
In this way, chronic illnesses including depression are an invitation to explore. Explore what is out of balance from the physical to the psychospiritual, and recalibrate. Because if you ignore the invitation knocking, the next one may blow your door down.
But what if, at the root of these illnesses, and at the root of a deep sense that something is not as it should be, is grief and sorrow?
Perhaps you feel as I did, that grief and sorrow are circumscribed experiences that have to do with death and loss. If that isn’t relevant in a given life window, then grief and sorrow probably don’t have much to do with what feels wrong, right?
As a tough, type A’er, I thought I had never experienced grief. I knew that if I did, I’d function through it and get back to the business of doing quickly without any histrionic indulgence.
Over the process of my emergence, however, I have come into contact with a wellspring of sadness buried inside me, the exploration of which and contact with, has allowed me to expand more fully into my life experience. In fact, I undoubtedly live larger because of it. Because I’m less afraid and I’m more alive.
The Wild Edge of Sorrow
This is why I was ready to pick up Francis Weller’s book, beautifully entitled The Wild Edge of Sorrow, when I did.
Who wants to read a book about sorrow?
You do. We all, in fact, need to.
Because we are all existentially disoriented and we don’t even know it. And to make it worse, missing is the sense that anything is missing. We have strayed from the Continuum and our bodies, minds, and souls are rebelling in service of our awakening but we think they are just annoying, tedious, and broken. We are being told that it’s normal to feel half dead and that a stimulant might help get done what demands our attention. That anxiety is a problem of brain chemistry and that a benzo might quiet down the noise. That grief and sadness are evidence of chemical imbalances that require chemical correction lest we interfere with our “functioning.”
“When we abandoned the Old Ways, established over hundreds of generations, we lost the traditions that made us feel held and embodied. The psychological, emotional, and cultural design that offered us assurance and security in the face of grief or loss has been replaced by a belief system that generates anxiety and a sense of insecurity. Emptiness now saturates our culture. Addictions, consumption, and materialism are symptoms of this condition. More accurately, they are attempts to cope with the unbearable feelings of barrenness.”
In this book, he creates what we all long for which is a roadmap and then gives us the shoes, the water, food, and the knife we need to navigate this rugged terrain. He describes Five Gates of Grief, and here is my summary:
1. Death and Loss
This gate is that society permits contact with, albeit it limited – the death of a loved one. But more than this, this kind of sorrow represents our experience of impermanence, the transience of this human experience, and the many variables that are coordinated to allow any moment to simply be. The infinitely complex crystal of a snowflake that melts when you grab it. We become inured to this reality, though, until it is that we experience loss or the threat of it. This applies also to the loss of our bodily integrity and to the ways in which illness can induce a crisis of faith. The rawness of this type of loss – of another, or of our sense of vitality – can bring with it other sources of hidden pain like a flypaper in our soul. As we move with calm, courage, and curiosity through this challenge, we realize how we were living in safety and smallness, and the gift of embracing and allowing this grief is an expansion into a more vivid place. A larger arena for experience. We discover the point of health: a portal to our truest self.
2. Defectiveness: Shame and Trauma
When we experience trauma and shame, we split off a part of ourselves that is too injured or too defective to love. But this lack of integration leads to a pervasive sense of inferiority, invisibility, and unempowerment. The only antidote is radical self-love and compassion. It is an understanding that we do what we can with who we are, and so does everyone else. We act from the totality of circumstances conspiring to create any given experience. Weller says, “…what is asked of us in the quiet terrain of our inner conversation is to hold these regrets with gentleness, acknowledging who we were at the time we made those choices.” What is it that you have hidden in the closet of your heart?
3. Divorce from Nature
Is the soul of the earth weeping through us? Are we living with the pain of nature’s decimation even if we don’t even think we care about what’s happening to this planet? Are we really “improving on nature” with GMOs, manicured lawns, and our myriad industrial entitlements that our filling our planet with deathless garbage? I assert that what we are calling mental illness is often a reminder of evolutionary mismatch or the many ways in which we are living out of tune with nature. But perhaps we are also suffering from the collective divorce from our rightful place in the web of the world. As Weller states, “We are depleting, with an ever-growing tenacity, the complex, multilayered song of the world and replacing it with a single-pitched monotone, depositing empty calories, sterile seeds, and meaningless objects in every developing country while silencing forever the voices of hundreds of cultures.” Sounds pretty disturbing to me…
4. Community Wound
So this is a big one for me. And up until my mid thirties, I didn’t even know it was. We used to wake up, as Weller says, to many eyes every morning. Now we are raising children as single parents, living in modular homes, and privatizing our pain and struggle. It’s no wonder that the blow-up-doll surrogate of social media has us held captive.
I remember, after my second daughter was born at home, attending a Red Tent meeting with about 20 strangers. We sat in a circle and told our stories of our birth experiences. Most of the women there had experienced redemptive homebirths after in-hospital traumas, but I had had two transformative and empowering experiences and little to grieve, seemingly. Nonetheless, from the start to the finish, I wept. I wept so intensely that I couldn’t even share my story. I didn’t even know that I had wanted this – these compassionate ears and hearts sitting with me, open, and real. A renegade and a mercenary, I’ve always had an “I can do it on my own, I don’t need anyone” kind of posture towards life. But now I understand that a deep, oozing wound inside me is the absence of a tribe. Every time I am in community, I heal a bit, I open a bit, and I shed something dysfunctional that was compensating for that pain. Weller says, “…when these things are finally granted to us, a wave of recognition rises that we have lived without this love, this acknowledgment, and the support of this village all of our lives.”
5. Ancestral Pain
If we don’t welcome our sorrow into our experience, and give it wide berth, then we may think we have sealed it over, but we pass it on to generations to come. I have touched, and I know many who have, the pain of all of the women who have come before me. I have felt it move like an intolerable geyser through my consciousness. In fact, this may be what wakes me up every morning and calls me to action as an advocate for women’s healing and emancipation. We carry the pain that our ancestors, proximal and remote, were marred by because they were not offered the tools of integration. Rupert Sheldrake’s work helps us to understand, through the physics of morphic resonance how it can be that information is passed down (and around) without actually being “encoded” in the linear biology we learned in grade school. We don’t even know where this echo is coming from, however, because we don’t feel primally connected to these ancestors any more. We are, in so many existential ways, homeless.
Got Grief? What To Do and Why
Weller implores us to appreciate the fact that all peoples before us knew the power of communal ritual as a complement to contemplative silence in processing these layers of grief. He asks that we explore our own rituals, create them, rather than adopt the hollow artifice of commercialized ceremonies and habits that abound in today’s superficial culture.
Why do this? Why dig for this? Why acknowledge or care about the more tender, curious approach to the wounds you are carrying inside? What’s the point?
We ask these questions because we have been raised in a society that tells us suffering is bad and meaningless. I can remember thinking that any woman would be crazy not to have an elective C-section! Why suffer when we can suppress, dismiss, ignore, or at least mitigate?
1. Get united
When we sit with sadness, grief, and pain, we make it that much easier for others to do the same. When we accept the love and support of our fellow humans, we offer them the gift of compassion or suffering with, through which both are healed. We can’t do this life alone. Especially hiding in a bunker of our own distorted story of unexamined suffering and shame dressed up as medicalized mental illness.
2. Get real
Authenticity is all we want, we can smell it, sense it, and detect it. When you have dipped into the depths of your own shadow, you present as someone whose energy is all right there, not partially present and partially guarding hidden wounds.
3. Get powerful
Integration and alignment means looking under all the rocks, clearing the cobwebs, and exploring the blindspots. When you do this, you develop an invincible core. Invincible because vulnerability is a part of your strength. You have all you need to meet any and every challenge.
4. Get vivid
Feel all of it – the full spectrum of emotions from bliss and ecstasy to the electric richness of a heart scorched by pain’s lightning strike. Don’t accept a gauze-saturated existence.
5. Get present
When we have sources of sorrow that we refuse to set a space at the table for, then we are constantly in a state of self-defense, and we never feel safe. We are susceptible to the illusion that we can create a safe life for ourselves through our external trappings. We live in the future as we run from the past. If we allow for it all, we release all of the energy that was going toward making everything ok, and that energy is free to propel us into the present moment and our real time experience.
Medicating the Journey: Psych Meds and Soul Work
In many ways, psychiatric medications bind, bandage, and constrict the caterpillar in the chrysalis so that the butterfly cannot be born. They arrest the soul. I feel passionately about my role as a gatekeeper, bringing true informed consent in front of every person searching for the escape hatch to their pain and struggle. Every person offered the promise of the magic pill. Informed consent around antidepressants involves learning the truth about their illusory efficacy, the Russian Roulette of risks from impulsive violence to relapsing and chronic symptoms, to the horrors of medication discontinuation. But should a true informed consent also include the soul-level consequences of interfering with the invitation to explore the deeper sources of “symptoms”?
I find that the women I taper off of psychotropics are given another opportunity, a more challenging one, to be sure, but a portal to rebirth nonetheless. Without exception, as we near the final 50% of their dose – sometimes a medication they have been taking for more than a decade – the ground begins to shift beneath their feet. They enter into a foreign territory, and they begin to question everything, including their own identity and sense of self. Sources of pain spring up like flying ducks in a hunt taunting them and their uncultivated coping mechanisms. In the container of our work together, they watch this. They write about it. They share, and share some more. And the skins fall to the ground, one after another, until they are transformed in the crucible of this experience.
They invariably agree: it is so worth it to move through the fear.
We Suffer to Transform
When we struggle, when we are sick, we are not meant to simply “get back to normal.” We are meant to evolve because of it. Wake up a bit, and slough off or at least acknowledge that pattern, person, or belief that this challenge was meant to bring to our attention.
To these women, being on and coming off of these medications was a catalyst to awakening that compels me to hold lightly my certitude that psychotropics are always an evil the world over. For these women, it was what they needed to wake up to themselves and often, to what it is that they are here to do, what their gift is. Weller refers to this as “spiritual employment,” often quite a departure from the clock you may be punching on Monday mornings. Importantly, they touch, what I believe is the antithesis of depression and the goal of my treatment – gratitude.
Waking Up to the Truth
We are in a collective moment, pregnant with change. Do you feel it? We are waking up. Long-held institutions are crumbling, and the gross underbelly of the current story is revealing itself in a desperate attempt to survive. Medical mandates, race crimes, and ever-escalating expressions of control, suppression, and hate. The swan song of this secular era has been sung. And from the debris, there are many a phoenix rising. We are meant to usher in the new story, those of us who are reconnecting to the truth, to nature, to ancestry, to each other, and to our very selves. We don’t care about proof, evidence, and being right. We care about trust, compassion, and moving beyond our egos.
It’s as if we have been cancer cells, in survival mode, convinced that it is every man for himself in a hostile environment. We multiply to our own seeming benefit but to the detriment of the whole organism, stealing resources, polluting the surroundings with toxicity. When corrective signals are sent, however, through detox, nutrition, and ease, we arrest, we pause, and we wake up to who it is that we really are. We repair our inner mechanisms, and we begin to communicate with the cells around us in the context of a greater whole that we are inextricably a part of. Health of one and all is restored.
And when one cell heals, others are more able to do the same. In this way, our own personal self-love is a gift to the planet. As Weller states, “Those who undertake the full journey into their grief come back carrying medicine for the world.” A world that has never needed this prescription more urgently.
For more tools in the realm of grief and sorrow, read here.
* * * * *
This blog first appeared on Kelly Brogan’s website.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.