How to Survive the Darkness of Depression


Middle of the Night

It’s been a decade since my last depression.

Ten years ago, the darkness did a slow creep. Like the light in autumn—a few minutes less today, a few minutes less tomorrow—until one day, you feel like darkness is all that’s left. This time, though, it happened in an instant. On January 1. It felt like all the stars burned out at once.

Darkness is the absence of light.

When we’re depressed, we must hold on to this truth: depression is not something in and of itself. It is the absence of something else. This time, in the midst of my darkness, I knew depression was, simply, the absence of joy.

I knew it in the new Star Wars movie.

The first time I watched the movie was before January 1, and I was not depressed. I watched it in a small town in a small theater on a small screen with small speakers. And yet, I felt a giddiness I could not contain. The best parts of boyhood happening to me all over again. The thrill of it leaked out of my eyes. Droplets of joy. Immediately, I wanted to see it again, but on the big screen. IMAX. Floor to ceiling screen. 3D. Speakers that rattle your ribcage.

And the second time I did see it in IMAX.

But the second time I saw it I was depressed.

My brain was in awe of the experience—it could calculate the wonder of what I was seeing and hearing—but my heart was AWOL. Time and time again, the moment happened—the moment when my heart would usually swell with joy. And nothing swelled. Like expecting a step where there isn’t one.

And it sends you tumbling. Downward.

The second time I saw Star Wars, I cried, too. But they were tears of sorrow. They were tears of absence. They were tears of longing for what I knew was possible yet felt impossible. I was grieving the joy that had packed its bags and vacated my heart.

When you are in the darkness of depression, joy is a rumor.

Joy is a tomorrow that may never come. Joy is a good dream upon waking. Joy is a shooting star out of the corner of your eye. Joy is a whisper in a cacophonous room. Joy is a murmur. Joy is a breeze so faint you’re not even sure if you felt it.

When you’re depressed, joy is a vapor.

So, this time, in the middle of my depression, I resolved to do two things. First, I resolved to not compound my depression by acting on it. When I felt hopeless, I watched the hopelessness instead of doing hopeless things. When I felt shame, I watched the shame, instead of hiding. When I felt angry, I watched the anger instead of lashing out. Mostly. (Sorry, people.) And when I wanted to escape, I watched the desire to escape, instead of running.

And the other thing I did was this: I remembered, joy has been a vapor before.

And before, when joy was a vapor, it eventually condensed again. It solidified. So, I decided to wait and to watch for it to condense once more. Until there was enough of it to drink.

I waited, and I watched for droplets of joy.

During long nights, when I couldn’t sleep, I sat awake at my bedroom window, and I meditated upon a street light in the distance. Light pushing back dark. I drove dark country roads and paid attention to houselights nestled in black fields. Light pushing back dark. I watched an owl in the middle of the day land in a tree across the street, and then fly down the block. An animal of the night, flying through the light.

I remembered what happened the day before the depression happened. I remembered betting all the kids my six-year-old daughter wouldn’t bowl a strike on her next roll. I remembered the ball rolling slowly, oh-so-slowly, end over end down the middle of the lane, knocking down eight pins, stopping completely, then slowly rolling left, like it was being remotely controlled, knocking over pin number nine and brushing pin number ten before dropping out of sight. I remembered pin ten wobbling and wobbling and wobbling. And finally going over. I remembered the eruption of joy from everyone watching.

A flood of joy.

I remembered it and, in the darkness, it became a droplet.

I learned something about depression this time around: it is just one more broken opportunity to watch for the light around you and the light within you. If you want to survive the darkness of depression—perhaps even redeem it—you stubbornly look for the light until, slowly, it begins to push back the dark. Until, once again, the light grows more abundant. 

Like daylight in the springtime.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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34 thoughts on “How to Survive the Darkness of Depression

  1. Ah, my friend. Thank you for a deeply empathic post on a difficult topic. Knowing that you have walked where so many of us have also walked, brings trust and gives life. Loneliness is not “not knowing anyone” it is when “nobody knows us”. You know us and it shows. You bleed with us, and your knees and hands are bruised and scraped, just like ours. Thanks for pushing back the loneliness, and the darkness, with these beautiful words.

    • Thanks for this, buddy. I did hesitate to share this post (I needed to write it at least for myself), because health professionals aren’t supposed to suffer these things. We’re supposed to have the answers and thus avoid it, right? But I think that is just another shaming message to both the helper and the helpee. We’re all human. Thanks again for affirming that.

  2. Thank you, Kelly, not only for remembering the light and the joy when darkness was everywhere. Thank you also for remembering that when the darkness lifts for you it remains for others and that the candle we all need isn’t certainty or extrinsic or radical but the gentle strength of knowledge that others have been where we are and emerged on a thread of joy and light that grows.
    I am so glad that you have rediscovered your joy.

    • Thank you, Shel. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this, but decided that it might help a few people out there who are on the edge of glimpsing the joy again and just need that nudge to start looking. Thank you again for your constant encouragement.

  3. Thank you so much for this – for it describes what I awoke to this morning. What I know will not last for ever and what I know I must walk through with faith and trust – even though it really ‘sucks’ and is a struggle. You have given words to the emptiness that I felt this morning. So good to know and hear that none of us is alone even when we feel like we are.

    • Yes, Eleanor. Darkness and emptiness are definitely interchangeable metaphors. I do hope this can encourage your faith and trust and patience, as you observe what’s going on inside of you and outside of you, rather than identifying with it. Droplets of joy to you.

      • Thanks Kelly – this has been a life long struggle for me and I know that I need to walk through it – but sometimes it’s a real boost to see that I am not alone with it. It can in away be a gift when I choose to use it that way. And thank you for the joy – I will add them to the base that I know is there – hidden but waiting to rise up!

  4. I live with chronic, low-grade depression (dysthymia). What you describe sounds strange to me. I don’t have any clear memories of any time in my life when I didn’t view things through the foggy lens of depression. Not to say I don’t have good memories, but nothing I look back on think “something was different about me then; I was able to enjoy things better then.” Actually, I think I’m enjoying life more now, 30 years into it, than I ever have (even as a small child!!). I don’t really see depression as an absence of anything because I’ve never lived without it. To me it is a weight, and when I’m less depressed I feel lighter. I did enjoy reading this, though; anything to learn more about different people’s experiences with something we all tend to think is the same for everybody 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your story. You’re right, dysthymia tends to be a different experience because it is less episodic and thus there are fewer “handholds” of joy to grab onto. I’m so glad to hear you’re doing better now. My encouragement to you is to identify what you have been doing to feel a little lighter, and then spread the word. Courage to you as you do so.

  5. Depression at times is a beautiful sadness. Beautiful in that I am still feeling something but sad in that what I am feeling is an ugliness of the soul. Is it better to feel this then just exist and have no feeling at all? There is so much strength in knowing that ‘this too shall pass’ that there is a season for everything. As my grandmother use to say “You have to take the bitter with the better”. But at times life is just too raw and you are not ready to seek the light- you have to ride it through. Thank you for being real, for being there, for showing us a light when we can barely hold on.

    • Karen, there is so much courage and determination in what you have said here. Please know that you aren’t defined by the darkness of your depression, but by the strength and tenacity that comes through in this comment. It is the truth about you.

  6. Beautiful article. Please just remind everyone that before they accept episodic depression that they need to have their Vit B12 and Vit D levels checked (by blood lab). I suffered from low-grade depression for a long time (2+ decades), and once a endocrinologist saw that my B12 and D levels were too low and worked with me to bring them up to normal, my depression went away. I still get sad and depressed at times — who cannot see what is going on in the world without being at least a little sad and depressed — but the depression is not nearly what it used to be.

    • Yes, thank you for this. If someone didn’t mention it in comments, I was going to add my own. If you struggle chronically with depression, leave no rock unturned. Full labs. Talk to a psychiatrist. Find a therapist you click with. I had a date circled on my calendar and if things weren’t headed in the right direction by then, my therapist was going to be getting a call from me for the first time in a while. This is part of what I meant by not acting on the depression. Don’t hide. Ask for help. Seek it out. Give yourself every chance. Thanks for the reminder to say this.

      • Thank you. I forgot to add: my friend’s elderly mother was thought to be having the initial stages of some form of dementia. She was even put in a nursing home, because no one in her (large) family could be with her 24/7. I literally fought with the family to get her B12 and D checked. Mother’s B12 and D were way too low. Once the levels were brought up to normal, Mom was normal again, and she was able to come home. I’m not saying this is the situation in EVERY case, but it’s always worth checking out. [And, yes, FULL labs.] Unfortunately, 25 years ago, when my depression began in full force, the medical community really wasn’t aware of this. I thank God everyday for the Endocrinologist who caught this, for me, seven years ago. It’s been a whole new life for me ever since.

  7. “And before, when joy was a vapor, it eventually condensed again. It solidified. So, I decided to wait and to watch for it to condense once more. Until there was enough of it to drink. I waited, and I watched for droplets of joy.”
    Thank you so much for your words here. They give me hope that I will be able to again find the “droplets of joy” that I have been afraid I would never be able to find again. Your gentle words give hope to my own sadness and longing for joy. May we find those droplets of joy together and then share the drink with others. Thank you so much, Kelly!!

    • Jenny, thank you for this, and yes, I do share your hope that you will find some droplets soon. You actually point out something important and empirically proven: sometimes we think we have to have joy before giving to others, but studies show that giving to others actually creates joy. It may not be a bad thing for all of us to think about. Thank you, and blessings to you.

  8. I loved it as always, found the lines which I most needed and recognized myself in a similar situation, only that I lack your beautiful approach.

    “I learned something about depression this time around: it is just one more broken opportunity to watch for the light around you and the light within you.”

    I hope you don’t mind, but I need to ask this question. What if all I can see within me is pure darkness, emptiness and mediocrity? Or does it even matter? I dare to ask, because this is one of the most beautiful (and recurring) themes on your blog (grace, redemption, some kind of unconditional self-acceptance and freedom), or am I wrong? 🙂 And as much as I try, I just simply can’t understand where this feeling comes from.
    I also love how you actively choose goodness and still manage to live authentically, with clarity (just a few thoughts for which I admire you).

    • I remind myself that these feelings come from a chemical imbalance! They are not personal, I did not do anything to create them. I notice that mine are more agonizing when I am PMSing and even though I try to keep track, it hurts so much. The next day it’s alleviated a lot and I know that my days have their ups and down. If everyday is down then it’s vital to seek help! I am being treated for my depression but not my Peri-menopause. I am looking for a sympathetic doctor.

  9. “When you’re depressed, joy is a vapor.”

    Oh, what a line!!! Another absolute beautiful creation of art… of a soul singing their heart. Thank you!

    The timing of reading your writing was synchronistic – right before I saw this in my e-mail, I read the following synopsis/review of “The Memory of Light” (which I stumbled across by complete accident):

    Depression reminds us that even the dark needs some light-filled luminous love – that there is a friend who cares out there in the dark lonely with a flashlight to illuminate and uplift the heavy blanket of sorrow, melting away the cold sheets of bleak desolation for a joyful tomorrow to bloom once again in the daylight Spring.

  10. Although I am saddened to learn that you know depression, I commend you and am inspired by your braving vulnerability to share it in order for others (me) to be helped by it. I would imagine, considering your being a therapist, it was a difficult thing to open up about publicly. But in doing so, you make the rest of us more willing to be open and share, so that even more can be spared the shame that so often accompanies depression. (Sounds like we might have a depression pyramid ‘scheme’ starting! 🙂 )

  11. Thank you for sharing this, depression somehow is still something most of us feel ashamed about, so it is really helpful if people talk about it!
    As someone who is no stranger to this kind of darkness (well, my kind of darkness, anyway) I just want to add what is the worst about depression for me:
    Worst for me is that in those times everything I do that is not hiding away from the world in my bed takes so much energy that everything I normally love only makes me miserable, too. It is so inconceivable to me then that life can be good, that doing stuff can be fun, that I don’t even WANT to get better. Because then I would have to do those things, meet friends, see a movie, go for a walk and it is impossible that that could be anything but unbearably stressful. My personal loop of hopelessness.
    I also would like to say that for me looking for the light is more of a hindrance than it is helpful. That other part you talk about, the opening to the feelings, the not running away is the key for me. My depressions are brought on by my resistance to what is, by that urge to do something, to change things, to take control, to work on myself, my situation, even the people around me. It is brought on by wanting to get away from my fears and uncertainties. Trying to focus on the light would just be me continuing to distinguish between what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, wanting the ‘good’, trying to avoid the ‘bad’. That brings me right back to the circle.
    During the past few days I have felt the darkness again and it was as strong and frightening as ever. This time I focused on staying in the feelings, on letting all that darkness wash right through me – as far as I felt up to it. And today I woke up and felt fine. Which is, I think, the way of it – those dark feelings are bound to come up again and again, but by staying in them I can deepen my understanding of their fleeting nature. Hey, it is just a feeling of fear (ok, utter panic sometimes), if I stay with it, it too shall pass. By trying to run from it, I only give it power over me.
    I know that that’s basically what you said, too. On my personal journey I’ve just found that as we struggle with our mind’s very individually shaped resistance to awakening, a differently placed emphasis can make all the difference.

    Thanks again for writing this blog – we all need voices like yours!!

  12. “It felt like all the stars burned out at once.” Ho. Lee. $#!t.

    That is some good imagery. That is good writing. I’m grateful I haven’t had to face that (Knock on wood). Sounds pretty severe

  13. I like that new way of looking at getting out of depression. Waiting and watching for droplets of joy. Makes me think that IF I get there again, I will wait and watch for droplets of energy to just get up, get on, as I wait and watch for the droplets of joy.
    But more importantly, that reading this helps me know that I am not alone, especially when those around me cannot understand the lethargy and want me to shake out of it.

  14. Thank you for acknowledging your depression, today it still seems like an ugly and shameful word that we dare not utter. I too, after twenty years, am again depressed, but this time I hope to find droplets of joy.

  15. I sort of think that depression is ok, even in some ways a blessing. Not reslly so the dysthymia that FoundMercy describes below, that must be really tough, but episodic depression can feel like Karen describes, like a beautiful sadness. If you sometimes get lost in the darkness, as long as you belive that you’ll eventually find your way out again, then you really feel like dancing with joy when you get back to into the light.
    I watched a young mum walk back from school this morning. She is blind, and I marvelled at her certainty of step as she tap tapped along with her white stick.
    Two things in particular stuck in my mind. She took a small detour, I thought she was going to the bus stop to catch a bus, but she was actually going to find the litter bin and drop some rubbish into it. She can’t even see the world, yet she still takes more care of it than many of us do.
    The second thing was I looked at the winter sky that was grey and heavy, the world looked how I feel inside, yet I thought how lucky I am to be able to see its greyness. Also, that when the springtime comes, I know I will also see the light again. There are people, like that young mum, who will never see anything at all, yet still they find their way.
    Depression does give you a chance to stop doing very much, and to do more watching. It’s not such a bad place to be, though I think mine is quite low level compared with the darkness faced by others.
    I actually think it’s harder for our loved ones. I see and feel their concern, bewilderment and loss, as I withdraw into my warm darkness. it feels as if I’m in a coma. I want to tell them I’m ok, that everything’s ok, to reach out to them, but I can’t.

  16. Thank you for braving the vulnerability required to write and publish this insight into your own struggle. Your willingness empowers others (me) to find the courage to do the same. Your being a therapist had to make it even more difficult. I commend you and thank you.

  17. This post resonated with me on so many levels. I am in the midst of the darkness and love the visual you created with droplets of joy. I am currently reading the book “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Terrance Real and it is helping me make sense of what is going on with me. I have followed your blog for years and love your insight and wisdom. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Oh my. My sweet husband is asking me what to order on the pizzas and I’m watching this little blue curser blink, after reading much of this to him. All I can think is ‘Oh my’.
    Kelly, God has given you an incredible gift to word emotions and speak healing and light into the darkest places of the human soul. It’s gripping that you’ve walked this almost unbearable path, but perhaps it is only because you have, that the words make us weep and plant hope in our hearts. Fruit for us or others will certainly come of this. I believe you have the painful privilege of being trusted to walk in the sufferings of Christ.
    Thank you

  19. Wow! I thought I was making a dangerous and impossible statement to the kids I work with by telling them to look for the light, choose to focus on the light. I have learned what you speak about here from my own battle with depression, but somehow it feels dangerous and impossible to advise for someone else who is depressed. Like,when you’re depressed the hardest thing IS seeing light. Changing the language and the intention to “choosing to see the light(s)” makes it less dangerous, more possible. Thank you for this!

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