How to Survive the Darkness of Depression

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.