Gabor Maté on the reality expressed through depression

I thought this was an immensely powerful image in a remarkable book which is full of them. In The Myth of Normal pg 220 he argues for a view of depression as a defensive responsive to an unliveable tension between our self-expression and attachment needs. He argues for recovering the objective conditions which created emotions which couldn’t be inhabited rather than conceiving of this defensive response as an intruding entity. To medicalise depression is to reify it, at least that’s how I think the gist of his philosophical argument here could be summarised:

If we are not to see mental distress solely as illness, then what is it? The view I have come to favor is of a piece with how I approach many other conditions under the “illness” umbrella: rather than seeing it as an intruder from the outside, consider what it might be expressing about the life in which it arises. This framework is, if anything, all the more intuitive when it comes to afflictions that take up unwanted residence in the mind, in a person’s emotional world, in the personality.

Let’s begin with something rather simple, now on the rise: depression, a state I know intimately. The word’s literal meaning is quite telling. To depress something means to push it down, as one might a beach ball in a swimming pool. I like that analogy especially because one can easily feel how much concerted force it takes to keep the ball submerged, and the way it “wants” to find a way back up to the surface. Keeping it down takes a toll.

What is pushed down when a person is depressed is easily identified by its absence: emotion, the continual flow of feelings that remind us we’re alive. Unlike the wrangler of the beach ball, a depressed person doesn’t choose this submersion of life energy—it imposes itself, turning a once-vibrant emotional landscape into arid desert. The only “feeling” that remains, typically, is more sensation than emotion, a thrumming, indistinct pain that threatens to consume everything, and sometimes does. If we label this depression of feeling a disease, we risk not recognizing its original adaptive function: to distance oneself from emotions that are unbearable at a time in life when to experience them is to court greater calamity. Recall what I called the tragic tension between authenticity and attachment. When experiencing and expressing what we feel threatens our closest relationships, we suppress. More accurately, we don’t: our mind does that automatically and unconsciously on our behalf.

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