Lois (34) told me that her depression didn’t seem to have a rhyme or reason to it, that it would just happen out of the blue. As she spilled out her life story to me, I had an intuitive flash to ask Lois to draw the good times and bouts of depression. She willingly sketched a horizontal line that swelled up when she was well and dropped down when she was depressed. Her chart showed she’d already had four bouts of depression and was in the midst of battling a fifth.
It’s been shown that the more times one has a depression the more likely it is to happen again. Lois had suffered from suicidal thoughts but never planned or attempted suicide. I felt concern for my client’s long-term mental health. The life events she had shared didn’t seem to explain the dips in her sketch.
I was genuinely puzzled by the mystery of Lois’s depression. Lois appeared to be a bright, self–aware, educated young professional. On her intake she had reported a history of some depression in her family but no trauma or abuse. While it was possible genetics could be playing a role, her family and her childhood sounded wholesome and loving.
Lois made lots of eye contact with me and her emotions matched her voice tone and words. Yet there was something else — a fleeting kind of scattered quality as if a less formed part of her emerged from time to time, only to disappear once again.
For homework, I asked Lois to imagine her depression as if it were an action figure or a mythical creature of some kind, what would it look like? What might it be doing? She could also consider, if it had plans for her, what would they be?
Lois came to the second session excited to share that very easily she’d seen that her depression was a like a cartoon character, a Depression Diva. She described it as a small grey cloud with stick legs and sharp little teeth. It was busy putting rugs over everything, softening corners. She said, “It doesn’t mean any harm, it wants to protect me.”
I too felt excited and asked Lois to think about the Depression Diva and the first major depression that had mysteriously hit while she was travelling after college. She had described the trip as a happy time until the depression. Now as Lois thought about the Depression Diva and what it might have been up to, she realized that before the trip her parents had sold the family home and moved to another city. It was a home her parents had built on a large tract of land with a beautiful creek running through it that she was very attached to.
Her face melted in grief as she told me how at the time she had focused on the task at hand without letting herself feel how sad she was. I asked about the others in her family. They had all been cheerfully focusing on the task at hand as well — her dad, her mom, her 2 brothers and her sister. Only the dog had wailed as they drove away with the last few boxes, leaving the prairie behind. A couple of months later the first depression had engulfed her.
My client’s story made sense. Repression of emotions is a major cause of depression. Literally at odds with each other, healthy emotions move and transform, while repression, like the Depression Diva, pushes some feelings under the rug, draining energy until the person becomes stuck in depression.
Lois looked visibly relieved and expressed gratitude at being able to release the hold of this automatic pattern and it’s underlying belief that it wasn’t ok to feel vulnerable. Lois said she saw the good in repressing emotions for awhile, that it helped to get through difficult times. She also saw that the Depression Diva had gone too far with its covering up habits.
Over the next couple of sessions, Lois actively engaged in making more connections between the Depression Diva’s antics and her past bouts of depression. In response to some material she shared, I asked Lois, “Are you allowed to feel vulnerable?”
She looked at me with surprise and then became thoughtful. “Probably not,” she said, “I think that is one of the least accepted emotions in my family.”
Lois described being with her boyfriend last spring. They were talking about having children. As she spoke to me, she visibly tensed her throat and jaw. She said that he doesn’t want kids. She very much does, but has trouble expressing it to him. At the pinnacle of the story her feet and knees suddenly turned inward in a gesture of submission. I asked whether she was aware of the repression of her desires. Suddenly her energy shifted, her face brightened and at the same time her feet and knees resumed a straightforward posture.
Lois was allowing herself to feel vulnerable in a new way. She realized that in her family they tend to take responsibility for everyone else’s well being. It works well for them because everyone is doing it. If something goes wrong a family member is expected to take it upon themselves to set things right. But now, with her boyfriend it was difficult for her to allow herself to want something that he didn’t.
I reflected to Lois, “It sounds like in your family you’re not allowed to blame the other person, but you are allowed to blame yourself? That doesn’t seem fair.”
Her face softened in a way I hadn’t seen before and she actually looked like a different person. Lois said that until our work together she had accepted the depression as something she just had to live with. Now she felt empowered to lift the rugs one by one and reevaluate the family rules and beliefs she discovered underneath. Lois continued with this work and showed up to her sessions with more trust and confidence in her vision for her life.