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Listening to Depression: Your Pain Can Be a Guide to Change and Healing

“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” ~Rumi

My first diagnosis of depression came at the age of fifteen. Depression runs in my family; it wasn’t a case of overmedicating. It was genuine, and the black dog has followed me all my life.

I’ve been on eight different antidepressants and a handful of anti-anxiety drugs. I’ve been in and out of therapist offices (and hospitals) most of my life, and I expect that I’ll continue to do so.

My mindset (and that of my family and doctors) was that depression is an adversary to be defeated. If only we found the right medication or the right therapy, we could solve the problem. But that mindset ignores a positive effect of such a negative condition: depression’s ability to induce change.

Depression lies to you, but it also tells you the truth. And that truth leads to change.

Silencing

As I began my career as a lawyer in New York City, my depression worsened. Law is a perfect profession for depression to get worse. I was taught to look for mistakes, to be cynical. A pessimistic mindset is an advantage for a lawyer.

Lawyers have high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. I don’t know whether depressed people become lawyers or becoming a lawyer makes people depressed. It’s probably a combination, though ultimately it’s irrelevant.

My depression found expression physically and emotionally. I had chronic tension headaches; when I woke up feeling like head was squeezed into a vice, I knew the pain would last all day. My back and neck were steel cables of tension.

I gained weight from a combination of lack of exercise and poor diet. On the weekends, I would order huge amounts of food, seeking solace and finding only regret.

Emotionally, I was ashamed. Ashamed for being depressed and ashamed for hating my job. It was the prize so many of my law school classmates had competed for. Why didn’t I want it?

More than the shame was an overarching sense of sadness, like a gray filter applied across the screen of my life. It felt like other people were seeing in color, but for some reason I was seeing in black and white.

I remember discussing a medical leave with my therapist (she was supportive, and I owe her much). But I was crushed as I realized that a leave was only that—I’d have to return to the office.

Late one night, unable to sleep, I found myself scrutinizing my apartment’s lease agreement, looking for a way out. My apartment was bathed in darkness. In the pale glow of my laptop’s screen, I broke down, shoulders heaving with sobs.

I had been trying to kill the messenger. I wanted to silence my depression, as if I could put my hands over my ears and make the noise stop. But instead, I needed to listen to what my depression was telling me.

Listening

In those times, depression felt intractable. It was a heavy stone that I wasn’t strong enough to move. But I think, more subtly, depression can signal change. Pain is a messenger.

Just like physical pain, emotional pain is a signal. Your body is telling you to change what you’re doing. And those changes can’t take place if you don’t stop and listen.

And how to listen? Sit in stillness, observing what thoughts and emotions arise in the silence. No control; only observation.

I learned to focus on my breath, observing its rising and falling, without focusing on a specific object or mantra. I learned this meditation technique at a vipassana retreat near Kathmandu, Nepal, and it still serves me well.

Meditation clarifies the difference between genuine pain and temporary discomfort. Genuine pain is a messenger of change. Temporary discomfort is a passing phenomenon we all experience at one time or another.

It’s like exercise at the gym: it can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, even though you know it’s good for you. In contrast, some pain is like breaking an ankle. You have to take time to heal.

In this sense, meditation is a guide to distinguishing between depression’s truth and lies. Depression tries to trick you: it lies to you (in the form of cognitive distortions like catastrophizing) while sometimes telling you the truth (the genuine pain that you’re in). Meditation separates the truth from the lies.

Recognizing

I relied on meditation to help me recognize the pain I was in. Not only had I run away from my depression, I had chastised myself for even feeling it (“you shouldn’t feel this bad”) then felt guilty for being depressed. Meditation cleared this fog of avoidance and guilt.

It also taught me to stop trying to figure out my depression. Attempting to intellectualize how I felt was a fool’s errand. I had to recognize my depression in a visceral, bodily way.

When a stove is hot, you pull your hand away so you don’t get burned. It doesn’t matter if the stove is gas or electric, or who turned it on. None of that information will prevent you from getting burned. It’s happening; the exact causes don’t need to be figured out to act accordingly.

And this is exactly what meditation taught me: to focus on the sensations (breath, bodily discomfort, thoughts) instead of attempting to rationalize those sensations. That’s why vipassana retreats require you to surrender your books and journals. Experience the phenomena, don’t intellectualize them.

Acting

In the end, my thoughts were just excuses. When my lease was up, I told myself, I’ll quit in six months after I get my bonus. When I got my bonus, I told myself, I’ll quit in six months when my lease is up.

Once I stopped attempting to reason with myself, it became clear that I had to quit. My depression had lied to me before, but it wasn’t lying this time.

I’m not recommending recklessly quitting a job without a plan. I had to sublet my apartment and figure out my finances before I left. But my depression had led me, finally, to make a decision.

Then I had to take the leap. As I told my boss I was quitting, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and exhilaration. I shook.

I left New York City. I remember sitting at the airport and deleting my work’s email app from my phone. It sounds like a millennial’s cliche version of catharsis, but deleting that app felt immensely freeing.

I’m still in the process of letting myself be sad sometimes, and I doubt that process will ever truly end. I’m still on medication. But the gray filter over my life has lifted.

*Disclaimer: Depression can have many different causes, and everyone’s experience is different. For some people, life changes can decrease feelings of depression. Others may require a combination of treatment modalities, including professional help.

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About Joseph Castelli

Joseph Castelli practiced mergers and acquisitions in New York City and studied at NYU School of Law. Before that, he taught English in South Korea for three years, hiked and meditated in the Himalayas, and competed in powerlifting competitions. He now writes at Esquire No More.

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  • Eesha R

    Thank you so much Joseph Castelli for such a wonderful message…
    Depression is a serious health issue which many of us ignore….Your article will definitely open eyes of many people around us…Please write more as it will be part of healing for someone..
    Thanks a lot!

  • Ayman Rashid

    Iam 47 and suffering severe depression, eating disorder, my dead end job killing me evry day, i am longing to change my career, but my kids and daily bills, my third world country sufffers bad economic, any advice

  • I agree when you state there is a difference between genuine pain and temporary discomfort. Discomfort can be tolerated and explored.

  • kimmyk

    Joseph, your description of depression, seeing in black and white, distinguishing between real and emotional pain, I have never heard it described in this way. I love it. Thank you for your post and the courage it took to do so. Inspiring.

  • Teresa McGowan

    I agree that depression is definately hereditary and needs to be looked at as a mental health issue , however what I don’t agree with is the article suggesting that depression is a sign for you to make changes in your life. The alternative is that if you have a happy positive state of mind then that would allow you to make good sound changes early instead of when you get to a depressive state. I believe in The Secret by Rhonda Byrne which saved my life and gave me the understanding of maintaining a positive state of mind. After all it is your thoughts which cause your feelings good or bad not the other way around. I’m happy to say that after years and years of depression which started from childhood and is hereditary in my family I am finally free of the black moods and my life has definitely turned around due to working on a more positive state of mind.

  • Dianna Donnelly

    Try medical cannabis oil high in the non-psychoactive compound CBD (cannabidiol).

  • Don’t suppress it. Let your mind talk. Don’t do things that will make you feel good to hamper the growth. Stay there as an observer. Watch it but don’t react. If you cannot listen, write it down and see your thoughts unfold right before your eyes. This is usually the key to healing.

  • Ayman Rashid

    Thank you, Any side effects?

  • Thank you for your kind words! I hope my article has been helpful.

  • Excellent point. Too often we do things that “feel good” but are only habitual expressions of trying to “run away” from what we are experiencing. I know that I often rely on food this way.

  • Tony, you’re right. It’s always important to explore the discomfort and observe how I react to it. The discomfort could be physical, like in my back while I meditate, or emotional, when anger arises.

  • Eesha, thank you! I agree that depression is ignored far too often. The first step is bringing it out of the shadows so we can have a conversation about it.

  • A very honest article on depression, and I applaud your honesty as your integrity of your soul shines thru very easily.
    Whilst I can’t talk for you (obviously), I’ve been depressed myself for over 10 years (and that is 10 years too long). Being a mindful meditation student myself, I’ve tied to study my own depression, and I’ve realised that mine was down to bad nostalgia, and not fulfilling my lifes true desires (a bit of both to be honest).

    Now that I have my own blog, and I’m taking up a sprinting schedule, life doesn’t look so bleak. Of course, I have indirectly created, ‘depression anchors’ in my subconscious, so I have to now do some techniques (like feeling the fear, ‘wash’ over me sometimes) to help, ‘de-anchor’ that thought. Over the years, my depression has weakened, to the point where it isn’t there anymore sometimes (sometimes, it does rear it’s ugly head, but not often;-)
    But I totally agree with what you are saying, depression does lead to change, when listened to accurately.

    Thanks for posting a very honest account of yuor personal battle with depression. I hope it inspires people who read this.
    Namaste;-)

  • Depression and other forms of emotional suffering is a signal to bring conscious awareness to a part of the mind that has become stuck and needs conscious attention. Emotional pain is functional just like physical pain. I always recommend to students and therapy clients to learn how to meditate on depression itself using the methods of mindfulness meditation. This approach produces better results than just talking about your depression or medicating it.

    Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Andrés Ramírez

    Its been