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Tropic of Sadness

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We all move through tropics of sadness in our lives.

Sadness ≠ Depression

Depression is a deeper type of sadness. It’s the flip side of happiness is an inside job. Sadness is also an inside job. Depression, however, is a lasting feeling of hopelessness and despair. I’ll give a simple example. Sadness is the feeling we have when a beloved pet dies. Depression is how we feel overall, weeks or months after the traumatic event when we don’t know ANYTHING that will bring us joy. We begin losing interest in things that we love, maybe even people that we love.

My own common litmus test is ice cream. When my favorite ice cream doesn’t inspire me I begin to checkin on all of my touchpoints for depression.

Touchpoints For Depression

  • loss of interest in all pleasurable activities
  • no interest in ice cream, sex, music, movies
  • flu-like symptoms in my body
  • no (and I mean none) energy

Inflection Points of Depression

Many things can trigger a depression. What happens in our physical body, however, is what distinguishes depression from sadness. When we are sad, all the above symptoms may come on for a time. In depression, our physical body begins adapting to the physical changes and in some ways leans into the sadness.

There are many powerful writers and doctors who have written about this sea change. My lighthouse for understanding is Dr. Peter Kramer, who wrote Talking to Prozac. That book made him an international celebrity. His book Against Depression however began to unlock some of the science that followed the development of the SSRIs. The medical issues with depression that Dr. Kramer outlines in his second book on this line of inquiry

  1. Insurance would not pay for “depression” interventions, claiming it was a mood disorder and did not qualify for coverage
  2. To prove the insurance-approved diagnosis of depression, the medical practitioners had to prove that a physical change happened in the bodies of sufferers, to qualify depression for insurance coverage. That’s INSANE. The insurance business is fighting to keep depression classified as something they DO NOT COVER. I am furious about this. Also, I am powerless.

In Against Depression, Dr. Kramer illuminates the science behind depressive *illness* and how, repeated dips into The Black Dog, did physically change the physical properties of the brain

Today, we can usually get approval for pills. It is much harder to get insurance to pay for therapy. If it’s a prescribing psychiatrist it he path is easy. More extensive treatments are harder and harder to get *covered* by the policies that are supposed to be in place to help us live longer and healthier lives. The distinction here is, we are not guaranteed a happy life. The insurance business is tied closely to big pharma and the next miracle drug, approved for depression (you see the ads daily on television with smiling and beautiful people) and the massive profits that come from FDA approval and the period where the drugs often cost more than $600 per month for a single patient.

The pharma industry is complicit in the war against depression but in only one treatment. Pills for profit.

Depression In Myself

My own road in and out of periods of depression is covered as well as I can, in my book, Here Comes the Darkness. I won’t rehash my journey here. What I will cover is this: once you’ve been depressed and felt the death spiral of darkness, you will never be the same. Another great book by a “depression explorer” is Touched By Fire. Once you understand all of the arguments about depression, suicide, and treatment options are nullified.

In my own path through the wild wild west times of this moment (my personal moment, our country’s moment) I have to take care to manage my own emotional, physical, and spiritual load. I add spiritual because AA and Al-Anon are spiritual programs. My own battle to remain ON rather than OFF requires vigilance and active self-care. Here is my simplified checklist, when I’m going through some hard moments.

  • food – eating well, more protein, less sugar and caffeine
  • drink – no alcohol (a depressant) and good clean water (I prefer carbonated, no sugar, no fake sugar)
  • exercise – sunlight, fresh air, sweat, endorphins
  • rest – I’ve learned more about sleep in the last five years (Apple Watch and sleep tracking data) and it’s a huge issue for most humans
  • joy – games, uplifting videos, movies that inspire, music in headphones
  • community – isolation is not an option, talk to someone, reason things out with another person*
  • spiritual connection – prayer, affirmations, mentors, spiritual programs (church, aa, al-anon, kirtan)
  • love – first for myself (I can’t help anyone if I can’t be at peace in my own body)

Depression In Loved Ones

In a moment of crisis a few days ago (The World Disappears) I used a metaphor to hint at the feelings my ex-wife, my son, and I were dealing with.

“If you see your dog lying on its side whimpering, you know you will do everything in your power to help them. But… there is very little you can understand about their pain and what they need.”

In this moment, I am sitting in my lovely house, writing this, and awaiting my son’s awakening. [The three of us are in an AWAKENING moment.] I told my partner his just an hour ago. “When he wakes up, I am going to be here. I am going to make him breakfast.” In a conversation with a dad and Al-Anon friend, I said the same thing. His response was a prayer he offered between us. His prayer was to “our Lord,” but the comfort was the same. I am alone here in this maelstrom. Yet, somehow I understand that god (the spiritual one) is here with me. Beside me. Ready to make me breakfast.

What I can offer my son, and my ex-wife, at the moment is this.

I am here.

I am beside you.

I will listen. I will not judge.

I will love you as best I can.

But I cannot take the steps for you.

Depression As a Teacher

I am learning to trust my heart. I am clear on my unwavering commitment to my son. I am clear that my ex-wife has her own path. I am here to be kind, loving, and solid. The solidity comes from my own understanding of depression. The solidity comes from knowing I am doing the right thing. I will be kind. I will also be the brick wall my son crashed into a few days ago. I will not waiver in my love. I will also not waiver in my commitment to my own health and well-being.

I have survived terrible moments. Thomas Moore writes about The Dark Night of the Soul. That is where my son is.

I, on the other hand, am filled with optimism and joy. Sure, we are in a sad and horrific moment. My son is going through a dark night of his own. I alone understand my journey with depression. My clarity about the above statements, gives me the strength and hope to be here in this place, this moment, this second typing letters on a computer.

I am here. I will never leave you. I will never give up on you. Can I make you some migas?

Those are also the words I heard from my friend in the program. I am here now. I hope my words bring you some comfort no matter what darkness you or a loved one are experiencing. I can’t be there for you. Only you can be your own savior. If you’re a Christian, Jesus is the way. If you are an alcoholic, AA might provide the illuminated path you seek out of addiction and suffering. If you are more like me “spiritual but not religious” you can take what feels like guidance or love to you.

I wish you well on your journey.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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My first book on depression and my own recovery story is now available through Amazon. Here Comes the Darkness: Surviving and Thriving After a Diagnosis of Mental Illness.

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