A Reflection on Depression: Structure, Dissociation, and Community

As I write this, it is raining at the beach. I’m sure there is some idiom about such a thing which currently escapes me, but it’s a sentiment which seems appropriate. Every year my family plans for our vacation the year prior (oftentimes right after the vacation we were just on). The bright side is that this gives us nearly a year to plan and clear our schedules of anything important; however, the down side is that we are stuck with this date rain or shine. Whether it is 90 degrees and sunny all week or there is a tropical storm rolling in, the plans are made, the reservation is set, and this date is unchanging. The structure established in this rhythm is often helpful for us. There is a sense in which we always know what is coming. On the other hand, the rigidity often brings a commitment to a week where we have no idea of what all might happen. What we do know is that regardless of the weather, it is often helpful for us to take time away and to reset even if we are forced to create time for fun and relaxation apart from a warm beach setting.

Often the structure we embrace brings us to endure rough seasons, and the same has held true with my struggle with depression. I have been grateful for the resources I have been given over the years such as therapy, helpful reading material, and, above all, good friends to confide in. Such support systems have been necessary to remind me of basic truths about myself such as I am loved, I have a place, and I am never alone. Further, I have found they often point me in the same direction: the development of positive structure for escaping depressive and dissociative habits. Often persons who struggle with depression are encouraged to consider how the structure of their day is conducive towards health or malaise.

What time do I get out of bed? What time do I go to bed? How much sleep do I get? How frequent is my use of technology (especially 30 minutes prior to sleeping)? How much time do I spend on social media? Do I have a job? What are my hours? Is the work fulfilling? Is it stressful? Do I have any hobbies? Do I take enough time off? (My mom perpetually reminds me of the answer to this one.) Do I exercise? What are my food habits? Do I drink often? Do I have a regular porn habit? Am I on any drugs or medications which affect mood?

This is not nearly the full sum of questions to consider, but the answer to these questions are determined by our own actions. It is humbling to consider how quickly we have forgotten how to live. We have in short order abandoned healthy habits and daily rituals which cause us to process and handle life when enduring a number of difficult seasons. Part of the wisdom of the older generations is their habits for structure which many of them developed at a relatively young age. Perhaps this is why anxiety, stress, and depression are ever increasing particularly amongst the younger generations (1). While academic and social pressures certainly should not be understated in terms of their contribution to the levels depression amongst younger generations, the influence of technology individualizing our leisure time should also be soberly examined (2).

The omnipresence of technology in our lives further contributes to our growing isolation from one another causing less social interaction and therefore less interpersonal solutions to crises. We instead opt for self medication, escape, and dissociation by way of video games, television, pornography, and “browsing.” This isolation tends to foster further isolating and even addictive habits (3). From there it becomes a downward cycle. Instead of taking a walk, we choose to dissociate which often feeds into the shame, anxiety, or depression which we already experience which brings us to want to dissociate further with the same activity. And on it goes.

Dissociation is a pattern of behavior which contributes to a person separating himself from the difficult or unpleasant circumstances of life in which he is immersed. In my case, I have dissociated when I have unplugged out of life during emotionally, spiritually, or mentally strenuous seasons. For example, if I am in a depressive mood, I may immerse myself into video games or television shows in the hopes of forgetting about my current difficulties. Dissociation is nothing new, and it is often difficult to recognize and diagnose because dissociative behaviors are not necessarily detrimental to physical health. Of course, dissociative habits such drug and alcohol use can be easy to spot, but other habits are not as simple to notice and may even be encouraged as good by the wider culture. Habits such as workaholism and exercise addiction are also means by which a person can dissociate from hardship which he may face with the added difficulty of thinking there is no problem or deflection occurring. This person may prosper physically or in his career, but he leans into these means of escape in order to flee from what he suffers mentally or in his family life. In whatever case, the main issue is not being treated which often allows it to only compound in intensity or difficulty.

For example, during the Vietnam War heroin use was very high amongst US soldiers due to its accessibility and high demand on the battlefield as opposed to within the United States (4). This led to the fear of large swaths of veterans returning home only to be addicted to what was considered one of the most addictive substances there is. To everyone’s surprise, however, once these veterans left Vietnam and were immersed back into their communities and families, many of them gave up heroin altogether with only a relatively small amount suffering relapse into heroin use. To researchers at the time this was puzzling. If heroin is one of the most addictive substances one can use, then why were soldiers by and large able to give it up with relative ease? The conclusion drawn was that it was not the drug which fostered the addiction, it was the environment of war which did. Heroin was not the problem; it was a mere coping mechanism to assist with dissociation from the real issue: the horrors of war.

When a person engulfs himself into dissociative behaviors whether they be sexual behavior, alcohol, drug use, overindulgence in technology, often times these addict-like tendencies which emerge are coping mechanisms being used to deflect from the difficulty a person experiences in his present circumstances or even because of past trauma which he may have experienced.

My struggle with depression has created a similar story for me. I did not choose to struggle with depression, but I do often choose behaviors which do not handle the main issue at hand here. Every time when I am in a difficult season of life and I choose to dissociate rather than immerse myself within an environment to help me deal with say, a stressful season at work or school, a conflict with a friend or loved one, or disappointment in my personal or professional life, I am choosing to suffocate my faith by fostering addictive and dissociative behaviors which allow me to escape into a world of my own making and control rather than submitting myself to a loving God and loving community who mean me well.

In my depression, I am given a choice to escape or to embrace.

Whatever may trigger my depression, to attempt to escape into meaningless pursuits only adds fuel to the fire. To separate oneself from the very community which is intended to nurture and foster your well-being in order to figure things out for yourself only perpetuates the same toxic patterns of behavior which thrive in isolation. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work Life Together:

God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. (5)

In other words, it is only the communal life in which I know I am totally accepted before God and others can I live a life in which I do not have to dissociate in order to cope with my bouts of depression. My environment is changed not merely in terms of the community in which I associate myself but also the narrative into which I insert myself. When a man embraces that in Christ he is reconciled presently and already to God and to his neighbor, he is liberated and freed so that he may embrace further the strenuous reality in which he finds himself because he has been given every good thing needed to endure (Php 4:19).

The Christ who finds a man in his broken reality does not offer a pleasant escapism of heavenly bliss to be acquired in the future in order to dissociate himself from the harsh circumstances of his daily life. To the contrary, He offers a man the freedom to mourn deeply for the suffering he endures. But He also tells him to stand up, wash his face, and embrace the life he has been given. Rather than making a man a hopeless optimist or aloof pessimist, it makes him the most sober realist who is able to accept the life he has because he trusts that it has been given over to him, the good, the bad, and the ugly, as a gift from the risen Christ.

I don’t mean to sound idealistic about what life in the Church is like. I myself am well aware of the pain which people may cause one another when acting out of accord with the cross of Christ. Further, embracing this communal structure does not mean I won’t face difficulty within these contexts; quite the contrary, my acceptance of responsibility towards God and others guarantees that I will be hurt and will suffer (2 Tim 3:12). What I do wish to emphasize is how the message of the gospel casts an image of life together before God in which every person is acceptable to one another not in a loose “anything goes” kind of framework but rather one in which every person cares deeply for the other regardless of the baggage each one of us carries. This message confronts and assails us in our deepest depressions and addictions with a message of hope that we can be better. No, in Christ Jesus, we will be better (Php 1:6).

This brings us back to what I stated at the beginning. If God and the community work in tandem to offer an environment of grace and reconciliation, then this in turn frees me to embrace positive structure in my life. Only when I understand that reality is not defined by my depression but rather God’s redemptive actions towards us in Christ Jesus that I am relinquished from the wrong beliefs which often dwell in my mind during depressive bouts. Of course, many of factors which influence depression (i.e. genetics, life circumstances, etc.) remain; however, in Christ I am not left defenseless. Through His assurance of pardon (Rom 8:1), presence (Mat 28:20), and people (Col 4:10-11), the right beliefs about myself and the world are reinforced in order to offer a way of escape not from my life but from patterns which only reinforce depressive moods.

The problem with placing attempts at structure and change prior to changing harmful beliefs about myself which often further depressive moods (i.e. that I am unloved or alone) is that it places a burden upon me to change my life when in my depression and addiction I simply cannot. A fish in a pond has no knowledge of the greater ocean. I have to first be confronted by an outside force which compels me and frees me for change (Eph 2:1-10). Only then can I start the long walk towards wholeness.

The structure I begin to build on the path towards wholeness keeps me grounded in reality. Maintaining this is no easy task, and, as alluded towards at the beginning, I will still be brought to endure bouts of depression even with these safeguards in place because the structure alone often does not deal with the source of the depression. However, the benefit is that they help keep destructive patterns at bay and this structure itself will often promote and remind me of what is true, beautiful, and good even when I find myself stuck in the midst of depression’s throes.

Therefore, I can get out of my bed knowing another day has been given to me to rejoice in in spite of the difficulty which it will carry (Ps 118:24). I don’t have to dissociate with media or fantasy because the reality I have been given is far more joyful even in spite of its painfulness (Hab 3:17-18). I get to embrace my school work and job because however tedious or mundane they may be I know I can embrace them as gifts handed over to me so that I may act faithfully in them (Eph 2:10). I am given a hope which endures (Rom 15:13), and this hope brings me to labor on through whatever my life may bring.

After all, a rainy day at the beach is better than a sunny day at home (I remembered the phrase).

“He brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their chains apart” (Psalm 107:14, HCSB).

Here is a musician I’ve been getting into a lot recently. He is a singer/songwriter out of Nashville, and much of his music has this sort of light tone which is calming whenever I find myself feeling anxious or depressed. For what it’s worth, both myself and my grandmother think he is worth the listen.

(1): Depression is increasing among U.S. teens | Pew Research Center

(2): See Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Robert D. Putnam, 2000).

(3): See Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing (Jay Stringer, 2018).

(4): This Heroin study on Vietnam War Veterans Reveals Why Addictions Are So Hard to Break. (mayooshin.com)

(5): Life Together (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, printed 1954, 22-23).

3 thoughts on “A Reflection on Depression: Structure, Dissociation, and Community

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