Full text of Lisa Miller on Depression and Spiritual Awakening: Two Sides of One Door at TEDxTeachersCollege conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Depression and Spiritual Awakening – Two Sides of One Door by Lisa Miller at TEDxTeachersCollege
In the dark of the night, 4 a.m., I look over and my husband’s not there. I look further, and I find him flat on his back, looking at the ceiling, arms out. “Our lives are hollow and meaningless without children.”
It had been two-and-a-half years of hopes and prayers and failed fertility treatments. No one had come. And the despair that ripped through our hearts woke us night after night — to the point where friends and family called just to see how we were doing. Because we so clearly were depressed.
As a clinical psychologist and scientist, I had been trained to see that depression is a disease. Much like cancer or diabetes, depression as a disease had symptoms of despair and isolation. And yet that simply did not explain the road we were traveling, nor did it explain the depression that follows loss of a spouse, miscarriage, trauma, or the natural transitions sophomore slump, mid-life crisis, portholes in passages — chapter breaks that seemed core to who we are — were not aberrant illnesses. They were not diseases.
And so my husband and I continued with each cycle ending in a disappointment that felt like a funeral. And as we continued down our road of trials, we started ever so gradually, over months and years to open our eyes from a dark and isolated place, quite alone, to a place where we started to hear the guidance of helpers and healers: the folks who, on the Appalachian Trail, through hikers called “trail angels” for bringing food and water when they need it most. Our trail angels brought what we needed most: wisdom and guidance.
So one day I came home after yet another in vitro with the haunting feeling as I drove my car that this too was a failure. And sure enough, as I stepped to the door, the evidence was incontrovertible. A tiny dead duck embryo lay on my threshold. And I knew it was not possible the embryo in me was alive.
And so I went to bed and had a long depressing nap to awake — (knocking sound) to a duck — the mama duck, who had lost her aspirational baby. And the mama duck was persistent. I thought what would the duck want with me. (knocking sound) She wanted to come towards me. And as I opened the door, I saw she had brought me a gift — the most precious thing in the world to her. She had brought me a plump, juicy worm. Mama duck and I, there we were, two aspirational mothers, not alone. Not alone because duck and I were side by side, and not alone because of the great force that brought duck.
And so, too, through that force came the guy on the bus. And the guy on the bus winked, leaned over, and said, “You seem like just type of mother that would go all around the world adopting all types of kids,” opening up that new possibility.
Listening to the helpers and healers opened my awareness, so that the next time I was woken in the night was not by the rip of depression, but by a great and clearly sacred presence — a presence with a love so great and a gravitas that I sat up.
And the presence said, “If you were pregnant, would you adopt?”
And I said something so awesome and great: the truth, which was, “No”. But I also knew that this journey was more than a disease, and that this depression was opening the door on a path of “becoming” – a spiritual path.
Continuing down this path, I wanted that baby. It was great that I was on a spiritual path, but I wanted that baby. And so we didn’t quit. Up and down the East Coast to the best IVF labs in the country. We went so far as to find the team that invented IVF, and sitting there in solidarity on bed rest with my spouse, we found that the remote was stuck in our hotel room on one channel — one interminable documentary, four hours of a little boy — a little boy who stood in a garbage dump alone, and said, “I don’t care that I’m poor. I don’t care that I can’t go to school. But it hurts so much to not be loved that I sniff glue to make the pain go away.”
And lying there in our multiple rounds of IVF, my husband and I looked at each other. And he said it first. We knew there was a child out there for us. We made our way to a wise woman and hovered around her table, the daughter of a once clergyman. She looked at us and said, “Frankly, what is it that you are looking for in your child?”
And I leaned in and said, “Well, I don’t care if this is a boy or a girl. I don’t care what race this child is. Just please, a child who can love.”
And my husband jumped in and he said, “Well yes, all that, but kind of a girl.”
What we knew in common was that the voice that said you will never be parents, the voice that came from being alone in darkness was now a voice that said parenting is love. It hurts so much to not be loved. All he wanted was a mom, all I wanted was a child. What would have made us family was love. Parenting was love.
This was depression as a portal to a world of connection, a world of love, a world in which we walk a spiritual path. This was depression as only one side of the door. And on the other side of the door was illumination, warmth, light, and spiritual path, a spiritual passage.
Now, as a clinical scientist, it was clear to me that anything true through yet another human lense of knowing can be again shown. The certainty I had that depression and spirituality are two sides of one door seemed well within reach of science. And so my lab, together with that of Myrna Weissman and Brad Peterson and Rafi Bancell, did the science: two sides of one door — where is it in the brain? Where is depression as the portal of the spiritual path, not the disease? And we found it.
And we found it in broad and pervasive regions of the cortex. We welcomed into our lab deeply depressed people from families loaded up with generations of depression, and similar people with families loaded up with generations of depression who through their journey of suffering had reached a foundationally spiritual path. People whose lead foot was now depression for having traveled the darkness.
And what we found was that in precisely those regions of the brain which atrophied and withered in lifelong depression. For those people with a strong personal spirituality, there was a thickening of those very same regions. The cortex was thick as if you were looking at a tree in the Amazon versus a tree withering under the cold and drought. Two sides of one door is in us. Depression is not always an illness. It can be. We can need to be rebooted or recalibrated or medicated. It can be. But very often, depression as everyone will face it is core to our endowment, and core to our development.
My husband and I continued now with this knowledge: that we were on the spiritual path in search of our child. It was clear that our suffering was not for naught, it was not an empty symptom, and with the awareness that we were “becoming,” the presence came back. The presence asked the same question in a deep and profound way. And my answer was honest, which is I am getting there. I can feel we’re down the road. There is the possibility of spiritually evolving into the person who would answer yes. But no, I’m not quite there where I would still adopt a child if I were pregnant.