Lisa Miller on Depression and Spiritual Awakening: Two Sides of One Door at TEDxTeachersCollege – Transcript
Lisa Miller, Ph.D. – Professor and Director of the Clinical Psychology Program
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.”