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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Theology and Depression: Only the Real Counts Featured

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Theology and Depression: Only the Real Counts
I get the sneaking feeling that Traditionalists, as a group, can tend to suffer from depression. It’s easy to see why. A lot of us, for some very sound reasons, are starting to feel pretty overwhelmed by things going on in the world and the Church. Not being a psychologist I can’t claim to know for certain the causes, but observations around the Traditionalist Catholic world has shown me that we tend to be at the same time quite intellectually tough but also somewhat melancholic of temperament.

Perhaps especially among those who have converted to Catholic Tradition from mainstream neo-Catholic conservatism, the combination of intellectual and aesthetic sensitivity and the single-minded persistence required for making such a momentous shift can be as much a burden as a gift. Passion is almost a defining characteristic of Catholic Traditionalists, and that passion can be both a boon and a pitfall, particularly for the managing of our emotional lives.

We also seem to have a tendency to brush aside serious consideration of what psychologists call “mood,” and its cornucopia of potential disorders. All that modernistic pop-psych stuff is looked upon with grave suspicion. We are usually pretty well versed in the dangers of the ideologies behind the development of these disciplines. Indeed, Freud’s name is on a short list of modern men whom Traditionalist children are taught to beware of almost before they can recite the Latin Rosary. As is proper for Christians, we tend to be fundamentally at odds with the anti-Christian culture and that can put a strain on our mental and emotional resources.

And it’s not just us. Depression and pathological anxiety are extremely common for modern westerners. Many out there seem to be aware that something is wrong, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. Psychologists say depression is the most common complaint they hear about. We seem to have created an economic and social world which, while filled with conveniences, pleasures and physical safeguards, has also created a mental and moral landscape that we can’t cope with.

I have been aware in some way since earliest childhood that there is something seriously wrong with the way things are in the world. It wasn’t hard to notice. I’ve written many times about the cultural milieu I was raised in; the west coast of Canada in the 1970s right at the burgeoning of the foetid anticulture of feminism and leftist, pseudo-spiritual atheism that we are all now immersed in. My reaction to it all must have been alarming, since my mother told me she took me to see my first child psychologist when I was three.

Given what I know now about that world, it is not the least surprising that I was diagnosed early with what they now call “dysthymic disorder,” a more or less constant state of low-grade depression that at the time was just considered an incurable personality trait. By the time I was in my teens, however, real and crippling major depression was the background reality of my life – the kind that comes in suffocating waves, shutting off the ability to reason, to make clear and sane judgments and altering perceptions.

Doctors tried all kinds of things, including all the latest drugs, and nothing availed. Much later, and after many failed pharmaceutical experiments, I finally learned that I have one of those pre-existing conditions that make me permanently “contraindicated” for anti-depressants. I’m one of the ones for whom the standard drugs have the exact opposite of the desired effect – and the more you give me, the worse it gets.

I didn’t find out until I was in my early 30s when a specialist in pharmacology put me straight. But this was only after the regular doctors had told me that if I continued to be “non-responsive” to treatment – I was losing weight at a terrifying rate – I would “probably die soon”. The specialist said that the drugs they had put me on were triggering mini-seizures, like a little electrical storm going on in my neurons 24 hours a day.

If I’d been American, I would probably have sued. As it was, I got off the drugs and onto a regime of a special diet and exercise – and enrolled in a Latin course at the university – and came abruptly, almost miraculously, back to life. There have been down times since then but on the whole, and since I have come to live my religion more deliberately, it’s been better and better.

It is easy to see why the medical profession went so heavily into drug therapy for depression. Everyone would like an easy solution to feeling chronically badly, but it seems that despite the ubiquity of Prozac and other heavily marketed anti-depressants, psychoactive drugs are among the least effective treatments for depression.

After I had started recovering, I learned that my experience was so common as to be almost a textbook case and there were a lot of class action lawsuits. The psychiatric profession and the health insurance industry, however, like them for much the same reasons. It is just so much easier and cheaper to prescribe a pill than to get into a long-term therapeutic commitment with a patient, even if the statistics show that drugs mostly don’t work.

Fortunately, there is a relatively recent development in psychological counseling that is radically more effective than drugs and that can be made compatible, and even work in tandem with the practice of Catholicism. Indeed, I discovered the existence of “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” at almost exactly the same time I started rediscovering the Faith. The idea behind it is very much along the same lines as classical spiritual direction: helping the person to re-align his thought and daily habits to be strictly in keeping with objective reality.

The theory behind it is that depression and anxiety are reactions to habitually negative thoughts that – as many of us can attest – often run through a person’s mind relentlessly like a recording on a loop. Training the person to use his will to confront those thoughts with a big dose of reality, helps him break the loop, and break the cycle of depressive/anxious reaction.

Depressives tend to be prone to what shrinks call “dichotomous thinking,” and “catastrophizing”. A negative thing – normal difficulties at work or an unexpectedly large bill – gets blown up in the sensitive person’s mind into a huge, overwhelming disaster and a condemnation of himself. A big part of the work of this cognitive psychotherapy is to teach the person to firmly and consciously correct these exaggerated ideas and narrative scripts and ultimately to develop a stronger, more realistic approach to life.

I first came across this approach in a self-help book by a psychotherapist named M. Scott Peck, that was very popular in the 1980s. Titled, “The Road Less Traveled,” it was the first place I saw the simple truth about life laid out: “Life is difficult,” which, if I recall, was just about the first line. It was a bit of a revelation to be told that life is not really supposed to not be difficult. If we find it difficult, we’re not doing anything wrong, we’re not failures or incompetent. Life just comes that way, and the trick to being happy is to learn to live it within the difficulties. To face them realistically using our intellect and will, as St. Thomas would have put it, and not be led around by feelings.

I’ve written a lot about my long struggle with depression and unrealistic anxiety, and one regular reader asked, “What does devotion to the Real in philosophy contribute to the fight against chronic clinical depression?” Simply, that depression is a kind of Fantasy, one that the sufferer feels helplessly trapped in, and the only cure for Fantasy is resolute and single-minded devotion to the Real at any cost.

Researchers in CBT have found that thoughts generate feelings. Habitual negative thoughts produce habitual negative feelings. Therefore, learning to confront and control the habitual thought patterns – that are often so deeply engrained in the person’s habits that they are not noticed – and the bad feelings will dissipate. The therapy has been known to produce almost miraculous results, even in cases that were otherwise totally non-responsive to drugs, like mine.

If you feel bad a lot, and it seems disproportionate, there is something you can do. Here is a website from one of the leading cognitive therapists, David Burns. And his book, Feeling Good, which is still in print and widely available.

(NB: Burns recently put a note up on his ‘blog talking about his support for legalised assisted suicide, but it’s important to make distinctions. He’s not a Catholic, so he probably won’t be aware of the genuine arguments against assisted suicide, and has likely never been exposed to the supernatural outlook. But in the areas where it counts for people suffering from depression, his professional contribution has helped people perhaps more than any other treatment. As with anything from the secular world, approach it with eyes open and informed by the Faith.)

A good Catholic book, that got me started many years ago on the quest for the Real at any cost, is Theology and Sanity, by the great Catholic apologist, Frank Sheed. It has been recently re-published by Ignatius. Mr. Sheed proposes that sanctity is simply sanity writ large, and that means adherence to what is actually, objectively true and the conscious rejection of all Fantasy.

In the most boiled down terms, both the classical “cure of souls” approach to spiritual direction and CBT aim at the same thing: aligning the person to the pursuit of the Real. And the Real, ultimately, is God – ultimate Truth, ultimate beginning, ending and source of all real things, the ground of being, the First Real Thing that makes all other contingent things real. To be a saint means simply, living every moment totally and utterly dedicated to the Real at any cost with all one’s mind and heart and strength. There are no depressed saints.

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Last modified on Thursday, November 5, 2015
Hilary White

Our Italy correspondent is known throughout the English-speaking world as a champion of family and cultural issues. First introduced by our allies and friends at the incomparable, Miss White lives in Norcia, Italy.