Healing Depression through the Art of Language

I was depressed for a long time, so I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. What I saw there was a continuous reminder of what I wasn’t becoming, but therein lay the problem. I was stuck on this problem of becoming, instead of just being.

In any culture, language is the basis of the stories we tell ourselves, the myths of our societies and civilisations, and the sagas of ourselves. The words we choose to use become the world in which we exist. Words are choices as well as symbols and language is the basic atomic stuff of our stories, so when we lose our capacity to be careful and compassionate in the words we use, our stories start to break down, and we begin to lose a sense of direction and a greater sense of ourselves. We feel lost, misguided, set upon by the story of the world happening around us and we are acutely aware that we don’t like this story, sometimes we detest the story. Why is this the case? Why do so many of us fall into this trap and then develop these modern dis-eases we call disease, anxiety, panic attacks?

It’s quite simple: we’ve forgotten the art of storytelling and we miss it dearly in our hearts, so much so that it’s affecting our minds, and I ask you to ask yourself if we can’t tell our own individual stories, how can we expect our collective narrative, our myth, to make any sense?

For me, journaling was a cathartic way to start to record, unravel, and rewrite my own story. Coupled with meditation, I began to observe how I narrated my experience when I relaxed (although I never relaxed entirely, only quelled the rising tide of uncertainty enough to give it some structure) and allowed stream of consciousness expression to invite the pen to transform ink into some kind of story. It wasn’t particularly easy to read on two counts: firstly, my mental state was quite bleak at that time – more Unwell, than Orwell – and second, my writing lacked any flow or fluidity. The expression of my feelings was static somehow, staccato and caught up on the exact words I was using to express what was going on internally and now coming out in waves and waves and waves.

Over the years, I have re-read some of these old scribblings and one thing in particular I noticed was the amount of nouns I was using – cynic, sceptic, nihilist, existentialist, depression, misery,  control, addiction, habit, desire, pain, rage, pornography, compassion, transformation – and adjectives too – mordant, lachrymose, pessimistic, optimistic, significant, transformative – and as articulate as it might have seemed, it was missing a vital ingredient – verbs. There was a lot of I am, I want to be, I would like, I regret, I vow, but very little verbal living. I was describing a static experience, moving through a world of nouns.

In the West, we almost confuse I am for a noun sometimes, as if ‘I am’ is a static concept and the world moves around us, forgetting that I am necessarily means We are and the verb ‘to be’ is all about being together in whatever it is we’re trying to describe in our daily stories. In fact, everything is the way it is being simultaneously. As a dear friend once told me, ‘All of life is at a peak!’ I realise this useful principle now, however during this long period of depression (short, in retrospect, so worry not those of you still stuck on your noun of depression), I didn’t and the reason for this is that there weren’t nearly enough verbs in the repertoire of my soul.

I began to consider that this perhaps – a mind for verbs – might have been at the root of the problem. I was describing my experience, rather than living it, trapped in the paradox of journaling (I write to re-engage with the world but find myself only writing about the world) or even enlightenment or waking up from our ignorance (I seek something which should not be sought). I had accepted I was unhappy, depressed, miserable, as had my close family and friends. What I didn’t tell them at the time, for I couldn’t possibly have explained it, was this sense that I was in some way stuck in the midst of more than one paradox. But, in embracing the desire to change for the better, to heal myself, I managed to shift my attention from what I was not to what I wanted to become. But shifting our awareness to what it is that we want to become still runs the risk of running into to many descriptors and static nouns – I want to become better, I want to become a teacher, I want to become a better son or daughter or sibling. Overthinking on what we want to become often leads to us inevitably encountering an expectation on the path in the future and these expectations can be tough to move out of the way when we reach them, as these tricky nouns often are.

I never said living in the company of verbs was easy. The trick is in being, not I am. I, after all, is a pronoun. When we take I out of it, we see that it simply is and so we can simply be. We must not forget that we are the creators of this world we live in and we, storytellers and mythmakers each of us to our very core and essence, can recreate it if we wish to, so if we find that nouns are proliferating and we feel that we are the only ones moving through a static, overbearing world of hard forms and edges, breathe and turn inwards for a few moments and ask yourselves not ‘What am I doing?’ but ‘Where is I in this story?’ Then, let it be.

Living honestly in a world of verbs is hard. They can be prickly and paradoxical buggers, but it’s a much better way to choose how to continue our journey in life than continuing to be stuck in a world starved of verbs and movement. Pick up the dictionary and remember a few of the verbs you’ve forgotten in that lingering cloud of static images and stigmatised nouns like depression and melancholia.

What about: celebrate, rejoice, seek, discover, explore, express, overflow, love?

And in rewriting the story of life, you might be in the presence of a word like love, a noun-verb, and you might find yourself wondering after all your adventures with adjectives, adverbs, nouns, prepositions, pronouns, and verbs whether any of it really meant anything at all when you discover that love is in fact a noun-verb, static and moving at the same time, like each of us perhaps.

Here, we return full circle to this central problem any of us who have struggled with the noun of depression will know: the problem of becoming / being. And seeing as we’ve come full circle and we’re all here to heal ourselves, let’s play around with love a little. We can set an intention: I become love, but that doesn’t sit quite right to me. We can set an intention: I am love, and this certainly sits more comfortably, though not completely. What happens if we take I out of it? We’re left with love, just love and the paradox of noun-verbs and in this paradox we perhaps might have together found the golden key to unlocking our true selves.

There’s one more way we move in the stories we tell ourselves that we haven’t touched upon, so let’s end by applying this method of getting past the nouns and the other clutter and getting to the verb as quickly as possible to one we’re all very familiar with: to go. When we take ourselves out of ‘I go’, we are left with go, we go, everything goes, and so it goes.