In her book, On the Way to Myself, Charlotte Wolff raises the question: is depression a symptom of mental disturbance or is it a natural condition?

“We live in the midst of a world which exhibits stupidity and aggression,” she says. You might look no further than Donald Trump for evidence of this. “The natural reaction of any sensitive person consists of frustration, anxiety and depression. The more perceptive and conscious we are the more vulnerable we become, and depression, a withdrawal from hostility, is our shield against injury.”

Wolff goes on to talk about how psychiatry is not clear about the origins of the “melancholic” state—that is, whether it comes “from within” (hereditary) or “from without” (a stressful event or childhood deprivation).

She is quite certain depression does not come to people who are not emotionally alive. “Depression is the other side of elation, exuberance, exaltation. […] Depression is frozen passion. It destroys the appetite for life, the first condition of which is zest. When energy is suppressed, oppressed, or paralysed, we suffer from depression. It is a state of mind due to an underlying distress, either acute or hidden.”

What is interesting is that Wolff tells us depression is, paradoxically, a move towards healing. “The emotional pendulum swings too far and gets stuck at the limit of its oscillation. The life of the emotions withdraws into a cold and uncomfortable corner as if to hibernate.” Peter Levine offers a somatic (body) perspective describing the postures and gestures of a depressed person as “constricted.” The depressed person exists in this shrunken state of mind and body until the thaw sets in.

Wolff asks the question: “Where is the Self?” There is no trace of it. The shrunken Ego remains present wondering and worrying, defensive, reluctant to go forward or assert itself. “Depression makes beggars of us,” Wolff says. “The Ego loses its head and no longer knows how to exercise its function.” With all available nervous energy mobilised for defence, impressions from the outside world “plunge like knives,” even if well-intentioned. As the Ego whines, collapses, hits out, fragments, the less room is left for the Self to come to its aid. In Wolff’s words: “the Self turns away and goes into hiding.” With Self gone, we no longer feel like “ourselves;” we have lost touch with our “core” (who we are). In fact, the sense of identity can grow so weak as to give the depressed person a feeling of non-existence (“I am a ghost”).

It is often at this point, we begin to despise the unattractiveness of our shrunken Ego: weak, pathetic, and distasteful. (And this unattractiveness can turn others against you. Think of the narcissist, with his inflated Ego, who cannot stand vulnerability in another.)

In her final thoughts, Wolff ponders one of the problems of psychiatry: that is, it takes no account of the inner conflict between Ego and Self, a fight which gets dramatically out of hand in depression. She recommends taking a leaf from Eastern religions, particularly teachings that direct us towards a harmonious inner existence where the Ego is subordinate to the Self.

Further reading:

Wolff, C. (1969) On the Way to Myself: Communications to a Friend. Routledge: New York

© Felicia Stewart, 2020