aprile 2007


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I got up on my left foot
The depression in convents

of Amedeo Cencini

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All of us are prone to depression, “the most human and real of all things”, J.Vanier1 says, an expert in the human heart as an enigmatic reality. Perhaps, we could somehow move beyond this to say that most probably all of us have gone through some experience of depression in our life, or we may still be in it. In the depth of our life there may persist a kind of “depressed I”, ready to peep out as soon as things do not go the right way.  After all, Bernanos says, hope is born at the same spot where desperation could be born. Indeed, it comes from the same intra-psychic depths, which means that even the hopeful types of persons, in spite of their positive and optimistic attitudes, have somehow felt, at least for an instant, the spectre of their contrary, desperation. How could one who has never shed a tear know and taste the savour of joy?

With this he wants to say that we are not speaking of some clinic cases, or at least not only of them, but rather of something that belongs to us and lives within us and that in someone at times emerges with particular evidence and suffering.

With this short reflection, we would like to see the meaning depression may assume in a convent (mainly feminine one) and then, more as a proposal, we shall identify some attitudes to be avoided and others to be practised, in order to help the depressed person to live its depression as best as possible. 

Sr. Depressed

Let us start with a descriptive definition of the phenomenon. “The depressed person –in a diversified way, according to stages- is generally characterised by a deep interior suffering, by attitudes of apathy, scarce trust in itself and in life, sense of inadequacy and guilt, failure and obscure future; a clinging on self, a sense of being abandoned even by God”, 2 to the extent of feeling life as unbearable and senseless. 3

More synthetically, we could reduce the constitutive elements of depression and its roots to three of them: -the feeling of not being lovable – of not being made to be loved – the conviction that existence is devoid of sense.

These three elements are strictly linked among them, since the first two of them cause the third one. It is important to underline this because it makes us to understand the fundamentally relational and emotive nature of depression. In other words, relation is the dimension in which depression is born, 4 and the emotive-affective sphere is the prevalent area in which it is manifested.  In fact, depression is a problem of humour, not of the thought (like other syndromes, for instance schizophrenia). Therefore, if Sr. Depressed tends to isolate herself and to refuse any relation, in reality she needs relations most. Perhaps she is just verifying if truly there is no one to take care of her.

It is a datus of fact that women are doubly affected by depression if compared with men, perhaps because of the particular meaning, with consequent high emotive investment, that relation has for the feminine psychology. This tells us that the phenomenon can be present also in convents, rather somebody says that today the feminine religious depression is on the increase.

How to help these persons?  

He who enjoys the gift of faith should have a further arm to get rid of this situation.

 The co-sisters of Sr. Depressed

We have said that depression is a relational problem; therefore its therapy must be linked to relation. Obviously, this is true without excluding, for serious clinical cases, medical treatment and psychotherapy (which is itself a relational phenomenon).  

 This is why now our attention passes from Sr. Depressed to those who live at her side. A certain kind of presence is fundamental to help the depressed. It is even more fundamental that those who choose to live close to her may understand the role they play in this work, feeling the extent of their fraternal responsibility. As we have already underlined above, they must remember that nobody is immune of this problem. If this is true, the relation with the depressed reveals the relation each has with one’s own “depressed I” and with the recurring sensations of not feeling lovable, even before God. Before a depressed person we ourselves become poor because in reality we feel to be before our own poverty. 5

First we shall see what we should not do, then the positive aspect.

Attitudes to be avoided

There is a series of prejudices against these persons or against the syndrome itself. They are not helpful at all for the community to face the problem, or for the sister to solve it.

«She does it only to be the centre of attention, but I do not give in”. It is always dangerous to act as psychologists with banal interpretations taken for granted, even worse presuming to judge, assuming the role of severe and rigorous judges. It is true that the problem of the depressed is a sort of self-centred reality, but it is a quite different thing to read it as a compulsive need, before which Sr. Depressed is relatively powerless and of which she is often not even aware; or like a trick into which I, an intelligent person without problems, avoid to fall. In the first case a certain merciful understanding is created ipso facto, in the second the presuming judgement worsens the situation.

«It is you that have put certain ideas in your head. Chase them away like temptations”. These are several errors at a stretch. The first is that of sending a message that increases the feeling of guilt and the negative perception the depressed person already nurtures in itself; the second is the will of exercising an influence solely on the will, just as if it were so easy to turn upside down a situation that the person keeps carrying with itself for a long time; it is wrong also to make the person understand that it is just her own idea. In fact, it is true that the depressed person distorts the reality, yet nobody can deny this feeling in a person who does not feel loved. The states of soul are not either false or true, they are there and that is all. Finally, the reference to the temptations is also not admissible because it increases the sensation of being far from God.

«I also have felt depressed but have reacted. Come on, try and help yourself”. To say this (or to think of it, there is not too much of a difference) is the same as saying: “I am cleverer than you”, or it is as if we pushed Sr. Depressed even more into the abyss of feeling her nothingness, with the usual voluntary reminder, which increases frustration. At times just these messages, (however they are sent) determine anger in the depressed person, not so much against the one who speaks like this, the ever winning brave one, but against himself, above all with dangerous results.

«Poor thing, I pity her! She needs a warm and intimate friendship”. The enthusiasm and good intention are admirable, but we must pay attention to two things. First, the real motivation that urges to go towards the sister: is it her dignity or only because I pity her? Our help is true only if it is sincere, if it is urged by appreciation of the other; compassion does not cause others to grow, just because it does not transmit appreciation, a thing which the depressed person needs most.

Moreover, we must understand that depression acts as a barrier against intimate communication, for which Sr. Depressed is unable to answer this super-friendship, feeling it to be excessive, just as if it asked of her anything she is unable to give. It follows that, either she refuses it by isolating herself, or, on the contrary, she starts depending on it.

«She is not happy with us. Let us try to make her change community”. Thus, we unload ourselves of further responsibility! Unless there is a causal relation between depression and environment, it is wiser to let her stay in the same environment, even if she herself asks to be transferred, a thing that would provoke further stress and instability. When the feelings are fragile and the critical capacity is weakened, it is not advisable to plan changes of life or place.

«There is nothing we can do because she is neurotic”. Certain behaviours (isolation, muteness, refusal to eat…), during depressive crises, may make us think of a neurotic problem, but this is not always the case. These messages are to be deciphered and to be given adequate answers. This is not always so very easy.

Finally, to target a sister as a neurotic person, could be a cunning way for not feeling responsible before her.

«If we keep on being joyful, she will forget everything and will rejoice”. What a blessing would be to see that raising the tone of a community causes the solution of depressions! True, at time the depression of one person (the psychologically weakest one), results in the sadness of all the others, or the consequence of a scarce evangelical joy in the fraternity. However, giving orders to be joyful does not solve all the problems: nothing is more inauthentic than artificial joy! Anyhow, though the end is good, invitation to joy could increase in Sr. Depressed the sensation of not being understood, or almost of being mocked.

Attitudes to be set in action

Let us now indicate some positive attitudes that could help us to live depression well, within the limits of possibility, without pretending to solve it or turning into improvised therapeutics, but with the intention of accompanying Sr. Depressed towards the discovery that this is not her real, true name.

We must try to know the symptoms as soon as possible. Here also we apply the principle of a preventive medicine, the sooner we experience a certain fatigue of living, and the better it is. Which are its symptoms? Uneasiness, tendency to isolation, general frustration, diffused sadness (without reason), dumbness, general anaemia, suspiciousness, insomnia, lack of appetite… It is more important that the person itself gradually comes to admit its interior state, in a moment when it can still do something before falling into full depression. The human relation with the person is decisive, because it offers the possibility of making a triple experience: self-esteem in its own amiability, self-acceptance also in its own non-amiability and the responsibility it has to shoulder,  in order to give sense to life. This is the above-mentioned triad therapy of depression, answering the mentioned three constitutive elements: the feeling unloved and non-lovable and the sensation that life has no sense.  

We have to resist the fleeing away and decide to stay near the person. To ignore the problem and the person is a big temptation, with a thousand alibi (“it causes anguish in me”, “it pertains to the superior”, “to pay attention to her is worse”…) effectively, to play or not to play the complex relation game, which active depression activates, is always a highly committed choice. Just because of this, it must be felt as a free and responsible choice, a kind of voluntary action within the religious community, as a decision of staying near Sr. Depressed, without presuming to understand or to solve soon everything, rather with the intelligent availability to invent afresh the relation with a person we presume to know well.  

We are to accept the confrontation with our own depression. This is the neuralgic and true motive of the fleeing temptation, as already mentioned: the contact with the depression of others unavoidably re-awakens that of our “depressed I”, or with the part of our I that does not feel lovable. This conflict, then, is a precious opportunity to account for ourselves, and could offer the non-expected discovery of finding some not fully known aspect of self, which emerges strongly and clearly in the tentative of helping others. 6

For instance, it could help me to discover on what is my amiability founded (or my self-esteem),. or –even more  important- it could reveal to me whether I have made the experience of being loved in my amiability, but also in my non amiability, which is a fundamental experience for a Christian. .

We are to offer our appreciation (or make the person discover its amiability). The appreciation (we must activate) is the first of the therapeutic triad. If depression is born in the relation and because of some relation, also the therapy will have to be relational, of a true human relation, in which Sr. Depressed might recuperate or correct first of ll the perception of her amiability, which she has been doubting of.

The fundamental condition, therefore, will be that he who stays near the depressed person does not pretend to love, or does not love because of compassion or of feeling virtuous, but uniquely because of the dignity of the other, because the other deserves it and it is right to act so, because in Sr. Depressed there is such an objective amiability as it cannot be scratched by nothing and nobody, by no sin and no condemnation. In fact, esteem is the utmost sign of love: it is its unavoidable consequence, but also its implacable verification. If in a relation there is no esteem, there cannot be love, there can be compassion, which does not come from love and does not communicate esteem. This will be even truer for a depressed person who already feels negative and reveals a vital need of esteem

It is obvious that we have arguments to convince Sr. Depressed that she is lovable, but we can give her only the possibility of making a real and concrete experience in the relation that we offer her to live, so that even through it she may discover her radical amiability. This is like a scar of divine origin and the foundation of self-esteem. Sr. Depressed will soon catch the sincerity of the one who nears her, while she would shut up like a hedgehog before approaches that are not born from esteem or do not give her esteem.

We are to love the person “in its amiability”. With the strength of his experience, J. Vanier recommends: “We must love the persons in their depression. This is the best way of helping them to get rid of it” 7 To love them in their depression is not a generic invitation to do something good for the person, but to offer the experience of being loved even in their non amiability, a thing that is fundamental for every human being, which means to love beyond one’s own merit and rights. We have seen that a depressed person feels non-lovable. In reality, this is normal; everyone is non-lovable under certain aspects: it is useless to hide this negative zone present in all of us. It is even more useless and false to tell a depressed person that there is nothing non-lovable in him/her. However, it is possible to love him/her all the same, and this is what we must invest upon in our relation: we must lead him/her to the experience of being liked even in his/her non-amiability, beyond merits, beyond every possible expectation, even where there is weakness and incoherence. This is possible because it is the very way God loves us, because it is the typical Christian experience, which ultimately allows each one to accept oneself.  

The ambiguity of Sr. Depressed, in fact, perhaps favoured by a certain false and poor, somehow meritocratic and narcissistic spirituality, is that of feeling to be queer, poorly endowed, of no value(especially if compared with the others). Thus, she does not accept herself; she is in a perennial struggle with herself, not loveable, therefore, just a wreck. It would be senseless and frustrating, at this point, to insist on telling her that she must accept herself. It would have non sense, first because this type of order must not be given, second because acceptance would be possible only if Another Person enters the scene: the Other, the You of God. At psychological level a man is ready to accept himself only when he is accepted by another; now, only God can guarantee a total and unconditional acceptance, therefore the other can be God alone. Only the man who looks at himself with the eyes of God can finish by accepting himself, because only the Creator can look with radically benevolent eyes at man, his creature, welcoming him in his limits and never allowing his weakness to obscure his radical beauty.

This truth of faith becomes experience for Sr. Depressed, it becomes a lived truth in the glance and proximity, in the gesture and word of the sisters who has chosen to be by her. It is as if her eyes, hands, heart and mouth were the eyes, the hands, the heart and the mouth of the Eternal Beloved One.

We have to promote our sense of responsibility and give sense to life. At this point it is possible to answer also the third symptom or constitutive element of depression, namely the feeling of the non sense of life. Where can this inversion of sense come from?

It can come from the quality of the relational experience, particularly from the truth of the human affection, which is at its centre and which man gradually discovers within his life, his history, in the persons at his side, starting from his parents, despite  the many unavoidable limitations which accompany every existential human event. It is as if the affection transmitted to Sr. Depressed in her relation with the sisters at her side unblocked her perceptive capacity, finally consenting her to see the love she has already received in her history, and to discover the intensity of this love, feeling moved before it. Anyhow, love alone can discover love, freeing memory from the virus.

The new sense of life and of what appeared meaningless, or of what was felt as a burden or even as injustice flows from here. If it is rue that nothing renders us responsible as love does, the discovery of receiving love in abundance makes the sister feel her responsibility for life, for the received love and for others, giving love to them, mainly to those who, like her, suffer the temptation of not feeling loved.

The moment Sr. Depressed starts catching this connection of meanings between the received love and her responsibility for life, she feels healed from depression. Perhaps this will make life more complicated, but in a constructive sense, it will be open to the future. In fact, the depressed man at times is one who weeps on himself and his own history, since he actually feels unloved. He “unconsciously” knows (no contradiction: it is possible) that to admit of having received love means to start being responsible of this love, therefore trying her best to return this love. However this is felt as very much difficult and frightens her. This is why she prefers not to recognise the received love and to cry on herself.

To favour her setting free from ambiguity means to give return life to her, putting her in the condition of giving sense to her life, to re-open her way towards the future.

Now, if to be near a depressed man means to make an account with one’s own depression, whenever we are on this journey it is not only Sr. Depressed that learns how to smile at life, but also he who accompanies her and also her entire community. All together praise the Lord who fills my youth with joy!  

Salesian Pontifical University
Via S. Bakhita, 1 - 37030 Poiano (Verona)