Depression? Or the Onset of Human Transformation?
Part 6 in an exploration of Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
December 17, 2013 - 4:14 pm
Month after month we sat in the doctor’s office, hoping he would give us our life back.
After suffering a pulmonary embolism his doctor could not in good conscience allow my husband to return to work as a police officer. She believed it too dangerous to be on blood thinners in law enforcement, citing the need to avoid blunt trauma at all cost. In her opinion, a profession that required a bulletproof vest as part of the daily uniform was no longer in his best interest.
Regardless, law enforcement was all he knew. After almost two years of recovery, the days seemed to run together and Mike began to spend more and more time in bed.
Concerned his condition had started to return, I mentioned my observation at the next office visit. With a sincere concern, the doctor asked if Mike needed a prescription. Noticing our puzzled expressions, she clarified, and offered an antidepressant.
We both desperately wanted her to write something on that little pad of hers that would make all of our troubles go away. All she had to write was, “Released to return to duty.” He would have been overjoyed.
Returning to the work in which he found meaning and provided for his own family–that is what he desperately needed. That is what the entire family needed.
Would a pill make the situation acceptable?
Frankl recounts the situation of a man that came to him after spending years spent years in analysis. At the root of this man’s issue was the fact that he felt discontented with his work, even though he was successful. A new profession was actually what he needed:
“Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.”
In all fairness, the doctor my husband saw was not equipped to do more than write prescriptions. However, one would have to assume that she saw the onset of his depression as pathological or else a prescription would have been unwarranted, if not unethical. She, as the author puts it, attempted to “bury [her] patient’s existential despair.”
My husband had a close-knit family circle that encouraged him — “pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.” He did, once again find purpose and meaning in his life’s work in another profession.
While this may often be more obvious in men, the thought occurred to me that many young mothers have a hard time finding the meaning amidst dirty diapers and runny noses. Motherhood, while extremely fulfilling, is also just as sacrificial. This is a hard concept to grasp in a culture that values pleasure and ease more than self-sacrifice.
“To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.”
How much of our unhappiness is rooted in temporary circumstances? How much of our depression is not pathological or mental illness but a healthy response to a need to find purpose and meaning?
What if the onset of deep dissatisfaction is a natural mechanism that signals the human need for meaning, growth or change? How differently would we approach our troubles, or encourage others?