On depression and anxiety and coupling

by Andrea Elizabeth

“Even at prayer, the demons suggest an imaginary need or desire, a feeling of emptiness and/or sense of void for various unlawful things, in reality unattainable, and then stir up remembrance of these fantasies, inciting the nous to pursue them. When such fantasies are momentarily realized, the darkened psyche experiences a fleeting satisfaction, but when the psyche is faced with the transitory nature of these fantasies, it becomes depressed and miserable. Even when the nous is at prayer, the demons attempt to keep filling it with the thoughts of these things, in order to deceive the psyche into believing that fantasies will become permanent satisfactions, thereby destroying the fruitfulness of the nous‘ prayer (St. Evagrius the Solitary, 1981).

“[…] Long and excessive desire for any imaginary need or desire for the sensory brings sorrow to the heart and darkens and disturbs the nous. It banishes pure prayer and all tenderness from the psyche and brings a painful pining or longing in the heart. This leads to measureless hardness and insensibility, and for this reason the demons usually bring depression upon those who have undertaken to lead a spiritual life. For example, ascetics, who attempt to live an angelic life, i.e., a life on a higher plane, are particularly affected by such fantasies as the demons of depression and anxiety often attack them, implanting in their minds an idealized vision of the fulfillment and earthly bliss to be found in the communion with women and/or in the marital state, whe in reality, after the initial excitement of the passions passes, man is left to that which is described by the Holy Apostle Paul as anxiety for the things of this world and great distraction (see 1 Cor. 7) (St. Symeon the New Theologian, 1995).” (Orthodox Interventions, p. 94, 95)

The chapter then goes into what to do about the feelings. But I want to first think about the nature of this fantasy. I believe it is basically the desire to couple with someone or something. They talk about marriage, which is the ultimate permanent coupling, but it can also be the desire for friendship or other family relationships such as exist between a parent and child. Or a desire to possess or control people, animals, or things. The monastic seeks to forsake all these things in order to couple with God. His relationship with people and things thereafter is one of self-emptying, not coupling, except for the direction he gets from his spiritual father.

But what about those in the world? Depression and anxiety certainly affect them too, even if they are married and have best friends. Abuse and neglect were listed in passing earlier in this chapter as contributing factors, along with heredity and chemical imbalance, but the process of the contribution wasn’t mentioned, I suppose because the patristic literature doesn’t talk about it except as it is directed towards lust for women, though I know greed and avarice and gluttony are listed too. Still, there is something about sexual sin that hits us deeper. It is intimately involved with our bodies and our hearts. Food comes close to this relationship, which is why fasting is prescribed.

Romantic fantasies affect married people after a process of complaining about one’s spouse, I suppose. Perhaps one’s complaints are legitimate, which is where forgiveness and humility about one’s own faults fits in, if the spouse doesn’t cross certain lines. Thankfulness is often an antidote for complaining. But hopefully one can also communicate with one’s spouse about things that bother one.

People who marry obviously believe in coupling with another person, and have expectations about what that should be like. We can’t say that all expectations are fantasies. We should be treated and treat others well. The married person believes in two-way relationships, not just one-way kenosis. I suppose depression and anxiety can be symptoms of the line being crossed into fantasy. But what if proper expectations legitimately are not met? This is the case of abuse and neglect, or the death or serious illness of a loved one. I’ll speculate that the person involved in this legitimately disappointing coupling, whether it be between spouses, friends, parents and children, or other partnerships, has to learn to be a monastic. Still, I am thankful for this statement,

“But from depression, wo/man comes to know the fruits of the evil spirit of listlessness, impatience, anger, hatred, contentiousness, despair, sluggishness in praying, etc. (Macarius of Optina, 1995). This can be healed by prayer, hope in God, meditation on Holy Scripture, and living with godly people (St. John Cassian, 1997).” (p. 96)

Thanks for that last acknowledgment.