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The secret cause of depression and addiction

Reading time: 12 minutes

WDDTY publisher Bryan Hubbard suffered chronic depression for years. Here is his account of it and the discoveries he made, which cast new light on one cause of the problem

I reversed my chronic depression

by understanding what was going on and why I suffered it, on and off, for more than 10 years. In the process, I also discovered that the cause of my depression-and, I believe, that of countless other people’s-isn’t acknowledged or even recognized.

As I write this, the suicide of Hollywood comic Robin Williams is making the headlines. The question everyone asks is: why? Why should someone with fame, adulation, enormous wealth, a beautiful California home and a glamorous wife want to end it all? I wouldn’t presume to answer that categorically-people are far too complex for that-but I do have some inkling of what he was going through and why people who have ‘everything’ still commit suicide or become addicts.

Depression and addiction are two of the most common afflictions today, and yet, we know so little about them. Millions of us routinely take an antidepressant just to get through the day, and many millions more of us have some addiction-whether to alcohol, smoking, gambling, drugs or pornography-yet we aren’t entirely sure what causes these problems.

The prevailing view is that they have a materialistic origin: there’s a chemical imbalance in the brain or something ‘wrong’ with the way the brain’s three areas communicate with each other. With depression, there are also the very human reasons of loss, tragedy and heartache that can spark depressive episodes, while a chemical addiction often accompanies substance abuse.

While all of this is undoubtedly true, the theory still doesn’t explain the processes that are taking place. What is it about a thought or memory-such as the death of a loved one-that can cause feelings of deep depression? Clearly, they’re not ‘just’ thoughts or memories; they seem to have an energy to them that can change mood and change ‘you’. And, with addiction, why did the addict become one in the first place?

The common cause

Having struggled with chronic depression for years, I believe there is a common root cause to depression and addiction and, although I accept it’s not the only cause, it is one that’s not acknowledged by medicine and psychology. Essentially, it is a deep-seated belief that life could, and should, be better than it is. This profound dissatisfaction has a metaphysical element to it, and buying a new car or having lots of money in the bank just isn’t going to shake that feeling, as was the case with Robin Williams.

As such, both these conditions are manifestations of a spiritual crisis.

To have these feelings, the addict and the depressed person must have known a time-and it can be a very brief time-when they experienced an ecstatic moment, as I call it, a feeling of being ‘at one’ with the world, or an overwhelming sense of joy, bliss or deep happiness. Psychologists call them ‘oceanic feelings’.

These feelings are most frequently felt by us as
small children and become increasingly rare as we get older-as Wordsworth put it, when the world gets too much with us.

For most of us, we can accept that is not how the world usually is, but the addict and the depressed person feels too acutely. They find it difficult adjusting to the flat line of experience; the addict seeks to recreate it through the use of drugs or alcohol perhaps, whereas the depressed person is crushed by the dullness of the everyday.

There was no apparent cause to my depression, certainly not according to the accepted medical model of possible causes. I had a wonderful marriage, two daughters of whom I’m deeply proud, a great little publishing business and a lovely home. Yet, despite this material success, a grey fog enveloped me always. I saw little or no point in going on-life had no meaning or value, and I couldn’t find joy in anything.

At one particularly low point, I almost broke down into tears after passing a bridal gown shop: I just felt so sorry for those hopeful young women starting out on new lives with their husbands, so optimistic and full of hopes, plans and dreams.

Who’s depressed?

It was around that time that something in me finally said, ‘Enough’. As a philosophy graduate, my way into the problem of depression was through the wide and perplexing portal of self-identity.

To put it another way: who am I, or what is this that’s depressed? It’s the perennial question that’s kept philosophers busy for more than 2,000 years, and their answers seemed to ricochet between having a soul and just being a ‘smart brain’ in a body.

Modern neuroscience and biology lean towards the smart-brain theory. Essentially, it argues that I’m nothing more or less than a collection of thoughts and memories that will disappear forever on the death of my body. But this didn’t feel right to me; there seemed to be something far richer about us that becomes masked by the torrent of our thoughts.

After all, if I’m nothing more than a series of thoughts, what is suffering from depression? It reminds me of the joke of the old man who says to the Zen master: “If I don’t exist, whose lumbago is this?”

To me, there was something missing in the smart-brain theory, something that failed to capture the richness and complexity of our lives. How could I be nothing and yet still feel that I was somehow more than that? To the smart-brain theorist, my chronic depression could be explained away as a chemical imbalance but, again, this minimized what had happened to me and the countless others experiencing a similar condition. My depression-and I suspect that of many of my fellow sufferers-had an existential element to it. It was a shout against the life we lead, that somehow it should be better than this and no pill was going to change that.

And if my theory that addiction and depression are a spiritual crisis is correct, then the very existence of the addict and the depressive represents a challenge to the rest of us who may consider ourselves to be ‘normal’. But are they less ‘normal’ because they find everyday life grey and uniform and want to have that oceanic feeling again? Why do we have these moments of ‘oneness’
only fleetingly and are unable to experience them all
of the time?

In understanding the spiritual nature of depression and addiction, it’s important to recognize that the past isn’t dead: it continues on within us every day until it overshadows our lives and any sense of wonder we
may have.

An important clue

As suggested earlier, we see this in people who have lost a loved one. The past for them isn’t just a memory; it’s a palpable entity. The idea occurred to me one day when visiting my father. He was in his ninetieth year, yet there was absolutely nothing wrong with him physically. A check-up a few years previously had revealed he had the heart health of someone 20 or 30 years younger. But there he was, on the day I went to see him at his home, lying in bed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Nothing much,” he replied with a shrug, other than that he’d had enough. He’d become tired of life and now he wanted to die, he said. He turned away from me and faced the wall.

Hours later, as I was leaving, I put my head around the bedroom door and gave a tentative goodbye. I had the fleeting thought it would be the last time I’d see him, even though the idea seemed absurd. He wished me well and I left. Three days later my mother telephoned to tell me he had died.

In a sense, he’d wished his own death. There was no post mortem, but had there been one, the cause of death probably would have been something general and vague, and certainly not ‘tired of life’ or ‘had enough’, or even ‘couldn’t stand another day of this’.

If you’re lucky, you’ll die of old age. Doctors, family and friends will all agree that you had a good life. Medicine doesn’t recognize old age as a ca
use of death, even though every day somebody seems to die of it. Certainly, your body gets ‘worn out’, or you lose the zest for life. You’ll have seen much and, like my father, you’ll have felt the enormous weight of past regrets, disappointments and hurts that you’re carrying around.

On the day I visited my father, he was both a body that was talking to me in the bedroom in the present and a past that seemed to inhabit him. In the end, that’s what happens to most of us-the past bears down on us as if it were a separate being until we can’t stand it, not even for one more day.

The past in the present

My personal observations have been supported by many studies in recent years. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, researching how childhood hurts affect us as adults, came to surprising conclusions. The more abuse we suffered as a child-and by abuse, they included any sort of emotional and physical abuse-the shorter our lives. The way our parents treated us when we were children determines how long we’ll live.

The research team drew up a list of 18 possible abuses, which they called ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs):

1 The parent swore at or insulted the child

2 The parent acted in a way that made the child fearful of physical harm

3 A parent often slapped, pushed or grabbed the child

4 A parent often hit a child so hard that there were marks or injuries

5 A parent touched or fondled the child

6 A parent wanted the child to touch them in a sexual way

7 A parent attempted some form of sexual intercourse with the child

8 A parent succeeded in having sexual intercourse with the child

9 A parent had a drink or substance-abuse problem

10 A parent used street drugs

11 A parent was depressed or mentally ill

12 A parent attempted suicide

13 The mother was sometimes pushed or grabbed

14 The mother was kicked, bitten or hit with a fist

15 The mother was repeatedly hit

16 The mother was threatened with a knife or gun

17 A parent went to prison

18 The parents were separated or divorced.

In their sample population, approximately 12,000 of the more than 17,000 participants recorded at least one ACE from their childhood. Probably most of us would do the same. How many times did your parents insult you in some way when you were little? How many times did they belittle you or tell you that you weren’t good enough?

As you’ll see, we carry those hurts with us for all our days and, eventually, they could even kill us. As the researchers discovered, those participants who suffered six or more ACEs as children died 20 years earlier than participants who’d not recorded any ACEs. As David Brown, the project leader, commented: “It’s important to understand that consequences to childhood trauma can extend over an individual’s life.”1

Another study, published the same year, reached a similar conclusion. Researchers from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, tracked the lives of 1,037 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand, from their birth in 1972-1973 into adulthood (age 32). During their first 10 years of life, the researchers noted any adverse experiences the participants might have endured, such as poverty, maltreatment and social isolation.

Those participants who suffered three such adverse events as children were more likely to be currently suffering from depression or inflammatory problems-often a precursor of heart disease, arthritis and the like-or already displayed other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity or abnormal cholesterol levels. In fact, the research team reckons that 31 per cent of all cases of depression and 32 per cent of instances of high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels are the direct result of an unhappy childhood.2

Childhood abuse of any sort brings on a host of physical diseases. Another study, this time of Jews born in Europe after World War II and up to 1989, found that those who were simply aware of the Holocaust-even when they had no direct experience of it-were far more likely to develop cancer than Jews born before the war.3

In yet another study, researchers discovered that people who experienced physical abuse as children run a far greater risk of developing osteoarthritis than those who reported a happy childhood. The lead researcher, Esm’e Fuller-Thomson from Canada’s University of Toronto, said: “This study provides further support for the need to investigate the possible role that childhood abuse plays in the development of chronic disease.”4

If the past is an energetic entity and not merely a bundle of harmless thoughts, it follows that it’s a living thing that can affect you, your thoughts, your health, and even your life and environment.

You are the past

I go further. The past is you and your thoughts. One of the central koans of my theory is: the thought thinks the thinker. It isn’t that you are depressed or addicted, as if there were some space or difference between you and the depression; no, the depression expresses itself through you and, in fact, creates you in the process. The belief that there is a separate and autonomous ‘you’ that suffers depression, anger and the rest is the basis of almost every therapy (see box: The therapy triangle, page 62).

It becomes a vicious circle. The past continues to build as you have more and more experiences that vindicate its ‘world view’ of how life must be. Eventually you become ‘time-heavy’, as I describe it, as happened to my father and the countless millions who suffer from depression or become addicts. Any sense of wellbeing or joy is blotted out by the overarching shadows of the past.

So what’s the way out? We have to tread carefully because there’s a second question that’s equally as important: who’s asking? The desire to be free of depression or addiction comes from the depression or addiction itself, so it’s a continuation of the same problem. Yes, some improvement may be achieved through therapy, but the underlying problem remains. How many times do we see people going in and out of addiction clinics, or seeing therapists for years without ever fully overcoming their problem?

Our strongest ally is consciousness itself, that silent witness to our thoughts or, as the Indian sages put it, the seer behind sight and the listener behind hearing. It’s with us always-whether we are awake and asleep.

It’s an intelligent observer that watches the processes of thought that come from the past and create you. I have prepared 21 daily practices and include several of them here (see boxes: Just looking, page 64, and Thought-watching, above). Seeing is a pure action that dissolves the energy of addiction
and depression.

What’s left is the authentic, natural ‘you’, free of depression or addiction: a spiritual being indeed.

The therapy triangle

Most therapies are based on a triangle: there’s you; there’s your problem, such as anger; and there’s the therapist. The basic assumption underpinning the triangle is that you are an autonomous entity who just happens to have anger issues, and you can control them or even be rid of them, albeit with the help and guidance of the therapist.

But this scenario-and especially the idea of the autonomous you at the com
mand centre-is the reason why therapies often only partially succeed and why, I believe, people keep returning to therapy.

The autonomous self is what creates the anger (or whatever the problem is). As such, any move to be rid of anger comes from anger itself, and so is an extension of the problem.

Only when the triangle is broken down into a straight line-with the problem at one end and the therapist at the other-is there a possibility of real and lasting healing.

Try this exercise: Just looking

None of us looks. We may look to cross the road, or to see what’s on the menu or read our emails, but these are cursory forms of looking, just enough to get the required information. Since the time you were very young, you most likely haven’t really looked at anything purely out of fascination and curiosity.

By really looking, I mean absorbing yourself in something else with no thought of gain or power. Truly looking is the pure, undiluted act of observing without interpreting or imposing concepts. Once your conceptual mind has defined what is being observed, you cease to look. If you really look at a flower, you see the utter mystery of it, and it is indeed mysterious when you get past the shorthand definition of ‘it’s a flower’.

Find time today to look at one flower in your backyard or garden-just one-but really, truly study it. Look at it for minutes, visually devour it, soak it in until the space between you and the flower disappears.

In these moments when time itself seems to freeze, minor miracles may happen. ‘You’, for instance, may disappear for a while into the flower, or the taste of the strawberry in your mouth, and that will be all that’s in the universe for that short time.

Better yet, thoughts of work, the new car and so on will vanish-and you’ll see that you are perfectly at peace in that instant of complete absorption. In that moment, you’ll see with great clarity, not peering through a screen or filter. When you look at that flower, the space between you and it disappears and, with it, all the potential for unhappiness and misery.

Try this exercise: Thought-watching

To understand thoughts-where they come from and what they are-we need to be very still. That stillness happens when you’re conscious, but stillness is like a muscle. It needs to be frequently exercised, or you’ll fall back to sleep and become unconscious again.

While you are still, write down any thoughts and feelings you have or, to be more exact, any thoughts or feelings of which you’re aware.

This will happen after the fact; when you’re thinking, you are the thought, so there isn’t a ‘you’ to observe it! You have many, many thoughts and feelings throughout the day, from ‘I’m hungry’ to ‘I don’t like him’. Don’t worry, you won’t fill the notebook-you won’t be conscious often enough to record every thought and feeling that
you have.

This exercise is immensely subtle. It’s rather like catching wisps of smoke as thoughts and feelings arise.

It’s important not to judge, criticize or condemn-those are also thoughts. It’s not your job to discriminate between thoughts. A thought about God is no better than a thought about a car; it’s just another thought.

Take a notebook to bed with you. Just before sleep is a good time to record your feelings and thoughts. Leave the book by your bedside in case you awake in the night and want to write something down. The more you do this, the more that will happen.

Bryan’s new book, The Untrue Story of You, is now available on Amazon and in bookshops across the UK. See the website for more information and to order the book through Amazon.



Am J Prev Med, 2009; 37: 389-96


Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 2009; 163: 1135-43


J Natl Cancer Inst, 2009; 101: 1489-1500


Arthritis Rheum, 2009; 61: 1554-62

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