Feeling blue? Make like a rock lobster and shed your shell
There’s a video on YouTube you simply must see. Abraham Joshua Twerski is a US rabbi and a psychiatrist specialising in substance abuse. He says the lecture he gives that people most remember is about lobsters and it’s called Responding to Stress.
“I was sitting in the dentist office, and picked up an article ‘How do lobsters grow?’ ” he says. “It points out that a lobster is a soft, mushy animal that lives inside a ridged shell that doesn’t expand. Well, how does it grow? As the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell and produces a new one.
“Eventually that shell becomes very uncomfortable as (the lobster) grows. So it goes back under the rock and the lobster repeats this numerous times. The stimulus to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. Because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable it goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets an (opiate), feels fine. Never casts off its shell. We have to realise that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth. And if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”
It’s a particularly powerful video that went viral among my friends and got many people I know in the psychology and self-help industries talking, as it opens the question for people who suffer depressive conditions or anxiety or grief: at what point do you medicate pain?
For me, as a sufferer of chronic, biological depression, it’s always a tricky question, which is why I seek professional advice when I start to feel myself dropping.
My doctor and I assess the situation based on how many weeks have I felt bad: how bad, the exact nature of the bad. With clinical depression, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to treat, so you have to catch it early.
But I have found it’s worth waiting rather than rushing into action, which might suppress what could be the awakening of a hugely creative time. Some of the greatest songs, books, poems, civilisations have been created out of times of emotional darkness and pain — my idol Leonard Cohen being a perfect example.
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Cohen wrote. The greatest comedy has been written by depressives.
But there is a tipping point and the practice of mindfulness helps me identify exactly what’s going on in the body and when to worry. I look for biological signs of depression as opposed to normal uncomfortable, sad or bad feelings: these for me include sleep and appetite problems; persistent nausea; rapid heart rate; a change in thinking from “can do” (my default drive) to “can’t do’’; disturbance in motor skills: I comically miscalculate distances and drop things easily. My daughter says she can tell I’m becoming depressed by the number of “Oops” that come out of the kitchen.
That’s when I start contemplating my medication and upping my exercise, changing diet, doing all the — act now — things I do to heal. The rest is just a form of the lobster needing to cast off its shell and set its soul free.
I have created some of my best work, done my best thinking and personal growing, from a state of pain or anxiety. Some horrors in the world need us to shed long, heavy tears, and deserve strong feelings like fear and anger to help us protect ourselves. The loss of loved ones or relationships should be honoured by significant periods of grief.
Pathologising pain and negative human emotions isn’t always the answer. When we anaesthetise our inner lobster, we take away its capacity to adapt, create and grow. I thank God for the availability of good mental health meds. But as the rabbi says, there needs to be thoughtful consideration of when to simply spend time under the rock.