The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Healing Power of Community
By William Finger

Commentary November/December 1999

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Virtually all mental health literature now says depression can be managed, if not cured, by medication combined with therapy. As someone who took 10 years to recover from chronic, low-grade depression, I have found that view shortsighted. One blessing of our era is the pharmacological revolution, allowing medications to pinpoint brain chemistry, including the serotonin re-uptake process. But with this blessing comes a narrow view of healing.

Medication can help manage symptoms and provide new energy. Therapy can offer a safe place for talking, grieving, healing, and developing hidden sides of one’s personality. But we need more if what we’re looking for is long-term transformation and behavior change. Depression can be like an old shoe, a familiar place to go during times of stress, life transitions, a particular time of the year, a family dynamic triggered in parenting, empty weekends, Sunday nights facing a new week. 

The support of a community can help people recovering from depression to avoid falling back into old behavior patterns. Several communities helped me recover, including my UU fellowship and the local men’s center. In 1993, about a year after I started taking Prozac, I went on a personal growth retreat designed for men and women and sponsored by the men’s center.

For much of the weekend, the 35 participants worked in small groups of six or seven, which allowed us to address personal issues in some depth. I decided to talk about depression, something I had never before spoken of except with my wife and one or two others. It was a secret I needed to bring out into the open. Sitting in a big room with a fireplace, I began to talk, tentatively, about my feelings. I said I’d been on Prozac for about a year and that things had gotten better. I had more energy at work, cried less often, was more present to my wife and children. But I also had felt a lot of shame about admitting I was depressed by taking the medication.

One of the biggest issues, I added, was that I didn’t actually know what “being depressed” meant. Who was I, really? Was I the person without Prozac or the altered personality with this chemical jump-starting the synapses of my brain? I felt relieved talking about my depression. As the group listened, I felt less isolated. The five others in my group didn’t seem to be judging me. But I wanted to go further. I needed to push this secret side of myself out into the open. It was starting to suffocate me, and I needed air.

I took a walk late that afternoon. Maybe it was the peacefulness of the pine trees, or the nippy air as the sun was going down. 

For some reason—Christians might call it grace—I remembered attending a concert, maybe a decade earlier, by the singer and songwriter Holly Near. Near had been singing increasingly about gay and lesbian issues. Toward the end of the concert, she invited us in the audience to join her in a song that, she explained, would give us a chance to say, “I am gay” out loud. When the line came up, she said, she wanted everyone in the hall to sing it together. That way, nearly 1,000 people would be saying together, “I am gay,” so that people in the hall who actually were gay could give voice to this fundamental part of themselves, perhaps for the first time in their lives, with the safety of 1,000 other people saying the same thing beside them. My wife and I looked at each other, and when the line came around, we sang, “I am gay” along with most of the people in the huge auditorium. 

Racing back to the main lodge as dinner was starting, I told some of my small group about the “I am gay” song, adding that I wanted to do the same thing with a song about depression. When I finished talking, another man in the group said it would help him, too, because he was also taking Prozac. Already, even before we had agreed to perform it, this ritual was helping more than just me. I was convinced, just as Holly Near must have been, that giving voice to one person’s pain in a ritualized and protective way helps the full community—not to mention the person in pain—deepen and grow stronger.

Late the next morning, the retreat was racing toward a close. In one of the few time slots left, we led a short ritual with the full group. Our small group formed a circle surrounded by the others, in a larger circle. It was a clear 
winter day with a brilliant blue sky. The leader of our small group explained the ritual to the large group. We would sing the song through several times and then motion for the whole group to join in, she said. This would give a feeling of safety to anyone who had never spoken about depression or medication out loud. 

While the group leader was giving these instructions, I felt as if everyone could see I was the one with the depression. Though I knew this wasn’t true and that I was safe, I felt my heart pounding as my small group stood in the midday sun and began to sing. “I am depressed, and I’m not alone,” we sang, holding the last syllable. I began to smile with a release of nervous energy and joy. We dropped from a high pitch to a deeper one: “I am on Prozac, there’s no cause for shame.”

After singing the two lines through three times, we gestured for the others to join in. The people in the larger circle started singing, smiling, holding hands, and swaying. I felt less shame. The darkness was beginning to break into rays of color.

That retreat gave a new burst of energy to my recovery. I became more confident in discussing depression and in changing my behavior. And in the years that followed, I continued to draw on communities and ritual expressions in learning to leave the old shoe of depression in the back of the closet. 

William Finger of Raleigh, NC, is working on a book, Recovery: Moving through Depression, which describes his experience in complementing therapy and medication with community support, creativity, mindfulness, and other tools.

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