“The Illness that Dare Not Speak Its Name”: An Auto-Ethnographic Approach to Understanding Adult Learning in and on Clinical Depression

“The Illness that Dare Not Speak Its Name”: An Auto-Ethnographic Approach to Understanding Adult Learning in and on Clinical Depression

Stephen D. Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6260-5.ch001
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Abstract

Depression is something variously estimated to afflict between 5 and 10% of the North American adult population at any particular time. As such, it represents a major community health issue. This chapter uses an auto-ethnographic approach to analyze the adult learning tasks associated with dealing with depression. After situating his own experience as a person who suffers from depression, the author uses his narrative to analyze four learning tasks: learning to overcome shame, learning to engage in ideological detoxification, learning to normalize despair, and learning to calibrate treatment. Central to each of these tasks is the act of public disclosure. The chapter ends by suggesting directions for future research in this neglected area of adult education.
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Defining Depression

Depression is not just feeling sad at the loss of a loved one, being devastated by a marriage break-up or experiencing a loss of identity after being fired. Neither is it feeling trapped by winter in Northern climes with the resultant lack of natural light or sun. All these things are traumatic and distressing, and any of them may trigger a depressive episode, but all are traceable to a specific root cause. In this chapter I am defining depression as the persistent feeling of complete worthlessness and hopelessness, often accompanied by the overwhelming anxiety that this hour, this day, or this week, will be your last on earth. This kind of depression has no clearly identifiable social cause such as death, divorce, or economic crisis; instead it settles on you uninvited and often completely unexpected and permeates your soul, flesh and bone.

Winston Churchill described his own depression as the black dog that prowled constantly on the edge of his consciousness. He never knew when the black dog would appear, but it became an almost constant companion – just as the presence of a dog that is a family pet is woven into the fabric of your daily life. Clinical depression is like that – quotidian, everyday, the first thing you’re aware of as you open your eyes, and the last thing you think about as you drift off to sleep (if you’re lucky enough to be able to sleep). Its very familiarity and its relentless presence is itself terrifying suggesting that it will always dog you (pun intended). I can speak with experiential authority about this as someone who suffers from depression and who has spent over a decade experimenting with how to function with this condition as part of my everyday life.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Depression: A persistent feeling of complete worthlessness and hopelessness, often accompanied by the overwhelming anxiety that this hour, this day, or this week, will be your last on earth.

Paradigmatic Assumption: An assumption that is so foundational that it is particularly hard to uncover and even harder to challenge.

Adult Education: The planned fostering of learning about depression that includes program design, pedagogy and evaluation of learning.

Disclosure: The methodology of using narrative disclosure of a teacher’s own struggles with depression as a teaching approach.

Adult Learning: The process by which adults learn to understand depression as a problem of brain chemistry rather than a personality flaw.

Scholarly Personal Narrative: A form of dissertation that centers the personal narrative of the writer but that moves in and out of theoretical reflection.

Etiology: The medical causation of a particular condition, in this case depression.

Critical Reflection: The intentional attempt to uncover assumptions that guide actions by viewing one’s practice through the lenses of autobiographical experience, students’ eyes, colleagues’ perceptions and theory.

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