Note: I use the word “depressive” in this article to refer to anyone suffering from clinical depression, whether it is diagnosed or not.
Like many depressives, I have a secret. It terrifies me to do this, but I’m going to share that secret with you now.
My secret is that I’m depressive.
Of course, this isn’t news. I’ve been open about my depression since I started teaching in 2005. It’s all over my website.
But you don’t know the whole story. I hid some of it.
And now I’m done hiding.
Why Depressives Hide
First, I need to talk about why I hid in the first place.
Hiding is how depressives survive in this world. It’s not that we’re liars. We’re not. It’s not that we want to hide. We don’t.
We hide because 50% of Americans think that clinical depression is a character flaw rather than an illness.
We hide because, statistically, every other person that we meet thinks that we are weak, not sick.
In other words, half of you probably think that I am weak.
I Am Not Weak
I am depressive, yes, but I am not weak.
Please understand that I am not being arrogant here. Not by a long shot.
Arrogance is actually uncharacteristic of depressives. We put on a good show of normalcy, but underneath, we feel worthless most of the time.
And yet, here I am, saying that I am not weak. This is not arrogance, and it’s not me putting on a show.
This is me being raw and honest.
When I say that I’m not weak, it’s because I’ve learned it the hard way. The battles that I’ve fought, and the scars that I have earned, have forced me to acknowledge my own strength.
Most importantly, if you think that I’m weak, then I’m afraid that you’ll miss my message about depression.
I hope you don’t miss this because you definitely know people who are depressive. And I want you to help them.
Depression is Invisible
I’m certain that you know people who are depressive — friends, family, colleagues. But unless they’ve told you, then you don’t know who they are.
I run a support group for my qigong and tai chi students who are also depressive. Out of curiosity, I asked them how many people had ever witnessed one of their depressive episodes.
For most of them, the answer was 1-5 people. My answer was the same.
Depression is an illness that has shaped, influenced, and scarred me deeply, and yet only a handful of people have ever seen me in an episode.
You may have seen me depressed. That’s what normal people experience. But you haven’t seen me during an episode.
And those episodes are what depression is really about.
Feeling Like A Failure
Since starting this support group for depressives, I’ve learned that some of my students feel guilty that they haven’t yet cured their depression with qigong and tai chi.
As a result, they feel weak. They feel like a failure.
This is heartbreaking for me because I desperately want them to understand that they are not weak.
Some of this misunderstanding is my fault. For years, I spoke about my depression in the past tense. I’ve even been guilty of using the word “cure”.
I simply cannot abide the idea that I might be causing my fellow depressives any additional suffering. I’m here to relieve suffering, not add to it.
And that’s why I’m done hiding.
The Back Story
For those who are new to Flowing Zen, you need to know some of the backstory.
My ex-teacher, Sifu Wong, is all about “curing the incurable” with qigong. It’s his core message, and it should be no surprise that this message sells well. Sick people are desperate to believe in something.
I was one of those people.
This isn’t why I left Sifu Wong. I broke with him in December, 2014 because of a sexual abuse scandal, perpetrated by one of his certified instructors. I believe that Sifu Wong’s behavior was unethical and that his leadership perpetuates an environment where abuse is condoned.
I left because I do not condone abuse. Period.
Distancing myself from his “curing the incurable” message was not my reason for leaving. In fact, I had already been distancing myself from that message for years.
Getting medical training in acupuncture is what first showed me that his message was problematic. “Cure” is a tricky word, not just legally, but psychologically. And when it comes to depressives, the word “cure” can actually do damage.
Setting the Record Straight
Many of my depressive students were also students of Sifu Wong who sided with me during the “divorce”. So it’s understandable that they might still have vestiges of his “cure the incurable” message.
My teaching on this issue changed gradually over time, but I regret that I never made a public statement. I would like to set the record straight now.
To the depressives reading this — If I led you to believe that you had to fully cure your depression in order to be a success, then I’m sorry.
Truly. I apologize from the deepest part of my spirit.
And let me be clear: I am not cured of depression, and I don’t believe that I ever will be.
I’m Not Cured, But I’m Still Alive
Now that I’ve set the record straight, I need to straighten it even further.
Qigong and tai chi haven’t cured my depression, but they saved my life.
These arts are my medicine. They not only saved my life back in my 20s, but have kept me alive — and healthy — into my mid 40s.
When I say that these arts saved my life, I mean it literally, not figuratively. Depression is the 10th leading cause of death in America. It would have killed me had I not found qigong and tai chi.
The Odds are Against Me
Apparently, I have a 99% chance of having another depressive episode in my life.
This is because people who’ve had 3 or more episodes of major depression have a 99% rate of recurrence.
Well shit, I had 3 episodes before I even hit 30! So the odds are definitely against me.
What this statistic doesn’t convey is that depression is highly treatable. A growing body of research shows that mindfulness training is a terrific treatment for depression. (And yes, qigong and tai chi count as mindfulness training.)
When depression is managed well, a recurrence is not such a big deal.
And vice versa — when depression is not managed well, the episodes are a big deal. A huge deal.
Unmanaged depression kills.
I still have episodes, and they suck. But they are manageable, thanks to qigong and tai chi.
Medicine That Works
I believe that talking about “curing” depression only distracts us from a more important conversation. Here’s what we should be talking about, discussing, and celebrating:
When it comes to depression, qigong and tai chi work AT LEAST as well as any medicine or therapy on the planet.
This statement is true for me. It’s true for many of my students. And I believe it could be true for millions of depressives.
The best antidepressant? Qigong and tai chi can compete with that.
The world’s best therapist? Qigong and tai chi can compete with her.
The ultimate, depression-healing environment? Qigong and tai chi can compete with that place.
Sounds pretty good to me!
Isn’t all of this a strong enough selling point? Do we really need to talk about curing depression?
I Am a Success Story
As I said earlier, I need to make it clear that you don’t need to cure depression to be a success.
The same is true for me.
I am still a success story even though I am not cured.
For example, I went over 8 years without a major depressive episode. That is a big deal. That’s a success. A big success.
Instead of feeling like a failure because I had an episode after 8 years, I should feel like a success for having such a good run.
And my good run only ended because of extreme circumstances.
The Year That Could Have Killed Me
Many of you know that 2015 was the year from hell for me and my wife. It wasn’t just stressful: it was the kind of stress that kills people.
Here’s a sampling of some of the major stressors I faced in 2015: Heartbreak over my divorce from Sifu Wong after a 17-year discipleship; hate mail and death threats from Sifu Wong’s followers; a flood in our new house; a cancer scare for my wife; an injury to my psoas muscle that limited my mobility; financial stress connected to leaving Sifu Wong; and the death of my dear, dear grandmother.
And let’s not forget the cumulative stress of running a small business. I’ve been working 60-hour weeks since 2008 to keep the lights on in my studio (and at home). That stress didn’t stop in 2015.
The kind of stress I endured in 2015 was so severe that I know it could spark illness in a normal person.
I am not a normal person. I am a depressive.
The level of stress that I endured in 2015 would have killed many depressives. It certainly would have killed me in 1996, before I learned qigong and tai chi.
And I believe it would have killed me had I not been practicing qigong and tai chi all these years.
Again, let me reiterate that tooting my own horn like this is decidedly uncharacteristic of depressives. I’m mentioning all of this to frame things, and to demonstrate that I am — still — a success story.
In fact, that’s another sign of success – that I can see my own success.
High Functioning Depressive?
“But Sifu, you don’t seem depressive. You get so much done!”
It’s true. I get shit done.
I work like crazy. I’m what is known as a “high-functioning depressive.”
But this term can be misleading.
I am, first and foremost, a depressive. The “high-functioning” part came later, thanks to qigong and tai chi. Before these arts, I was a low-functioning depressive.
My Spiritual Growth
Qigong and tai chi helped me to stay alive, and they also helped me be highly functional.
But these arts also helped me with something far more important.
In spite of my depression — or perhaps even because of it — I have grown spiritually.
It has been said that deep suffering can induce profound spiritual growth. I now know that to be true.
The growth I’ve experienced, especially the last 2 years, is not yet something that I can describe. It’s still too new, too profound. I don’t have the words.
One day, I will write more about it. A book perhaps.
But the important lesson here is this: It was precisely because of qigong and tai chi that I was able to transmute my deep suffering into spiritual growth.
Without these arts, rather than growing spiritually, I would be dead.
I’d say that’s another sign of success, wouldn’t you?
Look, I’m not naive. I know that, in publishing this article, I will lose students.
Some people just don’t want to learn from a person who battles depression.
If that is you, then I wish you well on your journey.
Ironically, I was like that once. I desperately wanted to believe that my teacher, my hero, my leader was perfect. That he was superhuman.
He’s not. He’s human. I learned that the hard way.
Unfortunately, he encourages his students to view him as superhuman.
I won’t do that to my students.
I am not perfect, and I won’t try to hide that fact.
Either I’m enough, warts and all, or you should go find another teacher.
For those who choose to stay with me, I believe it’s important for us to be realistic with our expectations.
Expecting qigong and tai chi to fully and permanently cure clinical depression is setting our expectations too high. We are doomed to failure.
Cure implies 100%. Perfection. And for depressives, perfectionism is the enemy,
But expecting amazing results – results that save lives, results that put many of the orthodox treatments to shame – that’s a realistic expectation.
My mission is to bring these arts into the 21st century.
In these arts, I see an amazing form of medicine, a viable and affordable option for depressives all over the world, a realistic option for relieving the massive health care burden of depression and anxiety, and a way to turn hopelessness into hope.
So let’s stop talking about curing depression, and instead talk about healing from it.
Thanks to these arts, I’m not only alive, but I’ve grown spiritually. I’m also able to help thousands of depressives all around the world to live healthier, happier, and more meaningful lives.
You don’t need to be cured to be successful with these arts.
And neither do I.
Edit: Your response to this article was so heartwarming and inspiring that I created an online course to show you exactly how I beat depression with qigong. Click here to check out the online course. From the heart, Sifu Anthony