My Journey through Depression

My First, Second, and Third Calling

First Wake-Up Call 

When I was in my early twenties, I had the opportunity to explore the west coast of South America with my partner. I was already a young scientist, working on a master’s degree at medical school and devoted to studying nutrition, metabolism, and vegetarian diets. It was a magical trip, traveling thousands of miles in a jeep with the feeling of discovering a new world. Our plan was to visit every country along that coast, traveling as close as possible to the South Pole. We traveled for five months, visiting the most picturesque areas of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. We crossed very dry deserts, such as the Atacama, to reach the green mountains where the Incan civilization developed incredible towns in the area around Machu Picchu. We encountered amazing flora and fauna along the way—llamas, penguins, and more. 

Eventually, after this profound experience of the astounding beauty of nature and the warmth of the local people, our obligations required that we begin our long journey home toward the north. It was time to return to our day-to-day reality. We had driven for weeks, sometimes several hundred miles per day, and we were very much under pressure to return home to face professional, family, and personal commitments. Exhaustion was about to take its toll. 

Toward the end of the journey, while driving in the early morning along a steep mountainside road close to the border between Ecuador and Colombia, I lost control of the car. We tumbled down the mountainside. I have a vague memory of feeling the car turning and seeing bright colors as I caught fleeting glimpses of the beautiful green mountains and blue sky while we twisted in the air. Finally, our tumbling stopped. I don’t know how long we were there, but I do remember that an elder woman dressed in black spotted us and shouted for help to “bring up the bodies.” I knew what it felt like not to be here anymore, between my unresponsive body and a mind trying to understand what we were going through at that shocking moment. I had a vague sense of shapes that were constantly morphing. 

Taken for dead, we were transported to the nearest hospital and transferred to the morgue, until one member of the staff realized that we were both actually alive. The astonishment of the doctors and nurses was only matched by my amazement that, as I
fluctuated between consciousness and unconsciousness, I felt the strong presence of one of the doctors. I recognized her. She was my peer from first-year medical school, and by extraordinary coincidence she was fulfilling part of her internship in that small town. She didn’t recognize me due to my many wounds. 

Eventually I became able to communicate and identify myself. In consideration of the gravity of our injuries, we were transferred to a major hospital. Upon recovering consciousness at the new hospital, I finally understood the seriousness of our condition. As a result of the long period of time between the accident and being transferred to the larger hospital, I had developed a gangrene infection in my broken right arm, which had suffered an open fracture. I also had several contusions on my skull and my dorsal spine, a broken leg, and broken foot bones. The medical recommendation was to amputate my infected right arm. 

I was in my early twenties, and I resisted this. Against considerable pressure from the medical team, I did not consent to proceeding with the amputation. Instead, trusting in my body’s ability to heal such a serious condition, I requested that we take a chance and treat my severe arm infection using plant protocols. This leap of faith was the beginning of something. Between this novel herbal treatment approach and my strong conviction that this was the right route to take, my right arm is still with me, fully functional after all these years. It is a great daily reminder and companion, especially when I practice my regular activities of yoga and swimming. 

It is very difficult to describe the emotional and psychological impacts this experience caused for two young people with so much of our lives still ahead of us. Facing my death brought me an instant sense of clarity and purpose. Our destinies changed completely as a result of the serious damage we suffered. Fortunately, my partner was taken to another hospital, where she recovered fully after some months. However, the confusion and emotions I experienced, including regret and a sense of guilt for losing control of the car, left me under the shadow of depression for years to come. This massive impact that affected me on many levels has been a great and difficult lesson that continues to nourish me and challenge me positively to this very day. 

Learning that I had the strength to stand on my own two feet, trust my decisions, and listen to my heart has been critical in how I’ve made life decisions under stressful circumstances since that car accident. This learning hasn’t reduced the possibility of accidents or mishaps along the way, but it has helped me handle stressful events more effectively. I understood that even as I was aware of immense physical pain, I had the opportunity to participate in managing it with natural protocols—and this proved to be crucial in the years to come.

Learning how to deal with mental, emotional, and spiritual states became the main focus of how I addressed my depression. Of course, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and other medications were enthusiastically offered to me. But on some level I knew it was possible to handle such a difficult condition without depending on these medications, by accepting my condition and connecting with it. For now, that is all I need to share with you here. In the following chapters, I will describe in detail what I did to help my condition improve. 

I knew that accepting medications was the easy option. I also understood that we all can produce our own natural chemicals, internally. I will be sharing medical and scientific information about that process with you, especially as we consider the metabolic modifications associated with the condition of depression. 

Second Wake-Up Call 

Years later, after finishing my master’s degree, I worked as a professor of medical biochemistry at my medical school for a couple of years, and then I moved to France to complete my biomedical PhD and postdoctoral degrees. After completing those obligations, I relocated to London. While teaching medical students and continuing my career as an academic and medical research scientist at Bart’s Hospital Medical School, I received another “gift” by way of life lesson number two. 

Again, this lesson came from a major accident. On a warm spring day, I was happily leaving my office at midday to go to the hospital doctors’ canteen to meet a colleague for lunch. While walking along the crosswalk between the two buildings, one of those traditional London black cabs came flying toward me and swerved with its side door swinging open, catapulting me against stainless-steel scaffolding. I was knocked unconscious for a long period, and I cannot recall the series of events immediately after the accident. 

After recovering consciousness, I found myself in another hospital receiving emergency treatment. There were lesions in my neck and back, just as in my first very serious accident. Gradually I became aware of the seriousness of my injuries. They caused subsequent bifrontal headaches, which a consulting neurologist diagnosed as posttraumatic muscle tension headaches. I started suffering panic attacks, possibly due to cognitive issues, including severe memory loss. I also became unable to communicate properly. I suffered strong neck discomfort and abnormal sensations (dysesthesia) in the right thumb and the index and middle fingers, and I experienced pain from a tear in the supraspinatus muscle, which runs from the shoulder blade to the greater tubercle of the humerus bone.

I was eventually able to walk again, and I visited my doctor to discuss my condition. Based on all my X-rays and CT scans, he was quite concerned about the impact of my injuries, not only physically but mentally. In this respect, I was fortunate to have a doctor who could piece the puzzle together. The MRIs showed serious disc root compression at C3/C4 and C6/C7 of my spine. I was advised to wear a soft neck collar and to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain. In my next visit, about a month later, I reported many symptoms: persistent headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, mood swings, depression, poor concentration, tearfulness, loss of motivation, and becoming withdrawn and subdued. My doctor recommended a session with a consulting psychiatrist. After that session, the psychiatrist recommended that I take Prozac and painkillers (amitriptyline, typically used with depression patients). The psychiatrist said my possibilities for carrying on a normal life had been drastically reduced and I would never be the same again. Further examination revealed significant and surprising cognitive deficits. 

My ego was very much affected by this accident and its aftermath. From the outside, my professional life looked fulfilled and successful. At the same time, I carried within myself a persistent feeling that something important was missing from the mainstream medical approach I and millions of others were using. I saw things from my two perspectives—as a medical scientist and as a patient. Despite all the technological and pharmacological advances available in modern society, something was absent, and I was now experiencing that absence as a patient because of this second accident. My doctors told me my career was coming to an end because I would be unable to perform as before. They also said I might be taking powerful medications for the rest of my days. The idea of depending on such strong drugs for many years to come made me feel even worse. 

Third Wake-Up Call 

In search of alternative approaches to secure my full recovery, I found myself experimenting with various techniques to treat my condition. Among them, I was very impressed with the positive effects of craniosacral therapy, so I decided to integrate it into my daily program of recovery by studying craniosacral therapy in parallel with academic studies of Ayurveda to improve my health. 

Well into my process of recovery, I was invited to practice at the Upledger Institute Clinic in Florida. I traveled to the United States with serious motivations to further understand craniosacral therapy and incorporate the technique into what would become my clinical practice later on. As a result, I took a sabbatical to offer my services full time while in the midst of my own recovery.

One night, while someone was driving me from the clinic to a colleague’s party, we were on the highway when we collided with another car at high speed. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, and I was hit from the side. The impact damaged my door so badly that I had to be very carefully extracted from the car. The airbag—which saved my life—exploded in my face, causing serious facial trauma. 

After the accident I experienced continuous right-arm numbness, wrist pain due to ulnar nerve damage, delay in feeling sensation and movement in my arm and knee due to a kind of fusion with the metallic structure of the door, headaches, soft-tissue pain, dysfunction in the neck, issues with my temporomandibular junction, broken teeth, cracked ribs, knee impairments, a tongue injury, and so on. Once again I was confined to bed for several weeks until I was able to walk with the help of a cane. I had to wear a splint and a Minerva collar 24/7 to control pain and prevent the exacerbation of my injuries. 

Once again, doctors were recommending that I take various drug cocktails to ease my symptoms, but once more I felt the limitations of a medical system that had the goal of obliterating my physical pain rather than focusing on healing my damaged tissues. Not surprisingly, I had a startling recollection of the previous accident some months back, along with visions of the previous eagerly proffered cycle of drug dependency. At this moment I firmly and resolutely chose—again—to take another path. 

You might ask yourself: with such trauma and physical and mental damage, what other pathway could be possible? The answer is contained in this book. I recovered by fully engaging in the academic and practical study of Ayurvedic medicine and integrating into my healing program in parallel with the valuable knowledge and experiences I learned from my career in biomedicine. 

From the beginning of my professional life, my main motivation had always been to comprehend metabolic processes at both the digestive and the mental levels. My primary interest had been the importance of lipids (one of the main constituents of all cells) such as cholesterol—both the “good” and “bad” types—for diet and metabolism, as well as their potential causative role in the development of cardiovascular diseases and related conditions such as obesity, stress, and other metabolic disorders. I was also interested in the role played by neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and acetylcholine. Now imagine my deep dissatisfaction with the mainstream medical system and the way I was participating in it when life kept placing me in situations where I became the patient rather than the medical investigator. 
For some people, one major accident is enough to jolt them into a change of path in an effort to become true to oneself. I am not proud of needing three such shocks to understand the importance of seeking alternatives to mainstream medicine, but eventually I decided to devote all my time to integrating mainstream medicine with alternative, complementary medical modalities. 

Perhaps I needed to confront death several times to understand my ordinary life. I have often considered the aptness of that old saying: “Without death, there is no resurrection.” Someone or something needed to “die” within me so I could explore beyond the conventional scientific box I was in. 

Life generously gave me the opportunity to recover at a time when I’d been spending several years studying Ayurveda in India and other countries. You may ask: why Ayurveda and not some other modality? Well, to answer that I have to go backward. After achieving the highest academic degrees at Sorbonne University in Paris, I took a six-month trip to India. The inspiration for this trip was my father, an admirer of Gandhi and his principles of nonviolence (ahimsa). I was mesmerized by the beauty of the country, the people, the food, and the profound culture. While in India, I witnessed what in the West we would call medical “miracles,” which for me were simply the result of a profound understanding of the body-mind-consciousness connection that allows healing to happen. That is what Ayurveda is all about. As a result of the many such experiences I’ve had, my motto is: 

Ayurveda a day keeps the doctor away! 

That first accident, occurring in my earlier twenties, left me with the impression that I was a drop of water in a flowing river. When that drop reached a point where the waters divided, that powerful situation presented the moment when I really attained adulthood. I have faced my own death three times. Life in its mysterious way offered me a challenge in the face of my mortality and kindly took me into another stream, another way forward. At that moment, my “I” entered the stream that fed into the river of life. 

All rivers seek the same destination: the ocean. I have faith that we can all eventually reach that ocean of inner knowledge. 

My Connection with You 

I faced firsthand the prospect of unending drug dependency, but I took another path. This may not appear to be a pathway open to you, but I believe that with the right guidance, presence of thought, and connecting to the sensation of your body you can reset your entire organism without the need to acquire new dependencies. What I am presenting here is a completely different perspective from what is offered today by so much of mainstream medicine. It is my aim to show you how you can benefit from my many years’ experience of approaching the body-mind-consciousness paradigm as a scientist, patient, and healer. In all humility, I can say I’ve approached this paradigm as a healer because I was the first patient I healed on my journey of discovery. 

The very real body-mind suffering I underwent to avoid drug dependency and to develop inner support helped me build a connection to something deeper within myself, in parallel with the integration of beneficial Eastern practices into my life. Alongside my own evolution, I see how widely yoga, the sister science of Ayurveda, and related health modalities have been fully embraced in our Western lives. I will share with you my forty years of experience combining mainstream medicine and alternative medicine, particularly Ayurvedic medicine and related modalities, with the purpose of showing you how these methods can be integrated into treatment plans for individuals experiencing depression. This book will show you how these techniques work and how to put them into practice. I will use the skills, insights, and scientific rigor gained from many years of conventional medical research to convey an understanding of the validity and cohesion of Ayurveda. 

The framework of Ayurveda allows us to identify our individual constitutions, which permits us to tailor treatments to the individual’s condition and particular state of ill health with the objective of restoring balance. Ayurveda is as useful and valid in addressing ill health today as it was thousands of years ago. Here I will show you how the current biomedical understanding of our remarkably beautiful and complex physiology corresponds with Ayurvedic understanding. Your cells perform millions of metabolic activities per second, although you are not aware of them. My aim throughout this book is to bring you, dear reader, closer to understanding—even if only in an abstract way—how extraordinary the human body is and to help you successfully integrate new components into your daily life and feel the physiological changes within. 

For readers directly confronting depression, anxiety, or dependency, this book presents practical applications and specific protocols of Ayurveda to support and encourage you as you face your challenge. I hope to inspire you to overcome obstacles and deal with issues in a completely new way. For those who may be reading this book on behalf of a family member, partner, or friend who is suffering from some form of depression, I trust you will relay this information and approach to your loved one in their search for help. For any readers who are professionals who work with patients encountering depression, you should find—irrespective of the particular discipline or modality in which you work—that you and your patients can benefit from the ideas and techniques described here. 

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. It is up to each of us to make a choice. 

I still have a scientific and inquisitive mind, actively cultivating its search for knowledge. I also continue as best I can to be connected in a balanced way to my thoughts and feelings. A serious scientist is and always will be a student—always learning. That is what I am and would like to remain. I invite you to keep your eyes, mind, and feelings fully open. From that place we can start our journey together. ◆

from AYURVEDA FOR DEPRESSION: An integrative Approach to Restoring Balance and Reclaiming Your Health by Dr. L. Eduardo Cardona-Sanclemente. Courtesy of North Atlantic Books.