I have suffered from depression on and off throughout my adult life with varying degrees of intensity, the past four years representing the high-water mark. In this two-part article, I will attempt first of all to delineate as comprehensive a definition of this illness as I can, based on my personal experiences of it, and secondly to make suggestions as to how it may be contained and beaten, once again drawing on my own experiences and work done with various therapists. In so doing I hope to help others who are going through the same or similar pain, and express what I have been obliged by circumstance to cope with. In the latter case I hope this article will benefit loved ones who are sympathetic to my condition, but not fully aware of what it means to suffer from severe depression. I should add that I am only too glad that many of them aren’t – this is not a condition I would wish on my worst enemy, let alone people I care about.
I would like to stress at this point that I am not in any way trying to solicit pity from anyone in writing this. My troubles are my own to contend with; all I seek is to further understanding of this debilitating and destructive illness. If I succeed in doing this and reaching out to others who suffer from depression, I shall consider my time well spent. As such, I would urge anyone reading this article to forward it on to anyone they know who might possibly benefit. My name is of no importance whatsoever; all that counts is the message I seek to impart to anyone wishing to hear it.
Depression is, I believe, commonly viewed as an intense and lasting form of sadness, often not justified by the sufferer’s external circumstances. While this is a handy enough definition by way of a starting point, I feel it falls somewhat short of the mark.
Depression is not merely a feeling; it is a distortion of reality.
Severe clinical depression won’t warp your perception in quite the same way as a full-blown psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia; it works on a far more subtle and insidious level, making it much harder to spot than the more grievous forms of mental illness classified under psychosis. If schizophrenia represents a complete hijacking of cognitive awareness by rogue elements of the mind, depression is more attritional: it creeps up on you gradually over time, infiltrating and corrupting your thought processes. When you are in the throes of depression, when it has had enough time to penetrate your psyche unchecked, you will start to believe things that the healthier you of former times, and loved ones around you, would recognise as patently absurd. But the depressed you will not: the depressed you will implicitly believe your inner demons as they whisper one ‘fact’ to you after the next. These inner voices can vary strikingly in content and subject matter, taking the first, second and sometimes even third person, but they will all share one common theme: they are pronouncing statements hell-bent on making you feel as bad about yourself and your life as possible.
For the chronic depressive, the worst possible interpretation of external events and internal thoughts and feelings will always be sought out, with unerring and unnerving mental dexterity, and believed without question.
You remember that girl you used to work with, the one you had the big crush on but never said anything to because you didn’t want to betray your girlfriend? Well, that was the love of your life – you failed to approach her because you are a rank coward. As a result you will never be happy in love and don’t deserve to be, ever. No one else you ever date will come close – of course you never dated her, but she would have been the best partner you could possibly have had. You have definitively screwed up your love life, for good. You remember that concert you played the other night? The one where everyone applauded and told you how well you played? Of course they didn’t spot the mistakes you made – but you did. In that moment, you exposed yourself for just what you are – a talentless phony with no business being near a stage, pathetically hankering after acclaim you don’t deserve and never will. People who tell you otherwise are either just being nice or are themselves worthless and incapable of judging you correctly. Only somebody who thinks ill of you is worth having their opinion solicited; no one else’s counts. You remember when you fell out with that friend, a few years back? Well, he’s out there now, having a better time than you are – no matter where you go or what you do, you’ll never live life to the full. But he will. You’ll only ever be a pale imitation of him, at best.
Does all of the above sound absurd? Ridiculous? Of course it does. And at various points in my life, when under severe depression, I have thought all of the above things, in some cases repeatedly and obsessively, believing every word without question.
That is what severe clinical depression does to your mind; severe clinical depression is not about seeing things in ‘shades of grey’, severe clinical depression is about seeing things that aren’t there at all. A missed opportunity becomes a monumental failure with lifelong negative ramifications; a bad event turns into a life-shattering trauma from which you will never recover; anything and everything good in your life – friends, partners, talents, achievements, successes – becomes an irrelevant sideshow to the main act you have unconsciously embraced: the tragedy that is now your life, with you in the starring role.
One of the most hurtful and sad things about depression is that it will spur you to make bad life decisions: friends and partners who genuinely care about you will be rejected as either ‘not good enough’ or ‘too good for you’; decent jobs will be thrown aside for much the same ‘reasons’. When you are severely depressed, either nothing is ever good enough, or good enough but more than you deserve; because you are never good enough – your negative feelings about yourself inevitably colour your perception of everything around you. And as you pile one bad decision on top of the other, and the actual quality of your life diminishes and deteriorates, the vicious circle is completed and your self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom realised. Your life actually turns to shit, because you were incapable of seeing it any other way in the first place.
Now you are down, at rock bottom: and yet you feel strangely comfortable. For this is where you belong; a chronic depressive has no business being happy in any case. Careers, partners, friendships, fulfillment of any kind is a chimera, a pathetic illusion not worth pursuing. The depressive always knows better; he or she carries absolute conviction in his or her own opinions, which inevitably amount to this: you are not a happy person, and the truth must always hurt. The world is a bleak and alienating place; your time on it short and futile. Better to drink or drug yourself into an early grave than play along with self-deception like all those contented fools you are forced to rub shoulders with. The depressive is infinitely superior in his or her misery; happiness is for idiots, fuck happiness, you know far better! And the price to be paid for your penetrating ‘insight’ is pain, unrelenting and ceaseless – for are you not the star of your own personal tragedy?
Chronic depression represents the ego unbridled, left to run amok through your mind without restraint. You know best; no one can help you, and anyone who tries to is being obtuse and moronic. The latter-day savant Eckhart Tolle has correctly identified the ego as being the source of such self-inflicted misery, although to my mind his writing is not specific or thorough enough to really help somebody far gone in a state of severe depression. It is not sufficient in such cases, in my considered opinion, merely to ‘watch the thinker’. In severe depressives, the egoic thinker must be challenged, sometimes head on; his usurpation of your mind contested, without respite, without cessation, until that ego is driven far back beyond the borders which it has so brazenly encroached upon.
In my next post, the second part of this article, I will explore this concept in more detail as I attempt to outline some of the techniques and methods I have found useful in my own lifelong struggle against depression.
I don’t know yet if severe depression can be truly definitively beaten; what I do know is that some things work and some things don’t, and that applying a combination of different approaches is, in my opinion, essential to making headway against the illness. Another thing I have learned, which I shall also explore, is that those struggling with depression must also be prepared to accept losses and live to fight another day – not all the battles can be won, but that does not mean the war is necessarily lost.
Because, my fellow depressives and those who care about them, make no mistake: you are at war here, whether you like it or not, against a part of your mind that has turned rogue and is up in arms against the conscious, happy you. As someone who has had his fair share of lost battles, I can testify that the struggle against depression is not for the faint-hearted; but I can also state categorically that escapism – be it into drink, drugs or whatever – will only ever get you so far for so long. At some point we all have to confront our personal demons, and for the clinical depressive these may well be of Satanic proportions. But the fight is worthwhile, and anyone facing down a mental health problem deserves as much praise and patience for their courage and perseverance as any real-life war hero.
I will go into all of the above at greater length in my next post. Until then, stay strong and remember: it’s OK to fall down, as long as you pick yourself up and carry on. Even when every step is painful, there’s always a chance that the next one won’t be, or the next one after that: but you’ll never know unless you keep walking. Sound simplistic and reductionist? Perhaps – however, the logic is irrefutable.