That's flattened affect for you, when it's at home. Impoverished reaction. I didn't panic because I probably can't at the moment. I am a depressive, standing with my eyes closed while the storm wall of a mood disorder churns slowly by me. But that's okay, no direct hit this time; it's the middle of winter, I know about light levels and seasonal affective disorder, I saw it coming and took some private measures. It'll be back, though.
Depression is a grim and contrary monster, colourless and everywhere, a xenomorph mutating inside its hosts until it enjoys as many forms as they do, tailoring its poison dharma to its vehicles. It shows us the pictures then steals all the words. In attempting to address it you are reminded that it's depressing to discuss; the depressed seldom wish to talk about it anyway (I've been putting this off forever), and when they do, it is usually only to other depressives, who are... ill-equipped to deal with their conclusions. In the nondepressive, it excites pity, rage, suspicion, compassion, denial, disgust, and for very good reasons. Few people have more cause to feel hostility toward those in their care. All this faces anyone attempting to investigate or even define the condition, if it even is a discreet thing in the first place- after going so many rounds with it myself I am still at a loss to draw a line around its shape and consider it contained within a single concept.
What is it, anyway? There seems to be a theory, phenotype and cherry-picked dysplasia for every single depressive on the planet. This sets off my bullshit detector and you really don't have to be a scientist to know one thousand different perfectly plausible explanations do not get us any closer to the useful truth. At least back when it had bat wings you could blame the devil and be done with it. Is depression just a matter of degree? Where does a persistent low mood grade into Major Depressive Disorder/Clinical? When does an accurate perception of, and a melancholic response to the many shitty aspects of existence become mental illness? Why are we so eager to reify the fucking thing into pathology in the first place? Perhaps it is easier to blame the hippocampus than to admit depression is a corollary of that spiraling social/environmental experiment we call modern life. Depression is gauche, after all, a saturnine malcontent, heckling our suave societal consensus- how embarrassing. And how tempting to slap a perjorative label over that cakehole when it barks the same question, over and over; if that precious consensus is so fucking righteous, why the bodycount? Awkward.
What chance do we have against something that evades our best attempts even to generate an accurate and comprehensive description? Sharper tools have tried and, to my eye, failed, and this is possibly half the problem with both determining a cause and tailoring a treatment. In some ways, it hardly matters what depression is. It is legion; modern, historical, ubiquitous and personal, and it has acid for blood.
As for its origins, the classical mind did not hesitate to link depression with both the cultivation of mental capacity and existential inquiry, even if, as an intellectual elite, they were only really concerned with the experiences of their learned peers. They seemed pretty convinced that it was an emotional sequel to the apprehension of truth, implying a causal relationship with intelligence. This is a persuasive premise; in its most egregious avatar, depression is all the worse for being right about so much, locking the world in place and forcing you to crawl over its least welcome details. Having been compelled to eat this dirt for so long myself, I really don't care if vanity assists me toward the classical conclusion- that perception has a price, that Odin gave up an eye and we give up the security of ignorance when we step outside its padded cordon.
Is stupid a happier place?
If only they could say. My partner and I have argued this abstract into the ground and back again, our inquiries hampered, somewhat, by the fact that neither of us possesses the flashest cortex known to man either. If we abolish the distinction between thought and emotion, brutish emerges as a better contender for impunity. Is it better to be brutish? Few would argue that individuals lacking empathy and insight (without which there can be no meaningful intelligence) are less troubled, per se, by the complex fug of elements feeding and comprising depression, but my curiosity flees the scene at this point; I can't embrace the prospect of more morons in my orbit, even for research purposes. If it's shamelessly egotistical to imply that depression arises, at least in part, from intellectual and empathic capital, I'll take that heat. We can at least scrape some dignity from the distinction of having enough moving parts to break down on the highway.
It can be argued that this theory also gets its arse handed to it by the fact that depression often seems to come out of nowhere, in response to no identifiable vector or stimulus; that devastating events will pass without triggering an episode while the condition manifests during minor troubles or even plain sailing, supporting the assertion that depression is pathological. Nutty. But is this really the case? What looks like madness can be a lack of concern for convention and even just personal anachronism. I experienced relief, more than anything, at the death of my father from cancer, which may have seemed callous or fucked up to anyone less acquainted with the suffering entailed in many terminal illnesses. I grieved in the six months before his death, and only became depressed about two years later, which might have looked like an unrelated event. Different things take different lengths of time to percolate through different psyches, and we're not always able or even willing to articulate what might be very good reasons for the state that we're in.
I feel this reluctance to honestly and comprehensively discuss that which affects us most deeply, even in the course of carefully-structured research or therapeutic exchange, lies at the heart of our failures in respect to this condition. Honesty is sometimes impossible; the thorn remains embedded, out of sight but never out of mind.
What is it like to be depressed? I'll attempt to summarize my own experience and a little from my partner's for the benefit of the bewildered, but in doing so will run into another of its nasty paradoxes- the ability to eat your mind for breakfast while entirely defeating your awareness of the process, even in the veteran.
For me, its prodrome or advance can still approach with stealth sometimes. I might catch myself being (even more) negative (than usual) and hear an odd, gratuitous pitch to my own remarks. Lying vacantly in bed and briefly losing track of time in the morning is always a warning sign. Being unable to listen to music because I can't deal with the intrusion. Tuning down to one dull channel. Just not caring. While I can, these days, usually feel these things creeping up, as a teenager I was subject to these portents without the slightest clue of what was coming down the tracks at me. Don't get mad if your teen can't seem to recognize or respond to them. For some people there is no warning at all.
Depression's stealthy, enclosing substance approaches from all directions like a field of monochrome blur, rubbing out the colours and details and relevance from my surroundings, lowering the volume of reality until it is filtering all input, wrapped around my head like clingfilm and suddenly nothing is of value. I exist in a vacuum of depleted air and gnawing cannibal loneliness, and I viscerally hate depression for polluting solitude, for despoiling the great pleasure I have always taken in time spent alone and for making me at once so horribly needy and inconsolable when in its grasp. I hate it for stealing and degrading my sense of self to the point where I lose track of who I was before, and feel as though I will never get it back. I eat but don't really taste or smell. Time is uncoupled from the clock and spills out around you, lying scrambled and incontinent; the day can drag on for a month or be over by the time you've lifted your head from the pillow. (My partner remembers suffering a paralytic aspect far more than I do, and he has virtually hibernated his way through episodes historically.) The smallest incident is conflated into personalized tragedy or universal misfortune. I am personally worthless, my character weak and execrable; physically I am ugly to the point of repugnance, my continued existence supremely pointless. Anyone who says differently is hopelessly mistaken or lying; anything remotely negative is sucked up with a straw and fed to the disfunction. Positive developments are rendered invisible or relentlessly reframed as fraudulent. No one really cares about me- I am a burden on their conscience and if my companions do not concur I will antagonize them sadistically until they probably do. They would be better served by my absence or demise.
In listing these notions I'm reminded that they are always with us, to some degree. Sometimes we are weak, odious, boring and unattractive; to be able to recognize and accept this is necessary for a mature appreciation of ourselves and our environment, but they are usually contained and balanced by competing ideas. Perhaps depression is, in its essence, simply imbalance. So many cultures have historically stressed the importance of spiritual and mental equilibrium. Shit. Maybe they were onto something.
My own experience has given me a scale to work with, and I can only guess that it might be useful to others.
The remaining third is a headlocked inertia, and I've found there's nothing much to do in this state than to survive the running of its course. Interestingly, I overheated in the bath the other day and experienced the same physical sensation of lead-limbed anoxia that I've suffered in this extremis.
I've been this bad maybe three times in my life, and would possibly have been better off committing myself to residential care, if, in New Zealand, that care was always adequate, available and entirely safe for vulnerable women. If I hadn't enjoyed the stability of a committed relationship, I would probably have ended all this badly by now, and we've possibly all known people who've done just that.
Depressing, isn't it?
But from here there are places to go and things to be learned. If an inquiring mind can lead us into depression's labyrinth, it is also our best weapon against the condition. These days, I get to the end of that red line on the graph, I turn around and dig myself out again, because I don't accept that, by now, I should have no insight into or leverage against my own chronic condition. But I didn't learn how to choke it off overnight.
* I'm obviously talking about the willfully stupid here, not anyone suffering cognitive impairment or an unfortunate syndrome.
N E X T: D E P R E S S I O N & S E LF - D E F E N C E.