On Despair

I wrote the following about a week ago. I was feeling really depressed, and I wanted to get some thoughts out while I was in that state. It didn’t go far:

There’s something that a lot of people don’t understand about depression. It’s not about feeling sad. Sadness is okay. Sadness and happiness are like your left and right hand, each equal in dignity, each wonderful in its own clumsy, apeish way.

It’s not grief. Grief is an expression of joy turned on its head, a recognition of the ripple left in the world by a beloved person or thing. Anger is passion denied, hatred is love forsworn. The line between these concepts is so thin as to be imaginary, a product of our lack of self-knowledge.

So what is depression? Sadness, you see, would be too kind. Sadness would mean wistfulness, a longing for things lost and for things never to be. Sadness is a comfort that we create in the lulls between ecstasy, a burial shroud meant to be folded and kept with our other treasures. When we are sad, when we grieve, it’s the moment our feet touch the ground between leaps.

Depression is about despair. Where sadness surrounds itself with symbolism and reason and comfort, despair sits alone. Despair is a lack, a sucking void in the fabric of ideas that defies our attempts to make it meaningful or useful.

Holy Shit, Depressed Ian

I honestly can’t identify with the person who wrote that, because his brain and my brain seem like different species. If our brains tried to interbreed the result would be an infertile monster.

So here I sit, sensitive psychology guy, admitting that I don’t “get” depression. Except when I’m waist-deep in it. What does that say about the nature of depression itself?

Depression, Sadness, and Despair

I know that I don’t need to tell you this, dear reader, but depression and sadness are two different animals (see my other article “Mentally Ill in the First World” for more of my thoughts on this). While sadness is often a prominent feature of depression, sometimes the two don’t even breeze past each other in the hallway. I’d say that my last bout was completely sadness-free.

Depression is about a lack. If I’m depressed, I don’t have a permanent frown.

Photo credit: Melissa Wiese via Flickr

If I’m depressed, I have nothing-face. My brow is unfurrowed, my cheeks show nary a line. I’m not slack-jawed or grimacing. There is just a profound lack of anything in my face other than this strange look of privation in my eyes.

In psychology, nothing-face is called flat affect, a marked lack of emotional display. Very common in depression, schizophrenia, and a couple of other unpleasant conditions. Flat affect is common in people who have receded in on themselves, reflexively feeling nothing rather than allowing the sheer bleakness of it all to overwhelm them.

It’s the face of despair.

The Upshot?

I don’t have a moral for this one. No great explanation for “why despair?” or what to do about it. Just an observation, one that I plan to explore as time goes on and I, inevitably, find myself in the depths again. It must serve a purpose. I said above that it defies meaning, but I’m not quite sure I believe that. Feel free to speculate below. If you need a pick-me-up, check out this video of birds playing an electric guitar:

One of those little guys really shreds.

8 thoughts on “On Despair

  1. Ian – I commented over on your last blog post about a book by Richard Carlson entitled “You Can Feel Good Again.” (Lame title, great content).

    I have struggled with anxiety and its cousin depression for many years. I think living in the first world makes the struggle even more shaming. I can remember thinking that I have a great job, a great husband, happy kids, and plenty of money so what am I so depressed about?!? I just didn’t care about anything. Took my doctor recommending medication to help me feel better.

    But the medication did only so much. I have benefited from yoga, mindfulness practices, relaxation, exercise, etc. but it was only when I learned that I am not my thoughts, that I began to feel much better. I was helped by several books by Eckhart Tolle, by “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and then I happened upon the book mentioned above.

    It is my brain that is the problem. It keeps generating depressing, anxious thoughts. Then it generates all kinds of options to explain how I can do better or ideas about how my life can just go down the toilet. Take your choice. The cool thing is, I do not have to pay attention to any of those thoughts. It is just the brain doing what it does, sort of like my heart doing what it does or my appendix doing whatever it does. I am the observer of my thoughts but I am not the generator of my thoughts, unless I am actually trying to think about something I need to do, like type this reply.

    I admit I often fall back in the habit of thinking I am my thoughts. That’s often when despair sets in. But now I have figured out that I have a choice. Before, I never knew I did. Any how depressing is that!

  2. “No light, no dark, no up, no down. No life. No time. Without end. My people called it The Void. The Eternals called it The Howling. But some people call it Hell.” If you’ll allow me a Doctor Who reference….I think it speaks volumns about what full blown depression is like. When we lose interest we lose everything. We become empty vessels. This is why there is no expression. Sadness is better because it means there is still an interest in the thing that makes you sad. With the void you lose the ability to care whether you are happy or sad. One helpful thing to try to remember is that the void is the in between. It is possible to get back into life. Sometimes it take more time than others. Sometimes it takes a little bit of help from a professional, friend, and/or med. Sometimes it’s like that pain cycle we discussed. You remind yourself that this too will pass and you ride it out.

    I read a quote from Georgia O’Keefe recently that really resonated with me.
    Think you might like it.

    “I do not like the idea of happiness – it is too momentary – I would say that I was always busy and interested in something – interest has more meaning to me than the idea of happiness.”

    1. That Doctor Who quote is totally metal, and really fits. I agree about keeping the cycle in mind when you’re in that low place. It’s become an article of faith to me that the low points will pass and that I’ll get to experience happiness (and interest!) again soon. Always been the case so far 🙂

  3. It’s interesting because for a long time my depression didn’t resemble the quintessential flatness. That combined with being told that my behaviour was wrong for depression meant I felt horrendous and like I wasn’t depressed so I was just… a failure? For a long time.

    Now I am a degree of separation from those feelings I can see that actually I very much was in a space of dimmed emotions and my anger and grief was me fighting back. It felt like I felt grief most of the time because that is what is cemented in my memory.

    I also got more flat in more recent years and I remember a spark of good feeling because my depression now resembled the social narrative. Wonderful.

    I’m glad you are not feeling that right now. Though it was very pretty – yay mental illness and the brooding artist.

    1. Haha, thank you for thinking it was pretty. Looking back, I kind of do too. No reason to feel embarrassed when nothing much matters, so you might as well let your prose get crazy florid.

      Also, thanks for the perspective on telling people what depression “is”… truth be told, it has a very heterogeneous presentation, and can be characterized by any number of manifestations of negative affect. I’m betting there are people whose depression is a morass of homesickness, or pining, or jealousy.

      1. Yes indeedily. I’m sure there is a certain amount of feeling dead inside that is gonna happen, but there is certainly a romanticisation of the stoic artistic depressive that is not extended to the hopeless sobbing person struggling to get to work every day of every week of every month.

  4. In what is called depression, your deeper states of being are trying to communicate with your more alert states of being. They are reaching up for something, shouting up the very dark, deep well of the psyche to be heard. So what are they saying? We don’t get clear words, or even clear concepts. It just comes through as a feeling, hard and unyielding. We tell ourselves that our minds have just changed their chemical signals, like a car that spontaneously breaks down. (Oops.) In reality, our deeper (or higher) selves are communicating with us the only way they know how– because we have long stopped listening to them.

    If you want to decode that message, you need to be open to discovering things that might, temporarily, lead to even more pain. But it’s best, overall, to stop thinking about it in terms of pain management. Philosophically, spiritually, humanistically, whatever, we need to decide if we think there is a principle inside us, a seed, that deserves nurturing. It’s easy to dismiss that as a non-starter or a hopeless question, but consider what the alternative means. If there is no precious seed, then we don’t belong to ourselves, really. Selfhood, or selfness, is meaningless. In that case, we really belong to something else, and all our thoughts and feelings do, too. We are like leaves in the wind. And if we don’t like what the wind does to us, or we begin to sense that something is wrong, we are powerless to do anything about it. In fact, it isn’t even really our problem to solve. We didn’t design this game of life, and we are unable to take ownership for it. So, we are blind, rudderless, and impotent.

    On the other hand, when you see that there’s a choice, you accept the possibility that your deeper thoughts might have meaning. Maybe not that they’re equally clear of valid, but that they are at the very least signposts, coded messages from a beyond. Maybe this starts to sound like a religious teaching. Maybe you don’t know anymore what’s your own thought and what’s society’s imprinting on you. That’s okay. You do know, however, that there’s a collision between these two worlds, the spinning kaleidoscope “out there”, and the even more mysterious one “in here”. A part of you wants the rest of you to know that these questions are worth asking. That’s why, as strange as it sounds, depression is really about communicating. “I’m sad about my spouse”, “I’m sad about my job”– these are all problems that can start the cycle. But as you know, it’s much more than being sad. Your depression is your own attempt at communication with a brain that has allowed itself to become limited. That creates conflict, and conflict creates despair. “What the hell do I do about this??!!” At some point, you have to choose. Either go towards the muffled cry or walk away from it.

    Is your depression a broken carburetor? Or did your car break because it’s really a plane?

  5. My motto is if you haven’t written everything don’t stop writing!!!! It creates quite an eternal struggle for myself… I may never stop writing. Where is your book I can buy?

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