I’ve attended workshops, the personal development kind, in the past with up to a couple of hundred people in the room.  There were times, lots of times, when the topic under discussion was what doesn’t work for you in your life.  People would talk about jobs, relationships, family, history and all the myriad issues that human beings struggle with.  There would be one notable absence in the discussion; the word depression.  We’d talk around it, under it, over it; we’d talk right past it.  We’d talk about experiences that sounded a lot like depression but they’d be given other names, names that made the experience more tangible, more manageable.  Names that made it sound as if the experience was simply a blip and when the reasons for it became clear the depression-like feeling would be magically resolved.

Depression was not Ok to talk about.  Not by me or anyone else so far as I could tell.  I could drive to the workshop with a friend who was deeply depressed.  We could talk about depression all the way to the workshop, but the word wouldn’t find itself into public utterance. I have no doubt that dozens of people in the workshop, if not most, had experienced significant depression at some point, but the word was missing from all discussion.  The stigma was, and I suspect still is, very strong.  Depression is mental illness and no one wants to be seen as mentally ill.

As it turns out I’m pretty good at talking about depression.  I’ve had some practice.  For most of my life I assumed that my first experience with depression happened when I was about 14. At that time I fell into a deep gloom and had my one and only bout with considering suicide.  I was lucky, because I thought about it for a couple of months and then my depression lifted.  When it lifted I realised that I could have made a horrible decision based on feelings that would probably go away in time.  I made a decision that has stuck with me my entire life – this will pass.  And, sooner or later, it always has.  Up to now it has also always returned.  But no matter how long an episode lasts, it has aways gone away.  When it does I’m glad I’m still alive.

I talked to a psychiatrist a number of years ago for a time.  We never really worked out what the source of my depression was, but he put me on some anti-depressants and we talked and talked and talked.  I came to the conclusion that the pattern started earlier than I had assumed, perhaps from when I was 11 or so.  Maybe it got triggered by moving cities and being an outsider.  Or not.  Maybe it was related to the fact that my father and his mother both sufferer from depression.  The fact that most of my siblings have also had issues with depression suggests that it may be familial.  But really, who knows?

What I really learned from my time with the psychiatrist was that the damage I’ve done to myself has had a lot to do with hiding the fact that I was depressed.  My experience in the workshops made it clear that I wasn’t alone in hiding, but it was still the case that pretending to be fine when I wasn’t was in some ways the source of my isolation.  It lead me to make life choices that suited being a depressive.  I’ve worked for many years as a software engineer.  That’s a job that protects me from interaction with other people when I don’t feel like interacting.  And it’s something that I’m usually able to do when I’m feeling depressed.

Out of my therapy I learned that talking about depression is extremely useful.  It’s not easy to do.  It’s hard to identify depressed feelings because they are often not feelings at all, they are more a shift in my entire mode of consciousness (whatever that means).

One of the ways I’ve talked about depression has been in front of those very workshops.  I’ve talked about my history, my struggles, my meds.  I’d say that if you want to know who I am you need to know this about me.  It wasn’t easy to do, but each time I shared about myself I feel freer, and more able to be present.  I felt better.

But what really made a difference were the other attendees at the workshops.  They’d come up to me and thank me from the bottom of their hearts for saying what they wish they’d had the courage to say.  People would come up to me in tears.  I got word from a friend that after I spoke he got a script for and an antidepressant and another for viagra and his life was transformed.

Being public matters with this stuff.  I suppose it matters with most of life in some ways.  I am writing this post with the intention of being public.  I recognise the irony of being public on an anonymous blog, but here it is.  Depression is likely to be an occasional topic here.  It’s something I’m willing to talk about.

3 Responses to “Depression”

  1. Since Infinite Jest is a brick of a book to dig through for a reference, here’s part of David Foster Wallace’s well-informed taxonomy of depression.

    “Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that this is because numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names – anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression – but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

    It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonisitic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency – sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying – are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

    It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability to Identify is also an an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clincally depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”

    Seems to sum it up pretty well.

  2. I have never experienced clinical depression. I’ve never really been incapacitated by it. I’ve been able to work, had brief respites when I’ve been able to break out of the pit for a few hours and been able to hide it very well. I’ve experienced enough to get some echoes of that description but I’m grateful that I haven’t been there. I feel huge compassion for anyone who has.

    But I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand the description. I know that people who don’t experience depression are almost incapable of understanding what it is or what it’s like. While David Foster Wallace gives a harrowing account, and one that’s pretty brilliant in expressing something that has to be inexpressible, I’m sure that it doesn’t tell me what it’s like. Not having been there I will probably never know.

    Thanks for sharing that. I’ve known, here in Australia, two friends who’ve gone through clinical depression. It didn’t look like what I experienced as depression. It looked more like anxiety gone completely out of control; so much so that there wasn’t anything left in their lives and they were consumed by that. Since I don’t experience much anxiety when I get depressed it wasn’t all that familiar. And maybe that’s what was going on for them. Maybe one of them will read these comments and let me know if it sounds accurate for them.

  3. Hey great post. I’ve had similar experiences at workshops when I get up and share painful and difficult experiences from the heart: all these people coming up to say that had a very similar experience. I too am an (ex) software engineer; you might find my post about dealing with depression interesting. Great to see you sharing this with the world! Cheers, Graham

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *