What does depression feel like?

Jun 2, 2012 | Depression | 2 comments

Depression, with a touch of hope

From the mind of Leunig

If you don’t experience depression it is likely to be mysterious to you.  It’s probable that you think it’s something like feeling low or gloomy.  That’s reasonable since without having the experience you can’t have any reference for what it is like.  While it’s devilishly hard to describe to someone who doesn’t experience it, it’s usually pretty easy to communicate with someone who’s walked that road.

But there are many different kinds of depression.  In the comments of my last post on depression my brother contributed the following quote from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

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.

That is far enough beyond my own experience to be pretty much ungraspable.  I’ve know three people who have been hospitalised with clinical depression.  I’ve seen two of them in the hospital.  I don’t know if this description matches their experience.  I’m going to send this post to them and ask if it rings true for them.

My experience is more the “numb emptiness” kind.  I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet.  I get the impression that numb emptiness is likely described just as vividly as clinical depression.  By all reports it’s a daunting read, but is meant to be one of the great books of recent times so I’ll need to give it a go.  (In a post one of these days I’ll write my lament for reading.  I can read for hours on an electronic device that doesn’t require ongoing attention.  Books now put me to sleep.  A book like Infinite Jest sounds like a bridge too far, but still…)

I want to read it to see if he captures my experience.  If so, I’ll keep a copy of his words with me and pass it over to whoever I meet that doesn’t quite get it.  I don’t know if a description by a great writer will communicate something that I’m inadequate to express, but it’s worth a try.