A major way that sadness can spiral into depression is by developing concerns and then losing track of them. This means you don’t make real traction on any one of them because past a certain amount of rumination you get reminded of at least one other concern. A concern briefly forgotten strikes with a fresh and pressing immediacy, a sense that there might be low-hanging fruit to be found if you change your attention to it. Of course after switching focus the new concern remains just as immediately intractable as it was before you forgot about it, and so in the process of considering it you get sniped by another of the big concerns you’ve lost track of… and so on. Since you don’t make progress with any of the specific concerns but come back to them repeatedly they acquire a pallor of futility that lends itself to desperation and despair. It feels like you’ve sat with one of these concerns for eons, but in reality you’ve only had time to repeat the same shallow analysis until it’s become an ingrained mantra, implicitly terminating all consideration beyond it.
Of course though I phrase this in terms of “multiple concerns” this can just as easily apply with different facets of the same big looming concern.
One of the things that my dalliances with depression taught me was the limits of my own mind. And this points, I think, to why smart and nerdy kids get hit with depression so badly. Classic is the tale of the gifted kid who never learns how to study until way too late in her life, because school was trivial until suddenly and abruptly it got hard. When you’re not seriously challenged as a kid it’s very easy to slide into conceiving of your brain as magic. A kind of genie that when you need it to perform superpowers, to resolve supposedly impossible or forbidding tasks, you just ask it and then the answer appears.
Shaking this kind of mystical belief in my own unlimited cognitive abilities was the hardest battle I ever fought, in part because until my brain came up short there’d been no evidence prior in my life that such a thing was even possible. I was not used to “you are not making progress on this problem” or “your investigations are suffering diminishing returns and you are not in the vicinity of an answer.” To even postulate such limitations seemed wildly irresponsible.
When I talk about the catastrophic depression that suffocated me between 18 and 24 years of age I often boast that I didn’t give up, that I powered through it. The central questions or philosophical challenges that I fixated on seemed intractable from so many angles, and yet I never countenanced failure. If the problem was I was ruminating too hard, then the answer, I spat out defiantly to the world, was to ruminate harder.
And finally having nearly destroyed myself entirely I made traction on those impossible problems, I wore them down, I solved them, and then slowly rebuilt my broken brain. It’s a brag I have. “Oh, sure, it’s obviously stupid to attempt to power through depression by thinking harder. But it worked for me.” I am so proud that I escaped on my terms, that I never surrendered to someone else’s prescriptions. To be fair, I am probably too prideful to have escaped any other way. There would have been nothing left of me had I surrendered to an external will. But the implication is of course a sneer. Obviously you shouldn’t take the insane path because you are a mere mortal, unlike me.
I’ll be honest, I love it. I beat the depression monster, with an arm tied behind my back. I am once more an immortal god. One more directly accessible trophy on the wall of my skull.
But did I need to waste six years?
When I was a kid my mother tried to make me keep a journal. I rebelled. I decided I loathed writing. Or at least loathed writing honestly. Never mind the issues of surveillance that loomed large in our household. Writing, I diagnosed, was a prison for thoughts. It nailed me down to a single, fixed, simplistic historical narrative. It collapsed reality to whatever lie could be printed. Writing made you at once vulnerable and calcified. If I was to live, to flourish at all, it was to be as far from writing as possible. I would read everything, but write only the most cryptic of incantations, preserve not complete or precise thoughts but at most loose associations or emotive states.
When I talk of my escape from depression I know I can’t quite get away with such unalloyed boasting, so I tack on a bit at the end about how even with all my work, it was hard to repair the damage I’d done and I only made it past the final hurtle at age 24 with help from without. A girl so nerdy and sincere she was actually infatuated with me, so compassionate she reached out and pulled me up the rest of the way. She saved my life, in our time together dragging me that extra inch I couldn’t manage myself. I will always live in the shadow of that small, precious, act.
Yet this story I tell is incomplete.
Because of course she eventually broke up with me. Leading to the worst three months of my life. My brain spun every second of every day. I woke up in burning pain and went to bed in burning pain. The acrid smell of smoke wafted from my ears. My hair turned dry and brittle. Stray sparks skittered down my ashen skin. I was once again trapped. But all the worse because I had tasted freedom. There were lessons to be learned, self-improvements to be made, but her cryptic and unexpected breakup text gave me no traction on them. Was I to end up right back where I’d been? A familiar cage, except now with a melting brain?
But then I did something relatively new: I mapped my concerns, my paranoias and lines of investigation. I wrote them down. All of them. All the way out.
And with them ordered and saved I didn’t have to fear forgetting whatever randomly appeared in my head. I calmed the storms. I accepted that I had limits in active memory. I would accept outside help, even if that outside help was just a pencil and some sheets of paper. I could focus on individual elements. I could save up tools and responses. I could marshal systemic plans – at a scale just beyond what my brain had been capable of on its own.
“This was amazing,” she said as we sat in a park, hours longer than she’d ever expected to, both of us surprised to feel content, even happy, to have conclusively turned a page. I looked at the single sheet of paper I’d reworked things down to fit on, the careful and intricate map of the possibilities and contingencies, now fully expended. It was like a magic scroll depleted from use. I threw it away.
Depression is a trap with many tricks, but one of its central conceits is sleight of hand. It pulls at our attention while moving things around just out of sight. It will show us almost everything, confound us with so damn much, but always avoid any sense of possibility. Depression congeals self-perpetuating mechanisms of pattern recognition. Finds ways of showing you the same things again and again, corralling you back to the same distractions. Whether a picture of fixed clockwork or tangled and suffocating webs, it always hides agency.
When I was a child I believed that to write something down was to slip on a chain. To define was to kill. I believed that I was freer in the magic of my own head. I was wrong, of course. I failed to grasp the necessity of reaching out. While I feared that ordering my thoughts would create a stultifying slavery, I had also internalized a sense of shame and danger to the messiness of living outside my skull. I somehow believed there were no constraints inside it, should be no constraints; I’d become pickled in the assumption that my mind was omnipotent, to the point where even pencil and paper seemed insulting, seemed like they could only do more harm than good. And this illusion only served to lock me deeper into depression. Paradoxically at my most depressed, most lost and seemingly worthless, the last god I had to kill, the final boss, was myself. Suicide was always easier than that.
In some sense I never fully beat depression – the same biological or neurochemical dynamics that set in when I turned 18 are still there today, lurking. I have to watch myself. I had to learn to predict dangerous developments and head them off. But in a very real sense I have never gone back. I have never strayed even remotely close to any of the days before that afternoon in the park when I was 24. Like anyone I have had sad days and hurt days and lost days, weaker months and stronger months, I have felt my brain teetering above the abyss, but I know depression’s tricks, I know the contours of its flows. Agency requires engaging, mapping, staying ahead of the whirlpools that will spin you around in place until you forget anything else, forget to reach out. Depression tells you there’s nothing to grab onto, invites you to sit back and watch the show, a glossy affair, finely produced, all your concerns marching by, with one message: there are no real options.
Don’t let these concerns gang up on you, chain them up with pencil, ask a friend for help holding them down. Then systematically eviscerate the motherfuckers one by one. Leave their entrails strewn out as a warning. Stake them to the page. You can’t be ambushed by zombie concerns when you’ve got them tied down in pieces.
Depression tries to attack you from all angles with the past, the same putrid dead thoughts, grasping at you with clammy hands, but its greatest power is its capacity to distract, to get you to miss opportunity, and eventually to deny it.