Understanding Depression: Be Kind to your Mind
“Malingerer” is my reflexive conviction when I talk about depression or hear it discussed. Mental illness is the privilege of wealthy societies where basic needs – food, water, security – are accessed by most. Do I have a right to complain, feel sad, want to die, in a world where people risk their lives to live like me? Is depression simply the ugly disease of the narcissus, the pond you cannot turn away from, even though your reflection is what you hate the most?
Yet, despite being caught between the contradiction of hypocrisy and truth, I will attempt to describe what depression felt like for me. This will hopefully benefit both people experiencing depression and those close to them.
Depression is not a sadness. Sadness is a feeling and depression is the absence of feeling. During depression your feelings harden, become sealed off. Your vital emotions are lowered to base positive or negative evaluations, most of which are negative. There is negativity and there is nothing, your life is spent trying to avoid the negativity and exist in the nothing. Yet, negativity masks everything you do, from standing on top of a mountain, to having sex with your girlfriend. These experiences are never right, depression makes sure of that. You analyse every detail of every situation, and in details exist imperfections, through which negativity crawls out. A simple discomfort or inadequacy like her breath smells or I didn’t say the right thing often triggers a waterfall of negative thoughts that start in relation to your current situation, but may end in lamentation over a high-school dilemma or a distressing existential mania – though they rarely end.
There are no more idle thoughts in depression – all have a negative origin and direction, and you can do little but try to slow them. When all experiences are smothered in negativity, they lose their distinction and blur into each other. You are ashamed of your negativity, confused by it, you are lost in it. Everything without negativity begins to feel fake. It is the only emotion of which you are capable, so you are bound to it. Basically, your amazing senses, capable of such beautiful imaginings and dynamic understandings, are reduced to one analytical tool, negativity, and it hates itself.
I’m not sure if insistent thinking is the cause of or a reaction to depression. However, most people who have resurfaced from the emptiness emerge highly self-conscious. During those moments of unfeeling, where you analyse every possible cause of why you have become a shadow, why you are corrupting yourself and everyone who comes close to your maelstrom – whose violence you whip into being with every passing thought – what you end up analysing most is yourself, and with that, your thought patterns.
I was so lost in my own mind thinking about my own mind, I’d walk around picking up glasses in an eight hour shift, five days a week, completely locked within myself, thinking about thinking, trying so hard to turn my thoughts away from negativity. Sometimes, I would plan out whole conversations that I could have with people that I worked with, word for word up to five minutes long, even anticipating their responses, so that I could present myself as happy, funny and likeable, and hide the void inside.
I would continually think of methods to cure my illness, to try and control the negative thoughts. I’d create lists of affirmations that I’d cling to while sinking in introspection. I’d repeat them over and over: “I will accept the things I cannot change”, “everything exists as it should”, “hakuna matata”, until each one eventually lost its potency, diminishing once held onto for too long, reduced to meaningless words.
I’d stare into the mirror at every possible chance, trying to smile, forcing my mouth to smile, so that I could rush out into the situation, work, home, a bar, and hope that the smile remained, but knew that it had reformed into apathy. I remember telling my counselor that I’d spend hours staring at the Facebook homepage, too paralysed to even scroll, trapped between my thoughts and the keyboard. I’d attempt to mediate my thoughts, pacify them and argue with them, however they would always fight back harder and overcome me with grinding attrition.
Now I realise that you can’t fix a hammer with a hammer, and you can’t fix your mind with your mind. Happiness must be produced through external inputs. You need to feed your mind with positivity – exercise, books, friends – regardless of how they initially feel. These simple actions will eventually redirect your channels of thought. If you visualise thoughts as trampling through a marsh of reeds, they will always take the easiest route. So if negativity is the path most travelled, they will continue to flow in that direction, and self-perpetuate. When overcoming depression, your goal is to slowly indent the path of positive thoughts to promote a trickle which will hopefully grow into a stream. However, to begin even shifting the direction of thought you need to shift the direction of your actions, carve a new path with what you do, and then positivity will follow.
In reflecting on what depression was and how it affected me, which of course includes justifications (everyone needs a narrative), I have grown to realise that most people go through stages of change in their life, and for many, maybe all, these changes are difficult. As you grow and develop, your shell of understanding is torn open, forcing you to rediscover who you are and how you fit. For many this will be a progression that, once worked through, will lead to strength.
I had to travel through a large period of darkness, which will always be a part of who I am, to begin to evolve. Maybe I hadn’t developed the faculties to deal with the emotional strain; most males in my bloodline struggle with expressing emotion to varying degrees. Maybe I had an ego that was too strong, that refused to acknowledge my faults, and I needed myself to be utterly conquered before I could grow. This is the most palatable explanation for my depression because it provides me with an endless goal to work towards. The goal is to reduce myself, which can be achieved effectively through helping others.
Like many people, I have found joy in helping others to be happy. This is the key to life. You treat other people better, you treat yourself better – because whatever you externalize you internalise. Thought mechanisms function the same way in and out. Another beautiful thing about generosity is it releases pressure off the self. Quite simply, if you think about someone else, you instantly stop thinking about yourself, and it’s the thoughts about yourself that are the hardest to manage.
The third advantage of altruism was originally defined when we conceptualised a person’s role of “contributing to society”. This definition has somewhat been reduced of late – probably post-industrial revolution – to contain solely economic connotations, i.e. contributing to society is having a job. However, I believe the term’s foundations lie in generosity, in providing for your community, selflessly dedicating yourself to the larger picture. And in the good old days, this role was often performed simultaneously with employment. Nowadays, scrubbing dishes at McDonald’s is unlikely to produce the same effect.
Another consequence of depression, which is probably the most harmful, is that while you are overwhelmed by apathy, you shutdown, and therefore push away friends and family. The people you hurt often think they are at fault, that they are the reason for your change in attitude towards them. This understandably causes them to feel horrible guilt and reduced self-esteem. From the standpoint of the depressed, observing the people that you loved being hurt and knowing that you are inflicting it causes you to scream and cry in the depths of your being. The surface appears still but, from beneath, trapped in breathless apathy, you are spectator to the distorted images of crying loved ones, the shaking hands of fathers as they struggle to comprehend, wondering where they went wrong, shouting and yelling, friends begging for an answer, but you can do nothing but stand still, warding off the negativity by hiding in the empty void.
Or sometimes, when the negativity overwhelms you, you react to their sadness with anger and hate, incensed that they are burdening your already submerged existence with the weight of their pain. I couldn’t deal with the constant tears behind my girlfriend’s eyes, waiting to burst out in streams of self-hate and guilt, because I knew I was the cause, which pushed me further into negativity. I was completely paralysed, unable to show empathy, sadness, guilt or remorse. Even affectations of love are impossible when all you feel is apathy.
So why not ask for help, tell someone about it? In most situations, when you ask for help you have a vague understanding of what it is that you need help with. The reaction of “asking for help” with depression, however, seems wasteful and inappropriate. You become your depression, identify with your depression, you are now depressed, Shaun is depressed. Asking for help feels like asking someone to change the way that you are – “Can you help me not be me?” How can someone change how I think? I am the thoughts that I think. But you are not your thoughts; thoughts are merely a reaction to external stimuli. Who you are exists deeper and is resistant to change.
Denying the “fixed” parameters of reality and coming to the realisation that you don’t like the thoughts that you think, and you don’t like who you have become, is the hardest point of depression, as you basically have to acknowledge that you refuse to live in your current state, which feels like suicide. Acknowledging that you hate who you have become is venturing out of the nothingness headfirst into negativity. This seems impossible when you have already submitted to the permanence of your being and regard change as fundamentally inaccessible.
I guess the one word which best describes the road out of depression is slow. Basically, you don’t even recognise your change in happiness – it happens so gradually, like the turn of a year. And even when you have distanced yourself from it enough, and you begin to establish a degree of perspective, you will never fully comprehend what happened during those times. It’s like attempting to look back and understand another person, a reflection in which the body is yours but the mind is not. If it wasn’t for the damage that the depression caused, it would be untraceable, like tracking a tornado over water. However, the fear of returning will continue to shadow you, transforming a passing sadness into a perilous warning sign, though I think this can be used positively to constantly motivate yourself.
Being able to experience life through the lens of emotions now feels natural. It is difficult to be thankful because they are as intrinsic and essential as being able to breathe or walk. But the key is to never take your emotions for granted. Emotions are beautiful, they make you human. Sadness is necessary, it is the welling up of all the shitty bits of wasteful experience, which must be purged to purify the good stuff. So when you feel sad, let yourself cry and try to enjoy the emotional cleanse. Depression comes to those who allow themselves to be hollowed out by unwept tears.
And most simply, be kind to your mind. Just like your set of teeth, you only have one. And veneers aren’t an option – except maybe if you choose electroshock therapy. But you don’t need it. Don’t be hard on yourself. Allow your mind and person to make mistakes, for it is an important part of growth. Laugh at your downfalls and inadequacies, don’t attempt to change them. Look for agents of happiness externally, not internally. Once you are doing happy things and surrounding yourself with positivity then your psyche will transform naturally, and you won’t have to fight your mind with your mind anymore. Unfortunately there is no quick fix, it is a long and testing path becoming a person you can love, but nothing worthwhile is easy.
Cover by Graham Joy