Depression often comes to me with the belief that those who are not depressed are the ones actually living the lie; depression is how things really are, it is the correct, and only, face to put towards reality. It feels that those without depression have yet to see this truth; they have not seen that the meaning they have in their lives, the reason they value anything at all, is nothing but a god of their own invention.
Some people might not notice meaning as an entity, a thing – a vital organ – because it is not separate from them, it is them; the hidden-in-plain-sight source of their actions, their choices. This is why those who have never lost a sense of meaning sometimes struggle to imagine its absence. But the strength of meaning is deceptively weak, like gravity, which can be overcome by something as simple as a toyshop magnet. Meaning hides well the fact that it has a structure as fragile as forgotten floral foam, a structure built on foundations of faith, a faith which must, by definition, be a lie, because faith is a choice without reason, an effect without cause; faith has no real answer to the question why? because the answer might as well be anything – pick a card, any card.
Depression does not simply concern mood, it brings about a wholesale shift in perspective; it is about becoming a different person, the person you have never wanted to be; a person who realises that reason is nothing but a flimsy mask to cover the darkness beneath. And those suffering from depression know this darkness – this demon – is always lurking below, waiting to reach up and flay all meaning from the substance of our lives and leave nothing but shame for every lie – every invented god – we have ever mistaken for truth. When it comes, depression pushes the feeling of how good it once was to care out to some distant shore, far out of even imagination’s reach.
We might ask ourselves what a solution could even look like for our depression; what could the happy ending to the film adaptation of our lives possibly be? We might think we deserve a narrative arc as old as myth with a resolution of Manichean simplicity: good triumphing over evil. But then we would remember: art is entertainment, life is not. To feel normal once again, to escape the life-emptying havoc depression brings, we must become ignorant. We must forget that our doubts about the reasons for why we cherish anything at all are rooted in an unassailable truth. To break free we must achieve the impossible. We must believe the lies we tell ourselves.
Some therapies attempt to foster small, incremental improvements in motivation driven by a patient’s ‘values’. But depression can leave it impossible to find any values, or any means to form them; the foundation for the first brick is missing. Therapy is not to blame for the difficulties finding a solution holds. Therapy, like everyone, has to use words – a code, zeros and ones – and words can feel limited to the paths of reason. When depressed, it might seem that words belong solely to a determinist universe, a reality where one is always one and never two or three; words leave their subjective truths behind and come to reside in the world of objects. In this change, the processes that modify every word, every behaviour – every everything – to include the deeper textures of comprehension, feeling and significance are stripped away. Language becomes little more than the simple decoding of its syntax; the world reading like an out-of-date textbook.
In a leaflet for the treatment of depression by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) I have seen a list of suggested ‘values’. They largely revolved around interaction with other people (family, friends, relationships), helping out (community, environment) and personal development (career, hobbies, etc.). But there was one listed ‘value’ that stood out: spirituality. Was it being suggested that by rooting your value system in something intangible, something not of this world, you could find yourself on the path to wellness? Was the saviour option really on the table? Probably not. But it serves to highlight a point about values and the route to them via language. To see the divine intervention of a guiding hand from above as the means out of depression is also to accept that any truth that transcends explanation cannot be summoned or chosen, or brought to bear through logic gates and equations. And not through language either. As Aquinas put it, “human salvation demands the divine disclosure of truths surpassing reason.” Faith cannot be reasoned into existence with symbols, letters and words because the object of faith lies beyond reason. In fact, to quote Pascal perhaps, “the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.” Without the ability to apply reason to the article of faith, one becomes unable to rationally choose to believe. And in this sense of faith, spirituality becomes surprisingly like all the other ‘values’ – that is, you cannot choose to value something any more than you can choose to like, say, football or jazz. It doesn’t work that way. If we are being honest with ourselves, a value, like faith, cannot be derived, it has to emerge or arrive. And if it does, you have to hope it grabs tight and never lets you go.
For me, it is the absence of value – of meaning – and the inability to bring it forth from nowhere, with the tools this world gives us, that is at the root of depression, and why it is so hard to climb out of.
If you suffer from depression, please, do what you can to help yourself; do whatever your depression will let you do. And take medication if you want. It can help. But it might also help to realise that sometimes the only way out of depression is time. Sometimes depression just has to be waited out because there is no other choice; like a muse, the sense of meaning will return when it pleases. It is a sad truth, but for some, it is still a truth.
If you can, do not be disheartened if you struggle with self-care and don’t beat yourself up if you see being able to do it as sign of wellness rather than a means to get there. And try not to be discouraged if you are not fitting the recovery narrative people like to see; it might not seem like it, but you are not the only one. Trust me. Depression may make you act badly or inappropriately towards others. You may make terrible decisions. But try to remember that you are ill and your options have been reduced, your will supressed, your world narrowed. If they care, people will understand. And, critically, try to keep in mind, as often as you can, that your suffering might just be here for a short time and soon your depression will no longer focus you like burning magnesium; and if it comes again, next time it might hang around more like a stubbed toe than nuclear waste. You have been better before so you might be better again. This is still a notion I cling to.