I once had a long conversation with a friend of mine about religious faith. He has it, and I don’t, and I felt like he could inform me about it. Going into the conversation, I wasn’t naive enough to think that something as subjective and sensual as faith could be completely described with words, and this hunch was vindicated at the end of our conversation, when he added, “But what we’ve been doing here is just theology, not faith.”
“Okay, so in order to understand faith, you need to experience it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “In order to know faith, you have to feel it.”
It’s the same with depression, I think. One of my favorite essays has a beautiful line where the author, writing about his friend the late David Foster Wallace, describes trying to intellectually bridge the divide between his own neuroses and David’s mental illness. He says:
And yet one of the lessons of David’s work (and, for me, of being his friend) is that the difference between well and not well is in more respects a difference of degree than of kind. Even though David laughed at my much milder addictions and liked to tell me that I couldn’t even conceive of how moderate I was, I can still extrapolate from these addictions, and from the secretiveness and solipsism and radical isolation and raw animal craving that accompany them, to the extremity of his.
It’s true up to a point. But only up to a point. If you’re intelligent enough and emphatic enough, you can perceive to a certain extent just what it is to be depressed. But I don’t believe anybody truly knows what it is to be that way unless they are. Because it really is hard to wrap your mind around. It’s hard to intellectually comprehend the heaviness and the fatigue a depressed person feels when they’re in the worst of it, the unwillingness to do anything despite the richness of the world outside and all the books and films and friends of which you can partake. This is the assertion I ask you, the reader, to accept.
I played the depression card once, just once, to explain a particularly reprehensible act of passion. Nobody believed me, but I didn’t feel as embarrassed as I could have, because contrary to what they thought, it was the only explanation there was. I would never have done that had I not been worn down enough to believe that a harsher response was the best one. It is hard for people to understand the full effect of depression on a person, how it worms its way into every aspect of your life and depreciates each one, like one of those algebraic functions that shift the whole system three points lower. It is not an explanation I am particularly proud of, and one I have made it my work to resist for several years. Denying it legitimacy is fighting it, for me. But until it is defeated, it still exists. And it has never fully gone away. And sometimes, it is the only explanation.
I, too, never understood what it was to not want to get out of bed every day until it actually happened to me. When I talk to my friends about it, certain of them will say things like, “Well, think positively!” or something. Positive thinking has its own potency, but it only goes so far. How much can conscious projection really do when it’s the same consciousness you’re fighting against?
When I think about ways to describe my depression, I think about the Silence: not the actual aliens, but the concept. “Silence will fall when the question is asked” had a particular resonance with me from the moment it was uttered on the TV that had nothing at all to do with Doctor Who. Because I think that when you are depressed, you could accurately be said to be battling your own silence; the illness that threatens to silence you, metaphorically or in some tragic cases, quite literally. And what is the question? It’s different for all of us, really. The factors which underpin my depression may be different from another person’s. But I know that for me, it’s actually a particular question.
None of this is meant to be an admission of defeat, or indicative of a learned helplessness. You truly feel defeat when you muster everything you have to bear against depression and fail to make a mark. What this is, rather, is acceptance that sometimes you can only win so much at a time, and that it is okay and natural to fall short sometimes, even frequently. That it’s attrition, not blitzkrieg. This acceptance is only possible because of another acceptance, one which I think people often forget about and which I consider myself lucky to possess. That in the future, sometime, somehow, things are going to be all right. That you will get better. That this person who likes to sleep the day away and flee from discourse and who has started to feel a deadness in his chest near constantly is not really you, as status quo as all of that seems.