The Days of the Black Dog
I’ll write about it, because this sort of thing is always difficult to talk about to another person. Not just because it gets stuck in your throat, which it does, and who knows why? Shame, probably, which I suspect is close to the root of the whole thing. But also because when you talk about depression, there’s always a host of reasonable questions that the person to whom you’re speaking thinks of, and they ask them, and so you never make any progress.
“Why don’t you cheer up?”
“Why don’t you go find something to do?”
“Why don’t you focus on the good things, or how lucky you are?”
Alternately, they’ll try and say things that make you feel better, all of which miss the essential point.
“Everything will be okay.”
There are, obviously, a lot of different ways that everything will or won’t be okay. For instance, thousands of people will probably die from African sleeping sickness while I’m writing this, and things won’t be okay for them. As it stands, despite the depression, things technically are pretty okay for me, so what do I have to complain about? This is either a meaningless platitude or a flat-out lie. All of which makes it hard to talk to another person about.
This one came on me subtly, so I just spent the last few days wondering why I was so tired all the time, or why I couldn’t concentrate, or why I wasn’t getting anything done. You think of depression as a kind of sadness, like the way you feel when you watch a movie that makes you cry, only all the time. Maybe it’s like that for some people. For me, it’s not. For me it’s a kind of drawing away, like I’m being pulled off course by some mysterious psychic lodestone, one that gradually but firmly puts me out of synch with the rest of the world.
It’s abetted by the fact that I usually feel out of synch with the rest of the world. Like the way that I talk to other people never quite lines up with what I mean; I’m always straddling this shifting line between being funny and being a boor. Between being a wit and being a pedant. So I’m drawn away, drawn out of the world that everyone else seems to share, and every attempt to reach out just seems to isolate me further. Like the population has been replaced by Martians when I wasn’t looking, all sensitive to cryptic signs that have no meaning to me anymore, and every time I try to speak their weird Martian language, I just embarrass myself further.
And there is also a kind of hollowing out. “Emptiness” is an easy thing to say, and sometimes I think that the word just lets us gloss over what the feeling really is. When a person says they feel like they’re empty, what does that mean? It’s a kind of sapping of vitality, I suppose. A lack of wants. A lack of care. It’s not the same thing as being carefree, because the attendant anxieties, the shames of failure, that inward-gripping anger, it’s all still there.
You’re constantly aware of how much you haven’t done, how good you aren’t at what you’ve set your mind to, how you’ve let down everyone you know in some form or another and all this hurts. But instead of being galvanizing, energizing, invigorating, instead of driving you to new efforts, it enervates you. You don’t think about giving up. You can’t decide to give up, because deep down, something inside you already has given up.
It’s why you can’t talk your way out of a depression, when you’re down at the bottom you can’t muster your forces and get your shit together. Depression eats away at will itself. You can’t overcome it with will, because your will is the thing it takes from you. There’s no getting your shit together, not because you don’t have the shit, but because you’ve lost the getting. This is a thing that I think is hard for people to understand: depression doesn’t just make you unhappy. It takes away your ability to want to be happy.
Therapists ask you, sometimes, when you talk about depression, if you’ve ever contemplated suicide, and the question is another one that misses the mark wildly. I think about suicide all the time. Every imagined slight, every frustration, every thrill of anger turns into an imagined razor blade, a plan to let myself quietly go somewhere, an urge to reach down my own throat and tear out my heart. Is that contemplating suicide? Self-loathing, I’ve always thought, is the root of depression; when you loathe yourself, every thought leads back to suicide. Suicide is the core of your being.
The question misses the point because people who kill themselves don’t do it out of a sudden burst of sadness, like they watched a thousand Steel Magnolias all at once, and the outpouring of wretching tears so overwhelmed them that they couldn’t live anymore. People who are depressed and commit suicide do it because of a long, slow erosion of themselves; because of a sense of hopelessness that all those wants and cares, of that foundation of inner strength, is never going to come back.
Because we think, not in a pious or a theatrical way, but in a resigned and careless way (because depression is not theatrical, depression is dry and empty and enervating) that a lot of people we know really would be better off without us.
And all of this is accompanied by that same shame, that same sure knowledge that there are thousands of people who are worse off, who have suffered boils and disease and hardship and managed to power through it. The very act of talking about it is another imaginary lash that you flog yourself with, knowing that you’re dwelling on a thing that’s so insubstantial, so inessential, so pathetic that you can’t but hate yourself for even bringing it up.
Look at me, I can’t even talking about it using the first-person, because acknowledging that it’s me that feels this way only fuels that loathing, only makes me feel like I’m begging for attention or sympathy, and there it is again. If you haven’t been there you don’t understand: no amount of attention or sympathy makes it go away. Attention and sympathy aren’t the cure; they aren’t what I want.
I don’t know what the cure is. I don’t want anything.