“Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular.” – Johnathan Franzen, How to be Alone.
When you’re sad, you see things as they are. It’s a blessing and a curse, because whilst there’s nothing as refreshing as the truth, when it’s ugly it only compounds the problem of feeling sad in the first place. Sadness not only takes the sheen off things, but it also takes the screen off things. It denies us the levity required to accept things that we have tolerated rather than enjoyed. When its cause is sudden, and its magnitude is great, it pulls away the carpet that hid how cold the floor was.
This effect has many repercussions, some of which, if coupled with sufficient will, are positive. In the short term, however, it magnifies the sorrow. If we are unhappy with our job, then the work becomes intolerable. If we are unhappy with our home, then the place seems unbearable. If we are unhappy with our life in general, then even the most everyday situations can become awfully difficult, especially when preoccupied with the source of our depression. These peripheral circumstances, which cease, in the thick of things, to seem peripheral, can, however, be addressed, even though it might not be possible to address the original source of lament. Depression provides us with an excellent opportunity to become pro-active and to make important and necessary changes that we have delayed for too long. The only problem is, of course, finding the strength, positivity and determination to take these necessary steps when feeling so deflated.
This ability to see the truth in things also applies to human relationships. In situations where a dispute or disagreement has jeopardised a relationship, where we have neglected someone or paid insufficient attention to their concerns, we can more easily see the significance of this. Without the security of things being ostensibly well, when depressed, our egos deflate and petty points of order upon which we might have stood become so glaringly trivial as to seem repulsive. The sources of displeasure, of frustration that were present previously, seem as nothing to the possibility of losing the relationship altogether. The onset of a deeper sadness can cause us to see just how foolish we have been in handling aspects of a relationship, and how much more easily certain situations might otherwise be or might otherwise have been negotiated. It must be seen as a chance to remember, so fiercely, the example, as to prevent its repetition in future.
Sadness can, of course, be as selfish as it is selfless, especially in situations where two people are involved. Sadness can cause us to fall into ourselves, from which point of view it is difficult to perceive things through the eyes of others. We can too easily monopolise grief and see our own troubles as paramount over those of our friends or partners. We can hurt those around us with the inherent egotism of sorrow, just as easily as we can sympathise with them. And sadness can be a great source for sympathy. Just as we see the truth of our own lives, so we can see the truth of others. We can find a great deal of empathy in sadness, for we detect it so much more readily in others. Even if they cannot see their truth, when we are depressed, and utterly disillusioned, in the most literal sense, we can see through others. The fraudulence of things becomes most readily apparent.
One of the principal troubles of a heavy depression is that it becomes nigh impossible to enjoy oneself. In the case of the loss of a partner, when grief for their absence is the source of depression, it is hard to enjoy anything because the only perceivable source of happiness is their presence. Everything acts as a reminder of the person’s absence; the inability to share the experience with them makes it cold; the heightened desire for them to be there makes their absence more urgent and hurtful. Every guilty pleasure becomes a crass mockery of the fulfilment we crave from their company.
Time, and its passing, presents a dreadful dilemma. When a crisis is fresh and the rawness is absolute, the spirit is completely abject. Time passes awfully slowly and each day can seem interminable, yet we long for time to pass so we might be on the other side of things. Day one, day two, day three after a tragedy, without sleep, unable to eat, feeling sick in both head and stomach, wanting nothing but to curl up and cry out in agony, unable to do anything to alleviate the cause of the sadness, full of self-loathing, loneliness, and finding everything in one’s life abhorrent, in such a state, time is not your friend. It must pass for the healing to take place, it must pass so that distance can accrue between the cause of suffering and the present one inhabits, yet it crawls more slowly than ever at such times.
It also takes a long time to resolve problems and make changes. It can take months, for example, to find a new job, to find a new house. It can take months to bring about changes in oneself, of habit, attitude and outlook. And whilst we wish time would simply pass, that we might find ourselves six months into the future, sufficiently buffered from the source of hurt, time also acquires an urgency, a preciousness that it lacked when we neglected it. Where once it seemed alright, even delightful, simply to do nothing, when in the thick of an urgent depression, where one feels a very great need to change things, to change oneself, all time becomes of the utmost importance.
Recently, battered by a devastating break-up, once through the first two weeks of hellish torment, I wanted more time each day to write job applications, I wanted more time to read, to write, to watch quality cinema, to listen to classical music, to read poetry, write poetry, take photographs, meet new people, meet with friends. Time became something that must be spent well, always, with purpose, with energy, because doing things to improve the depressed mood and unhappy situation was the only way forward, the only apparent possible way to lay the foundations of a future happiness.
Not only did it seem to me that time must be well spent, but I found it especially difficult to enjoy anything lacking in depth. Deeply depressed and distraught, I was unable to stomach what I would call “popcorn” entertainments. Television radiated an unbearable artifice; all sport seemed not merely futile, but appallingly populist and anti-intellectual; popular music that had once cheered or stirred me, now seemed glib and insignificant; computer games that had so appealingly rendered a genre, now seemed so awfully genre. Almost everything acquired an aspect of irrelevance. I could no longer stomach the theoretical physics articles in the New Scientist, which I read every week, so baselessly speculative are some of them. Where is Occam’s Razor in theoretical physics, I ask you?
Feeling no artifice in the self, it was nigh impossible to stomach artifice in anything else. It is a strong recommendation of psychologists that one should seek fun entertainments when depressed. This strategy is no doubt successful in many instances, for lifting the mood is paramount when depressed and comedy, or any other light-hearted distraction, is one of the best means of going about this. “Popcorn” works to shore up the spirit against heavy moods. Yet, when I tried to take pleasure in amusing trivialities, I found they were not powerful enough to distract me from my thoughts. Indeed, they seemed unpleasantly frivolous. It was far better either to exercise, read a good book, or immerse myself in a symphony.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So it was that as I dropped the popcorn in the aisle, the quality entertainments grew once again in stature: great literature, great art, live performance, art-house cinema, classical music, opera and intellectual radio programs. Not that I had neglected these things entirely by any means, but, when plunged into a gloomy mood, they acquired an almost intense relevance as carriers of truth in art and emotion. Such thought, philosophy and talent have gone into “the canon”, that it offers the comfort of sitting at the feet of wisdom. I needed to hear intelligent voices; to be moved again by powerful art and ideas, to remember how much there is beyond the self.
It was thus in the great work of others that I found satisfaction; beauty, honesty and integrity, such important fundamentals when trying to lay the foundations for self-rehabilitation. Great art can teach us not only how to improve ourselves, but also how to forgive ourselves. It broadens our perspective and sympathies by teaching us about others, directly and indirectly. The meditative quality of a lengthy piano concerto; the range of moods in a symphony; the intense engagement with the emotional circumstances of a character in a film or novel; the overwhelming satisfaction of beholding a beautiful painting; all these works speak directly to emotion and require no artifice. They move us before we have time to think, but then we think, for we are moved, and it is, more often than not, a philosophical, reflective train of thought.
There are, of course, other more scientific avenues for rehabilitation; medicinal and therapeutic. In my own case, reluctant to go down the medicinal route, I took the advice of trusted friends and began to see a psychologist. I had always doubted the usefulness of such consultations, as I seemed to spend most of my life ruminating on myself and identifying my issues. Yet, it occurred to me that whilst I knew what was wrong with me, I wasn’t entirely sure what the best solutions were. Perhaps a psychologist could lend some assistance on this front.
Speaking with a psychologist is certainly an interesting experience. On one level, it’s nice to seem so important as to be worthy of discussion : ) On another level, being assessed by someone trained to rationalise and contextualise emotion and character is pleasantly reassuring. However well we think we might know ourselves, it is hard to see the wood for the trees much of the time, and to hear an intelligent and informed assessment of the big picture is an opportunity to replace the image of the self in one’s own head. It is a little like working with an editor to improve a narrative.
To know that we are, as Neitzsche said, Human, all too human is something of an unwelcome relief. To learn that anything learned can be unlearned, that one can in fact, with discipline, change habits of thought and behaviour, however long established, is, however, genuinely reassuring. People who have always driven on the left-hand side of the road, can, within days, drive comfortably on the right. People whose response to frustration is to become angry, can learn to prevent the anger developing. People who have a fear of talking to strangers, can, through practise, approach people without the irrational fear that their approach is an unwelcome intrusion.
Yet, all this requires a lot of energy and effort and many will, through the weight of their depression, lack that energy. Perhaps, in their instance, some form of medication would be beneficial. Perhaps, also, in such cases, they would do well to seek levity in light-hearted entertainments. I can only speak of my own experience, where quality art and psychotherapy have been immensely beneficial – as indeed, has writing. The process of creation provides an outlet, a means of channelling emotion, though regaining the concentration required to practise any art is a hurdle in itself. Each person must tailor their response to themselves and to the source of their unhappiness; yet perhaps the best starting point is to see depression as an opportunity. Clearly, things must change, and the sooner we seek to make those changes, the sooner we might find some form of emotional equilibrium once more.
Again, I reiterate, I can only speak from my own experience, and enough has been said on that front already.
*True Seeing (Divination) Reversible
||Components: V, S, M
|Duration: 1 rd./level
||Casting Time: 8
|Area of Effect: 1 creature
||Saving Throw: None
When the priest employs this spell, he confers upon the recipient the ability to see all things as they actually are. The spell penetrates normal and magical darkness. Secret doors become plain. The exact location of displaced things is obvious. Invisible things become quite visible. Illusions and apparitions are seen through. Polymorphed, changed, or enchanted things are apparent. Even the aura projected by creatures becomes visible, so that alignment can be discerned. Further, the recipient can focus his vision to see into the Ethereal plane or the bordering areas of adjacent planes. The range of vision conferred is 120 feet. True seeing, however, does not penetrate solid objects; it in no way confers X-ray vision or its equivalent. In addition, the spell effects cannot be further enhanced with known magic. The spell requires an ointment for the eyes that is made from very rare mushroom powder, saffron, and fat and costs no less than 300 gp per use. The reverse, false seeing, causes the person to see things as they are not: rich is poor, rough is smooth, beautiful is ugly. The ointment for the reverse spell is concocted of oil, poppy dust, and pink orchid essence. For both spells, the ointment must be aged for 1d6 months.
From the Dungeons & Dragons – Players’ Handbook.
ps. “If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”
– Frank Zappa