“…soon other emotions follow happiness into oblivion; sadness as you had known it, the sadness that seemed to have led you here; your sense of humor; your belief in and capacity for love. Your mind is leached until you seem dim-witted even to yourself…..You lose the capacity to trust anyone, to be touched, to grieve. Eventually, you are simply absent from yourself.” Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
There is nothing in particular that makes my story worth writing. I write about it because I don’t know what else to do with it. I had used the word ‘depressed’ before to describe being down in the dumps, a bout of melancholia, a touch of the blues. I will never do so again.
In August 2009 I entered a period of depression, the kind without inverted commas. It lasted for two years. At first I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. Depressed people were other people. People who couldn’t handle stuff life throws at them. They weren’t me. I’m the one who embraces life, chews up problems and spits them out. I can face it all because I’m a believer. This was true. It was also charmingly mistaken.
“It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble, that more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less.”
Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon
Most people suffering from depression (and its sadistic twin, anxiety) learn early on to stop trying to describe it. “Depression, truth be told,” writes Daphne Merkin, “is both boring and threatening as a subject of conversation.” Depression defies all conventional terms so that you become like someone with a rare tropical disease, isolated by ignorance and peculiarity of circumstance. As ordinary words are inadequate to describe what you are experiencing, you grope for adjectives and metaphors that inevitably sound like exaggeration. It’s a blood-sucking orgre that no one but you can see. And it feels infantalizing to try to convince anyone that its there. “Sure, sure. I believe you,” you sense them thinking.
“The psychological pain was agonizing, but there was no way of proving it, no bleeding wounds to point to. How much simpler it would be all around if you could put your mind in a cast, like a broken ankle, and elicit murmurings of sympathy from other people instead of skepticism (“You can’t really be feeling as bad as all that”) and in some cases outright hostility (“Maybe if you stopped thinking about yourself so much . . . ”).”
Daphne Merkin writes, ‘…intractable depression creates a planet all its own, largely impermeable to influence from others except as shadow presences, urging you to come out and rejoin the world, take in a movie, go out for a bite, cheer up.’ Every depressed person learns one thing at least: to be an actor. To wear, to use Merkin’s phrase, ‘the mask of all-rightness’. Without it, you can’t function, because although you have fallen off the edge of the world, the world still insists on interacting with you. Even if it just wants you to pay its bills.
“Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance, depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance,” writes Andrew Solomon in his gem of a book, The Noonday Demon. Grief, I thought was getting close to the feeling. An aching, gnawing ever-present pain. It makes little sense, to those outside it or to those inside, who experience it nonetheless. That was one of the first things that struck me about depression. Its uselessness. Depression replaces the very molecules of your existence. Replaces the oxygen in the air and the atoms beneath your feet. It is all-pervading. There is no room for insight.
I stumbled upon Andrew Solomon while I was desperately searching the internet for clues as to what was happening to me. I found a video of a talk that he gave at his alma mater, Yale University. He was both impish and scholarly. Tin Tin in worsted. He was articulate, warm, open, with a crisp knowing sense of humour. Most of all, he spoke from personal experience. I watched the video twice back to back. It was like he’d been camping out in my head. I had found my first friend in the darkness. It was more important to me that he knew the nature of the darkness than the fact that he had found his way out. I was coming to understand that there is nothing lonelier than an experience that cannot be shared.
I felt I needed professional help, but I was in India, and had no idea where to get it. Watching this video was how I diagnosed myself. I realized from listening to Solomon that I had got off lightly. I had moderate depression that only very occasionally had stepped over the line into ‘severe’. I learned there were people much more debilitated by this illness than myself. People with enormous courage and compassion.
When depression first hits, you spend a lot of time stumbling around looking for a light switch. Anything that might make you feel better. Taking piano lessons, sex, intoxicants, walks in the woods, Banoffee pie, candlelit massages, hypnosis, rescuing a dog from the pound. It can be anything. After painstakingly and repeatedly running your palm over the floor and ceiling and every wall feeling in vain for the switch that you imagine must be there, it begins to dawn on you that if you’re planning to live you’re going to have to learn to see in the dark.
Depression was the mental equivalent of the time I got a root canal and the anaesthetic didn’t work. I tried doing tonglen, the Buddhist practice of mentally receiving the suffering of others and giving one’s own happiness. It was a practice I had been long familiar with and had always helped to put things in perspective. But this time it had the opposite effect. The mental torment went off the scale. The experience was absolutely agonizing. It was my first Buddhist shock. I was face to face with something I couldn’t think my way out of.
I began researching Buddhism and depression online. I suppose I expected to find some helpful insights from fellow practitioners. What I mostly found were pious lectures on the self-cherishing mind and self-obsession. The contributors commonly presupposed some level of control over one’s mental state. Not only were the comments unhelpful (and occasionally downright hostile) but they were remarkably ill-informed. How did these people feel qualified to write on a subject they clearly knew so little about? Simply because they were Buddhists? I was angry, partly because I was starting to feel protective. Depressives had become ‘my people’.
Telling a depressed person that they are self-obsessed is rather like shouting to a drowning person that they don’t know how to swim. For a person with depression their depression is the only thing going on. It is what makes it so debilitating. It’s influence is total. It’s not as if you can just place your mind on something else. Depression is that something else. It becomes and defines everything.
There is no self-obsession=depression formula. There are millions of rabidly self-obsessed people walking around feeling quite fine, thank you. And I have come to notice that those who do suffer from depression are often creatures with Olympian hearts, who value kindness and compassion more than most. To have such a heart compacted into an all-consuming mass of despair, unable to act as a resource even in the simplest most straightforward way, is a horror compounded.
I had been a fairly active Buddhist, and I liked to think, mentally pretty stable. My friends used to joke that I was on my way to becoming a nun. I used to wrinkle my brow a little at the emotional turmoils of others. Just take it into the path, I would intone. Now I could no more take it into the path than I could dredge up a sunken galleon with my bare hands. Meditation was not only painful but impossible. When I tried to bring to mind any aspect of the Dharma, my mind could not take it in. Intellectually I knew that my depression, like everything else, was impermanent, but I couldn’t internalize that notion to any effect. Seeing it all as a fruition of my past karma also had zero impact. It is more clear to me now why. It has something to do with the temporal amnesia that depression can create. Once again it’s Andrew Solomon who puts it best.
“When you are depressed, the past and the future are absorbed entirely by the present, as in the world of a three-year-old. You can neither remember feeling better nor imagine that you will feel better. Being upset, even profoundly upset, is a temporal experience, whereas depression is atemporal. Depression means that you have no point of view.” (from Anatomy of Melancholy)
When I couldn’t do my practice, and when doing tonglen felt as good as stabbing my eyes out with an icepick, I felt not only depressed but a bad Buddhist. I had been practicing Buddhism for sixteen years. If I couldn’t apply it now, what had been the point of all those hours spent working with my mind? I felt I had learned nothing. I had assumed that no Tibetan lama would have any idea what I was going through, so I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the transcription of a lecture by a Tibetan teacher named Traleg Rinpoche. His words had the ring of experience to them.
“Everything that we experience is normally experienced self-indulgently, from an egoistic or narcissistic point of view. But a constructive form of depression takes away the brashness, the security and the illusory forms of self-confidence that we have so that we have to always re-evaluate and check ourselves. Instead of thinking, ‘I know what is going on, I know where things are at,’ with such confidence, we are constantly forced to be more observant and to question our assumptions, attitudes and behaviour, in terms of our interactions with others and with the world at large. That is what has to be there if we are to make progress on the spiritual path.”
This is a far cry from the depression as self-obsession mantra. Traleg Rinpoche’s talk also revealed that he was aware of the difference between mild, moderate and severe depression, and that they can’t all be treated the same way. “All the old beliefs, attitudes and ways of dealing with things have not worked. One has to re-evaluate, say and do things differently, experience things differently”, he said. This, I was finding to be true. Nothing known was helping. I was a Bronze Age woman trying to format a hard drive.
I felt guilty that Shantideva’s wisdom couldn’t touch this. That I didn’t want to talk to my lamas. My new guru was a transgender writer and authority on Soviet art from New York. Here was the compassion and wisdom that seemed strangely absent from much of the Buddhist discourse on depression. There were parallels between us also. We were almost exactly the same age. His mother had died from ovarian cancer. And like me, his depression had hit after her death and the break-up of a long relationship.
“It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only our connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.” Andrew Solomon
There were some other Buddhist luminaries in the internet darkness. Susan Moon who had been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for over 20 years when she fell into deep depression wrote this.
“Buddhist teachings are about suffering and the end of suffering, and Zen Buddhism, in particular, emphasizes sitting still in the midst of your suffering and just letting go. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than 40 minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the slant of sun across the cedar floorboards, and the sweet smell of tatami matting? But it didn’t help. This is what I want to say: At times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the opportunity. They weren’t real demons, but they didn’t care whether they were real or not; they tormented me anyway.”
I related to much of this. My practice that had once been a source of strength, was now a source of torment. And this piled on another shame. I began to see the world more pessimistically but also, I thought, more accurately. One of the biggest problems in treating depression, says Solomon, is when depressed people view their illness as insight. But he also acknowledges that the existential observations of depressed people are often true. We are ultimately alone. We are all going to die. There isn’t an inherent meaning in life. As Traleg Rinpoche put it: When we are depressed, we may actually be able to see through the falsity and deceptive nature of the samsaric world. ‘In depression’, says Solomon, ‘the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident.’
Solomon mentions a study that was done in which a group of depressed and a group of non-depressed people were asked to play a video game. After an hour, they were asked how many little monsters they thought they’d killed. The depressed group were accurate to about 10%. The non-depressed group thought they had killed between 15 and 20 times more little monsters than they actually had. I realized that I had always exaggerated the number of little monsters I’d killed. (There is a whole school of thought called ‘depressive realism‘ for those who are interested.)
People began to divulge their miseries to me. It was like I was ‘marked’ and they could smell it. Bearing witness to the suffering of others offered a temporary reprieve, but that feeling subsided quickly, and when I was alone (which depressed people often are) the depression was all there was. It had become my natural state. My default setting. I wanted to get out and help people, to do good, to do anything that would lift my mind from this abyss. But this takes energy that I didn’t possess. “The opposite of depression is not happiness” writes Andrew Solomon, “but vitality.”
Just getting out of bed in the morning feels like a heroic act. You want to call in the Army Corps of Engineers to help you take out the trash. And it all seems so silly. “While you’re in it you know and recognize that it’s ridiculous, and you experience it as ridiculous,” said Andrew Solomon, describing the Herculean effort he needed to invoke just to take a shower. People are naturally puzzled. They ask perfectly reasonable questions like, “You’re sad so you can’t get to the post office?” I found myself acting out. Turning to alcohol to try to numb the pain, but more often than not ending up in a wreck of tears before passing out (it was only when I was drunk that I cried). “I understand that it’s tough. I just wish you were handling it with more grace and maturity,” said a good friend after one particularly tearful night. So did I.
I began to feel ashamed by my own existence. Suicide stopped seeming like an aberrant act, and was quietly re-filed as an option.
The main question that interests Solomon is not why depression hits some people and not others, not even what the causes are. He wants to know why some people navigate the experience better than others.
“A lot of it has to do with integration. There are some people who go through depression and as soon as they’re feeling okay, they want to shove it aside, and not think about it, and not look at it, and not talk about it, and in the course of doing all that, ironically, they make themselves more vulnerable to its next ambush because they have dissociated themselves from it and therefore have no new coping mechanisms. And there are other people who have been depressed and who say , “Okay, I would never have chosen this, I would never have wanted this, but having had this experience, I’m determined to find some kind of meaning in it….It won’t prevent you from getting depressed ever again, but it will allow you to tolerate the fact that you do get depressed from time to time.”
I recalled a friend telling me that one day I would look back and be grateful for this experience. I would have thought him mad, except that he had lost his only son in a car accident and knew what he was talking about. I had nodded, but at the time I couldn’t see ever being grateful for this. But today, I am.
After depression the world never quite looks the same. The spook of depression, even when you are feeling okay, lurks behind the doors of your head. But there are some things to be gained, once you have put enough space between you and the experience.
You lose conviction, but gain humility. You lose poise but gain honesty. You lose opinions but gain receptiveness. You lose strength but gain forbearance. You lose cleverness but gain tenderness. You lose judgement but gain mercy.
I am kinder now because of my episodes with depression. Kinder because I’m more willing to be with what is than with what I expect. And I’ve noticed that a number of people who Solomon interviewed report the same thing. One of them, a woman named Laura Anderson who had gone through severe suicidal depression writes:
“Depression has given me kindness and forgiveness where other people don’t know enough to extend it. I’m drawn towards people who might put off others with a wrong move or a misplaced barb or an overtly nonsensical judgment….. Once you’ve gone through it [depression] you get a greater understanding of the temporary absence of judgment that makes people behave so badly. You learn even perhaps to tolerate the evil in the world.”
And that is the kind of Buddhist I want to be.
NOTE: You can download the first chapter of Andrew Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon here.