How I'm Raving My Way Out of Depression
A trip to Berlin sparked a revival from an exhausting disease of contradictions.
Illustration by Olivia Leclair
The fall of my junior year of college, my grandfather passed away unexpectedly. What began as grief—reactive, based in reality—soon morphed, amidst a perfect storm of environmental factors and my own psychological shortcomings, into a pervasive depression that came from everywhere and nowhere at once.
Every day, the front of my head felt heavy and dense, as if my brain were trying to drag itself through my forehead and out of my skull. I couldn't focus on anything and everything seemed impossible. Trivial decisions, like choosing when to slink to the dining hall so as to minimize human contact, debilitated me—it was easier to do nothing than to potentially regret my choice and spiral deeper into a mental black hole. I was apathetic about things I'd once loved and paralyzed by the smallest of tasks.
I drank until blackout to forget why I wanted to black out in the first place. I slept half the day, because sleep was freedom from my thoughts. I showed agency and energy only when my maintaining a façade of normalcy depended on it, lest other people wonder what was wrong with me, which my ego refused to let happen. I didn't have the mental fortitude to do much more than stay in bed, the shades drawn. Every time I did leave my dorm, I had the sudden urge to cry. I didn't know why.
For months I went on like this. Through the rest of school and into life in New York City, where I moved after stumbling across college's finish line, the black shroud of depression sometimes lightened, but it never lifted entirely. I felt like my life was always in some stage of falling apart. Either it was about to, and I was too fragile and ashamed to stop it, or it already had.
After two years in New York, I wasn't as cripplingly depressed as I'd once been. But I felt shapeless and exhausted all the time. The world was a warped facsimile of itself. I saw a vast gulf between me and everyone I interacted with, and in the middle of conversations I found myself anxiously wondering whether the other person could read on my face the depression I was so desperate to hide. My emotions were an M.C. Escher rollercoaster that cyclically went sort of up but mostly down while remaining flat and low. Efforts at self-medication—smoking, exercising, eating healthily—brought only fleeting, partial relief. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.
"I need to escape here" was a thought I had often, though whether "here" was the city or my job or my own mind or somewhere else, I wasn't sure. So I decided to do what every privileged young person who's seen Before Sunrise does when confronted with seemingly unsolvable personal problems: I traveled to Europe by myself.
I didn't know what to expect when I went to Berghain and I didn't care. I just wanted to feel something, anything, with intensity.
Prior to going to Berlin, I'd never been to a rave; the word "clubbing" summoned memories of getting rejected at SoHo nightclubs for wearing the wrong shoes, and I couldn't have articulated the difference between EDM, techno, and beep-boop robot noises.
But from cursory Googling of Berlin's nightlife in an effort to not do my trip "wrong," I learned about a place called Berghain. I knew that its atmosphere was indulgent and liberal, that people danced and fucked and did drugs there. But what was reading stories about Berghain to someone who'd never even been to a club in Brooklyn? How do you describe a sunset to someone who's never seen one?
I went to Berghain on a Sunday night with friends-of-a-friend who knew it like the inside of their club-stamped wrists. They told me what to wear (black), how to act in line (don't), what to say once we reached Berghain's infamous face-tattooed bouncer (nothing). They handed me little crushed-up pills and I took them, crouching behind a dumpster, not bothering to reveal that I'd never done this before. I didn't know what to expect and I didn't care. I just wanted to feel something, anything, with intensity.
We waited in line for an hour. Then we were inside. Eight hours later, my three acquaintances left the club. Eight hours after that, I left. Berghain had just closed. It was noon on a Monday.
After 16 hours inside Berlin's wicked techno crucible, I staggered out into a harsh industrial wasteland. My eyes struggled against fatigue and sunlight. My feet and hips ached from non-stop dancing. My mouth felt like dry velvet. My clothes reeked of cigarettes and were heavy with sweat. My body was bone-tired, destroyed. But I felt unexpectedly, astonishingly alive. Everything hurt and yet nothing did. My head felt like one of those perfectly looped infinite-zoom GIFs. I couldn't stop smiling. Among prim German schoolchildren and well-coiffed German businesspeople the U-bahn back to my friend's apartment, I put my head in my hands and grinned into my grimy palms. The endorphins surging through me were almost palpable. What the fuck is going on? My emotional state was alien to me.
Two nights later, I went with a friend to another club. I was dead sober. I wanted to know if what I'd felt at and after Berghain was Ecstasy or ecstasy.
Within minutes of entering this kaleidoscopic techno labyrinth, I knew it was the latter. As at Berghain, I fell quickly under the spell unrelenting, minimal, four-on-the-floor beat: boom, boom, boom, boom. Even in the bathroom line, I bounced from foot to foot. I couldn't stop moving, which was telling. At my most depressed, I'd been painfully conscious of how people perceived me. Even on crowded dance floors in New York, I'd be so fixated on my appearance—my gangliness, my awkward dance moves—that I'd enter a dissociative state and see myself in the third person, feeling embarrassed for this guy while knowing that he is me. But here, the pounding, ceaseless techno music, just dystopian, mechanical sounds over a spare, precise bass drum, sustained my movement and simplified my thinking. How other ravers saw me, my hands darting skyward and my head bobbing to the beat, didn't matter. There was no room in my head for intrusive thoughts. When my friend and I left the club at 8 AM, I felt transcendently high.
I chased that feeling in every city I traveled to thereafter. In Amsterdam, I raved in what looked like a cathedral, which felt symbolic, like techno was elevating me to a spiritual realm. In London, I danced sober for seven hours at Fabric, a club that was shut down, only to be reopened months later on a swell of public support. That was me, I thought—dead, then revived by techno.
Depression makes you feel like a useless fuck-up no matter what you do, but techno can transport you to a deeply vibrant place—no matter where you experience it.
Back in New York, I felt like a mannequin. My body was present but my head was across the Atlantic. I began listening to techno of all genres. Dark ambient techno. Detroit techno. Tech house. But listening to techno through shitty Apple earbuds while on the M train was a poor proxy for the real thing.
So at 3 AM, one summer night, I took an Uber to a Bushwick warehouse party. Outside, the windows of parked cars vibrated to the rumble of the music. Inside was nothing less than sensory assault. Sweat and smoke mixed in the hot, strobe-lit air, so thick the crowd, people of all shapes and sizes and mannerisms, was just silhouettes. The music was oppressively loud, rattling my bones and blurring my vision around the edges. I danced fervently. I spoke to no one, and no one spoke to me. I found myself smiling again.
Raving, once a mere curiosity, a diversion, has become as entrenched in me as any primal need. At its most basic, utilitarian level, it has helped me forget about my depression and given me something to consistently look forward to. In the interstices between raves, I feel like I'm languishing. I fill with dread and angst, my thoughts regressing to the negative: What if all my friends are busy this weekend? What if I make plans but can't get out of bed? What if? Then I spend six hours on a Friday night dancing in a damp, derelict building, and I feel revitalized. Even when Twitter seems static and the gym is insurmountably far and I can't be burdened to watch a mindless movie, techno never fails to enliven and uplift me. The weekends I do not dance are the weekends I'm most likely to regret.
Depression is a disease of contradictions and opposites. You can't fall asleep, yet you can't get out of bed. You dread the night time, when your brain coagulates around the nadir of your emotions, yet you embrace the darkness because it hides you. You're anxious of what tomorrow will bring, yet you're certain you'll feel no different. You know it's absolutely fucking absurd to be unable to get up to make soup or to reply to a text requiring a binary answer, yet you're powerless to halt the onslaught of feelings that such acts are beyond attempt. You're concerned with surface appearances, yet you're on a Y-axis going infinitely downward. Your mind is ablaze with distant memories of roads not taken, yet you can't remember why you just walked into a room. You're lonely even when surrounded by people. You're defined by absence—of energy, of motivation, of comprehension—in the presence of a full, vibrant world.
Raving, for me, is none of those things. It is anti-depression. It is unshackling. It makes you feel buoyant and effervescent. You're dancing alone, yet you feel unified with everyone around you—a paradoxical lonely togetherness in which individual personalities are flattened. You find solace in the presence of strangers. If depression is atemporal, rendering recollections of your past as bleak as visions of your future, raving is feeling present in a series of moments delineated by a beat. Depression makes you feel like a useless fuck-up no matter what you do, but techno can transport you to a deeply vibrant place—no matter where you experience it.
There's a quote I came across in 2013, when I was trying to intellectualize my way out of depression with books and TED talks, that I didn't internalize or believe until I discovered how raving to techno could make me feel. It's from Andrew Solomon, a writer on the arts and psychology and a longtime public sufferer of depression: "The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality."