What You Call Depression I Call the Truth
Does the truth really set you free, or does it only fuck you up?
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Does the truth really set you free, or does it only fuck you up? This is what I'm wondering as my psychiatrist and I continue to adjust my meds, looking for the right combination to keep an existential doom from eclipsing me. Simultaneously, I'm working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist on the "meaning" that I assign these feelings. She's trying to help me be less afraid of them.
I'm still afraid. But I've begun to think that these feelings are trying to tell me something pure and true—a message from my soul about the way I live my life and the nature of life itself. Primarily, they are telling me that the way I've been living is no longer working.
It is said that what we resist persists, and I have been trying to suppress these feelings my whole life. But only recently have I begun to really look at what they are—all of the layers that comprise what the Norwegian metaphysician, Peter Wessel Zapffe, describes as "cosmic panic." Now it seems that I can no longer ignore what part of me has always known, which is that life is absurd and terrifying. Perhaps we should be afraid of the truth?
In his 1933 essay " The Last Messiah," Zapffe describes depression as the over-evolution of the mind. He compares the mind of the anxious or depressed person to a particular type of deer from paleontological times, who were thought to have died off after acquiring overly-heavy horns.
"In depressive states," he writes, "the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendor pinning its bearer to the ground."
He also conveys the idea that the mind of the anxious or depressed person may be more awake, or connected to a deeper truth, than that of other people.
"Depression, 'fear of life,' refusal of nourishment and so on are invariably taken as signs of a pathological state and treated thereafter," he writes. "Often, however, such phenomena are messages from a deeper, more immediate sense of life, bitter fruits of a geniality of thought or feeling at the root of antibiological tendencies. It is not the soul being sick, but its protection failing, or else being rejected because it is experienced— correctly—as a betrayal of ego's highest potential."
So why isn't everyone suffering from depression? What is this "protection" that I, like most people, have been able to cobble together throughout much of my life? And what is it that makes a person suddenly, and scarily, see through it?
This protection, as Wessel describes it, is composed of four defense mechanisms: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation.
Isolation, according to Wessel, is not the solitary confinement of the self (though I do a lot of that). Rather, it is the banishing of scary thoughts about the nature of existence, meaninglessness, personal freedom, and death, into the periphery of the mind. I used to be better at this maybe? Or I used to be able to fake it better, especially when it came to what Wessel calls the general code of "mutual silence" in which we don't bring up scary thoughts in our daily, superficial interactions with other people.
As a poet, I've been able to relegate my exploration of these thoughts and feelings to the realm of my art. But lately, it's been harder and harder for me to keep my social mask on in mundane interactions. It physically hurts me now to interact at this level, to have a "pleasant" yet superficial conversation with another person, because I wonder: Why aren't you consumed by these thoughts and feelings? Are you not devoured by fear? If not, then what is wrong with me? And if so, then why are we both denying the existence of this fear and talking about bullshit? I feel like we should all be hugging and crying, or something.
The second defense mechanism, anchoring, is to identify oneself with various social constructs: one's family role, job, religion, morality, position in society, physicality, goals. When we anchor ourselves to these external identities, we are able to construct "walls around the liquid fray of consciousness." The potential for existential crisis then occurs either when these ideas of who we are become opposed to one another, or, when we lose them entirely: a job, a loved one, or another external element that helped us to define who we are.
One loss that I've experienced recently is the desire to impress certain people, or seduce them with my achievements. One might think this is a good thing. But it's left me with a feeling of meaninglessness.
I've achieved a lot lately in terms of creative goals. But now I'm eluded as to why it should even matter. I feel like, well, if this person I had a crush on is now blocked on Facebook, he can no longer see what I've achieved. So what's really the point of achieving it?
Is it possible for me to be happy for myself in my creative accomplishments? I'm ashamed to say that the answer, for now, still looks to be no. The accomplishments feel hollow and pointless. In the face of death, perhaps they are. Even the work I do to help others—the girls I mentor and the dog I rescued—I seem to deconstruct. My new obsession is that the girls and the dog all eat animals. So while I am helping them with their suffering, they are causing suffering for other beings. Thus, I am only enabling more suffering. Also, I eat McDonald's sometimes too.
I'm finding the same lack of refuge in distractions that once protected me from feelings of doom. There are ways I've compulsively busied myself so I didn't have to think about deeper questions. I obsessed about my physical appearance, love, achievements. I waxed body parts, fucked with my eating, and waited for texts. I've never been good at watching TV, but now I feel like I'm suffocating the moment I even turn it on. It seems like a lot of these tactics are being stripped away by some unseen force.
Perhaps this is what they mean on the depression questionnaire when they say, "Have you lost interest in activities you once enjoyed?" They say it like losing interest is a bad thing. But what if the truth is that those activities were always stupid, meaningless, and destructive? What if I am getting closer to a higher truth?
One thing that does keep me going is sublimation: the channeling of these experiences into this column. The act of writing provides a meaning and a framework to scary thoughts and feelings. It makes them feel less bottomless. But what if bottomlessness is the truth? Why am I so quick to be afraid of what is real?
Something inside of me says I should I be running as fast as I can from an awareness of meaninglessness, death, endless questioning. Another part of me says no: you should follow the destruction of what you think you know. There will be something higher on the other side.
If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.
So Sad Today is a never-ending existential crisis played out in 140 characters or less. Its author has struggled with consciousness since long before the creation of the Twitter feed in 2012, and has finally decided the time has come to project her anxieties on a larger screen, in the form of a biweekly column on this website.