There is one particular kind of depression that can make us feel like a crying helpless baby. Is this strange? Not at all: for deep down, we all still are the very same baby as when we were born.
We cannot remember the details of our birth. At that time, our baby brain had not yet learned to label and store exact impressions and archive them as recollections. And maybe it’s a good thing we forgot most of it: because for each of us, being born was a highly traumatic experience. And though we do not exactly remember it, associative traces of that shocking experience still linger deep down inside our mind.
Since the beginning of time – an eternity – you had been floating around peacefully in paradise: in the safe, warm, smoothly fluid sea of the womb. Light was a muted reddish glow; sound was the steady, restful, motherly heartbeat all around; movement was a caressing drift of the waves; being awake was not yet different from dreaming. You were not alone, you were connected, you were a natural part of it all. There was no other universe.
And then, suddenly, without warning, a violent storm began to rock and shake the waters and you were pushed out. Out into a different world, into some place that was Hell.
There suddenly was awfully harsh Light, white and blue and yellow, everywhere, so bright that it pierced right through your closed eyelids. And for the first time in your life you felt Cold, a shivering coldness so cruelly freezing your wet skin that it made you gasp, gasp for what? cold air. Air, empty air.
For the first time in your life you felt Heavy: a nauseating heaviness pressing your backside down into something harsh, something itchy, something weirdly dry. And also for the first time in your life, you were overwhelmed by intense Fear: was some terrible monster holding you down?
And then all those Sounds! That terrible noise! Creaking and scraping and rasping and grumbling and high-pitched whatever-it-was, a never-ending bombardment of incredibly loud sounds that kept cutting straight into your head… causing a feeling of… yes, there it was, something horrible you had felt never before: Pain. It made you gasp the cold air again. More pain.
You started to cry. And your own crying proved even more strange and hurting and painful and loud. And after some gasps it made you feel another first: Exhaustion (later to be followed by the equally new sensations of Hunger and Thirst).
And above all, you had a yet unnamed, shapeless, but incredibly sad feeling of Loss: a feeling of wanting to go back, back, back to the safe warm world that you came from. Wanting to stop the cold and the glare and the noise and the heaviness.
Now if you were a lucky baby, then in the next days your mother’s warm arms and breast would begin to give you some comfort, a little wetness reminiscent of the taste of your lost world, a little faraway echo of that same heartbeat you were used to be part of, a little softness, a temporary hint of safety, a voice you vaguely recognized from before.
You slowly came to trust the smell and warmth and sound of your mother, but still the world around you remained cruel and harsh. Your mother knew; she cuddled you and perhaps softly sang some lullaby. Sleep came to envelop you in a blanket of numbness and quiet: it made you dream of yesterday’s womb world, it made you almost float away like you had always done before. Sleeping was the best thing you could do.
Still, in the first weeks of your life, every awakening came like a crude and terrible shock: a little bit like being born over and over again. It took some time before you came to understand and expect that your mother, your only tie with the Paradise Lost, was near and would hold you close again in her comforting arms.
Well, this same horrified and traumatized baby still lives on, deep inside our mental core. It’s still there, though it’s kept silent and withdrawn now for most of the time. It’s been covered by other, more adequate, more self-supporting, more aware layers of Self. In a way, we develop like onions: growing new layers that cover the old. Our shrieking baby core was gradually covered by a childhood layer; that layer was enveloped in an adolescence layer, over that came a layer of adulthood.
All these layers remain a part of our personality, but the inner layers are now left hidden and dormant for most of the time. This goes for the part of us that is still a child, and even more for the original core part of us that forever will remain a newborn baby. Here is a picture to visualize this onion structure of our personality:
Unfortunately there is a kind of depression – I like the term Regressive Depression – that roughly tears away all outer layers of our onion-shaped personality and reduces us to our original newborn baby again: reviving all the original panic, disorientation, helplessness from the traumatic hours just after birth.
This kind of depression comes with exactly the same kind of sensory overload we experienced as a newborn baby. All light becomes a glare that hurts the eyes: we’d like to close the curtains or pull a blanket over our head. All sounds become a meaningless, painfully shrieking bomber attack on our mind: we’d like to cover our ears. We sweat and shiver at the same time, drop down on a sofa or bed, unable to stand on our feet anymore.
Worst of all, we feel we cannot stand this cruel meaningless shrieking glaring empty world around us anymore. We want to get out of it, back into… yes, maybe back into that same warm soft womb that once enveloped us. Or else, well, we’d rather die than endure this horrible chaotic loud world any longer, this thing we never asked for.
We can feel so desperately helpless and lost that we even half-consciously start to cry for our mother, a mother who may have gone long ago: being thrown back into our primitive babyhood core, we desperately long for our mother’s arms, breast, voice, warmth to protect us against the unbearable onslaught of this after-birth world.
Such a wave of Regressive Depression can have different causes; please let me save that for some other time. Of course for a long-term counter-strategy you need to address a structural cause. But more important now is the question: when under acute attack of this kind of depression, what is the best short-term remedy?
Maybe you’re going to laugh at me now for my gross simplicity, or maybe you’re going to accuse me of escapism, but my conviction here is indeed simple. When this kind of depression temporarily reduces you to a kind of powerless baby, then the best-working solution will be the very same solution that worked when you actually were this powerless baby. A solution that temporarily shields you from the devastating world. Lacking the loving care of a mother, there’s only one solution left, baby: go to sleep.
The immediate problem is of course that the same panic that you’d like to drive away with a smothering dose of sleep, can often prevent you from falling asleep in the first place. This is why some psychiatrists will prescribe a combination of an antidepressant with a sleep-inducing tranquilizer (even though such a combination is not always harmless). Alternatively, this is why some patients will take a stiff drink (even though alcohol in such a situation is not harmless, either).
Personally I want to recommend something else: try to simulate the one other factor that helped you to survive the difficult days after birth. Yes. Your mother. Maybe you have a friend close enough to lie down beside you in bed for a while, so his-or-her arms can serve as stand-in for your mother’s arms enveloping you. Listening to some kind of soft lullaby song can also be a great way to simulate a soothing mother’s presence.
More in general, I do know that some of us like music that induces sleep by a slow steady rhythm that somehow evokes an unconscious association with the time when we floated around in the womb. To go a step further, you could even try one of those commercial CDs with actual womb sounds. These are meant for letting babies fall asleep, but they seem to work for many adults just as well. I don’t like to endorse commercial firms, but for a random example of such a “Womb Sound CD”, see here.
Even more generally, everything that produces positive early childhood associations, and the accompanying feeling of safety, can help. If you want to know how childish I am myself (yes it’s part of my onion core) let me tell you that I know that once I’ve fled into my bed, feeling ravaged by a wave of Regressive Depression, firmly clutching an old teddy bear can be much more helpful than one would rationally expect.
So you’ve fallen asleep. When you awake after a few hours, in some cases your horrible wave of Regressive Depression will have gone. At least it will now be less strong and sharp, that much I can assure you.
The important thing now is to focus on the more mature parts of your personality: the outer layers of the onion. Revive them so you don’t remain stuck in your baby core: get up and try to do something simple. Make coffee. Phone a friend. Read your tweets. Life, normal life, will to some degree return to you.
Of course it cannot harm to talk with your psychiatrist or a good friend about your frightening Baby Experience. Talking about such an attack of Regressive Depression can help you to get a little more insight. For example, did something happen that day that triggered it? And if this same horrible experience keeps coming back to you frequently, then you should certainly try to get some professional help.
Enough for now. I want to leave you with the comforting sounds of a truly sweet but at the same time not too-childish lullaby.
It’s Ninna Nanna, the unexpectedly gentle conclusion of the rocking 1993 album X Forza e X Amore by Italian singer Gianna Nannini (see more about her in the footnotes below).
This song (possibly inspired by Brahms) works great as a lullaby for several reasons, one of them being that it’s in Italian. Since most of us don’t understand Italian, this perfectly replicates how we as a baby heard our mother singing to us: hearing a voice, sounds, but not yet understanding any of the words. Though maybe you can guess that Gianna’s repeated “dormi, dormi” means “sleep, sleep”.
Normally I’m not very fond of songs that fade out, but here that works great too: it suggests how the singing voice will fade away into the foggy onset of sleep. OK, here she is.
Gianna Nannini – Ninna Nanna
For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page.
• some footnotes:
1. Isobella Beeton (1836-1865, often wrongly referred to as Isabella) was a well-known Victorian writer about “household management”. She was a great cook; her tragically short life left us with a lot of recipes.
She certainly knew all about onions. But my diagram picture above, I admit, is a playful fake.
2. Gianna Nannini is an Italian singer and songwriter, active since 1976, who produced and still produces many many wonderful albums with many many superb songs, ranging from aggressively screaming rock to contemplative.
I love her because she dares to be overtly melodramatic and melodious in an almost-but-not-quite kitschy way: an expressive kind of style that would be possible nowhere else than in Italy. It’s a shame that outside Europe, so few people know about her.
Here is a link to her official Gianna Nannini website (in Italian, the English version is less complete).
3. If because of this post you want to pin me down as a neo-Freudian, so be it. I am not dogmatic at all, and I am also aware that Freud, constantly trying to assert himself, did write a lot of pompous unscientific nonsense. We live in different times now.
But I will always keep loving him as a pioneer who pointed out a few essential truths that helped many people to get to understand themselves a little better.