In Questions and Answers I try (as a true ExpEx, Expert-by-Experience) to answer some of your questions, as brief as possible.
Question that was asked yesterday:
“Why do we isolate ourselves when we are depressed?”
Answer: In my view there are four main factors that can make us isolate ourselves when in a depression: (1) Broken Filtering, (2) Exhaustion, (3) Shame and (4) Alienation.
The first one means that during depression, all sensory impulses from the world around us can come in either too weak, or much too harsh and intense; in which case we tend to protect ourselves from total confusion by temporarily “shutting off”. For a description of this mechanism, see my post Broken Filtering.
The next two factors, exhaustion and shame, are more self-evident. Exhaustion can be caused either directly by depression itself, or by the lack of adequate sleep that sometimes comes with depression. We then isolate ourselves because we feel we don’t have any energy left to get in touch with others. As for shame, this of course has to do with the self-deprecation that is inherent to depression. I discussed this several times here; for an example see my post Shame.
The fourth factor is the feeling that we’re already isolated and alone anyway, that nobody understands us in our depression, so it won’t matter anymore: a kind of indifference together with a feeling of alienation. For a description that comes close to this effect, see my post Fleeing the Party.
Making a big change in your life can be unsettling. For some of us, it can even be so disorienting that it triggers a depression. I hope and trust that will not happen to me, this time.
If you decide for a big change wisely, in a well-considered way, it can also have huge advantages. To name just two: (1) it can strengthen your feeling of being free and in control of your own life again; and (2) it can be a great occasion to reflect, to take a brief pause reassessing both your past and your plans for the future.
During the coming days I will be moving, bit-by-bit, to a new home not far from where I live now. It’s a primitive old wooden cabin – complete with wood stove – hidden between trees and shrubs. Romantic. In some respects, back-to-basics. And hard to find, too! But of course I do not intend to become a weird and completely isolated hermit like Ted Kaczynski did in his Montana cabin (see footnote). In fact, driving to the nearest town will take me less than ten minutes.
Yesterday I sat for the first time in my new yard. I took this photo:
Although we’re still waiting for really fine spring weather, the first mosquitoes and flies and honeybees were already buzzing around in this overgrown garden. While quietly sitting there, I suddenly had a strange experience: I felt like one of those buzzing insects. A living being just like them: part of the same natural order, belonging. I felt a direct connection with everything around me.
No doubt in the next weeks, after moving in, I’ll become more realistic again, taking some measures against nature encroaching too much on me. If I don’t want my place to get overgrown completely I’ll have to do some frequent clipping and weeding; I’ll install some anti-mosquito curtains for my door and windows; and I plan to find myself a fierce cat that hopefully will keep out mice and rats.
Still, that moment of “feeling one with the bees” was too valuable to forget. I think the essence of that feeling was the awareness that nature as a whole is so much bigger and more permanent than us small living beings. The awareness that we all, whether we are a honeybee or a human being, are both a natural part of that whole picture, and a temporary part of it.
We humans last for longer than those mosquitoes; but the trees will outlast us. And a hundred years from now the world will still be green (I hope) but the very same picture will be filled with other shrubs, fresh flowers, other bees, other rabbits, hares and birds, and other people. Hills and fields will probably look very much the same, and maybe your present house will still stand, but someone else will be living in it.
What this means is that we, just like that honeybee, should take full advantage of the brief span of time that is allotted to us. And enjoy it, as intensely and actively as we can.
Life is short: all the more reason to get a grip on it. Don’t let depression steal your limited, precious time.
Enough philosophy for today –
Now for a practical point!
According to my internet provider, it will take them at least until May 25th before they can get me a working online connection at my new place.
Of course I’ll try to find some temporary solutions, but combined with the actual chores of moving, this means that for the next two weeks I may not be able to update this site with the normal frequency.
I hope that by June 1st, everything here at StayOnTop will be back to normal again.
• footnote: The notorious anarchist “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski gave up his university job and moved to a remote cabin in the wilderness, cutting all ties with society, living alone in complete isolation without electricity or even a water tap. And more important, without seeing anyone.
From there, between 1978-1995 he mailed his bomb packages to people whom he believed represented all the evils of modern industrial civilization.
You must be mad to bomb people, but also mad to opt for that kind of extreme isolation. I’m convinced that in turn, this self-chosen isolation made him even more crazy than he already was.
Internet is to literature what a hamburger is to a steak. Fast food. It is in this hashing vein that I want to bring you The Bell Jar: chopped up into a few smoldering quotes.
This well-known semi-autobiographic novel by the poet Sylvia Plath is about depression, suicidal feelings, trouble with other girls, complex would-be relations with men, and more. Of course I’ll be focusing on the depression side here.
The Bell Jar was published in 1963 when Plath was 30: a month later, she killed herself. She had been using antidepressants at the time, but clearly this hadn’t helped her. Some people blame her husband, poet Ted Hughes, for her suicide. But to be honest, I think that’s nonsense. I think suicidal tendencies were inherent to her personality. And just like I would never blame anyone else for my own two suicide attempts, I cannot imagine that if Plath had survived she would have blamed anyone but herself.
And you are, yes I already thought so, far too depressed to muster the energy and perseverance to read a whole book? Then my selected quotes will take you through it in a few giants’ steps – in less than ten minutes. Maybe in this hamburger format it’s worth the effort? I do have a good dressing to go with it, too:
The song 2 O’Clock in the Morning by Swati (Swati Sharma). A singer who really deserves more attention than she seems to be to be getting. She does have a Facebook page here, and you can find some of her songs on her Myspace page.
This song by Swati is about a girl who in the middle of the night is halfway up climbing to a New York rooftop to… Well, you can guess.
As usual, you’ll have the click my “Play” button to hear it.
Please now do your homework for today. Try reading some snippets. Just see if there’s something you recognize in these lines that Sylvia Plath wrote down almost fifty years ago.
The Bell Jar – In a Few Quotes
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
from chapter 2:
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster.
from chapter 3:
I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film premiere, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.
from chapter 4:
The next thing I had a view of was somebody’s shoe.
It was a stout shoe of cracked black leather and quite old, with tiny air holes in a scalloped pattern over the toe and a dull polish, and it was pointed at me. It seemed to be placed on a hard green surface that was hurting my right cheekbone.
I kept very still, waiting for a clue that would give me some notion of what to do.
A little to the left of the shoe I saw a vague heap of blue cornflowers on a white ground and this made me want to cry. It was the sleeve of my own bathrobe I was looking at, and my left hand lay pale as a cod at the end of it.
“She’s all right now.”
The voice came from a cool, rational region far above my head. For a minute I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, and then I thought it was strange. It was a man’s voice, and no men were allowed to be in our hotel at any time of the night or day.
from chapter 7:
For the first time in my life, sitting there in the soundproof heart of the UN building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.
The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.
I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
from chapter 8:
“Well?” I rapped out, thinking, You can’t coddle these sick people, it’s the worst thing for them, it’ll spoil them to bits.
“Nothing,” Buddy said in a pale, still voice.
“Neurotic, ha!” I let out a scornful laugh. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
Buddy put his hand on mine.
“Let me fly with you.”
from chapter 10:
I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to. After a while I heard the telephone ringing in the downstairs hall. I stuffed the pillow into my ears and gave myself five minutes. Then I lifted my head from its bolt hole. The ringing had stopped.
Almost at once it started up again.
from chapter 11:
The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
from chapter 11:
The trouble about jumping was that if you didn’t pick the right number of stories, you might still be alive when you hit bottom. I thought seven stories must be a safe distance.
from chapter 12:
Sitting in the front seat, between Dodo and my mother, I felt dumb and subdued.
Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently.
from chapter 12:
I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights.
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
I looked down at the two flesh-colored Band-Aids forming a cross on the calf of my right leg.
That morning I had made a start.
I had locked myself in the bathroom, and run a tub full of warm water, and taken out a Gillette blade.
When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surf gaudy as poppies.
But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at.
It would take two motions. One wrist, then the other wrist. Three motions, if you counted changing the razor from hand to hand. Then I would step into the tub and lie down.
I moved in front of the medicine cabinet. If I looked in the mirror while I did it, it would be like watching somebody else, in a book or a play.
But the person in the mirror was paralyzed and too stupid to do a thing.
Then I thought maybe I ought to spill a little blood for practice, so I sat on the edge of the tub and crossed my right ankle over my left knee. Then I lifted my right hand with the razor and let it drop of its own weight, like a guillotine, onto the calf of my leg.
I felt nothing. Then I felt a small, deep thrill, and a bright seam of red welled up at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.
I thought of getting into the tub then, but I realized my dallying had used up the better part of the morning, and that my mother would probably come home and find me before I was done.
So I bandaged the cut, packed up my Gillette blades and caught the eleven-thirty bus to Boston.
from chapter 13:
After a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and tried pulling the cord tight.
But each time I would get the cord so tight I could feel a rushing in my ears and a flush of blood in my face, my hands would weaken and let go, and I would be all right again.
Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.
I would simply have to ambush it with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all. And when people found out my mind had gone, as they would have to, sooner or later, in spite of my mother’s guarded tongue, they would persuade her to put me into an asylum where I could be cured.
Only my case was incurable.
I had bought a few paperbacks on abnormal psychology at the drugstore and compared my symptoms with the symptoms in the books, and sure enough, my symptoms tallied with the most hopeless cases.
The only thing I could read, besides the scandal sheets, were those abnormal- psychology books. It was as if some slim opening had been left, so I could learn all I needed to know about my case to end it in the proper way.
I wondered, after the hanging fiasco, if I shouldn’t just give it up and turn myself over to the doctors, and then I remembered Doctor Gordon and his private shock machine. Once I was locked up they could use that on me all the time.
And I thought of how my mother and brother and friends would visit me, day after day, hoping I would be better. Then their visits would slacken off, and they would give up hope. They would grow old. They would forget me.
They would be poor, too.
They would want me to have the best of care at first, so they would sink all their money in a private hospital like Doctor Gordon’s. Finally, when the money was used up, I would be moved to a state hospital, with hundreds of people like me, in a big cage in the basement.
The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.
from chapter 14:
“Don’t you want to get up today?”
“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.
“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”
I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.
from chapter 20:
Doctor Nolan said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother’s face floated to mind, a pale reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
A bad dream.
There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder.
“All right, Esther.”
I rose and followed her to the open door.
Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold, I saw the silver-haired doctor who had told me about the rivers and the Pilgrims on my first day, and the pocked, cadaverous face of Miss Huey, and eyes I thought I had recognized over white masks.
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
• tip: If you really got all the way down to here, maybe now you do want to read the full Bell Jar. You can get the book from Amazon.
If you have an E-book reader that handles PDF files, you can also simply download the book in PDF format (from nubuk.com).
Too sad, depressed and lonely to play your part in the flowery sugary Valentine’s Day circus next Tuesday? Does this sentimental candy-sellers-campaign make you feel only more excluded, rejected, abnormal, unloved, isolated, deviant? Does it kindle the uneasy fear that you don’t belong to mainstream humankind anymore?
Well in that miserable case, do take a little comfort from the fact that you’re not the only one in the world who feels that way. No you are not! Maybe for some uplifting inspiration, one of these days you should briefly look at the Anti-Valentine’s page at Squidoo.
No need to rub it in, of course. Nor to bury your head in the sand. Or to force yourself to pretend some kind of obligatory, artificial positiveness.
You probably know that there are some kinds of poison that, when taken in a tiny dose, do have not a harmful but a healing effect. So perhaps this is one of the few occasions when a healthy small dose of cynicism is capable of making you smile:
Shall we complete this post with a nice, happy, positive Valentine song? Before you start the player, you are warned!
Oh, and before I forget, sure, I do love not just someone: I do love you all. At times. Not necessarily next Tuesday.
This is a good time for some posts about isolation, one of the core elements of depression. I see a very fitting metaphor here, because since about four days I’ve been physically isolated as well. December snow has turned into January water. The nearby river has swollen to the highest level since years. The flood has drowned the fields where herds of wild horses and cattle used to roam. Along with the fields, our only road to town has gone. Below is a photo I shot in heavy rain yesterday, at the point where the road goes down into a lake too wide and deep for anything but a boat. For the time being, we (the roughly 50 to 100 people who live at this spot) are stuck on a small island.
As long as I have food in my fridge, I don’t really mind: I am still very depressed, meaning it doesn’t make that much of a difference. You might even say this flood provides me with another welcome excuse to cancel all my appointments.
Why is it that in a deep depression we tend to isolate ourselves, canceling appointments, evading neighbors, sometimes not even answering the phone? This behavior looks unwise: we all do know very well that such self-isolation may only worsen feelings of loneliness and depression. Still, when deeply down, I myself tend to give in to a strong urge to hide like a clam in its shell: crawling in my bed, preferably even with a blanket over my head. During episodes of serious depression, for days on end I simply won’t manage to open my door and take one single step into the outside world. When yesterday I walked to the end of the road to take that watery picture, those were my first steps outside since almost a week.
I think there are at least three main explanations for this self-isolation tendency. The first reason is trying to avoid the over-stimulation that results from malfunctioning filters. People (even some experts) sometimes suggest that depression involves filtering out most impressions from the outside world: a strong filtering that produces the kind of numbness commonly associated with depression. Sometimes this is indeed what happens, but people do not always realize that the opposite may happen as well.
In normal life, there always is some balanced filtering going on in our mind: everyone needs this. It enables us to function efficiently, as we should. Too little filtering of external events may be just as problematic as too much filtering. In a depression, filtering is not simply too strong or too weak: maybe we should rather say that our mind’s filtering of the outside world becomes unbalanced. Sometimes there can be far too much filtering, which leaves you locked up inside the dark depression cave of your own mind. But often there may also be too little filtering, leaving you with an over-sensitivity that can make mere existence unbearable: every slight sound becomes a brutal pain, every glimpse of light is blinding, every soft touch is shattering.
I think that when we are at the bottom of a depression, a lot of typical “isolating behavior” might be explained as an understandable reaction to such over-sensitiveness: putting up some kind of defensive shield, no matter what, in order to protect ourself against a chaotic, painful, endangering flood of unfiltered and therefore unmanageable impressions. I think that defending yourself in that way, even if it means initially hiding yourself under a blanket in a bedroom with less noise and light, is not necessarily a bad reaction. After all, when water is squirting into your kitchen from a burst pipe, it’s not a bad first reaction to shut down the main valve.
But such a reaction is of course not adequate. Just like you still need to repair the leak in that burst water pipe, you will need to fix or at least tame that broken filtering engine in your head. How? In my own experience, the answer here is a simple-sounding but sometimes hard-to-realize one-word solution: concentration. When overwhelmed and knocked out by a massive, fearful, unfiltered stream of sensations, try to focus on just one of them: this will help you to temporarily forget the rest and to regain some control. In my bed in such a situation, I will for example try to focus entirely on the rhythm and feeling of my own breathing. This is in fact one of the meditation-related “mindfulness” strategies, but it doesn’t really require special training. Just a little bit of leftover willpower.
Or I try to create one single diverting sensation to focus on, by grabbing a bedside book and trying to read a random page very slooowly and precisely, first finding my way in the jumble of characters (those spidery black shapes on a rough-feeling yellowish paper background) and recognizing them, then reading and understanding word-by-word, and finally trying to carefully understand the full meaning of one complete sentence before starting all over again with the next one. With some luck, after a while you’ll find yourself sitting and reading just like a normal person – meaning the leak in your filtering mechanism has been fixed, more or less: complete self-isolation has become less urgent now.
Apart from Broken Filtering, there are two other main factors that in a depression contribute to the tendency to isolate oneself: Exhaustion and Shame. I think each of them deserves a separate post: especially Shame, because people sometimes contend that a severe depression is characterized by loosing all feelings of shame – which in my view is utter nonsense: shame does not disappear with a depression, it just may change and shift, making it an even larger problem instead of a lesser one. But this is enough for now.
• tip: When an unfiltered, overwhelming, too-strong flood of sensations threatens to knock you out completely, isolating yourself is an understandable first reaction. But it is no long-term solution. Instead, try to focus entirely on just one little thing in that flood.
May 21, 1949 –
Exiled German novelist Klaus Mann (42) kills himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
When trying to explain his suicide, most biographers tend to mention his homosexuality (which was not socially acceptable at the time) or his inability to overcome a heroin addiction.
Mann was a very productive writer. Today he is best remembered for his sixth novel, Mephisto (1936), about an ambitious actor getting morally corrupted by the Nazi regime. In 1981, István Svabó made an absolutely wonderful movie based on this book.
Suicide had already been a theme in Mann's 1937 novella Vergittertes Fenster, about the Bavarian “mad king” Ludwig II who in 1886 had killed himself.