One of the many problems of depression is that we can think clearly only in hindsight, while during those dark episodes when clarity of thought might be most helpful, we cannot get a grip on it. This means that often, we can see the good reason of well-meant advice only in retrospection, when such advice is less urgently needed.
I was reminded of this when reading another depression blog: Christine Stapleton’s well-written (she’s a professional journalist) Depression On My Mind at the PsychCentral website. I like it, though I cannot always share her points of view. Last week she looked back at a major bout of depression she had six years ago: The Day My Depression Ate Me.
Two remarks in Christine’s post gave me some food for thought. First quote:
“In hindsight, and only in hindsight, can I see the gifts given to me by that last depression. I became open-minded, humble and patient. I learned to surrender, trust and have faith. I learned how my body – and especially my brain – work.”
Does depression, once we’ve more or less overcome it, really leave us gifts? Sure, sometimes we can learn from the experience. But depression can also horribly (and permanently) damage us. I would say it leaves us not with gifts, but with scars.
Certainly, I can share the state of mind she describes. I also do feel more “open-minded, humble and patient” than some years ago; I also learned a little better “to surrender, trust and have faith”; I also got a little more insight in the reactions of my body and brain. But would I describe that as “gifts given to me by depression”? No. On the contrary: I think that I got where I am today in spite of depression.
I think the change of mind described by Stapleton is not the fruit of depression at all: that it is rather a natural, positive consequence of getting older and wiser. The older we get, the more we learn from our own experiences: this is something that (hopefully) happens regardless whether we’ve been severely depressed or not.
Let me try to make myself clear with an example. Two years ago, I had a difficult gall bladder operation with nasty complications. Since recovering, I’ve become more aware of the frailty of my body, and more grateful for functioning normally again. Now would I describe this increased awareness as a “gift given to me by my gall bladder operation”? Frankly, I prefer to see it as a gift given to me by my willingness to look back and reflect. It was not given to me by my physical problems, but by my own ability to draw conclusions from what I’d experienced.
So for myself, I don’t see the scars of my depressions as a gift. As for the positive things in my present life (like the fact that I’m well enough again to be writing this blog) I don’t see that as a gift either. Rather, I see that as a hard-won achievement.
Second quote from Christine Stapleton’s blog post:
“If you are in your black hole and your soul is hollow, your face is limp and you can only stare into an abyss, know that this is not real. It feels real. Very, very real. More real than anything you have ever felt in your life. But it is not. What you are feeling is not life. It is depression. It will not always be like this. Please trust me. Do not give up.”
I completely agree that in the fight against depression, there are many reasons to never give up!
But I have a little trouble with the suggestion that depression is “not real”. Just like my gall bladder complications were very real, my depression is very real. Stating otherwise sounds like a kind of simplification, like a denial to me. Almost like you would be able to make problems go away just by telling yourself that those problems are “not real”. I don’t think this will work; I feel that in some situations, such self-deception can even be dangerous.
Of course this is not what Stapleton meant here. What she meant is just that the bleak perception of life, when you are depressed, is a distorted perception and not the real life: that the real life is how you see it at moments when you’re not depressed. There is some truth in this. I suppose that at times I’ve tried to say something similar myself. So what’s the problem here?
The problem is that when you say a depressed view of life is not reflecting real life, this is only true after you’ve come out of your depression. As Christine already said herself, the depressed perception does feel very real. And to me, this means that for as long as you are feeling depressed, it is real. For in a way, you are what you feel. Life is what you actually feel. Life is not just what we’re supposed to feel when we are fine, but also what we feel when we are depressed.
Depression is like being locked up in a kind of dark room without an obvious exit. If there was such an easy escape door, then evidently we all would open it right away.
But can we say that being locked up inside that oppressive room is not real life, that our real life is that lighter one that is temporarily suspended, waiting somewhere outside? To me, this is a negation of our own depressed feelings (of oneself) that will work only in hindsight.
And even in hindsight, at better moments when I’m capable of wandering through the green pastures of “real life” again, a sudden recollection of that closed depression room can still be frightfully real. So real, that often I’ll try to focus on something else in my environment immediately, for fear of that dark, merciless reality coming down on me full force again.
None. This is no matter of being right or wrong; it’s more a matter of attitude. Perhaps Stapleton’s blog reflects a little more of that stubborn positive-labeling attitude that sometimes I think is a typical American quality. For some, this works. For others, it doesn’t. For myself, such positivism requires a kind of optimistic naivety I cannot always muster: in fact, a healthy little dose of sarcasm or even cynicism can occasionally do much more to lift my mood.
Well, maybe I wrote this comment because I feel just a little depressed today.
As musical accompaniment here, nothing is more fitting than a highly effective sample of British irony: Monty Python with their famous 1979 song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, sung by Eric Idle.
They are both positive (like Christine Stapleton) and a bit sarcastic (like…) at the same time. What exactly you hear, will depend from your mood. The only thing that matters is that perhaps they’ll make you smile:
(click the “Play” button – if it does not work, install Flash)