Trying to explain depression to someone who has not experienced it is perhaps a bit like trying to explain love to someone who has never experienced it. It is not something that you can understand through books or pictures, or by watching people you know experience it. You have to live it.
Nevertheless in my never-ending quest to bridge the chasm between my life and the lives of those around me, I would like to spend a little time trying to explicate the conundrums of depression for those who have been blessed with a stable and happy mind.
There is a great deal of difference between someone who has grown up depressed versus someone who has their depression precipitated later in life. Someone who becomes depressed midway through life because, for example, a loved one died, has a whole host of life experiences that do not have the shadow of depression ever looming in the background. Their mind has experienced life without depression, and this bodes extremely well for their ability to recover and move on.
Contrast the person who becomes depressed in their 30s with one whose formative years were lived in the thrall of depression. Here can I speak from experience. One of the most common arguments against suicide is ‘but they had so much to live for.’ This is an argument that rings hollow to one who has never felt they had much to live for; what exactly do these people think there is to live for except to have positive experiences in life? You know, the exact things that someone depressed does not experience.
This is where the length of time and the age of onset of depression becomes very important. For someone whose depression onsets midway through life, their depression will be seen as a contrast to their previous life. This contrast, no doubt, is exquisitely painful, as one can come to feel they are no longer capable of feeling joy or happiness like they once did. This person has come to feel, perhaps, they do not have much to live for anymore; but this is in contrast to how they once felt, in contrast to a state of mind they have experience with.
Someone who has grown up in a state of depression does not have this contrast to look at. Perhaps they have some idyllic view of early childhood, when the fears and pains of life expressed more as occasional volleys as opposed to a sustained barrage of negative thoughts. Regardless, from the time you start becoming you (I generally believe that self-actualization largely begins with the onset of puberty and the feeling of needing to separate and differentiate oneself from their parents), you have been in a state of depression.
Every child is born with hope. For some children, the path to adulthood seems intent on wiping out that hope. Depression is not something that one can just snap out of, especially when one’s brain does not know another way of thinking; a mind that has always been depressed has nothing else to snap into. ‘Just think positively;’ another favorite line of all depressed people. Depression is more than just a way of thinking; a person’s thoughts should always be considered as subordinate to their emotional state. I can think that everyone really does care about me and wants me to be happy all I want; if I cannot feel that care, if I go among those who supposedly care for me and feel empty, my thoughts will inevitably seem folly, and one grows to feel less and less in control of their mental state.
As someone growing up with depression (and lots of anxiety to boot), every experience I had on the road to adulthood was colored by and seen through the lens of my depression. Going to school seemed a daily punishment that I could not escape from; social interactions were just a step away from embarrassment or ridicule; every day was just another long trudge until finally sleep could take me. When one grows up in constant dread of the next day, of the new experiences their life might offer them, one does not perceive themselves as having a lot to live for. One does not think of a bad day as something out of the norm; one thinks of a good day as out of the norm. This has the effect of marginalizing all positive experiences as transient; happiness seems to always be fleeting, a cruel break from the normal monotony of depression that only intensifies the feelings of loneliness and isolation as soon as it is over.
Life is, in many ways, a long series of self-fulfilling prophecies. When you grow up without the expectation of happiness or contentedness, it is very unlikely these things will just find you. There aren’t many social groups where the depressed and the optimistic exist in harmony; the philosophies and perceptions of life are as dichotomous between depressed and happy people as they are between the far-right and far-left. Thus, the depressed person very likely ends up in a social group surrounded by other depressed people. Especially as a youth, there is a great urge to be right, which can lead to the depressed self-validating their own feelings when discussing said feelings with others who understand. At this point the depressed often feel a need to ‘other’ the non-depressed, to believe that in fact there is something wrong with anyone who isn’t depressed. This starts one down the path of believing that it is correct to be depressed.
This point is one I feel anyone who has not experienced depression will find themselves puzzled by, but it is essential to understanding the growth of depression in a depressed person. What one believes to be right or correct is what one feels, much more than what one thinks; a person who grows up depressed does not think ‘oh, depression is definitely the right way to experience the world,’ they simply experience the world depressed and come think, in response to those feelings, ‘being depressed is the correct lens through which to view the world.’ At this point depression is now an ego problem as well. For the depressed person to acknowledge the way they viewed the world and the perceptions they gathered through a depressed lens may be entirely the result of depression, and not in fact the result of a correct perception of the world, is basically to acknowledge that everything you thought and believed might be wrong.
Taken together, the above two points give us a picture looking something like this: depressed people will generally come to associate with other depressed people; these people, as with any group of people with similar views, will start validating their own perceptions as correct and perceiving those who hold different views as wrong; in this way depression comes to appear, to the depressed person, as the right way to live; at this point it is very hard to see anyway out of depression, because you’ve managed to twist depression around into something viewed almost favorably. I think depressed people often can feel a sense of superiority to happy people, which makes it very hard to admit that maybe the happy people aren’t just idiots who are oblivious to the struggles and hardships of life, but perhaps are people who have found a better and healthier way of managing their way through life.
This leads us to one of the most important facets of depression: anger and self-pity. For someone who is already depressed, it is just about the most natural feeling in the world to look at someone who is happy and think ‘oh woe is me,’ and simultaneously to feel the undeniable injustice that renders some people happy and some people miserable. At the point where one believes they are on the wrong side of some sort of cosmic injustice, it is very hard not to become increasingly angry at everything. One can easily grow to believe that they have been cursed, that they are uniquely unhappy, and that the only possible escape from this is death.
At this point I want to wrap things back around to the argument against suicide: ‘but they had so much to live for.’ I hope at this point it is a little clearer as to why someone with depression might find this a rather empty argument. And this, perhaps, is a central issue in dealing with depression in our society. One cannot argue against depression anymore than one can argue against love. These are states of mind that do not necessarily have any connection to ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ trains of thought, such as might be responsive to a reasoned argument. Rather, they are states that arise out of feelings, and only arguments on that level stand a chance of success.