How I avoided Depression

The original title of this article was “How I Overcame Depression” because it sounds more spectacular and is more likely to propel me into the realm of fickle yet immensely enjoyable Internet fame. But I didn’t want to lie. I don’t believe my symptoms, burdensome and debilitating as they were, warranted the diagnosis of clinical depression. I just experienced mild despondency. To be sure, I did live in an alternative universe, but that by no means justifies labeling my experiences at will.

 

Symptoms

Around the shortest day of the year, which happens to be my late mother’s birthday, I found myself in the corner of the smallest room of my house, hunched over my most loyal companion, my laptop. I was binge-watching the Netflix series The Walking Dead. There were no weekdays, there was no difference between day and night. It was an escape into a more meaningful world, a place where all the character’s actions had immediate relevance for the group. Watching the series and identifying with its protagonist Rick Grimes made me vicariously relevant. I was needed in Georgia, where I combated formidable foes with Daryl and Michonne, where I routinely butchered walkers, where I even suffered (spoiler alert) the terrible loss of my beloved wife and then my son — but it was all bearable because I didn’t lose my sense of relevance. Until the end of season eight, which happened on a nondescript day sometime around 4 am. I would like to say next that I just got up and went on with my happy life, but the reality is messier than that. I underwent the festivities at year’s end and stumbled into 2019. I didn’t crave another escape, but neither did I feel relevant. This might sound like a central symptom of depression, but I think it is pointless and inept to self-diagnose.

 

Midlife crisis

Perhaps I am dramatizing my rather mundane experiences too much. As it happens, a few weeks after my exile in the land of the Walking Dead, I celebrated my fortieth birthday. I realized that this could have been about celebrating my achievements, but there were none to speak of. No merry band of friends and family. I spent the days in relative poverty with the two women I love most in this world. On my day of honor, my wife was angry because in a pizza restaurant I couldn’t stop kvetching about our penury. Society would call me a loser, and society would be about right.

A friend on social media told me that I was experiencing the midlife crisis. For someone who isn’t entombed in a formal 9–5 job, this comes pretty much exactly at the halfway mark. A lot of bad boys grow a backbone only after four decades on earth. Hollywood actor Robert Downey Junior seems to have found himself around forty, as did rock star philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I believe that in both cases women were involved. Other male superstars like Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt have battled with depression and they, too, quite gloriously prevailed. What exactly does the trick differs from person to person. I have read about diets, health supplements, sleep, exercise, cold showers, making friend and meeting friends.

I think all of these can be incredibly helpful, and I do pretty much all of them, but it seems to me that they all presuppose some initial spark. Why bother with bench pressing and broccoli when you feel utterly irrelevant and can’t find any meaning beyond the next episode of your show, or your next fix? There must be some ulterior motive to get back on our feet. There must be something that clicks into place, in a way that should be quite visible on an MRI scan of your brain.

 

Narratives

What matters most for our emotional well-being is the story we tell ourselves. What we do every day happens in the context of the story we are telling. We understand how adversity can seem completely different if embedded in a narrative of failure. A bump in the road or a healthy challenge becomes an obstacle that confirms our sense of worthlessness. Rather than auguring future reward, they are an omen of ultimate defeat. We interpret everything in the light of our current narrative, which Žižek calls an ideology. The impossibility to rid ourselves of this private ideology is what makes the illusion of an ideology-free society so dangerous. As my experiences taught me, our identity narrative can be extremely sensitive.

 

Recognition

Last December, I participated in a Dutch national poetry competition, rather bizarrely named after the great Alan Turing. Out of over 7,000 paying submissions, my verse was among the 100 to be published in a book. Finally, I felt a glimmer of recognition. A fragile strand of hope, waiting to be woven into the fabric of my narrative. For a moment, I believed this was not a coincidence, that I had actually reached the point where society saw me for what I am. I was rewarded for something I thought was a meaningful contribution.

But I had also sent a book of poetry to a publisher. Early January I received the rejection Facebook message, and I felt the neural pathways of self-pity activating themselves. My mind, like water, sought the lowest point, it followed the easiest path to the drain. The narrative that matches this pattern best was the narrative of failure, the edifice that I had built around myself, a place utterly devoid of passion or pleasure, but at least one that allowed for coherence. I believe that there is an evolutionary root of this narrative coherence. In a group of primates, you can be more successful if your behavior is predictable. If your peers can count on you in the role you assume, even if that is the role of the feeble and downtrodden. In our complex society, this evolutionary tactic has become useless. Whatever these evolutionary origins may be, I did experience my inner narrator seeking coherence.

Within seconds after receiving the message, I had projected myself back into my gloomy castle of negativity, where I derived a modicum of affirmation from the coherence of its interior. The lazy, self-fulfilling story of the loser had again taken the upper hand.

 

Choosing my story

Why did I shift my attention back from the mild exaltation about the poetry prize to the poignancy of the rejection letter? Why did it feel so much more natural to accept the affirmation of my failure than to see received praise as the seed of my success story? Why does my life narrative prefer to slip into failure?

The narrative of failure is compelling because it easily achieves coherence. This can quasi-intellectually be associated with the law of increasing entropy. When you are used to the failure story, it takes tremendous effort to replace it with a narrative of success.

I didn’t, of course, exchange my narratives overnight, both were always there, competing for dominance. About the reasons why the narrative of eventual success prevailed I have as good a guess as anybody. It may have something to do with the awareness of mortality since it was around my birthday that I quite naturally began to move in the proper direction. I became more goal-oriented, I became more interested in food (the other animal pleasure was strangely never absent during my depressed episode), I slept better, I gave up procrastination and even faced one of my most gruesome fears head-on: the taxman.

The result, though not instantaneous, felt a little bit like a miracle. At least, that is how I am likely to weave it into my narrative. It is a fine example of self-reinforcement because the interpretation of something as a miracle clearly opens up possibilities. More precisely, it conflates our idea of the possible with that of the imaginable. The world lied at my feet again. Obstacles have become challenges, the possibility of failure has become less haunting. Uncertainty does no longer scare me into conformity and escapism.

In my new story, I became my own toughest critic. It felt delighted when I edited last year’s embarrassing poems. Meaning, if it is not too hackneyed a phrase, lies more in the process than in the outcome.

I probably will experience some backlash in the coming months. Money trouble can drag me down, toxic people or rejection can make me revert back to the narrative of failure.

Depression is gone. But I will have to keep writing to keep it that way.

How I avoided Depression was originally published on Meandering home

Professor Trompsky #3

Professor Trompsky, what do you think of the intellectual climate of today?

There is a worrying decline of what I call the culture of wisdom. More often than not, people engaging in debates are more concerned with cementing their own argumentation, making their own narrative waterproof as it were. Instead of trying to integrate the stories of their opponents in their own Grand Narrative, they readily dismiss them as fundamentally flawed. I miss the eagerness to achieve such inclusivity, the wonder of how an other thinking mind can draw sometimes totally different conclusions. This presuposses, I am well aware, a fundamental respect and we shall call it a belief in the intellectual capabilities of their opponents. Rather than treating them like an annoyance they want to get rid of, I miss the intellectual attitude that wishes to celebrate disagreement in order to proceed to a higher truth. Recently I wrote about this and produced the following formula. We should attempt to reduce a strange narrative we encounter to our own.

Don’t you think this is the faux nostalgia that comes with age? Was it not the case that intellectuals in the cold war era, dismissed each other for chosing the wrong side?

[chuckles] No, I can give you a concrete example. Take the political debate. If we talk about Venezuela, our initial response almost always reveals our political core belief. Media outlets who, under the influence of market pressure, tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know, amplify this phenomenon.

Professor Trompsky #3 was originally published on Meandering home

The Younger Narrative

It’s five in the afternoon, incredible lighting makes the rocky mountain in front of me, across the stream, more majestic, more real. It is not easy to pick the right words to describe it, and artificial will it sound, but however weak and dimly pronounced, they are here the words, marking a memory newer than all that came before it.

It’s the younger narrative that remains and will guide future minds, simply by virtue of coming later, and fading later. It is the narrative of the grandsons rebelling, no matter what the cause, no matter how honorable or grotesque, no matter how eloquent. The stories told by the ones who come later will overlay everything ever told. Stories, myths, fables passed on through from generation to generation is always the result of selective adaptation. Instead of the metaphor “passing” on we could use the image of a series of distortion mirrors reflecting and re-writing stories at the same time.

What we have here is a platitude. Not untrue, but we are craving for something juicier.

We want to be the younger narrative and rejuvenate. I want to draw a circle of youth and vitality around these mountains, on this afternoon. I am as close as anyone can get to the view of these mountains – at this moment. I derive absolute authority from this authenticity. Because even our perception of beauty might be – we have to give the thought a try – the result of an interplay of dark powers beyond the grasp of our conscious selves.

And so we sit on our narratives. This mountain, these thoughts and above all a set of moral believes.

Some day we must accept the loss of our narrative to whoever comes after us.

Can we fully embrace the younger narrative of our sons and daughters, knowing that they will become the authority, that their stories will be told longer than ours. Soon, we will be the aging narrative. We will feel the loss of natural authority and will play defensive. Our values will become rigid and engraved in the protective surface of our minds, we will defend them because they are the strongest of our aged younger narratives, our afternoon sun mountain views.

We are not our narrative. That is an important insight.