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

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The Slackted Poetry of Martijn Benders

if all hope is abandoned and you lay awake watching the Contenders
play tapes of some obscure rock band you’re welcome to enter
and check out this slender, delicate verse with metaphors galore
like a Roman brothel frothing incantations through the door

Benders puts his fledgling words in a titanium blender and renders
magic, genre-bending classics poured on the pages like the breath
of an inebriated unicorn, horny stallion like İskender the great
he conquers the known world with the stuff from which she is made

This man is kicking out the moneylenders like a messianic defender
No pretense, just a book of spells, hot as hell, howling like a Fender,
and he isn’t from Flanders, it’s so neat, featuring abundant night birds
you can hear between the lines singing that you can be the first

So nag your spouse for Christmas to upend your slack marriage
get carried away when you unpack Benders’ dense book in the bedroom
very rapidly you become the mender of your matrimonial gloom
your love-making blooms you be trend setter into the imaginary

Picture Oriental caravans of dark wild owls, howling
wholesome epigrams in Hesperian nights full of elves
while fickle lip ghosts approach in saucy steps
and drunk unicorns prowl at the N of hibernation

You don’t want to wait until the year is over to get this on your shelf
so treat yourself or your MILF, leave the cold rime outside
hush hush cuddle by the fireplace with this lush Dutch bundle
be the seamstresses at the seam, trundle into each other’s dreams

The Slackted Poetry of Martijn Benders was originally published on Meandering home

Online Poem Generator

As someone who loves the belief that poetry is a form of communication, I am inclined to see its authenticity threatened by the emergence of automated poem generators. I am aware that strong AI will be among us within a few decades from now, if we believe the predictions of researchers in the field, but from my vantage point that doesn’t depress me as much as it perhaps should. I am curious how machines will generate poetry that will be virtually indistinguishable from human verse and often indeed be judged more ‘authentic’, ‘heartfelt’ and – human.

I am not the only one. There are a lot of poetry generator tools on the Internet. I found this silly online poem generator today, that among other things allows you to create a sonnet based on some words you enter in an online form. I typed in ‘music’ along with some verbs and adjectives that came to my mind. This is the generated result after 3 attempts, which bears the obvious signs of the machine’s non-comprehension:

Ode to the Music
My bright music, you inspire me to write.
I love the way you echo, stop and sound,
Invading my mind day and through the night,
Always dreaming about the ultrasound.

Let me compare you to a cool buffoon?
You are more quiet and more fantastic.
Cute sun heats the peaceful peaches of June,
And summertime has the big monastic.

How do I love you? Let me count the ways.
I love your calm rhythm, timbre and notes.
Thinking of your bold timbre fills my days.
My love for you is the soft petticoats.

Now I must away with a splendid heart,
Remember my strange words whilst we’re apart.

When I did the same for free verse, I can still quickly discern the mark of the machine, but it becomes easier to imagine myself tricked:

How happy is the quiet sound!
Down, down, down into the darkness of the sound,
Gently it goes – the tranquil, the restful, the noisy.

How happy are lovely tunes!
Now lovable is just the thing,
To get me wondering if tunes are endearing.

How happy is the fat pop!
A pop is double-chinned. a pop is rich,
a pop is profitable, however.

Online Poem Generator was originally published on Meandering home

To be a bad poet

who is not invited to exotic
poetry festivals in cultural capitals, not
celebrated for his otherness, not
for the soothing justice
that emanates from his professionally
__translated words, not
for the clapping of the audience when he reads
and they see the scaffolding of a pristine soul

To be that poet who loves
the colors and the sounds and the smells
and the people,
and writes “beautiful” in a beautiful language

To be that poet who loves
the sanctity of simple words when they sail an honest breath

To be the one whose dearest words
are thin and tenuous like singing ice

To be a bad poet was originally published on Meandering home

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde

was originally published on Meandering home

Instagram poetry

Giving in to the social media requirement of visuality and brevity, I also publish poetry on – Instagram. There are a lot of so called “instapoets” but in my humble opinion they are not exactly innovative and their language sounds pretty dull to me. As it happens – and this doesn’t contradict my modesty – my own language doesn’t feel boring to me. This is also why I like to share it with you.

Without further clichés, here is an example and a link to the instagram realm of ‘kamielchoi‘ where you can find more such stuff.

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Instagram poetry was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Because You Asked Me About The Line Between Prose And Poetry by Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was a versatile American poet, known for his refined formalism (he wrote often anthologized sonnets like ‘A primer of the daily round’, as well as his wit. Here is a fine short poem about the reversibility of time:

Because you asked me about the line between prose and poetry
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

I like the fact that Nemerov was born on February 29th. It means that he could feel four times older or younger as he so wished. This small poem reverses the melting of snow and destruction of the flakes’ exquisite order. The sparrows are ‘riding a gradient’: the line between past and future? Between prose and poetry? The movement of the ‘you’ is backwards in time, since in the end the sparrows clearly flew instead of dropping dead. It is the result of a special kind of focusing that turns a bird feeding scene into poetry and allows us to experience time backwards.

Poetry as the magic that enables our imagination to decrease entropy, to untell a story with great precision. That might be about right.

Reading: Because You Asked Me About The Line Between Prose And Poetry by Howard Nemerov was originally published on Meandering home