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.
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.
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.
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.
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.