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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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

How I created a novel meme

Last night, under the influence of the free blended spirits in the backpackers hostel I stay, I told a young traveler named Joey the outline of my satire novel. Joey was interested so with but few leaps and bounds I told him the entire story. He told me he liked it, but what really touched me was when he told the story in his own words over dinner, to even younger travelers.

I never considered that story as part of the ontology that supports my everyday life. It was more like a unicorn or an elf than like money or Murphy’s law. But as I heard the story told by Joey, all of a sudden that changed. My story now exists beyond the mind of its introvert author: It has become a meme in the sense of Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore. It will assert, or not, its own place in the memosphere as others will tell and retell the story. Mutations of the meme will be of course beyond my control, but here is what I imagine the meme will be like after a dozen meme generations:

A man who wanted to kill himself accidentally kills a woman with his suicide pill which she mistakes for a party pill. He panicks and flees in the forest but is discovered by the police. They think he is a refugee and he makes up a name, Kalim or something, and even the name of a country.

Then a billionaire buys land and creates that country. Kalim is the only official citizen because that is what it said on his papers. (It’s a bit Kafkaesque). Then the billionaire takes in all these refugees because it gives him the power to send them in small vessels to the European coast. [End of reconstructed fragment, I don’t want to give away too much]

How I created a novel meme was originally published on Meandering home

A GARDEN

In my mind I have created a garden
populated with insects who don’t bite
and birds who don’t shit on my paper when I write
there is a lily pond, with frogs who know Bach

However, they keep quiet. This is my refuge
where nothing pierces through the surface
every ripple is merely the smile of an admirer
every distortion the promise of a silence

I sit at a table, turning all that I see
into bold and brazen words; forever
in love with language, forever beholden
to her blossoms, that lie rotting at my feet

This poem was not generated by an automated poetry generator.

A GARDEN was originally published on Meandering home

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction

Just for fun writing exercise, this time about a religious Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and what he had to say about Christopher Hitchens. His article can be found in crisis magazine. Please be candid with your comments and lay out to me where grammar and rhetoric are still lacking

I would like to exercise and exorcise the vacuity in a pompous text that I found on the Internet, attacking the Dear Leader of my cult, the late Christopher Hitchens. The author of this text is Sean Haylock, a philosopher who ‘found home’ to Christ, writing in the only publication crisis magazine. He opens his piece with an apology for the fact that he had been ‘taken-in’ by the ‘bravura bombast’ of the Hitch. The superfluous alliteration warned me from the very first sentence that the piece would be tough to digest because this author had been too eager to produce resounding phrases, rejoicing as it were in beautifying his grammar rather than submitting it to critical analysis.

He purchased God is Not Great to the visible dismay of the cashier of his local bookstore? What kind of self-hating bookstore is that, where an employee shows dismay when a customer purchases a product that is sold there? When he reportedly ‘devoured it in a fit of scandalized glee’, as if the book was on the Index and he sought the excitement of doing something forbidden, lacking access to pussy – I got the picture.

The PhD-candidate continues with an admittedly well-chosen adjective, debonair, but he overdoes it. Of course Hitchens could ‘pitch you into elated laughter’ with ‘bawdy asides’, but he uses this description to obfuscate the untruth that follows: “if you were on his side, of course”. What nonsense! There have been many believers who laughed out loud and visibly enjoyed the man’s great taste and eloquence in debate. An example might be Tony Blair. Now our author has ‘shifted against him on most matters that he cared about’. There is only one matter here: the existence of a supernatural being. Or are you saying that you shifted against him on matters such as genital mutilation, climate change, honor killings, homosexuality? All ‘matters’ were Christopher quite simply held the right view, and I would defend these views against everybody who things otherwise.

The next paragraph opens with the baffling claim that Hitchens was above all an entertainer, supported not with arguments but with a supposedly witty comparison. Hitchens has a larger than life character and effortless erudition (another irritating alliteration). A man who consistently fought against the delusion of religion and held contrarian views informed by his own rational considerations alone, not by an authority, wants to convince, not to entertain. It is a gross and quite unforgivable insult and, of course, a counterproductive way of neutralizing the force of Hitchens’s arguments.

Next we must ‘acquaint ourselves with the private being that dwelt in the shadow of that vivid façade’ because that private being, ‘in its frailty and nakedness and immutable beauty is wat matters most about each person’. I used to call this the moralistic rape of your audience. Add in a tear-jerking sentence and another blatant and for religions authoritarians very convenient lie, namely that only the person matters. God damn it, what matters is what the man said.

Once the sluices to the ad hominem are opened wide, the mud starts flowing. About the claim that Hitchens would be a narcissist our author writes “there is some truth in that”. How can he know? For all I know the man was eloquent, don’t conflate the two because it might haunt you one day, when you gain an ‘undaunted style’ or even or the ability to think for yourself, the latter faculty conveniently dismissed as ideological idiosyncracies. Next, our author uses the anecdotal evidence that he doesn’t feel trusted as a reader, that there is the ‘distance of lacquered artifice’. He missed the ‘intimate contact of souls’ that he yearns for as a religious person and because he didn’t feel good about the packaging, he disposes of rational argument altogether. But what our zealot dismisses as ‘arrogance parceled out in witticisms’ is the heart-felt indignation over the horrors committed in the name of religion. The next untruth this self-righteous scribbler feels the need to proclaim is again an ad hominem, saying that simply because Hitchens is capable of the art of polemics, he couldn’t do justice to matters of moral consciousness? Our benighted Christian forgets that the allegedly objective moral truths his tribal faith claims to know must be independent of our own morality, in fact Christianity depends for a large part on the idea that crooked men have the ability to see the light and be reborn in Christ. The atheist, of course, is not only crooked but should be confined to hell and eternal damnation. Apparently, it is only by denying truth and humanity in everybody else that Christians can uphold the consistency of their narrative. The all-encompassing inclusion of the loving father-god is predicated on the exclusion, and if (indeed historically whenever) they get away with it, extermination of infidels. But enough. In the same paragraph, our writer dares to doubt Hitchens’s personal integrity, as if eloquent rebuttals are in any way comparable to the indoctrination of faith and the mutilation of genitals. Another vile smear, and he isn’t done yet.

It gets worse. This bloke calls Hitchens a demagogue and a charlatan because he deployed rhetoric with passion and vehemence. This is a non sequitur if there ever was one. He accuses him of using ‘flashy rhetorical gambits’ without any real argument. That gambit goes “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. It is ‘redolent of verificationism’ and would lead to obscurantism, while Hitchens would be not aware of the ‘developments in the twentieth century’ of the philosophy of science. These ‘developments’ are of no importance to the argument at hand, but just serve, again, to obfuscate that our author has just attempted to perform a sleight of hand. Of course the right to assert something without evidence is no greater than to dismiss it. This is precisely what guards us against obscurantism. Besides, Hitchens was well aware of Karl Popper, thank you very much.

Our bigot continues, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. After saying that Hitchens is worshiped or even idolized, he calls his agonizing struggle with cancer and his death ‘humiliating’. Humiliating to whom? To your heavenly father, whose sordid morals you see so proudly vindicated? How dare you! Yes, he was an iconoclast made icon, and imitated (not emulated) by the young. So what? You didn’t present one single argument in your confused and stilted rant.

Lo and behold, the next paragraph presents the accusation, again phrased in meanspirited suggestiveness, that Hitchens’s ‘inability to offer more than the most perfunctory denunciation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is significant’. No it isn’t. Since when do deranged philosophies like Ayn Rand’s deserve more than perfunctory denunciation and derision? There is a reason why Hitch didn’t rebut such repugnant sophistry and it is not because of a lack in his thought or ‘wild imbalance in his priorities’. It is because Ayn Rand’s reasoning does not exculpate, motivate and perpetuate suffering the way the ‘reasoning’ of religion does.

It gets more preposterous. He claims, again without even a shred of evidence, that Hitchens wasn’t able to see the ‘penetrating and insightful exploration of the mystery of transubstantiation by [Christian philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe. It is allegedly beyond Hitchens’s intellectual powers, which is, given Christopher’s resume, an adventurous claim. And frankly, why in the hell would Hitchens, or anyone, occupy themselves with the turning of a loaf of bread into the symbolical (pardon, real) body of Christ? Anscombe’s beautiful and ‘penetrating’ analysis doesn’t make this bronze age buncombe any more true, just like Hitchens’s rhetorical tour de force doesn’t alter the meaning of his arguments.

In yet another bewildering paragraph, the PhD-candidate continues to say that Hitchens’s sense of dignity is perverse because he refuses to pick truth over consoling lies. It’s more of the same smooth pulpit talking, really, and as vacuous as everything we’ve read before. The idea of a god figure as necessary condition for ethical behavior (compassion) is briefly invoked but of course not supported with any arguments because there exist none.

In his closing phrase, this light-weight verbal pugilist delivers yet another underhand blow by saying that for Christopher the world was a debating hall, an arena, an editorial page, a stage, while for Christians it is a gift that is ‘bewildering in its excess and perplexing in its simplicity yet undeniably precious’. Perhaps the author, who refuses to come down from his moral high horse, has never heard Hitchens saying very similar things about the bewildering beauty of the universe, the mind-boggling idea that we can see billions of years in the past or that our bodies are host to billions of fellow organisms. This vengeful Christian denies Hitchens the full extent of his own emotions by saying his world view was ‘only black and white’, and he has to do this because he himself logically depends (in fact: believes that his life depends) on a world view that is strongly authoritarian and must deny others soul and sanity. I cannot personally feel anything but disgust about such a lazy and cowardly assessment that, as I’ve sufficiently shown, is devoid of arguments.

This is empty language, comrades. I fear that such a PhD-candidate will eventually receive his doctorate and continue to fabricate the sophisms he needs in order to support his ‘faith’. We need to call this bluff and we need to make it very clear that the purported rationality of such people’s arguments is in fact a dangerous quagmire that, unlike Socrates, deceives the youth into renouncing the capacity to think for themselves.

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction was originally published on Meandering home