Personal reflections · Psychology and mental illness

Living with Existential Depression

People have been asking how I’m doing, and I answer that it’s all the same as it was months ago. I’m still fighting the monster of depression, I’m still trying to find meds that work for me, I’m still struggling to find my way back to my art. There’s not much to report when it feels like so little progress is being made to recover from mental illness.

Today I deleted over 4,000 words that I had written over the past year, none worth posting on my blog. My latest low point of depression – which usually lasts from October to March (here’s hoping) – has made me far more critical of my own writing. Each time I go through another season of worsened depression (the depression doesn’t go away, it’s just less crushing during the rest of the year), I come out of it feeling aged and weary, full of shadow from the depths.

I haven’t been publishing my spiraling musings, because I lose sight of my point before I can get to the next sentence. It’s very difficult to write essays, which require the curiosity and imagination to do intensive research, and the focus to follow a thought pattern through to its often nuanced and numerous possible conclusions. Even as I’ve tried to journal or write poetry, no inspiration flows from my dedication.

The depths of depression involve hours of being trapped in a body that won’t do your bidding. The will to move, and the will to make decisions, takes immense effort. Sleep is both evasive and invasive. Days turn into weeks where I find myself in an endless haze, unable to break out of it, no matter what I try. I write rambling paragraphs that spiral across fifteen subjects, not a clear or complete concept expressed among them. These include angry rants, notes about my internal world and emotions, scattered thoughts, and generally small outbursts of attempts at writing. It’s passionate, but it doesn’t contain the focus I want to reserve for my blog.

For me, depression is an inward dive. Each winter, I learn existential things I never thought about before, and learn about what it takes for me to survive. Finding the will to live takes more digging each time it gets dropped, and the person with depression can do nothing to hold on to it. Nothing external can reach the depths of what’s going on internally. Even art, the attempt to express emotion, is impossible to creatively conjure. Depression is lost time. It means sleeping excessively and feeling guilty for not being able to do more, while wanting desperately for the means to describe what is happening. When words refuse to take shape, all I can do is wait for the clarity to return to my mind. My time has not been wasted, I tell myself. I am resting, recovering, reflecting. I am worth taking care of. But it is hard to tell myself this truth.

What floats around in my head is existential defeat. I contemplate irreconcilably hopeless thoughts. For instance, that humanity is unlikely to make drastic changes in its behavior before it goes extinct. I contemplate how the human mind desires reconciliation and harmony, and attempts to create it, sacrificing reality for cognitive comfort. Reflecting on my place in the universe makes me feel infinitely small, just an animal on a rock in space with a tiny amount of time to live, and not much influence with which to improve the world in which I live. My personal determination to face unpleasant facts is not easy on my mind. The reason I continue to do so is that I want to base myself in reality, even if it sucks, rather than in unreality, even if it is enticingly easy.

These existential musings have forced me to come back to writing with more realism. Last year, I was working restlessly with the urgency that my writings might make a difference in economic disparity. Over the past six months, I’ve come to realize in a new way how very small I am. I simply don’t have the power to fix an entire global economy. Reassessing my own audience size and the scale of my actual influence has made me step back from my writing and reevaluate what is most important for me to write about. My expectations have lowered, not for myself, but for the impact of my writings. In short, my purpose is no longer to write with ambitious expectations of dramatic changes in the world. This may seem obvious, but I was living under the delusion that my writings were crucial to the cause, and I no longer believe that they are. They’re for me, and for whoever’s reading. That’s all.

I won’t deny that this newfound realism has put a real damper on my sense of worth, my confidence in my writing, and the flow of creativity. Writing is harder than it ever was before. Yet the months have passed, and I am slowly coming out of my seasonal despair, and I have contemplated new reasons to stay alive and keep creating.

The things I ponder while I’m fighting the depths of depression involve finding hope in a deeper place than before. It’s like I reinvent my sense of meaning each time I fight my way back up out of it. Hope was difficult to find when I was religious, and I had a belief system from which to draw positive conclusions. It is indescribably more difficult to find hope now. In my idle wonderings, I’ve hypothesized that hope itself is impossible to justify while facing the facts of reality. Perhaps there is meaning deeper than hope itself. For this idea, I’ve thought of the word “momentousness” to describe what I’ve tried to center myself in.  

I do not have hope for the future. Not personally and not for humanity and not for the planet. Over time, there will be nothing left of any of it. In search for meaning, I focus on momentousness – we lucky few get to live in these times. As Stephen Hawking put it, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.”

The fact that I am a conscious being capable of comprehending my place in the universe is itself a phenomenon worth staying alive to experience. That is the meaning I have found beyond hope for the future – momentousness. Even if the problems we face individually and as a species and planet don’t warrant much hope, there is a meaning deeper than hope in momentousness.

I wish I could say that this was enough to sustain me, to make me feel like getting up in the morning. The truth is that I get up each morning to roll a cigarette to chase away the trauma-induced nightmares, and then it’s back to another day of wrestling with the existential depression.