The suicide of Robin Williams has started a lengthy discussion of depression, with those who’ve suffered from it trying to describe its depths, and why depression could drive a man like Williams to do what he did.
Depression is an inherently depressing topic, of course. It’s also one of those things that most people have had some experience with, or at least think they do. After all, almost everyone has been sad.
But that’s misleading. Regular, garden-variety depression is to major suicidal depression as a hangnail is to ebola. And yet, it has superficial resemblances that lead people suffering from the regular type to think they understand the more serious type. But the difference is not just a difference in degree, it’s a difference in kind.
One of the best descriptions of extreme depression I’ve ever seen is a cartoon (yes, a cartoon; humorists are particularly subject to depression) written by internet superstar Allie Brosh. Brosh had everything going for her: young, attractive, funny, talented, immensely successful at something she’d long dreamed of doing, surrounded by a loving family and boyfriend. And yet severe depression claimed her in its potentially deadly grip, and for a long time would not let her go.
Not all intense depressions are alike, so Brosh’s may not describe them all. But it took a not-uncommon trajectory. What was uncommon was her skill at describing it. Intense self-loathing was followed by the absence of feeling, which Brosh perceived as intensely unpleasant and almost unendurable. Although that itself is a feeling of sorts, it is a feeling caused by the lack of feeling; paradoxical but true. Lack of feeling can be experienced as suffering of an intense kind, ennui and deadness and lack of interest in everything.
People tried to talk Brosh out of it, which of course did not work and cannot work:
And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.
What stopped Brosh from killing herself when she starting thinking that death might be a really really good idea? She says nothing mattered, but it turns out that the feelings of her loved ones still somehow mattered to her. So something must have been left in the wastage of her life:
I somehow managed to convince myself that everything was still under my control right up until I noticed myself wishing that nothing loved me so I wouldn’t feel obligated to keep existing.
Something loved her—some people, that is, and her dog (Brosh is very into dogs and some of her best cartoons are about them).
It was incredibly hard for her to find the will and strength to keep living. And yet she did:
When I say that deciding to not kill myself was the worst part, I should clarify that I don’t mean it in a retrospective sense. From where I am now, it seems like a solid enough decision. But at the time, it felt like I had been dragging myself through the most miserable, endless wasteland, and — far in the distance — I had seen the promising glimmer of a slightly less miserable wasteland. And for just a moment, I thought maybe I’d be able to stop and rest. But as soon as I arrived at the border of the less miserable wasteland, I found out that I’d have to turn around and walk back the other way.
The love she received from others was a burden. But it was a burden she shouldered despite her great reluctance to live and her conviction that she could not get better:
The absurdity of working so hard to continue doing something you don’t like can be overwhelming. And the longer it takes to feel different, the more it starts to seem like everything might actually be hopeless bullshit.
When feelings finally returned, they were not pleasant ones, either:
I had not been able to care for a very long time, and when I finally started being able to care about things again, I HATED them. But hatred is technically a feeling, and my brain latched onto it like a child learning a new word.
That was followed by a turning point—which was so silly it’s hard to describe. You’ll just have to read it. Suffice to say that raucous and sustained laughter came from nowhere for a bizarrely trivial reason. For Brosh, that near-hyterical laughter was the beginning of the glimmer of the possibility that her depression wouldn’t last forever.