This post does two things.
It discusses depression and anxiety, and how they work, and how to go about getting rid of them (in less severe cases).
And then it discusses my personal experience of depression and anxiety, and how it worked, and how I went about getting rid of it (with a really weird, long deviation halfway through about exactly why I think it wasn’t that severe a case).
If you’re interested in the first, just check out section 1: the theoretical stuff. (I should probably make this bit its own post, shouldn’t I…?)
If you’re interested in the second, you can skip to section 2: the “practical” example stuff. Which is, ironically, a lot less practical than the previous section. (I should probably come up with a different name for this bit, shouldn’t I…?……)
If you’re just interested in the conclusion, then… well, I think you can probably figure out what to do by yourself (in every sense).
Well then. Off we go.
|1. Theoretical Stuff
1. Theoretical Stuff
1.1. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
So, Schopenhauer has this thing called the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. In his own words, it goes like this:
A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature.
Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396
The basic picture is that if people get too close, they hurt each other. And if they get too far, they just, well, hurt.
Because that’s obviously way too complicated for anyone to understand just by reading it, the only possible move here is to break it down into a simple graphic, with a black hole of loneliness on the one hand, and spikey-judgy-murder on the other.
Phew! Thanks, DL! Everything is so much clearer now!
Now now, don’t worry. I know just what you’re thinking. I’ll go ahead and verbalize it for you right here.
Mate, this is quintessentially Teenage philosophy. It has made the first step into trying to understand the complexities and difficulties of the real, adult world, and then just stopped there — thinking there is no more left to see, and ignoring any beckonings of nuance beyond it while it stews in a self-indulgent funk. It is extremist in its (il)logic — stubborn in its black-and-black dichotomy — incurious in its self-unsatisfaction.
It is, in fact, quite literally “edgy”. In that it concentrates only on the edges of the line: the fringe examples and worst-case scenarios.
Which brings us to the next obvious step on this line of thought: the idea that the truth lies somewhere in between. Otherwise known as the Grown Ups’ Answer.
In its crudest expression, this takes the form of “the answer is slap-bang in the middle.”
“See? Here’s the perfect little Goldilocks zone. Not too lonely, not too spiky. Not too hot, not too cold. Tepid. Grey. Utterly insipid, uninspired, and uninteresting.” The consummate moderate’s answer; the unthinking centrist tic.
Now. It’s the mistake of the teenager to think that any answer to the dilemma (or attempt to undermine it) necessarily boils down to this.
And it’s the mistake of the idiotic, middlebrow, mild-mannered middle classes to actually boil it down to this, or lather the actual truth in so much yuppie bullshit that it becomes indistinguishable from it.
Here’s a little corner of Hell for the two Straw Men I’ve just conjured to make each other miserable forever.
There is, of course, a window overlooking this scene in my Little Corner of Heaven.
Evidently, the answer is a little bit more advanced than that; you just have to mix in a pinch of Aristotelian dialectics.
With this, the answer does lie on the continuum… but not necessarily (or ever) in the middle, instead constantly shifting according to circumstances.
Sometimes the answer is a little closer to the freeze-in-loneliness side. And sometimes it’s peering right over the lip of the pit onto the judgy spikes below.
The same way that discretion is sometimes the better part of valour, and others times, you just gotta go boobs-and-balls-to-the-wall berserk on the off chance that your frenzied charge with a butter knife will somehow fend off the army of killer robots coming to blow up the children’s hospital behind you.
Going back to the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, Schopenhauer’s own solution is a version of this Aristotelian logic. Here goes:
The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.
Same exact source as the last quote.
No, you scroll up and look it up.
Why do I always have to do all the work around here?
Friggin’ readers. You give them an arm, they ask for a precise citation of where you got a severed human arm from. Never bloody satisfied, that’s what you lot are.
So if you, like Schopenhauer, are an intelligent, strong person possessed of brilliant philosophical ideas and a Y chromosome who’s also deathly afraid of pricks (i.e. if you, like me, are a prick)… then the right place is by-and-large closer to the black-abyss-of-loneliness end of the scale (with occasional, grudging forays past the midway point to push a lady over in the street and try to pick up 17-year-old girls when you’re 43).
In terms of my beautiful series of super-relevant graphics, the answer lies somewhere like this:
For other (i.e. stupid) people, the answer will be somewhere else.
“But they don’t buy my books,” reasons Schopenhauer. “So they can fuck right off.”
Okie doke. Solution found.
Can we go home now?
1.2. The Slippery Slope
No, you can’t. There’s, like, ten more funny pictures I’ve gone through the trouble of photoshopping, and I’ll be damned to Straw-Man-Hell if I’m not gonna use them.
See, the trouble is that there’s something beyond the standard-issue Adolescent Mind which leads you to a similar conundrum – but one that’s even more difficult to extricate yourself from.
And that’s the Anxious Mind (where the following procedure is expressed acutely) and the Depressed Mind (where it is chronic).
See, teenagers are using the brain-machine while it’s still under construction. The prefrontal cortex has yet to fully develop. So they just can’t use its unique, astonishingly powerful capacity for fine-grained, nuanced, rationally compelling critique to poke all kinds of holes into the shallow edifice of their edgy, simplistic thinking. Like a high-powered drill into a water balloon.
Can’t believe someone actually went through the trouble of making a gif of this,
just so I could use it for my metaphor… Thanks, Smiley Drill Dude!
So, when everything goes according to plan, this is what happens:
Step 1: Children become smart enough to see there’s a problem, leveling up into teenagers.
Step 2: They’re still not that smart, so they just go around in circles with the problem, and get all angsty.
Step 3: They get even smarter, and realize that they can finesse the problem with their fancy new high-tech cognitive bedrock-busting machinery.
Step 4: They figure the problem out, and become happy, healthy, hopefully-not-too-yuppie, I-guess-it’s-ok-if-they’re-a-little-bit-too-hippy adults.
…but what happens when that same heavy machinery isn’t used to pierce the edifice of stunted thinking and simplistic, rigid mental structures? What happens when it is co-opted by your negative mood, and instead of breaking down those structures, it starts to reinforce them? What if it sets them as a new foundation, and basing itself in them, turns back on you, and starts to apply their flawed logic onto everything else in your life? What if it uses its formidable powers of argumentation to thwart any attempt you might make to improve your mood, or even just ignore it for a while?
Fucking two years of depression, that’s what.
Basically, being depressed is like being a bodybuilder. At first, your critical faculties get stronger, just like your muscles getting bigger. But then, they get so ridiculously big that they stop being functional.
See, bodybuilders really suck at doing stuff. Sometimes, they literally can’t even lift their arms over their head, because their biceps just get in the way. And try getting one to walk up a flight of stairs — their muscles so inflated that they become useless after a few minutes’ use.
Same thing happens with depression. In simplified terms, your medial prefrontal cortex gets so much blood and makes so many connections with the rest of the brain that it gets as inflated as a cartoon bodybuilder. And now you can’t do anything except, you know. Have huge, useless muscles that spend all their time telling you what a shitty person you are.
So, let’s go back to the Hedgehog’s dilemma, and let’s assume that there’s an optimal point somewhere along the line between getting close to people and staying away from them, at any one given moment in one specific situation.
Let’s say the right answer, for Joe Schmoe at 7:26PM on Tuesday, September 19th, 2017, is to spend 20 minutes at a pub with casual acquaintances, make some light conversation about the weather and work, then walk back home and spend the rest of the evening relaxing and watching something pleasurable and undemanding. Let’s plot it… like this:
The trouble is, to the anxious mind, the line leading from loneliness to painful overexposure is not simply a line, but a slope. And it is an extremely slippery one.
The more depressed or anxious you are – that is, the more intense, frequent, and lasting the negative patterns of thought your critical faculties have made it a habit to apply – the less leeway you have in terms of how you approach people and yourself. The slope gets steeper, and the range of acceptable distances gets narrower.
At its most entrenched, landing anywhere on the line other than the exact, microscopically small, hypothetical optimal point will find you tumbling down toward either extreme of negative emotion.
So if our dear Joe Schmoe is a very anxious person or currently depressed, it’s not as if he can’t have a great evening. It’s just that his chances are pretty small.
Because if he spends 18 minutes, say, with the casual acquaintances, instead of the perfect 20, he’ll leave feeling as if he’s missing out, and spend the next few hours ruminating about how they’re all having fun there without him and he’s this outcast and did you notice how Jim and Jill get along so well and doesn’t that really demonstrate how everything about himself sucks etc. etc. etc. etc.
And if he’s there 22 minutes… oh man, that’s even worse. Because his reserve of emotional energy is so low, he quickly gets exhausted, and starts hating everyone, and says something slightly bitter which everyone else just forgets within five minutes but he spends the rest of the night ruminating about and thinking how they must all hate him now etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam
You get the basic picture. You can have great days. But anything slightly off has a huge chance to send you into a spiral of negative thinking. And that’s because the very thing that’s supposed to help you solve problems has instead been co-opted by your fears and insecurities and self-loathing and every negative emotion in the book.
So now, you have a high-powered lawyer arguing the prosecution’s case that whatever happened to you is the worst thing ever and here are 100 perfectly crafted logical proofs that it must be the case and take a look at all this cutting-edge forensic evidence… while the defendant, Mr. Maybe-it-Wasn’t-All-That-Bad-…-and-even-if-it-was-it’s-not-actually-that-big-a-deal gets stuck with the law school’s broomstick in a tie.
No I’m bloody well not going to pay for the un-watermarked image, just for the sake of this stupid joke.
And to add another layer of shit to this shit sandwich, when you’re depressed, not only is the target area for a nice day made much smaller… your aim gets worse too.
OK baby you got this. Just aim right there for pleasantly-charming-but-not-too-clingy. Nice, nice… you’re doing great… just hold it stea– wait where the fuck are you going… NO don’t fucking tell that girl who just smiled at you that you love her ohmyfuckinggod we’re gonna die alone.
Because it’s harder for you to get it right when you’re depressed, you fail more, which makes you want to do it less, at which point you get out of practice. And that means you fail more on the rare occasions you do it, which makes you want to do it less, etc. etc.
Thus, the negative pattern which previously only manifested itself in your thoughts now spreads into the external world. Suddenly your life starts getting worse around you. Which feeds right back into negative thinking patterns.
…if this all seems fairly bleak, let me just chime in to remind you that this is all way better than the Suicidal Mind. At least here, you have the choice between two bad options – be really lonely or get hurt by others – rather than a single, much more definitive one. Because the Suicidal Mind is like that Bear Grylls meme, wherein he responds to every situation with “better drink my piss”…. only, swap that for “better kill myself”.
So, what can we do about all this?
Well, ideally, you could just have this explained to you, understand what’s going on, and then stop doing it.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well. It would be the perfect solution if we were rational beings — if our primary function was to suss out the truth and then act on it. But we’re not rational beings. We’re not anything at all, really — just a collection of brain patterns which manifest themselves consciously as a series of mental habits.
As a result, the brain usually can’t make any huge jumps in reasoning. It has to work its way up to the conclusion step-by-step. So if you just explain the basic mechanics of subatomic particles to someone, they’re going to be confused. Not because there’s anything inherently confusing at all about subatomic particles, really. Rather, because everything the brain you’re talking to has ever thought or experienced has given it the idea that things are either in a certain place… or they aren’t. Which, it turns out… may not work so great for looking at quarks.
The same holds true with progressive politics. Things have always been the way things have always been; it takes quite a lot of work to see things differently, inherent logic be damned.
All of which stands to reason, really. After all, we weren’t designed to do the Truth thing. We’re monkeys, and we were cobbled together by accident through the processes of not-dying-too-quickly and sometimes-fucking-before-we-do.
What’s more, Reason may be the worst way to go about it, when you’re depressed. It’s like trying to go to the police in an alien invasion film… only to realize that the police have already been taken over by the aliens. Because the critical faculties have been compromised, if you go to them for a solution, you’ll often be feeding the problem.
This will have been demonstrated any time you’ve ever tried to convince an anxious person of something. They’ll nitpick and change the subject and do everything in their power to avoid confronting a different idea. Until you get them to chill the fuck out, or simply exhaust them until they’re too tired to BS you anymore, you’re not going to get one smidgen closer to the truth.
So… reason doesn’t really work. What do we do instead?
We do two things, hopefully at the same time.
1.3. Hammerin’ away at it
So you want to figure out how to deal with people. Or be good at your chosen craft. Or how to deal with any other problem in your life, basically, when it seems too daunting to tackle.
You might try to think it through… but as we just discussed above, thinking it through has been compromised by anxiety and depression, and can’t be trusted.
So unfortunately, we have to fall back on a more primitive method. Pretty much the most primitive method out there, really.
Let’s think of this quite literally. What does a workwoman do when she sees something pointy sticking out from a surface which she wants to be flat?
Damn straight. She takes out the biggest hammer she has to hand and starts going HAM at it. Like this.
And then… she does it again.
And then… you guessed it. Again. And again. And again. Til the thing is bloody well flat.
In other words, you keep doing the thing that’s giving you trouble until you get better at it. It’s really as simple as that.
For extra, shiny bonus points, you can keep going even after you stop being depressed and anxious. Keep on hammering away, like a smith at a sword, and eventually you’ll hone yourself to a flexible and yet impenetrable temper, reaching full-on Daoist / Stoic Sage levels of equanimity.
But that’s for advanced students… and will be covered in another blog post.
The point is that you don’t sit and stew and try to figure it out in the abstract, without any feedback or real-world experience. You learn it by practice. And by practice, I mean wholehearted, good-faith attempts to do it to the best of your abilities at that given moment. And then doing it again, as soon as possible. And then again. And then again.
Now, of course, I’m not really saying “never think about it again under any circumstances, because you’re a hopeless idiot”. Put a gun to my head, and I’ll tell you “please don’t point a gun at my head. But sure. You can kind of think about it sometimes, a little bit, I guess.”
What I’m saying is that treating yourself as a hopeless idiot is a useful thing to do. Because, first of all, you definitely have to think about it much less, period. Secondly, if you do think about it, it has to be in addition to, and in service of, this force of sheer repetition. Thirdly, there’s something genuinely liberating to thinking of it like this. It means the pressure is entirely off your shoulders — you, as in the overexerted, exhausted, demoralized conscious mind. You can put all the weight on your ox-like subconscious self, to do all the work and draw all the lessons. And that’s a tremendous relief.
So you say to yourself “ok, let’s assume I’m as smart as a monkey. Just keep banging away at the typewriter; within a few million years, I’ll eventually write something as good as Shakespeare.” And in the end, it will only take you a few dozen years or so, cus you actually are smarter than a monkey. But committing yourself to the long-haul, million year target means you’re not going to be able to take shortcuts and give up early. So, it’s useful.
Hmm, actually, in retrospect, maybe the hammer isn’t the best analogy here. Cus with most of these problems, you don’t have a tool to hand, ready to do the job for you. You only have yourself.
So instead, picture your face, with a blank grin plastered across it. Now, picture it slamming against a bump in the ground, again and again, until it’s flat as a pancake and you sit up, toothless but giggling, blood streaming from your concave forehead. Your prefrontal cortex has been smashed into blissful quiescence. You emerge victorious, reality bent to your whims by force of your monumental, monolithic idiocy. Well done you. I’m very proud.
…but that’s beyond my photoshop skills to render. So I guess we’re stuck with hammers.
So that’s how you actively, consciously, directly tackle the problem in front of you. That’s pretty much the only way to actively, consciously, directly tackle the problem in front of you.
But… that’s hard. For one thing, when you’re depressed and anxious, you’re in the worst possible position you’ve ever been to muster even the unreflective energy to brute force it. And also, you’re at your most fragile. Your face might well explode into little pieces, like a watermelon.
Which is a shame… cus that really is the only way to actually address your problem.
So if that’s the case, the only option that remains for us is to cheat. We’ll have to make the problem easier without actually addressing it. In fact, we’ll have to make the problem easier precisely by not addressing it at all.
Here’s what I mean.
1.4. Hackin’ away at it
Basically, we want to be less squishy, so we can go ahead with the only way to make things better without exploding our face.
So how do we make ourselves more resilient… other than, well, just repeating it more and building up callouses?
The answer to this is pretty hilariously uninteresting. There’s no great insight, no grand reason, no beautiful realization – no insight or reason or realization at all.
It’s even more stupid than the last one – because it’s just as repetitive, but also totally unrelated to the actual content of the problem.
Well, there are actually a bunch of answers. You’ve probably heard of them before.
You’ve basically got:
- regular sleep schedule
- healthy diet
- clear, simple planning and scheduling
- occasional sunlight
…….see, I told you it was dumb.
Over time, these things straight up just rewrite your brain chemistry. To put it in hyper-simplified terms: less blood will go to your medial prefrontal cortex (don’t worry, it gets a fucking lot of blood, it’ll be fine), and it’ll stop whirring away at max power ALL… the FUCKING… TIME. And then, when something bad happens, it’ll basically just be something bad happening. Not an invitation to obsess about it for hours and hours and days as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.
And the “something bad happening” is usually not that bad. Especially for middle class people in a wealthy, industrialized society with tens of thousands of years’ track record of eliminating most of the really bad things we might encounter. And almost certainly not for the species of problem that we’re talking about: things that we ourselves recognize are causing us anxiety we’d rather not have.
Like, no one ever goes “hey, you know, I really wish I were less anxious about this tiger that’s just about to eat me”. For those real problems, there’s only the collective search for solutions on the widest and deepest possible scale — otherwise known as the institution of full communism.
But as far as anxieties go, it’s almost always things that really aren’t that big a deal.
- Spiders (outside of Australia).
- Sex (she’s not gonna fucking eat you, mate. Unless, like, that’s your fetish. At which point… good luck. Ick, but good luck).
- People judging you (who aren’t the fucking Gestapo and can’t do anything to you except maybe say some mean things).
- Not writing very well, or taking too long to say quite basic things because you think there might be one person reading it who hasn’t gotten it by now.. and besides, you like the sound of your own writing voice… but wait what if your readers don’t…… ohmygo (*sigh*).
So as long as we undermine the brain process which takes these things and locks onto them as if they were a life-or-death issue and then uselessly tries to reason through them while also preventing you from doing the very thing that will actually help you address them… you’ll basically be fine.
Once that’s been accomplished, you can go ahead and keep practicing the thing, with no real consequences for failure – just so long as you’re in good physical and mental health.
And that’s what all that exercise and meditation and sleeping and shit do. They directly make you healthier. Straight up.
Same with therapy. Your therapist isn’t trying to tell you what the answer to your problem is. They probably don’t know, and you probably wouldn’t listen even if they did, and your problem is probably fucking stupid anyway. They’re just going to adjust your thought and behavioral patterns so that you don’t get stuck in a spiral of anxiety. Nothing of any intellectual or aesthetic or moral interest. Nothing phenomenologically relevant at all. Just some tinkering with the actual grounds of our phenomenology. Just some light lobotomy. Just some low-key brain rewiring.
Now, the main problem here is that all these nice things are generally surrounded and controlled by dipshits.
This shouldn’t be surprising. These things are like little gems, or tasty and nutritious foods. They’re pretty, and they’re pretty useful.
And who tends to have the gems and abundant, nutritious food in any given society before the institution of full communism?
Fuckin’ dipshits, that’s who.
So I’ll scrub off all the smelly poop that has congealed around these nice things for you sometime. I’ll present meditation and exercise and stuff in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes in well-merited disgust.
But in the meanwhile, ignore the narrative around these things and just do them.
Because unlike everything else I want to discuss for the rest of my life, the main point of these things isn’t the narrative around them. Exercise and meditation and sleeping well are just like food. And a depressed and anxious person is like a starving person. It doesn’t matter what the food looks like or even tastes like, in that case. Just eat the fucking food. The point of the food is that you don’t starve.
Now, that movie or book or game I’m reading way too much into and over-complicating past any point of recognition? OK, now that’s bleedin’ useless. The only purpose of something like that is to spin all these crazy, interlocking narratives of beauty and meaning around.
But push-ups and and daily schedules and breathing exercises? They’re important, and boring as fuck. So just get them out of the way and then we can go back to movies and books and beauty and shit.
Not only are all these things supremely uninteresting… their being supremely uninteresting is kind of the whole point. You’re supposed to stop thinking for once, because your way of thinking has gotten kind of sick.
Now, sure, there are a couple of marginal points of interest around the edges. Figuring out whether to do sprints instead of long-distance running might be kind of cool to google for a bit. The study of physiology and anatomy can be kind of interesting, I suppose. Oh, and, well, you know. I guess there’s also… all of Buddhist philosophy, ritual, art, and literature.
So, like I said – marginal points of interest around the edges.
Now of course, I’m being a bit glib and tongue-in-cheek here… but, as always with my jokes, I’m being really quite serious as well. I’ll elaborate in another blog p–…………………. ah, fuck it, I’ll just show you real quick.
So all of Buddhist philosophy, ritual, art, and literature basically goes boils down to this:
1.4.1. A Quick but Comprehensive History of Buddhism
Buddha: OK guys. So you know your problems? All of them? Like, every single one of them? This is how you get rid of them.
You ready? Alright, you sit down. You breathe. …and that’s it. You literally just breathe.
Well, do get up and eat something and sleep and stuff sometimes. I’m not some crazy ascetic or anything. …but then come back and just breathe. Eventually this thing will happen where all your problems will go away. It’ll be a little bit like dying while still being alive. But, like, nice. And then you’ll die. As in, you won’t exist any more, at all. And there you are – no more problems!
…right, ok, look. When you’re sitting there just breathing, I really mean it. Literally just breathe. I mean, don’t physically do anything else other than that, that you have any conscious control over. And then don’t think about what you’re gonna do for dinner that evening. And don’t think about breathing. Just breathe. Got it? Nice. That’s it. Just breathe. There’s really nothing to it.
Buddhists: *breathing sounds*
Buddhists: …wait! What do mean there’s nothing to it? Like, if there’s it, there’s something. There’s not nothing. And wait… even there wasn’t it, then what? Would there be… nothing? Would nothing… be? Wait, what’s going–
Nagarjuna: Alright guys, chill, chill. OK, so look, you expand logic here – see, you split it into four, and after that you can negate the premises without assertion. Oh, and remember anattā? Well, you just jiggle it a bit and you get suññatā. So, now there’s, like… less than nothing. It’s all just… empty, see? So there’s nothing to worry about, and nothing to think about. K?
Buddhists: K cool.
Buddhists: …..wait, I don’t get it, I–
Other Mahayana people: Hey look, here’s a pretty vroom-vroom car! Look at that!
Buddhists: Yaaay! I love vroom-vroom cars! Vrooooooom! Vroooooooooooooom! Vrooooo…. vrooo…. v……. breathing noises
Other philosophers: Wait, what did you just say to them? Is it true? Where is this car you speak o–
Mahayana people: Sssssssssssshhhhh. Don’t bother the kiddies. Don’t you see how nicely they’re breathing?
Buddhists: ……wait! What the fuck happened just there?! I… no, don’t worry, we’re not going to start worrying about nothing again. It’s just… what did you just do? If you really get Nothing, then how did you come back and tell me… cus that’s something? And if you’re something, then how do you understand nothin–
Mahayana people: Bodhisattvas, bitch.
Buddhists: Oh, ok. ……..no, wait! What the hell is a Bodhisattva? So, you’re telling me you’ve reached the brink of total worldly detachment, but you’re still attached… but… OK, fine, I get it, I’m not supposed to think about there being a difference. But… then… like… what am I supposed to… like, how am I supposed to think about you… I mean, not think about you but…
Chan/Zen dudes: Oh, so we were hanging out with Daoists, and we decided you guys should have some kōans, if you still happened to be thinking of anything.
Buddhists: aite cool.
Buddhists: waaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiit a fucking second here! I was just sitting here breathing like you told me to, and some fucker took the land I was sitting on and says he owns it and he’s got dudes with swords who are fucking killing my children so that now they’re not breathing AT ALL, and I have to work for them to feed the children they’ve left alive, but then they take the overwhelming majority of the surplus value my labour produces so I can’t–
Ikko-Ikki: Fuck the landlords. Take the stuff.
Buddhists: Aite, cool.
Oda Nobunaga: Nope. Not cool.
Oda Nobunaga: We cool?
Oda Nobunaga: Cool.
(And then some stuff happens. The shoguns go away, but the Japanese keep killing people, and the military’s like “here are some breathing exercises to make our soldiers kill Chinese and Korean people without feeling bad.” And then Americans start meditating – and somehow manage to make the act of just breathing annoying. It takes a special kind of skill to make breathing sound so… well… nasal. Also….. wait…… DUDE. For. Fuck’s. SAKE! You’re still exploiting all the actual real fucking Buddhists and making them work in sweatshops and keeping the vast majority of the surplus value and OH SHIT THE SEA’S RISING HOLY FUCK IT’S ALL AROUND MY ANKLES I–)
>institution of full communism
Everyone: …..ahhhhhhh. Wow. That’s a weight off my shoulders. I feel like I can breathe unconstrained now…
That’s really… basically all it is. Like, there really is nothing to it. The whole point is to get you to shut up for long enough that you do nothing but breathe (or chant, or draw lines in the sand, or contemplate emptiness through the profound perfection of transcendent wisdom, or whatever your meditation method is).
And you can make that a bit more complicated if you want to. But, like… there’s no real point. So like, if getting into the contingent details of it is your bag, fuck it, great. Go read some sutras and look at some statues. (…dudeyoutotallyshouldthey’resuperfuckingaweso–). But then also, when you’re not busy doing all that, literally just breathe.
Oh and also – exercise. And eat healthy. And sleep. And do these little mind therapy things when you’re not just breathing. Which… mostly revolve around breathing anyway. And then kinda just proceed as normal.
…oh and also, institute full communism right now. But other than that proceed as normal.
So yeah. What was the point of this whole theoretical section? Simply to explain how to escape these weird, anxious, dilemma-based patterns of thinking:
- You keep doing the thing you’re anxious about.
- And then you do all these little things that don’t really have anything intrinsically to do with what you’re anxious about, but will somehow make it better, as if by magic. (Spoiler Alert: it’s brain stuff. These things do stuff to your brain. Just do them and your brain will be better.)
And why did I take 5000 words to say it? Well, like I said. We aren’t rational. There’s recognizing a thing is true. And then there’s actually convincing yourself that it’s true, even after you’ve recognized it as true — so deeply convinced that you actually act on it. And that involves all these non-logical, aesthetic things, which don’t add any real information, but sort of finesse you into taking the information on board. And also, just a lot of repetition. Again. And again. And again.
So it’s not that I’m a rambling blowhard. It’s all very well thought out. Yup yup. And before you have any time to poke any holes in that wonderful theory, we’ll swiftly move on to Part 2 (of 2):
2. Practical Stuff
So, that’s all the abstract stuff. Now for a concrete example, taking someone who’s gone through all of that.
…you’ll simply never guess who.
So, I personally had a pretty classic case of the hedgehog’s dilemma over the past two years.
It went something like this.
2.1. David Leon: 1989-2014
So, at some point, I was a kid. And that was nice. I formed my basic erotic preferences and read a lot of Greek mythology, and then a lot of other mythology.
And then I turned like 10 or 11 or 12 or something. And I did the puberty thing. And my prefrontal cortex was all like “hey guys! Iiiiii’m here now!” And then I started reading Kafka and Marx. And my prefrontal cortex, along with the rest of my brain, was all like:
And then I was in high school, and I kinda sorta kinda had friends but I also kinda basically had no friends. So I wrote a little bit, and read a bit more, and also watched some things.
And then I went to college and grad school. And I made friends and lots and lots of fun acquaintances. And that was lots of fun. So I didn’t really write.
Also I read, like, three books. But one of them was the Bible. And the other was the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So I got a lot out of it.
And at the end of it all, over the summers of 2011 and 2012, I wrote a first draft of this novel about God and my slightly-more-developed erotic preferences. It was interesting, but had a few problems that seemed like they would be difficult to fix. So I didn’t fix them.
Then it was 2013 and 2014, and I traveled around a bit and I worked a bit.
And that was all pretty fun. And I was like “This is all pretty fun. But it’s not as good as writing. So fuck everything else. I’m gonna lock myself in a room and write.”
…cue scene change.
2.2. David Leon: 2015-2016
So for two years, I made ends meet with a couple freelance gigs, and set myself to rewriting the draft of the novel I had started… only this time, getting it right.
And you can all guess where the story went from there.
Obviously, I’m not going to spare you at least a few of the details. But the basic picture is exactly what I described up there. I fell into some bad lifestyle habits (the opposite of the stuff in 1.4.), which were reflected internally in consistent habits of negative thinking which we generally conceive of as depression (think: a lot of hedgehogs).
I moved into a tiny, one-room flat, 44 minutes’ commute away from the nearest person I could call a friend. It was quite dark, and for a variety of somewhat complicated reasons, filled me with a modest but all-pervasive sense of precarity and unease.
Once there, I set about trying to break the world record for the longest period of time spent by an individual without going to sleep at the same time on any two consecutive days. Man, I’d be sleeping 10am to 3pm one day, then 4pm to midnight the next day. Which isn’t easy, in case any of you got that impression – it takes some serious dedication and practice. (Also, I say “the next day”… obviously, the whole concept of “next day”, as distinct from whatever the heck this one is, started to get eroded pretty quick.)
My eating and working habits were also pretty suboptimal. I’d usually lie in bed for a few hours first, and then have a massive meal cus I was very hungry by that point, which would get me all drowsy and make it hard to concentrate… and by the time I was properly awake again, the day would basically be over and I might as well just try to get to sleep early and start afresh tomorrow. (Rinse. Wash. Repeat.) (Also, maybe don’t wash for a while either. Just, you know. Repeat.)
During this period, I would oscillate wildly between a week of frenetic socializing, followed by two to three weeks of total isolation.
The socializing would often be fun, but always extremely draining. Interaction with others, for someone like me, has always been fraught at the best of times – subject to an acute oversensitivity and mediated through a nearly constant, if basically always well-intentioned, sense of calculation.
(“Am I talking to much? They just looked away. Does that mean they want to go away? How about I make a joke about it. Oh no, now I’m talking too much again…“).
How much trickier, then, would interaction be when overlaid by a systematic tendency to veer into negativity, and then get stuck there? (i.e. Depression.)
Somewhat trickier, is the answer.
Throughout this period, even if my competence was not always compromised, my stamina certainly was. Interaction would take up all my reserves of mental and emotional energy, such that after a week of seeing people, I would be left so exhausted (and so frustrated at having accomplished no productive work) that I would desire nothing but solitude for the rest of the month.
And in that solitude, I would fall into opposite but equal traps.
So like, an obvious example is that of not leaving the house for two, three, four days straight. But even here, I went one better. I wouldn’t even leave the back half of the house, where the toilet, refrigerator, bed, and armchair were laid out in a tight circuit, with my desk cutting me off from the more open space near the front door – itself effectively a barricade to the world beyond it. I would thus spend countless hours in a row confined to a space no larger than a few square meters – conditions which prison wardens would be jailed for subjecting their prisoners to.
And you can basically fill in the rest. Just take the opposite of the things in 1.4.
Don’t eat well.
Don’t plan your day out with any precision.
Don’t ever stop ruminating about everything, even for a second.
All this meant that my mental life would meticulously slope down into interwoven and mutually reinforcing iterations of the hedgehog’s dilemma, like streams running into rivers to the sea.
I’ll give you a few examples, as points of reference.
2.2.1. Social Media
This one is fairly obvious, and quite trivial, but nevertheless informative.
Seeing the high points of other peoples’ lives on the Facebook home page as my own trickled by would occasion intense self-hatred (though not exactly jealously; more on that later).
This one was easy to resolve. I just stopped checking it. In fact, I think I’ve looked at the Facebook home page literally twice in two years: on the mornings of the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections, when checking all the news websites didn’t quite scratch my itch for gossip.
It’s for this reason that I’ve never responded to any of your major announcements and life events. I’m sorry for that. Thank you for responding to mine.
Posting was a little bit more convoluted, but not by much. I found I would either get disappointed when people wouldn’t pay enough attention to them, or would derive much too much satisfaction when they did. Both reactions were utterly disgusting, and would immediately send me into a spiral of self-loathing. So I stopped posting. And that’s that.
No great loss in and of itself, perhaps. But indicative of a worrying trend.
This one is a little bit less obvious, but its structure is exactly the same.
The central concern of my writing is that it’s caught in a tension between accessibility and profundity.
On the one hand, I want to do as much of the work for the reader as I can. Meet them not only halfway, but reach out and take their hand myself — the same way I cannot dare to imagine the figure of the divine might reach out to me (if even by proxy, through the unfortunate protagonist of my novel). I want my writing to be fun and exciting and easy to understand. I don’t want anyone falling off the bandwagon, or having the slightest trouble getting on.
On the other hand, I wish to make no compromises on my content, either in substance or in style. I want to wax lyrical every time I want to wax lyrical (which has never been the primary or even secondary goal… but hey. I do wanna do it, every once in a while), without any form of self-censorship. I want to tackle the most challenging questions of my existence, and humanity’s at large. I want to go well beyond that, too, asking the doomed question of what truth and beauty and ultimate meaning might look like to more-than-human eyes. Still clasping the reader’s hand in mine, I want to reach upwards and onwards with the other, to the timeless and transcendent. And if, in order to do that, I must pass through thick allusiveness and conceptual complication and narrative deviation, then so be it.
The problem is… that every single sentence – sometimes every single word – of my novel would be pulled between these two extremes. I would imagine the most close-minded Philistine I could – someone who thinks Hemingway is too wordy and Twilight is too high-minded. And I would let him go to town on the latest sentence. And he would tell me it’s incredibly pretentious. Super hoity-toity and highfalutin’ and yet another example of me just obfuscating an already convoluted and self-deceiving observation behind layers of meaningless drivel.
And then I would take that very same sentence, and let the most cultured and literate person imaginable have a go. And she’d tell me it was all so easy and trite and cliched. Nothing more revealing than a nursery rhyme. The prose was pandering, the characters cartoonish, the ideas homeopathic in their unintensity, diluted to the point of being indistinguishable from water – tasteless, colorless, sterile, still, and stagnant.
It was this exact dialogue. Every. Single. Fucking. Sentence.
Now. Is it possible to perfectly satisfy both demands in one book? Probably not. But is it possible to find some kind of off-kilter synthesis that would more or less satisfy me and a few like-minded people? Yeah, sure, maybe.
Actually, it’s not even that hard – you just have to develop a unique, personal voice that combines one particular sense of entertainment that you find intuitively pleasing with a particular angle that you personally find to be profound. And if that’s enough – fantastic. And if not, you can add in other elements to that base, to take in other angles and sensibilities, until the whole becomes a bit too unwieldy. Then you do the first thing again — hone it down until it becomes confident and echoing. And then repeat.
It is, at the end of the day, fairly simple… but not if I raise the stakes of every sentence to a life-or-death decision. Not if I make the process so painful for myself that I never practice it. Heck, maybe you don’t even have to practice it. Maybe it’ll come out perfectly the first time. But even then… you need to at least have a first time.
However. If, instead, you keep trying to sit there and figure it out beforehand and thread the infinitesmally narrow eye of a needle, you’re not going to succeed. And if each predictable failure sends you spiraling down into a pit of negativity, you’re even less likely so succeed.
And so, I barely wrote a word on my main project for two years.
OK. So this one is a little tough. For one, it’s the one I’m probably most sensitive about. And as such, moral honesty would compel me to address it.
More important it gets a little… tricky. It’s very easy to phrase this wrong, or to misconstrue my meaning. And the consequences of that failure would be quite high. And as such, intellectual earnestness and ambition would compel me to address it.
So here goes. Real quick: how my romantic life done stay fucked up, as seen through the prism of multiple hedgehog dilemmas.
So, the first phase is pretty obvious.
You start with the fact that the area of romance and sexuality is one of the most common and severe sites of human vulnerability, insecurity, and anxiety.
To that, you take a person in a moment of low spirits, in which painful experiences of human contact (and lack thereof) are magnified.
With that framework in place, I try to approach a girl, and get rejected. Because I’m hyper-sensitive, the stakes of being rejected are perceived as cataclysmic. So I withdraw entirely from approaching girls. And because I’m in a particularly over-sensitive state, loneliness is devastating.
And so you now have a person in even lower spirits, where painful experiences of human contact (and lack thereof) are magnified.
Then you simply rinse, wash, and repeat.
This one takes a similar form, but is even worse.
Suppose that instead of getting rejected, something nice develops. In that scenario, I drop my guard, become even more vulnerable. At that point, I get pricked by an even bigger spike, even more deeply.
This typically takes three forms — each worse than the last.
In the first, the girl in question straight-up says or does things that are extremely hurtful to me – generally speaking, out of internal pain of her own. That’s not great. But whatever – it happens to everyone. It would be childish to dwell on the actions of others over which I have no real control, or to indulge the feeling that it happens more to me than to everyone else. So it’s not exactly easy to move on from this in practice… but it is nevertheless straightforward: you just shrug it off and move on.
The second thing is more insidious. And that’s that the girl in question doesn’t do anything hurtful… and I still have an absolutely terrible time. Either the chemistry just isn’t there, or the encounter itself is tense… or, most typically, I’m just so out of practice and so uncomfortable and so exhausted by such intense interpersonal interaction that the whole experience rapidly descends into nightmare. It’s like being stuck underwater for two minutes when you can only hold your breath for one.
And so the whole encounter goes pretty awfully and everyone feels hurt and used and I resolve to never have sex with anyone ever again.
And so I isolate myself, which also sucks, and saps me of emotional energy, which makes next time even harder, so it goes badly, etc. (This would technically be point 18.104.22.168.2., if anyone’s keeping count.)
The third phase takes exactly the same form, but is even worse than the last.
Same thing happens… only this time, I manage to put a brave face on it. I strangle the discomfort in me – which fails to kill it, of course, but turns its screams into silent gargles – and go through the encounter without the other party really noticing how little I’m enjoying it, and how much it’s costing me to get through it. I leave, and it’s all smiles, and mutual “let’s do this again sometime!”s, and then I retreat into my bunker and resolve never to touch, hear, or see anyone ever again so long as this silly little life of mine drags on.
If you’ve never felt anything like this… good. It’s not a very nice feeling… which I will describe for you in detail.
First, there’s the sky-high emotional toll which that kind of next-level cognitive dissonance takes on you. Keeping your external appearance and actions so radically separate from your internal mental state burns through, oh, about two or three months’ reserves of energy, I’d say.
It’s like going through with the last ten kilometres of that double-marathon, after you’re well and truly running on empty. You might well make it across the finish line, but be prepared to spend the next few months in crutches.
Secondly, there’s the terrible irony of being so entirely alienated from yourself and someone else… at the one place you were most looking for intimacy and togetherness and comfort. It’s like going to the hospital to mend a broken arm and having them break both your legs. Or leaving the building crippled by lifelong debt because you were uninsu– ………..oh. Right. That’s a real thing that happens to people, not a crazy metaphor. Damn, man. That… really sounds like it sucks.
On top of that, you have the ensuing hurt at being so entirely misunderstood. If I could be there, as naked and vulnerable as I’ll ever be in my life… and the other person still didn’t get a hint of the kind of pain I was in… then there is simply no hope of redemption. “I’m forever locked in my own head with my own discomfort, and this is the perfect proof that no one will ever notice it… let alone acknowledge it… let alone reach out to try and help me ease it”… is the kind of thought you end up thinking.
Lastly, there’s that Grade-A, championship-calibre, award-winning, blue-ribbon sense of guilt you get from having effectively lied to someone to their naked, defenseless face, in that moment when they were making themselves most open and vulnerable to you. Lied if only by omission, letting them believe the perfectly reasonable assumption that they are making you happy.
Best thing about it is that you get to feel the same way all over again, every time you see them (or even just remember them). The classic case of this is when they ask to see you again, and are subsequently left confused and hurt by your inexplicable silence.
Bonus points if it happens in person, when you can see every line of suffering on their face.
Extra bonus points if you try to pass it off lightly, rather than straightforwardly apologizing.
Infinite extra bonus points if they start crying, run off, and cut off all contact with you.
Try scrubbing out that kind of guilt, motherfuckers.
Add all this up, and you end up feeling not-so-great.
So, I’ve never once in my entire life considered suicide. However, thinking about killing myself is an entirely different proposition, if only in an entirely unrealistic, self-indulgent kind of way. Think undead, Promethean scenarios, involving some form of very explicit, constant, and (crucially and excruciatingly) eternal evisceration. I could spend hours running through those, in the aftermath of the kind of moments I described above.
The appeal is quite obvious: visualizing, and thus being able to articulate and make sense of, the kind of invisible emotional pain you’re experiencing, an escape from which seems utterly inconceivable to you at the time.
Anyway. You get the basic picture with all these cases.
The successful range of outcomes is so narrow that any result is terrible.
Loneliness and abstinence sucks, so you try and do something about it.
Getting close and it going badly sucks.
Getting close and it apparently going well sucks worst of all.
22.214.171.124. Last piece of the puzzle: moralizing and politicizing.
So, all those were on the spiky side of the dilemma: the consequences of allowing yourself to get too close to people, and getting hurt by that in some way.
Now, for the other side.
When I would retreat and isolate myself after getting burned from reaching out, I would just sit there and stew in repetitive, consistent negative thoughts.
So, one pretty typical and predictable one was the sensation of terminally missing out on what should have been my peak period of sexual jouissance. I was edging into my late 20s, and if I hit 30 without ever having as much, or as enjoyable, sex with different people as I wanted, then that was basically it. I would never get out there and sow my wild oats. Even if I did break out of my current predicament and find love and satisfaction, it would be too late for this period of my life. I’d have to move from an extended period of adolescent stress straight to middle-aged domesticity, pining all the while for the youthful abandon I never got to experience.
No, so the real kicker is what comes next. This is the thorny bit I referred to at the start of this section on my sex life. Everything before now was very easy to explain, and pretty trivial besides. It just concerned my personal pain, and I do not consider my personal pain to be a particularly serious subject. Not so with what follows. Won’t take you long to see why.
While in this period of extended depression, I would consistently get stuck on issues of morality and correct sexual politics, in a way which did me significant personal harm and improved the life of absolutely no one.
By this I mean that, during my periods of near-total isolation, I dwelt endlessly on past sexual and social misconducts (no matter how small), as well as on entirely non-existent, hypothetical misconducts (yes but what if one day someplace you maybe did something terrible… wouldn’t that be terrible, David? Wouldn’t it???!). All this would accomplish is making me so miserable that I could do nothing constructive at all.
In such a state, considerations of male privilege or the pervasiveness of rape culture and the potential violence of the male gaze – all extremely valid intellectual contributions of contemporary feminism – became nothing more than convenient tools for me to entrench habits and patterns of emotional self-harm.
You may already begin to see the issue here.
On the one hand, I do not want what I am saying here to be mistaken for a critique of feminism.
First of all, because I’m attempting to make a totally different point, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with feminism in and of itself.
Secondly, because that would be hilariously ironic. “Feminism accurately points out how men inaccurately blame women for things. Man proceeds to inaccurately blame feminism for his own mental health problems”.
Thirdly, because whatever legitimate contributions or constructive criticisms one could potentially make on modern gender politics… this is absolutely not the place for them. These are high-stakes and quite technical questions, which deserve to be taken on their own terms, not mixed into something else; no one tries to fix the house’s electrical grid while also talking to their therapist and writing a memoir.
On the other hand, you see how difficult it would be for me to untangle from the inside, while depressed. Like, listen to how hard it is for me to talk about it while comfortably ensconced in a well-lit library during an excellent period of my life — how many layers of qualifications I have to put out before getting to the point. Now imagine me trying to think about it while in a dark bunker, without having slept in a day or two, and while full to the brim with formless self-loathing.
Cus there’s something different about this obsessive thought, compared to the others. Whether it’s obsessing about the mean things people have done to you, or the belief you’re never going to enjoy sex the way you want, or that your writing is always either too simplistic or too pretentious… you can always just say “forget about it”. That happens to be exactly the correct solution. None of these things are important enough to merit sitting there and stewing about them for hours. Who cares about the answers to them either way? Just relax and do what you feel like and see how it goes.
Whereas with the thought “I have done mean things to people” or “the society I’m part of has some serious problems” you simply cannot say “just forget about it”. These issues are actually important. So even if the truth is that you’re thinking about them way too much… you can’t just give up on it and go to 0.
So in the end, what would happen is this. I would sit there – entirely on my own, with no input from anyone who might actually have any grievances with me or know more than me about this topic – and go over every creepy or over-aggressive thing I’ve ever done in my life, again and again, for hours and hours and hours and hours.
- Far and away the most typical scenario was sending overly long and intense messages to girls who did not want that kind of attention. Never anything overtly sexual or remotely aggressive. But still. Unpleasant.
- Much more rarely, it would be making an advance on a girl which she didn’t welcome, in a place she might have felt threatened or anything but entirely comfortable – for example, someone who happened to be staying at the same place I was, and would thus have nowhere else to retreat to. That… that really wasn’t good.
- The most rare, but possibly most painful cases, were the (fairly distant) memories of having invaded a woman’s privacy when I was younger – leafed through a journal, looked through the panties drawer, lain on her bed; that kind of thing.
…at this point, I’d like to make one more quick note.
I’m not speaking euphemistically here. These aren’t clever switcheroos for the ACTUAL crimes I’ve committed. These literally are the worst things I’ve ever actively done to anyone. And when I say I did these things and things like them, I literally mean these things and things extremely similar to them. I’m not implying anything other than exactly what I’ve just said. So, there’s categorically no secret rape or stalking or violent assault or whateverthefuck lingering between the lines.
You see, I’ve sometimes told people about my guilt regarding these things, only to realize (sometimes months later) that they had assumed or imagined I was referring to something even worse.
So yes. There are definitely worse things than the stuff I did. But this is the problem. There is no doubt that the things I did were definitely bad. There is some level of guilt I should legitimately feel about them. And that fact meant that, in my state of anxious thinking, I could simply not let it go. And so, these recurrent, obsessive thoughts plagued my solitary moments.
Humans are social creatures, and being by yourself for extended periods is dangerous at the best of times. But if you fall into patterns of negative thoughts like these, then these can become periods of intense emotional suffering.
…so yeah. That is the most difficult and intensely personal thing I can tell you about my experience of depression. If you want to understand what it was like when I veered towards the “freeze to death from loneliness” end of the hedgehog’s dilemma, this is the quintessential demonstration of it. The tightest knot of anxiety and self-loathing I experienced in those two years was a constant stream of self-recrimination for actual or imagined misdeeds which I could not accurately gauge a level of appropriate remorse or introspection for. Knowing that, you could pretty accurately infer how I felt about any issue or difficulty I faced.
Namely: if something bad happened to me, I would obsess about it endlessly.
And if I did something bad, I would obsess about it even more.
So, it complicated my relationship with friends, especially ones I could only interact with online (which makes things difficult at the best of times).
It complicated my relationship to writing – my main form of productive work.
And more than anything else, perhaps, it complicated my romantic relationships – most acutely, when I was farthest away from them.
But the thing to bear in mind with all these is not the content. It is the form. The structure of them. You can swap in virtually any concern or difficulty you like, or is more familiar to you, and you’d get a pretty much identical story. It may be office work instead of writing. It may be public speaking instead of social media. It may be the struggles of cohabiting rather than sex; the stresses of child-rearing rather than rejection; worrying about how you look rather than how you look at people. The key point is how they work: they go in circles, and keep you from getting the results you want by preventing you from trying, and they engender strong negative emotions. That’s the basic point.
2.2.4. Bathetic Backtracking
It’s entirely unclear to me whether all this was invisible to others or extremely obvious.
That’s because there are two warring depressive thoughts at work there.
On the one hand, there’s the “no one understands me; everyone is blind to my suffering” thing.
On the other, there’s the “OMG, everyone is probably laughing at how pathetic I am” riposte.
So yeah. I’m interested to find out exactly what flavour of synthesis is true – how much of what I described above got through to people, and in what form.
That said… it’s time for some backtracking.
Everything I said up there is entirely accurate. But I still think someone may read that and come away with the wrong impression.
So I’m going to lay it out quite clearly:
None of what I described was that bad.
Much of it was unpleasant — the self-guilt-tripping at the end especially. But throughout the entire process, I had a pretty good time. These weren’t like “Lost Years” or anything.
There were, most obviously, moments of pleasure. But that’s quite besides the point – depression isn’t about never being happy; it’s about routinely and systematically trending away from happiness.
So, just cus your car lists a few degrees to the right doesn’t mean you can never make a left turn. It just means that you have to work a bit harder to make a left turn… and the moment you stop paying attention, you’re going to be grazing the traffic barriers on the right side of the road.
The real point here is that, even when it wasn’t pleasant, it was still basically fine. I never dropped below a certain standard of mental well-being. I never had a panic attack. I never did anything crazier or more irreversible than waste time that could have been more productively and enjoyably spent elsewhere.
But if I’m being perfectly honest with you, the point is actually much stronger than that. Because the truth of the matter is that there wasn’t a single time in which I would have traded my life for anybody else’s. Even at the lowest, most miserable moments, if you had come and asked me, I’m solid-certain I would have told you that I’d rather be me and depressed than be some other, happy dude.
And I don’t just mean that in some abstract sense. Like, I’m not pulling a fast one with “well, if my life were somehow different, then I technically wouldn’t be me, so mnyyuuhhh…”. I had a very direct, emotional conviction that my misery was the second-best thing in the universe, only behind my peace of mind.
And nothing could really shake that. Even the things that can always be relied on to bring me to my lowest wouldn’t really make a dent in that dead-certainty.
So, take sexual jealousy. Some gelled-up prick starts dating some supermodel I find attractive? Well, firstly: fuck that guy. But secondly: would I wanna swap positions? God no!
OK, what about some famous blogger or award-winning novelist or popular media figure? Almost every time I thought to check, I would find that I genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, believed that my silence was more worthwhile than a lifetime of their talk. So would I want to be them? Never!
And what if they were brilliant? Then… great! Amazing! I just read or heard something cool! And the only reason I could appreciate it… is because I’m me! And my reading and thinking about what they’ve produced is, like, the best thing ever! Why would I ever want to lose it, just for the chance of seeing what it would be like to write it from their perspective? I mean, that’s cool and all… but it’s not shinier than what I’ve got. So why would I ever feel bad to think about them? They allowed me to experience something brilliant, which is just one part of the brilliance of my life.
The key aspect of this was that it was never an assertion. It was just an underlying condition. I never had to tell myself these things. They were just the constant bedrock of all my perceptions.
In other words, there was always an inalienable sense of self-love in me. Which is of course, very different from self-esteem, in that it is so very compatible with self-hatred. I was stuck with myself the same way you’d be stuck with a wayward child, or that volatile, mutually destructive first love you’re just not ready to deal with as a teen. No matter how many times they shatter your illusions or betray your trust… you find you just can’t extricate them from your self.
So that was a big part as to why my suffering was never that bad.
But I think there was something even more fundamental to it. And that’s that… in everything I’ve just described… I was never really there. I never really identified with the contingent me that could suffer and get depressed. And more than that… there was always a sense that none of that truly mattered.
…let me see if I can explain this clearly.
So, my body was there, wasting away in its rigorous immobilities. But I am not my body.
My emotions were there, roiling away, experiencing suffering. But I am not my emotions, and I am certainly not my suffering.
My reason is there, racing away — analyzing, understanding, getting lost. And that’s all great. But I am not my reason.
And then there’s something which kind of floats above these things, observing them all — unable to decouple itself from these things, but nevertheless holding itself aloof. Self-awareness. The Cartesian subject. Self-conscious consciousness. An ouroboros of self-regard. And that’s all cool and all. ……..but I am not my self-awareness, folks. I think I may have thought I was for a short while… but not for very long.
So, what am I? Well, obviously, I am all these things. But the key point is: I don’t really care that I am these things.
Just give me one more moment to explain, and it will all become clear.
What’s going on here? All that’s going on is a sequence of thoughts, of perceptions, of sense impressions. That’s all the stuff happening in my consciousness. That isn’t a self. That’s just a lump of stuff.
And then there’s a narrative that gets applied to this sequence of thoughts — a story I tell myself and others about this really quite senseless stream of muddled thoughts. And what my “self” is… is the protagonist of that story. People think there’s more to the “self” than that; some even call it a soul and make all kinds of ridiculous claims about it. But that’s really all it is.
Anyway. The key point is that none of the kinds and categories of thoughts I mentioned above (emotions; self-awareness; etc.) are the protagonist of my story.
Now obviously, there’s nothing that really makes the protagonist of my story special; there’s nothing fundamentally different between it and any of the other things that float about in that loose pool.
But, again… none of this is an assertion. There’s never been a sense of me choosing the protagonist. I’m simply being as honest as I can here, with you and with myself. I’m just telling you who systematically gets selected for that job, by whatever-the-fuck set of neurons is giving rise to this whole shebang. The kind of thoughts I find myself consistently valuing and spinning a narrative around, since as long as I have memories, and every time I try and look.
I didn’t write this movie, folks. I’m just as much a spectator in for the ride my brain’s taking me on as you are.
So here we are. Here goes my stream of consciousness:
There are moments of consciousness-of-body. Moments of consciousness-of-emotions. Moments of consciousness-of-reason. Moments of consciousness-of-self. And they might get a heck of a lot of screen time. But they’re not the protagonist.
So where is the protagonist? Come now, come now. What could be more obvious? She was lurking here, the whole time, in the plainest of plain sight. You’re 10,000 words into a literary essay, after all.
What are the things I really care about?
Moments of consciousness-of-beauty. Moments of consciousness-of-truth. Moments of consciousness-of-meaning. Moments of pattern-recognition in the immanent which project before me the most dazzling illusions of transcendence.
Those are the ones, folks. Those are the only moments that really matter. All the rest is chicken shit. All the rest is chaff. All the rest is a distraction from the thing I’d much rather be happening right now.
And given that they’re all distractions… who cares if they’re good or bad? They could be the greatest most tippity-toppity-happy-times thing ever, or the bleakest of purgatorial tortures. Either way, my go-to attitude is: just get them the fuck out of my face and let me get back to the feature presentation.
So, the feature presentation happens in moments that I’m writing. And it happens in moments that I’m sitting there and quietly contemplating. And it happens in moments where I’m swept up in a string of insights far more pleasurable than your heroin and your multiple orgasms.
So the first crucial take-away is that it’s very hard to get me to expend much effort to change what happens outside those moments. Because who cares what happens outside those moments?
But the absolutely key observation is that feature presentation is not those moments. Those moments are merely conduits, means to an end. Those moments are, as I have explained, the truest expression of who I am. And that’s the final point here. Not only do I not particularly care about all the other, less important parts of me. I fun-da-men-tal-ly don’t really care about the most important part of me either. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the direction I’m pointed toward, and whatever I think I see there.
So, there’s my writing. There’s my consciousness. And that’s where these fragments of beauty manifest themselves. And they’re each equally legitimate venues. If I ever think I’ve created something of real truth and meaning and beauty, then that thing is at least as important to me as my life and consciousness are. Because it accomplishes the most important part of me just as well as I do, if not better: it points to beauty, and allows it to manifest itself somewhere.
But once last time: what’s important isn’t these venues. What’s important is the thing they point to.
They’re manifestations of a certain aesthetic stance. And that stance is whatever it is, regardless of whether or not there are examples of it lying around, like me or my potential books.
Killing me isn’t gonna do anything to it.
Burning my books isn’t gonna do anything to it.
Writing my books — fundamentally — isn’t really going to do anything to it.
Nothing’s going to do anything to it — nothing can, because it doesn’t exist.
So… my being depressed… really doesn’t matter. No matter how bad it got, I was never under the impression that it really mattered. Because most of what it did was make me miserable. And I never particularly valued my emotional state.
By far the worst thing about my depression was that it prevented me from writing, and got in the way of my moments of contemplation.
(Mind you — it didn’t get in the way that much: going in endless, anxious circles à la Hedgehog’s Dilemma is only a real problem if there were something else you could be doing. So like, there IS an answer to the question of how to get along better with other humans, and that’s to chill out and just kind of go with the flow after that. But contemplating a monotheistic God? Hah. Good luck with that one, mate. Going around in circles forever about it is just as good a way of getting there as anything fucking else. And, hell. I didn’t do much work on my novel. But I definitely met a few gods in my dreams, and noted them down quite well. So that’s honestly two years well-spent.)
But even there… what really, really matters isn’t my writing, or my contemplation… it’s the things I’m writing and contemplating about: beauty, truth, and meaning. And I honestly don’t have the sense that those things will be any more or less beautiful, true, or meaningful depending on whether or not I’m seeing them at the moment, or whether I exist to point them out.
You see, I am fundamentally a Platonist by disposition. It just so happens that I have none of the illusions that tend to go with it.
So, I honestly am more interested in these eternal forms than I am in their material manifestations; the religious sense is inborn in me. I just don’t for a fucking second think that translates into evidence that they actually exist.
It is, unfortunately, almost always this way with philosophers. They are so rarely content to merely suss out and clarify their baseline (largely aesthetic) intuitions; they must tie themselves in knots to convince themselves and others that they are true.
Anyway. As to what these ‘eternal’ forms are?
Well, they’re by no means a set of definite conclusions (that would be both stupid and ugly).
It’s more like a tendency… a way.
But if you want to be rigorous and pin it down and understand it… well, it’s not that hard to get a basic picture.
It’s a loose set of aesthetic coordinates.
In fact, it’s very much like a constellation. There’s this, this, this, and this, more or less in this arrangement. And all I do is draw lines between them, in different ways. And apply those lines to everything I see.
There’s Cassiopeia in the music of Beethoven.
There’s Cassiopeia in the philosophy of mind.
There’s Cassiopeia in conjectures of alterity, through wandering dreams of God.
There’s Cassiopeia, in the patterns of thought of an ape stuck in a small room for two years. Let me delve a little deeper, and look for her there; see how the lines form between those times he read Schopenhauer, and those times he liked girls, and those times he sat and brooded. You can string them all together, arrange them just so… and… aha! There she is. Cassiopeia, smirking haughtily at me. Ahhh, now won’t you just look at her. Just, look, look! Now isn’t she so pretty? I’m going to talk about her for a while now. Because fuck everything else. Who honestly cares about depression, or that the fact the ape’s depressed? The depressed ape caught a glimpse of her at some point. So let’s spend a few thousand words veering wildly off-topic… and focus all of ourselves on her.
Anyone notice the little Pacman Nebula nipping at her butt there? That’s there to signify that my notion of transcendent beauty also includes 1980s video game references.
So that’s basically who I am.
And that was handy in some ways. Because that meant my own unhappiness never really got to me all that much. In that it only got to me when it got to me (though even then, noticeably diminished), and all the rest of the time, I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, didn’t care. Just like you swear you’ll never eat curry again when you’re crouched over the toilet expelling it from both ends… and then go right back to your old habits the minute you’re better again.
But it was also slightly harmful. Because by the same token, it was pretty tough to get me to take my happiness that seriously either, or work towards achieving it. Cus I’d ask myself “wouldn’t you rather do something else with your life?” And the answer of “…not really” did not simply come from my depression; it came from something very close to my core.
But at the end of the day, it didn’t get in the way all that much either. Because so unshakeable is this very loose set of aesthetic coordinates, and my maniacal tendency to look for them in everything, that there was never any sense that I might lose them if I did do something else.
I never had the feeling I’d “lose my edge” if I suddenly became even-keeled in mood. There was never a sense that there was anything particular in misery that gave rise to moments of transcendence. There was no Faustian bargain — what I’m looking at, the Devil himself couldn’t claw back. Not because I have any particular positive qualities, or because my vision of beauty is universally beautiful, or my notion of truth is objectively true… just because there’s never been a moment of my life, at any age and in any condition, in which the contours of these outlines haven’t been there in the background, glowing both seductively and blithe, a will of the wisp and a foolish flame beckoning me away from more immediate concerns.
And you see now why the little sex-and-gender guilt-trip was so difficult to escape? Cus you can always go “fuck my unhappiness; there be beauty in them thar hills”. But, unless you’re a total asshole, you can’t say “fuck everyone else’s unhappiness”. So yeah. Guilt was the only thing that really was a bother.
(And, to state the obvious: the same would be true of real, heavy-duty suffering. Put me in a CIA black site in northern Pakistan and after ten minutes I’d be all like “Nope. Beauty and Truth are not the priority. Philosophy is no consolation. I really just want to not be here, and I want that more than anything fucking else, and I want that every single moment that I’m conscious.” But the point is just that an acute sense of alienation and loneliness and bitterness without additional waterboarding wasn’t quite enough to get me there.)
So what was the point of this section? Well, the point of this section, as is the point of every section, is that it allowed me to get a glimpse of truth, beauty, and meaning. And so there’s a real sense in me of “well, I got what I came here for; don’t really care if you did“.
So let me rephrase: how does it, at least nominally, fit in with the rest of this essay on depression?
Well basically, what I’m trying to say is: if anyone reading this essay started feeling sympathy for me during this whole “this is what my life was like for two years” section — honest to God, don’t bother.
Firstly, it was fine.
Secondly, I’m extremely self-obsessed, in an extremely unsympathetic way; so if you were to feel sympathetically inclined towards me, you’d be wrong.
2.3. David Leon: 2017
So yeah. What happened next?
Well, you can pretty much guess it. I took one step which helped, which made the second step easier, and then the third.
I think the first thing was just making a plan for every day, no matter how unambitious, and getting someone else to periodically check that I stuck to it. If I didn’t stick to it, I’d make the next day’s one easier. And… that was pretty much enough by itself, really. Certainly got the ball rolling, and made all the other things much more manageable.
I moved out of that blasted little bunker. I started exercising a little bit (kinda slacked off on that one; just… so… booooring……). I meditated a bit. I stabilized my finances. Made friends I would see with some regularity, rather than once every month or two. Started sleeping more or less normally. Started eating smaller, more regular meals, so I wouldn’t fall dead asleep in the middle of the day. Started working in a library, which was great; my subconscious could no longer get so confused about whether I was supposed to be working or relaxing. Every time you start to feel a bit ill at ease, just take a look around you: if you’re in the library, you’re probably supposed to be working. So do that. If you’re in your room, you’re probably supposed to be chilling. So fucking chill, you little shit. If you’re somewhere else, just turn to the person next to you and ask what you’re supposed to be doing. If they growl at you and launch themselves at your throat, fend them off first, and then leave, and then ask yourself how you ended up in the sandpit of the underground dogfighting arena again.
Without going on about it too much here — that’s the kind of thinking it’s so much easier for me to do now. Everything just got… untangled. Everything that I found troublesome got streamlined, simplified, clarified.
You just feel well more. And if you don’t feel well, you are able to make everything nice and flowchart-y and figure out the solution, and minimize the time you spent there until getting spat out again at “feeling well”.
You got a problem? Fix it. Can’t fix it? Then forget about it. Next question. No more questions? Great. Then relax. By which I usually mean: have a good time ruminating on intractable questions you actually enjoy ruminating about.
Basically, I shed bad habits, then adopted better ones. Kept that going for a while. And then turned around one day and realized I wasn’t depressed.
To be honest, it was more like: “wait a second. Something’s wrong here. You’re… way too happy. Like, three bad things have happened to you today, and you’re still going about your business undisturbed. ……do you have a brain tumor or something?”
And then it hit me. No, I didn’t have a brain tumor. (OK, maybe I have a brain tumor; but if I do, this isn’t one of its symptoms.)
I was just seeing the world — for the first time in a long time — through the eyes of someone who wasn’t depressed.
So… I went about doing the 1.3. thing: now that you’re in a good position… go ahead and do that thing you want to do but are anxious about. Don’t wait until you’ve figured it out perfectly. Just… do it.
And so I wrote a blog post.
And that went… well. Honestly, it did. I wrote something which I think is of high quality, and gave me a sense of satisfaction.
Now was it perfect? Of course not. But it was a good first attempt. And its main faults were not only to be expected… but kind of endearing to boot.
I mean, who starts a blog and says “I know; my first post will be 14,000 words trying to sum up my thoughts on one of my biggest aesthetic and existential concerns! And I’ll do it through fucking anime, to boot!”
David Leon says that. Because of course he does.
But whatever. That’s fine. It was good. And it’ll get better.
I got a lot of positive feedback, too. And that made me really uncomfortable.
And I got one bit of extremely blunt negative feedback. Basically: it’s way too long and way too vain. And that made me even more uncomfortable.
And that’s fine. You were uncomfortable. That’s… a thing that happened. That discomfort is not going to cripple you. So keep at it, and make a second post. And then a third. And then a fourth. And then see where you’ll go from there.
And so here we are. I’m feeling well. And the second blog post is… well, good too. It’s not exactly short. But it’s shorter (…technically. By, like, 100 words).
It’s not exactly less vain……. ok, to be fair, it’s exceptionally vain. But that kind of comes with the territory of writing about your two years of depression. And it’s a personal blog, not a newspaper; no one is forcing anyone to read it; and when the novelty wears off, I’ll move to other topics in which my face is not quite so transparently reflected.
Same with the other things I was worried about. Social media? Eh, fuck it. Do it; don’t do it; whatever’s good, man. Girls? Yeah, whatever man. Being by yourself and unlaid isn’t that bad anymore; in fact, it’s pretty great. Getting laid isn’t that tiring anymore… OK, it’s still kind of tiring, but, well, whatever. That’s fine too. Keep at it. Or don’t. Just stop fucking going on about it all the time and let me get back to courting Cassiopeia.
And those fears of somehow doing something terrible to some poor, unsuspecting girl? Well, guess what. Turns out that calling quits on your habit of spending every second of your day thinking about it is not suddenly going to turn you into a serial rapist. Who’dda thunk? In fact, as best I can tell, I haven’t been in a situation where I even considered doing anything ethically wrong of note. And even if I did, I’m pretty sure a level of baseline, calm self-esteem would make it much easier to notice what’s going on quickly, and give you the necessary emotional resources to stop and readjust. So, you get a pass on that one, D.
So yeah. Things are going well.
Hope things are going well for you too.
Depression works kind of like some German guy’s fantasy about a hedgehog. So stop doing that, and do the thing you want to do instead, and then also exercise and meditate and get therapy and shit.
So, I was depressed for a while. And that meant I encountered some problems relating to people, and thinking through things. And now I’m not depressed anymore. So that’s good.
All the best,