Matthew Ratcliffe, in Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology, provides the most accurate description of depression I’ve ever read. For the depressed person:
“The practical significance of things is somehow diminished; they no longer offer up the usual possibilities for activity. Associated with this, there may be a sense of impossibility; possibilities appear as ‘there but impossible to actualize.’ There can also be a sense of estrangement, as possibilities that are inaccessible to self appear as ‘accessible to others with little effort.’ Other people might continue to offer possibilities for communion, but these possibilities appear at the same time as ‘impossible for me to take up.’ Together, these alterations in the possibility space constitute a feeling of isolation, which is experienced as irrevocable because depression does not include a sense of its own contingency. The resultant estrangement from the world amounts to a change in the sense of reality and belonging—things no longer appear available; they are strangely distant, not quite ‘there’ anymore. Certain kinds of possibility may also be heightened. A world that no longer offers up invitations to act can at the same time take the form of an all-enveloping threat, before which one is passive, helpless and alone. Hope, practical significance and interpersonal connection are not just gone. Their loss is very much part of the experience; it is felt.” (71)
Ratcliffe argues that most people see the world (without thinking about it) as a possibility space open to practical actions and meaningful projects. The depressed person inhabits a different world altogether, even as she stands before us in the same room. Her depression precedes her experience of being present in the world.
It’s not a matter of losing one’s hopes; the depressed person lacks a capacity to hope for any meaningful life at all. She is estranged from the world of non-depressed people for whom possibilities appear “accessible with little effort.” The possibility of believing in possibility itself feels impossible.
Hers is an altered world marked by inhibition and indecision in which she feels trapped. Her future is not her own, and she is “passive, helpless and alone” before it. Good things won’t happen for her; only bad things will happen to her.
While Ratcliffe’s detailed analysis of depression helps me understand my illness, I wrote this post for people who don’t know how awful depression feels. I hope my blog offers possibilities for communion regarding an illness millions of people across the world know all too well but often lack the words to describe.