Matthew Ratcliffe’s Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology contains 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.
I was reading a philosophy book recently and stumbled upon a random line break. The word “knowledge” jumped to another page, splitting into “know-ledge.” This led me to “no ledge,” a metaphor expressing the essence of knowing as I’ve approached it since college.
Pragmatic people see education as building a foundation of facts and figures, a baseline for measuring objective truths. They think that learning enhances mastery over the world, that it’s a tool used to increase confidence and stability.
But dynamic thinking is all about vertigo and disorientation. It’s a shock to your system. Searching for a different angle, you look out the window of your high-rise apartment and find there is no ledge. How far will you stick your neck out to glimpse what lies below?
Most people venturing into the unknown have a fallback plan that maintains the status quo. If things get too scary, they retreat to their comfort zones. Thoughtful people ask serious questions with no clear solutions. Excited by the prospects of deeper truths, we devote our lives to following ideas wherever they lead. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves before tumbling all the way down.
“If you do it, then it’s done.”
I thought of this phrase back when my sense of time was a bit jumbled. Memories, mostly bad ones, were flooding my brain as thoughts of the future were rendering me a petrified mess. In trying to make sense of my mixed-up self, I realized that what we consider NOW is finished the moment we experience it. The very act of doing something puts the actor in the immediate past, as things to do—in the future—wait to be accomplished.
This is all coming back to me today because lately I’ve been taking my emotional temperature a lot. I keep searching for the connective tissue between what I did yesterday and what I have to do tomorrow, all while my being occupies its current position. I’m always aware of my thought/feeling processes, but my self-monitoring has increased during my recent job search.
The larger issue here is, of course, the question of value. Throughout my life, even in the smallest moments, I have demanded ultra-meaning. I often ponder the purpose of this or that aspect of my life, which ultimately leads to: “What is the meaning of my life?” Perhaps the answer that pops up a lot (There is no meaning—I have no purpose) is a direct result of my wanting an-easy-to-find, single Meaning in everything I do. (And believe me, during this difficult job search my questioning of the process has happened more than once.)
Sometimes I forget just to live and to allow myself my thoughts and feelings as they are. My battle is, indeed, an internal one. I suppose, when I finally pull back from beating myself up, I can take comfort in the realization that it’s better to “hyper-feel”—to be a jumble of emotions—than to feel nothing at all.