Notes on Our Fifteenth Meeting — DEPRESSION

We had a lively meeting. Considering the personal nature of our topic this time, I won’t give my usual dramatic rendering of our back-and-forth discussions.

Instead, here are a few of the areas we covered…

1. Depression as Both a Challenge and an Opportunity

Some members of the group spoke of their own or their family’s experiences with depression, and how it presents at once a challenge and an opportunity.

When you finally recognize depression for what it is, they agreed, there is a kind of relief to be had.

You have to accept that it is not likely to go away, this shadowy character (one member even gives her depression a name: “Demetrio,” a dangerous, handsome, dark-haired figure, always trailing her and looking for vulnerable moments to step into her life. She likes him but knows to keep him at bay).

Instead of trying to abolish depression from your life, these members explained, you learn to cordon it off, control it, anticipate its attempts to insert itself. Perhaps, too, you learn to avoid its familiar means of access, like alcohol or lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

One member spoke of making it conscious (so far as possible) and willfully turning his back to it, all the while knowing that at times he might have to face it again to subdue it.

Some spoke of learning to recognize its lies, particularly its false certainties about the utter emptiness of life or… their own shame and failure. “Ah,” you might say to yourself when your thoughts begin to gravitate towards a particularly brutal assessment of life or yourself, “I have heard that before!” You learn to discount the language depression uses to draw you in.

One member spoke of how she has actually learned to love her capacity for depression. Acceptance, in her case, does not require passive resignation. Instead, she has learned to celebrate the wide-ranging emotions given to her by depression. She plays “big,” as she put it. So she has learned to think of her depression as more than a threat, but as something that is the shadow side… of a part of herself which she cherishes. She wouldn’t want it any other way. It just requires more vigilance than for some who live with more of an even keel.

2. Depression As Seen From the Vantage Point of… Infinity?

Should depression be understood as a heroic struggle for Meaning in the face of the infinite abyss?

Or should be understood, to the contrary, as merely a frustrating set-back and time-suck in a person’s admittedly finite life, something to be given no particular value (or no more than, say, shingles)?

I suggested that the ways we talk about depression seem to fall into one of these two camps.

In the first camp you have Tolstoy’s Confessions (which Setenay summarized for us), or the “dread” of the existentialists, or traditional religious narratives of sin and redemption through faith. At least since the early 1800s we have the popular conception of the moody, shaggy-headed genius, heroically resisting the conventions of society or the world, at a cost.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2).jpg

Lord Byron, depressed genius.

In the second camp you have William Styron’s and Sylvia Plath’s memoirs, both of which are descriptive of a grim ride down to the rock bottom… pretty much without redemption. I mentioned in this context that perhaps I like Kafka so much because he doesn’t give his protagonists a heroic stature when he depicts their despair and disorientation. Yet somehow he makes their narrative arcs compelling to his reader anyway. Deeply depressed himself, he manages to straddle this gap between the heroic and the mundane.

3. Social and Cultural Aspects of Depression

We talked at one point about how different cultures, and different generations within cultures, have developed different norms around depression.

Jaimey mentioned how first-generation Holocaust survivors generally resisted speaking about their experiences. Yet as we see in the documentary Shoah, when pushed by the filmmaker’s insistent questions, they finally can be made to break down emotionally. Is anything gained by making them talk in the face of such pain — other than satisfying our prurient interest?

The filmmaker in that case faced criticism for pushing them too far. Yet…their sons and daughters and grandsons and grand daughers often seek talk therapy to enable them to emotionally process their family histories. Is one approach right, and the other wrong?

Setenay talked about how some Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, particularly those still living in Europe, preferred not to speak of it, while their American children (in a group she attended) actively sought to put the pain and suffering of that experience into words. What is perceived as good for one generation may not be perceived that way by the next.

This brought us to a discussion about how depression has been feminized in American culture, so that men are often depicted as stoic and silent… but rarely labeled as depressed (Florence brought up Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas as an exception to this). We talked about how it is surprising that there are so few words for such a nuanced state: “melancholia” being one, “anomie” another, “ennui,” “malaise.”

It seems to be difficult to speak about — words fail. We are just scratching at the surface of our understanding of this aspect of experience.

4. The Relevance of Childhood Trauma or Loss to Adult Depression

Some members of the group spoke of painful events in their childhoods, and how these events continue to drive their darkest times.

Yet some of these same people noted that, at a certain age, they were able to distance themselves from it. “That was not me, and it had very little to do with me!” they tell themselves, and a great weight lifts.

Whether through geographic distance — moving to another coast — or simply through the passage of time, some people are able to adjust their focus to keep those old neural networks from lighting up too brightly.

I mentioned how in The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of refusing to hold a “sad attitude towards sadness” or a “tragic attitude towards tragedy” — instead drawing a bright-line distinction between the hardships of his life and his own self. After coming across it a few weeks ago, I have found this observation useful for my own life. Since then I have reminded myself on a few occasions not to over-identify myself with my circumstances and the daily, hourly emotional responses I have to them. This is of course part of the practice of Buddhism, as well as aspects of all religious traditions (“turning it over to God,” etc.).

Some in the group who had enjoyed happy childhoods spoke of the opposite challenge: not so much trying to establish a useful distance from childhood trauma but, rather, trying to find ways to cope with the relentless, almost banal accumulation of suffering as we grow older.

In this respect, I admitted that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and his struggle to bear up under the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” didn’t speak to me at all as a younger man. “What is this guy’s problem?” I thought to myself. “Why would anyone want to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’?”

Yet as life has gone on, I can relate more. At least I understand now what Hamlet is asking. How are we to deal with our suffering? When does the burden become greater than the reward? These are unquestionably valid questions at 48; they seemed silly to me at 18.

5. Achieving a Clarity of Understanding 

Some members pointed out that understanding itself may have quite important role to play in the avoidance of depression

Not only can people start to recognize depression’s language and familiar means of access, and hence tamp it down when it tries to poke its ugly head into their lives. More than that, some suggested that clarity of understanding can sometimes turn depression into something more akin to grief. It makes our response to suffering a manageable feeling as opposed to an intractable condition.

For some, the capacity to clearly understand and articulate the sources of suffering, when they were children, helped them to order it and contain it and overcome it in later years. For one member, it wasn’t even her own understanding. It was her friend’s extraordinary clarity at the time of her death that brought a sense of gratitude and peace, which would have been otherwise difficult to find.

We talked about how in an evolutionary sense perhaps depression has a distinct purpose. Maybe it functions to… slow… us… busybody… bipedal primates… down. To shift our attention away from our usual daily tasks towards more large-scale problems of existence in a longer time-frame. Maybe this is useful on some occasions.

In a fascinating way, when it comes to depression it seems that what goes on in our heads directly impacts our neurochemical state — and the reverse as well. Our heads and our bodies are working in such complicated ways together that it is not possible, sometimes, to distinguish where one begins and the other leaves off (ok, don’t say, “The neck?” — you know what I mean).

6. Taking Leave

As it got to be 11, we had to leave the discussion there.

Thank you to all who came and shared your reflections. What a rare and valuable opportunity to discuss some of the more unpleasant aspects of life with an open-hearted and open-minded group of friends.

See you next meeting!

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