Reason provides refuge from the tormented mind. When emotion overwhelms, and the absurd inescapability of consciousness is enough to make you start to panic, it’s comforting to remember that your soul-crushing feelings of helplessness are nothing more than the result of a conglomeration of neural processes over which you have no control.
This scientific insight to our neurological functioning can be particularly soothing when it comes to troubling thoughts, anxiety, and sadness. It allows us to forgive ourselves: our despair is no fault of our own, but rather, can be attributed to a mysterious interaction of electrical signals and hormones in our imperfect human brains. But if we can accept this explanation for our existential trouble, we are probably not depressed. The depressed individual is subject to a despair that often becomes entirely attributed to the self; the blame cannot be externalized to a scientific explanation, but remains within. This is the type of despair I saw in my father.
Understanding helps, but there is no telling what a deeper knowledge of psychology can reveal to you about those dark, shadowy corners of the mind that you would rather not explore. Unearthing the truth of my father’s depression meant accepting that, for my entire life, he had been dealing with an internal illness that caused him continual pain. As long as he had been my dad, he had also been depressed, and I could no longer attribute the clues (isolation, silence, sadness) to anything other than a very real and very dangerous pathology.
You learn pretty early on in the Psychology major that one of the canons of psychological science is determinism: every mental condition has a cause. I think the implication here is meant to be encouraging. Perhaps it’s nice to know that nothing need remain a mystery.
I fully support determinism up to a point. Ignorance is vulnerability. It can leave you shivering and helpless in the face of things that demand understanding. But relying on science in situations where it cannot fully do its job is dangerous. Knowing why my father was depressed didn’t make him better, nor did it guide our way through his darkness so that we could reach him and pull him out. All we could do was watch as he sank deeper into the recesses of his mind, into an endless cycle of self-blame that did not respond to medication.
This is part of the reason why I am fascinated by “abnormal psychology,” an area of psychology in which the human mind itself is the source of illness, and human behaviors are an expression of its symptoms. In the world of abnormal psychology, depression is a disease with a viable treatment. But psychological health is not the same thing as physical health. Physical health has a clearer standard; an illness represents any deviation from this set standard of health, and treatment returns the patient to equilibrium. Psychological health is immensely variable, because everyone deals with mental illness differently. Some depressed individuals are highly functional and not burdened by their disease; others are overwhelmed to the point where they are barely existing. And yet, any standard we assign to mental health is a construct. It is impossible to set standards for any sort of universal equilibrium while maintaining objectivity. We run into this problem with any attempt to define abnormality, and deciding when a return to “normalcy” becomes an imperative.
Like any other observable event within the domain of science, psychological abnormalities must have a cause. It appears logical, then, to blame faulty neurological wiring for the unnatural presence of a “death drive” in any human being's psyche, as it goes against our evolutionary makeup to desire an untimely extinction. It cannot possibly be someone’s fault, nor a choice; it is beyond our control. Something has broken. Something has snapped. Psychological scientists set about figuring out why they feel this way, and what’s “wrong” with their brain that could cause them to freeze their evolutionary drive to thrive. To stop this mental pathology in its tracks, patients are sent in for brain scans and therapy, and occasionally medical treatment. Somewhere there exists a solution, a “cure.”
One of the hallmarks of depression is an inability to engage in logical, objective thinking. For instance, you can’t approach a depressed friend to let them know that the reason they’re feeling so down, based on some unsophisticated interpretation of Kierkegaard, is that they’ve completely forgotten that they are a self, and they’ve simply got to try to remember. An inescapably singular point of view dominates their perspective.
To further complicate matters, although an intervention actually could help a certain type of person, others might feel their sense of self even further comprised by any alteration of their normal state, whether it stems from therapy or medication or your best intentions. Though depression is undeniably a crushing burden, it can also become an important part of someone’s identity; and for some, rescinding this unique perspective can be a devastating blow to their entire self-conception.
It has often struck me that depression, although regarded as a disease that shrouds one in darkness, has aspects that can lead to a deepened understanding of existence—though there is no telling exactly whether such a dark source illuminates all aspects of life equally. Depression surely lends itself more to an absurdist, existentialist take on life than an optimistic one; but for some, it clears the path to a sort of wisdom nonetheless. Julia Kristeva wrote in Black Sun that she owes a “supreme, metaphysical lucidity” to her depression and that it helps her to confront the “meaninglessness of Being.” Depression has given her a sort of existential genius, a heightened state of awareness or epistemological intelligence that throws the pointlessness and randomness of the quotidian into sharp contrast with the never-broken promise of an imminent death. Facades break down. Symbols no longer have meaning when confronted with eventual extinction.
Perhaps it is a type of ignorance that leads the rest of us to fear death instead of confronting it with this type of acceptance. Or maybe we just have a low threshold for pain. Accepting life as meaningless may seem dark, but it is also reasonable, as we have no proof to the contrary, no concrete justification, to assume that we are all here for a purpose. And yet we deem those who accept fate depressed; not sage, not logical thinkers, not metaphysical luminaries. Instead, we insist that they must be sick, because clearly there is something hopeful veiled in the unknown, hidden beyond the obscure absurdity of life and death, that demands to be addressed. Perhaps illogically, humans possess the optimistic tendency to believe in the unobservable—in this case, a transcendent existence who denies death’s apparent finality and life’s consequent futility. This hope is not necessarily untruth, but it is also perhaps a construct. This remains unknowable.
This disturbingly artful capability of depression, its ability to break down symbols and therefore negate the potentially deep significance of life events, is also its darkest consequence. Despite providing, for some (or a small few), deep insight into the metaphysics of existence, I watched depression extinguish, almost completely, the hopeful possibility of a meaningful life through my father’s eyes. The despair with which he was constantly confronted, along with the utter inevitability of the eventual end of his life, overshadowed the glimmering and mysterious essence of existence. Once extinguished, it was an impossible flame to rekindle; he truly believed that his sadness was beyond remedy. If depression brings knowledge along with it, there is always the lurking danger of understanding too much. My dad understood, without any apparent lingering doubt, that he would rather die than live.
There is no pill for that kind of despair. Some wounds never heal. Anti-depressants cannot, and did not, cure a profound dissatisfaction with a futile and troubling existence. When life loses its meaning in this manner, it is not so difficult to let go of life. Existence has nothing to offer when life itself offers no salvation from death; death, now, offers a salvation from life. When the source of despair is internalized, its destruction requires destruction of self.
I continue to believe that our thoughts are capable of expressing something far beyond the limited existential knowledge that we believe we possess right now. Perhaps it is time to view “abnormal” in a different light and consider the potential answers it offers us to our deeper questions of the mind, and whether it may illuminate the road to a more enlightened existence by preventing us from ascribing symbolic meaning where we should not. But we must also accept certain mindsets as pathological if we are to understand some despairs as too profound to live with. Accepting uncertainty declares neither hope nor hopelessness the victor.
Regardless of what we think we understand about mental pathology, it remains our scientific and ethical obligation to continue to search for the depression’s sources without letting ourselves become constrained by either hard science or metaphysical explanation. Even the most sophisticated neurological discussion cannot satisfactorily explain why depression causes such a deep existential sorrow—so deep that it becomes impossible to transcend. There is a chunk of information missing between chemical imbalance in the brain and “I don’t believe my life is worth living” that may never be satisfied by either physiology or metaphysics alone. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to illuminate the powerful darkness of the depressed mind, repair its faulty wiring, or unearth the sources of a despair so profound that someone could become irretrievably lost within its depths.