But I had no way of casting off the gloom and feeling what I wanted to feel. My only freedom came down to a choice between hunting for reasons to justify my sadness…
“Reasons to be Cheerful” by Greg Egan. Interzone #118, April 1997
When I first read this in a story by Greg Egan, it struck me hard. This is a powerful description of what it’s like to have clinical depression. The inability to feel the way you know you should, the desperate need to find a reason for what you’re feeling. It’s an aspect of the experience I struggle to articulate. The way you react to things when you’re depressed is unreasonable. You don’t make sense even to yourself.
I suffered from clinical depression when I was in college and through much of my 20s. And I knew why I was depressed. I knew the reason for it.
My family has a history of depression and I’d seen some of my close relatives go through it. Doctors had explained what was happening and why: a normal hormonal change that occured near the end of adolescence triggered an imbalance of neurotransmitters. That’s what happened to me. That’s the reason I was depressed. The chemicals in my brain went wonky.
It’s a reason that made sense. It’s logical and explained things very well.
But knowing this wasn’t enough. My depression still didn’t make sense to me.
I went to my college library and checked out graduate level textbooks on neurology, neuroscience, neurochemistry, neurobiology. I read everything I could about what was happening in my brain (interesting I could make myself read so much about my own brain but I couldn’t make myself go to class or do my homework). Serotonin. Vasopressin. Cortisol. Dopamine. Reuptake. I understood all of this.
It still wasn’t enough.
Knowing the reason for my depression didn’t explain why I deserved it. I didn’t just need it to make sense. I needed to justify it.
I tend to assume that if I’m suffering, I must deserve it. If I deserved my depression, then I must be a truly terrible person. QED.
My depression meant I lacked control over my emotional reactions and impulses. My sadness festered into anger. My fear (depression is a terrifying thing) vented itself as anger. Anger was the only emotion I could feel that gave me any sense of power when I was so clearly powerless. I would lose my temper at the tiniest provocations. I heaped horrible abuse on my girlfriend, my friends, my family. I was miserable and made the people around me miserable.
If I treat people monstrously, it must mean that I’m a monster. Monsters deserve depression and I was depressed. QED. So I acted like the monster I believed I was.
That’s where my brain went to try and make sense of my depression. In order to justify it. Not just to understand the reason for it but to turn it into something I deserved. Something I had earned. A suffering to balance the scales.
I was being punished because I was a monster.
The things I chose to believe in order to make my depression make sense to me did far more damage than the depression itself.
Eventually, my neurotransmitters calmed down and my depression cleared up mostly on its own. But I still struggle with habits of behavior I developed during those deeply formative years of my life. I still withdraw. I still get tense over small things. I still don’t always trust myself to handle fraught emotions. I still turn to anger too easily.
I still wonder sometimes if I should worry that I am, in fact, a monster.
Because if I’m not, if I wasn’t, then why did I deserve my depression? How was it just?
If it wasn’t just, if I didn’t deserve it… How am I supposed to deal with that?
I’ve reached a point over the past several years where I’m doing really well. I don’t actually think I’m a monster. I’ve done a lot of hard work to develop much healthier emotional habits and reactions. And I’ve realized something:
Depression is value-neutral. It’s a medical condition. It just happens sometimes because that’s how the world is and I have a weird quirk in my genetic heritage. What matters is how I chose to handle it. I handled it badly at the time. I’m handling things better now. That’s what gives it meaning.
Depression wasn’t a judgement. I used it as a tool to judge myself.
I think it’s probably impossible not to use it that way. Human beings need things to make sense. The logical contortions we put ourselves through to impose sense on nonsensical situations is what makes us human.