It is not sadness but erosion of joy that is the primary geographic process of unipolar depression. Intricate caverns of self-critique and analysis are slow to decay; they are made from harder stuff. Those caves are also fractal in nature, and so in being fractal they suggest themselves at all levels and are infinitely intricate.
Now that I've lost about half of you...
The day I started writing this piece was not a good day, but it was not a particularly bad one, either. There were financial concerns, cutbacks to be made, revenue needed to be increased. None of these problems are new, unusual, or even particularly bad. Objectively, what has made that day terrible was not that I checked my bank balance, nor was it that I forgot something at the office. What made that night suck was that just a few hours before things were not that bad. Things were not great, nor was this a trip up even the most modest of mountains. It was a sea level day. And I'll be damned if I didn't fuck it up like an oil tanker run aground in Alaska.
The thing I forgot: a form that needed to be returned to the kid's school. I also did not find a satisfactory pen for my wife. She was yelling that the first pen wasn't one she liked and she needed a new one. I happened to be busy, but no one would get her a goddamned pen and she didn't get up to get one herself. This is nothing new: this yelling for things she could get on her own. That behavior is a quirk of her personality and exacerbated by a tender lower back. We all have those quirks and ailments. I know that looks odd, but when you have been with someone for over a decade, you decide there are certain aspects that will never change and you can either fight these or accept these. I am positive I have the same problems. But that day I took the yelling personally because I was failing at fixing the computer while making dinner and then finding I needed to clean a couple dishes for final preparations to the dinner and it was all combined with a lack of a pen.
And for some reason all that failure made me want to cry. The form and the pen and the money and the computer were examples of my failure as a provider. Then I thought my food choices (dinner included) were poor and should include more vegetables, and then I remembered I woke up late this morning. All this shit hit me at once. I'm lucky that I didn't think of some other cringe inducing moment. Some days I am not so lucky.
I think about failures like that constantly go in some cycle that should violate laws of thermodynamics and power a small city. Should I call those thought patterns The Depressive Cycle? That sounds clever and epic enough. It suggests geographic cycles like the water cycle or the carbonate-silicate cycle or something grand. Except--hyperbole aside--it's not grand at all. The depressive cycle of thinking about ones own failures is not grand. It's not insightful. It's not even all that interesting. Again, it's like zooming in on a fractal, you get a feeling you've seen this shit before, but everything is just different enough to interest you. In short, being depressed is fucking boring.
Of course when I say you I mean me. I mean me. But that's just an example. And so, how many ways I can I think about how terrible I am?
Turns out the answer to that question is: quite a lot.
One terribly practical and painful way the self-loathing has affected me is memory. I cannot remember many things because there is a constantly running cycle of doubt in place. Even moments that should be joyful and great are marred. I remember my daughters' births, but I also remember every stupid thing I said or did while I was there. It is not clear in my mind. The way I remember is less a movie than a series of impressionist paintings. And we're not talking good paintings here, we're talking student of someone that bumped into one of Monet's students on the street and fell onto a pile of horse droppings and then rolled on canvas. That guy.
Did Monet have students? I can't remember.
Consequently, I feel as if I did not do anything in my life, even though I did. I went to college. I went to more shitty punk shows than I would care to count. I performed in front of audiences regularly. I tried stand-up. I made music. I wrote hundreds of stories. I did these things. I know I did. But what do I remember? I remember the time I fucked up terribly. I remember the jokes that didn't make it. I remember fucking up the bass line of that last song even though I played the first song perfectly. So it is with all things. I don't even know if this is unique or even indicative of my depression, but the people I am with usually remember things so vividly.
Is this confirmation bias? Or is there something really wrong with me? Maybe other people are just like me and pretend so much better. I am glad I am not a hypochondriac.
It's difficult to explain what it means to be in that cycle of depressive thoughts to someone who has never been in it. And even those that have been in it do not have the same cycles and do not have the same starting points of depression, the same triggers, the same worries. So, sometimes it's even harder to realize that I am really not in that bad of a place, objectively. But I do.
This is where the drugs come in. I won't even talk about illegal drug "experimentation". Let's just say anecdotes are only paths to actual research, but there are studies that show promise. Some of them are quite interesting. I am currently unmedicated for my depression. This is a choice. I'm not saying that I regret taking SSRIs, but I rarely could afford them constantly and, even when I could, none of the prescriptions helped me, at least in the traditional way. What it did was demonstrate in a tangible way that my feelings are chemically induced. There is a chemical imbalance in this stupid brain of mine that tends to make me feel just terrible. And the prescriptions showed me that my mood can be swayed by a pill whose active ingredient is best measured in milligrams. I'll be damned if that objective insight hasn't helped me.
My mind is malleable, based on chemicals it excretes and absorbs. This is the thought that keeps me rooted. We're all just chemicals and that knowledge is often what keeps me waking up and going to work and staying on the path of life.
So, I've got my root. I got my base. Why do I feel like stir fried shit in a bag?
I likely feel depressed not so much due to the presence of things but the lack thereof. Serotonin is one of the two main neurotransmitters in humans. It's found more in the gut than the brain. Serotonin, if you have actively avoided learning about it, is involved with mood, memory, and learning. Mood and memory? Well, the idea fits, I suppose.
Anyway, there is another thing we feel, which is dopamine, which is thought to function in cognition, memory, sex, and so on. "As increasing numbers of studies show, he [John Salamone] says, the famous neurotransmitter is not responsible for pleasure, but has to do with motivation." (via) Dopamine is far less interesting but just as important. Problems with dopamine range from ADHD, schizophrenia, restless leg syndrome, and Parkinson's.
How do these two things function together, for me? I have no fucking idea, honestly. If I were to speculate it would be indeed just that, speculation. Which is probably useless, but I'll indulge myself. I tend to find thinking entertaining. Thinking provides either the right answer or at least enough of a diversion often enough to have become a reward in and of itself. See also: the fractal idea.
I don't have any issues with my dopamine, probably. I'll assume not, because it is indeed possible. I don't have ADHD, schizophrenia, or anything of that sort. There is an uncited mention of introverts (such as myself) are not as reward-seeking and therefore have less dopamine. I call bullshit because the rewards are different. I am still motivated to do things; often quite too many things. I will assume that the dopamine is functioning fine because I have no reason to assume otherwise.
But I do feel like shit, as previously stated. It's possible that the reward of thinking about myself (and thereby thinking of myself as important) is in and of itself a reward? However, because I do have that depressive attitude, it is negative attention directed at myself. Does that make sense? Would an analogy help? Probably not. Let's try anyway.
It's like football. No, no no. It's like a cyst. No, no. My pondering self-analysis is actually like neither of these things. It's actually more like what it is, a rather pointless diversion. Should it be any wonder that I don't talk about it with other people very often?
You ever reach the very end of the Gunslinger series by Stephen King? It feels something like that except far less epic.
Alan Watts said "The ego is nothing other than the focus of conscious attention." What does that have to do with it? I am focused on myself. Perhaps I should focus on other things. Refocusing sounds easy; banal, even. It's a drug-induced cliche to recognize that you are part of the universe, not apart from it. Mushrooms help. Recognize that the stars you see are billions of miles away and millions of years old. Recognize that you are part of that whole thing, made of star-stuff. Recognize that you are a monkey on a rock or a speck of dirt hurtling through the cosmos. Recognize that you are responsible for your own happiness. You've read these statements before on crappy wall art or on inspirational t-shirts. That ascent to cliche doesn't make the cliches any less true.
But it's really hard to focus when you hurt all the time. That pain is a shitty excuse. Everybody hurts, as Michael Stipe said, who may have been quoting some stoic philosopher.
Or maybe a comedian.
Shit, even quoting that is cliche.
But the excuses and cliches are none-the-less very real. I wish I could let go of that ego. I catch fleeting moments of relief when I am not inhabiting this self quite so fully. There is no one at fault for that but me. What should I do to let go? How can I avoid a dowager's hump from so much shoegazing?
See how close I am? There is something there, above? If I could just think about it more I could totally figure this out. Right?
What is the purpose of this? I really don't know. Maybe the rambling is an object lesson. The paths depressing thoughts take are rarely fruitful but may be entertaining. What benefit does this provide us? That's far too clever for me. Or is it?
For me, eventually all cognitive paths lead to somewhere similarly pointless. Maybe depression makes my life more meaningful. Maybe depression is my muse, where I sort all the stories I write and no-one reads. Maybe it allows me to more objectively see reality. Maybe it's none of these things. That's the joke, isn't it? Depression is none of those things. For me, it's just a chemical imbalance, and trying to make it meaningful in a life that is devoid of objective meaning is just how it goes.
I wish there was something there at the end of this, some kind of epiphany that would let you understand how I am or even let me understand how I am enough to change it. But there isn't. There are no tectonic plates to move, there is no TNT or Operation Ploughshare in place to mine for rare earth minerals, there is nothing really there to uncover but more of the same. And all of circle-jerking kind of internal monologue is less interesting than I would like to think it is.
Perhaps, eventually, the cavern will end and it will be time to head back up and into the light. Or there will be a collapse. But at least there will be an end. So until then I feel a compulsion to keep looking.