The Darkness Was Like Sunlight

Russian subway, July 2004.

Our language is insufficient in all kinds of ways. Mental health is one of those areas where we run out of words so quickly. What I find so frustrating is the lack of understanding from others and the barrier it raises to any kind of progress.

Our thinking is narrowed by the way we talk about depression. People say what they wish was true, and what they want to believe. They say you’re not really depressed if you can get up in the morning. They say it’s the weather, it’s the cold darkness of winter bringing you down. Then they tell you to snap out of it and get on with it. Even I wish it were this simple.

I don’t expect my comments on depression to be a final word or even a universal experience, but I hope I can offer some insight. There are times when the sadness feels strictly internal. It feels like aching sore or a deep wound as if you’ve been hacked away at and your chest is cut open. Then there are times when it is external.

Sometimes the darkness bursts through the door and rushes towards you like a wave. Other times it falls on you and you have to struggle to get out of bed, only to drag its deadweight with you to work. The feeling of dread can engulf you and everywhere you go it stays with you. It follows you everywhere for hours and sometimes even days.

There are ways to make it easier on yourself: exercise, eat well, drink less, take meds and go to therapy. These options are popular, but they aren’t the only options either. Some people prefer yoga and meditation to modern pharmacology. Yet it’s perfectly possible that these methods all fall short in different ways.

The existentialists would tell you that life is essentially meaningless, but that in the end you define and determine your own life and its meaning. Existence precedes essence. The burden of responsibility is supposedly what drives us to despair. Yet it’s not that in the case of depression. Certainly, the pointlessness of life is not the problem, even if it is what we so often comment upon with resignation. Why bother? It’s pointless.

I wonder if it’s not the lack of meaning, but the futility of trying to lead a meaningful life under intolerable conditions. Your freedom is really determined by the reach of your bank balance and by the weight of your wallet. Freedom is limited for working class people. You have to rent yourself out to survive. But this is not what the existentialists were talking about. They weren’t denying our lack of economic freedom.

It’s no coincidence that Sartre and de Beauvoir were radical leftists. They saw the incompatibility between freedom and capitalism. If the existentialist project is about the psychological conditions of freedom, then those conditions are greatly hindered by the liberal market economy. Private ownership and wage labour are not conducive to human freedom.

Many people will try to tell that depressed people just need to lighten up and get to grips with life as if the gloom itself is a personal choice or lack of ambition. You’re told you have to express agency, get out more, see friends, go the gym and so on. We soon find the real pressures of the society are heaped upon us for not being enthusiastic worker bees.

This isn’t all there is though, the full picture is more complex. Capitalist society produces depression structurally, it’s not a conspiracy – it’s a social consequence of its structures. An apathetic and disillusioned populace is partly what results from exploitation, but it’s also what exploitation requires of its subjects: passivity and mournful acceptance.

Of course, the neoliberal era has its own pernicious, repressive variety of optimism. We’re commanded to enjoy ourselves, feel good, feel better, do better and work harder. It’s never enough. The individual always falls short. This is how repressive optimism generates its opposite. Pessimism becomes a new kind of free thinking.

Sadness as freedom

You find this in the cases of nihilistic writers like Michel Houellebecq and Charles Bukowski. Depression is a kind of emancipatory pulse against repressive optimism. Misery is almost enlightenment for someone like Houellebecq. Likewise, Bukowski’s best poems are exuberantly nihilistic. I took no pride in my solitude, the darkness was like sunlight to me.

This is very attractive for people who take to depression like old leather. They wrap themselves in it for comfort. The danger is the reinforcement of pessimism as some kind of wisdom can trap a person for years. The truth is a miserable life is no more free or enlightened than an upbeat life in a capitalist world. Freedom as a set of individual rights is just a formality.

There must be another possibility other than repressed optimism and nihilistic freedom. The answer can only be political. There may be no personal solution because we’re not just atomised individuals in a moral vacuum. We can make our own choices, but we can’t choose the conditions of our choices. Collective action is the only way to batter down the walls and truly free ourselves.

Photograph courtesy of Richard. Published under a Creative Commons license.