Depression: ‘Keep Busy With Survival’

In the deepest throes of my depression, I thought of myself as a “functional depressive” akin to a functional alcoholic. Functional, or high-functioning, in this regard means outwardly doing what is necessary to live: taking care of yourself hygienically and the environment in which you live, going to work to earn a living, and maintaining relationships, familial and otherwise. All the while, you are suffering on the inside, whether that is from depression, or the addiction of alcoholism. Because you are so functional outwardly, some may be surprised to learn about this inner hell. We mask that inner hell well by staying busy. And it is interesting to consider, because one of the core aspects of a clinical mental illness is that it interferes with one’s day-to-day living. That would seem to contradict functional, right? I would argue that the functionality is superficial, though, because it is more like doing just enough rather than actually living. Or to put it in the paraphrased words of May Sarton, who was a poet, novelist, essayist and diarist in the mid-20th century, the functional depressive is keeping busy with survival. To actively survive is a kind of functional, but it certainly isn’t a kind of three dimensional living.

That seems right to me. I wasn’t living; I was surviving. I was making it day-to-day. I was finding ways to “trick” my brain, or I suppose the more clinical term would be “coping,” into making it just one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year. I find it rather perversely extraordinary that someone like myself can function in this way for that long. Years of surviving, bargaining, tricking, coping, and suffering through to the next moment, moment-by-moment.

Interestingly, something that wasn’t able to break through the depression fog was realizing, “If I had killed myself then, I wouldn’t have been around to experience this.” For example, I know I was experiencing suicidal ideation in the fall of 2019 — I’m citing a specific time for the sake of an example; I was experiencing suicidal ideation for years, all the time — but fortunately, I never went through with any sort of attempt. Later, in November 2019, I was around to meet with a reporter from The New York Times and have one of my stories linked to in an article on their website. That was one of the coolest moments of my life, professionally and personally.

And yet. It still didn’t break through the fog. Which is actually one of Sarton’s points in her Journal of a Solitude I was reading about from this The Marginalian article.

She argues:

“So sometimes one has to simply endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

The emphasis is mine. I’m not a gambler, but that seems like one helluva gamble to me! A deadly one at that, lest we forget that we are talking about something as deadly as despair. It kills a lot of people daily. And it almost killed me. Such a statement also feeds into one of the most predominant thoughts in the creative world (singer-songwriters, artists, novelists, poets, journalists, etc.): That despair is a sort of gateway experience to creativity, to the highest of artforms. I, too, long romanticized such a belief, and in that way, have at times, sort of “leaned into” being damned, as it were. That being a misfit and being miscast for a normal life was, in its way, a blessing for the aforementioned illuminations manifest from such despair.

I’m not sure I believe that anymore, at least as so full-throated a way as I did in my youth. Because who wants to live like what I’ve described here? Even for the “sake” of the art? Even for what it may illuminate? Would Stephen King be Stephen King without the cocaine and alcoholism? Of course he would be! After all, the majority of his work has come after he got clean, and arguably, some of his worst books are considered to be ones during the worst throes of his addictions. So, again, for something as deadly as despair, I think the creatives of the world overly romanticize its energizing, creative capacities.

I do agree, however, with Sarton’s point that, “The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.”

The reason for that seems obvious enough: I can’t really tell you why I experienced severe depression and you haven’t, but I can tell you, or try to explain, what my experience with it was like, and how I was able to eventually work through it to see as the fog receded. Within that journey-exploring can certainly be art, beautiful and moving and maybe even inspiring art.

We are all going to despair. It is the price of admission for a human being existing and living in the world. But the price of admission for a human being existing and living in the world is also experiencing profundity, immense beauty, and wonderment. Within that space, within the yin-yang of that existence, we find art. And importantly, we find living versus merely surviving.

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