A Personal Phenomenology of Three Depressions
The moon loves the sun as my father loved me. I believe that my dad was depressed a good portion of his life, and yet somewhere from this dark side he loved me and I think too he feared that if he showed me any light of hope and joy in his own life, it would expose his vulnerability in me. I think my dad feared that I had his dis-ease and that if I attempted anything in life with optimism and joy, it would exasperate this innate depressive thing somewhere in us; after all, as my father thought, life was harsh and unforgiving and any attempt to shine would be met with the dulling existence of hopelessness. He was an advocate for preemptive numbing.
There may be as many ways to be depressed as there are ways to be human and I would like to, using my own life, describe how depressions are qualitatively different. By “qualitative,” I mean that being depressed has a quality to it and depression has meaningful relatedness to one’s existence. The latter idea is a common theme with existential thinkers and clinicians.1 What is not so common is to recognize depression as qualitatively different in relation to our development and experiences. In other words, while it may be obvious to us that depression must have something to do with the lives we lead, what is less obvious is that depression, while retaining its characteristic moodedness, comes to be and feels differently.
My father rose like a grim muse to protect me—he taught me to depress in order to be safe from, and in, the world. By “taught,” of course, I do not mean instruction; how he lived shaped my being. Dad left mom when I was 16 years old. The rest of his life was marred with apathy and impotence.
This work is a phenomenology of depression. The phenomenological anecdotes or stories I will soon tell are phenomenological, yes, but not phenomenology.2 By this I denote that I will explicate lived experience using personal narrative, metaphor and the phenomenological attitude and reveal my role in constituting or taking part in the phenomenon of depression;3however, herein I have not employed the phenomenological method.4 Nevertheless, I will avoid reifying depression as a psycho-biomedical thing devoid of meaning and human experience.
DEPRESSION AS A ROMANTIC
In my teens and early twenties I dare say I was depressed the vast majority of the time. In gloomy discontent, I drank heavily and ranted about the human condition. Often in a funk and morosely self-involved, I staggered through a few years of rage, self-loathing and lousy relationships. Back then my depression seemed to be intimately interwoven with my creativity. I was a musician and composer and my music and lyrics most often lamented my situation. The music I played in my basement studio beneath my mother’s house echoed the tangibility of my pain.
This depression felt romantic. Would it be shocking to say that I liked it? I did, in a way. I was a miserable being, inwardly turned and temperamental. The moon light shown across my face in the brightest of daylight and I seduced my depression as it wrapped its arms around me.
Depression was, for me then, an ongoing lullaby – a bittersweet and lulling song playing in my head, if you will, hushing me and allowing me to continue the living somnolence I so cherished. I wrote the lullaby nightly and lived it daily and added contrapuntal harmonies (a.k.a., co-morbidity): anxiety, substance abuse and intense anger. I wrote the lullaby because I wanted, in some sense, to preserve the drama of the depression.
My depression as a romantic lullaby was a sweet dirge. Its forlorn melody called to the kindred dark spirits, the ne’er-do-wells that surrounded me; namely, my artist and musician friends all seemed to be depressed in one way or the other. We were attracted to each other and we gathered together to reify this way of being. Depression, in one way or the other, was our main topic of conversation; it was our initiations, waiting for the existential and archetypal meanings of the daimonic; my depressive friends and I constituted a séance, waiting, but fearing, to feel something.5
Certainly there was lots of laughter back then, lots of interesting ideas, things to do and people to know. But all of it felt glazed over and the moment I was alone the deadening mood of the depression was there, humming its song along with me. If you’ve ever been depressed you probably know what I mean – life’s changes become various sorts of distractions but always you feel the pull downward, the dulled and lulled presence of the humming lullaby.
The odd thing is that I did not know any different way of being. Depression was normalcy for me. Didn’t everyone feel this way?
Eventually I sought help not because of my depression so much as because my temper was getting out of control. My crooked fingers today attest to my penchant for punching walls, cars and various sorts of inanimate objects back then. I felt nothing, neither pain nor joy, and so I swung—striking the bell jar.6
I went to an excellent therapist7 and after some time my violent temper and pervasive low-level depression lessened.
Less depressed but still romantic, I became capable of having a healthy long-term relationship and I did. Some years went by. I met a wickedly funny, cynical woman whom I liked a great deal. Our relationship was, for the most part, exciting and healthy for both of us. I wasn’t depressed. I think I even knew it, like a window opening, or a portal, breach or break, a bit of sun shown in the moonlight and my lullaby faded. Then she left me and although, upon reflection, I did not love her, I nevertheless fell apart.
DEPRESSION AS A BEAST
That was when another depression came and I was backed up, cornered and stunned. This depression was a beast—so heavy and without charm. I was not used to this lack of romance and its sinister counterpart, anxiety, came like a searing knife within the fog of the depression, and it made it unbearable.
I discovered vodka! It worked me over good. Drunk most nights, I vomited every morning in the shower and watched the viscera—my guts and soul—swirl and drain away. The anxiety had a message for me: I was sitting in my own shit in a world that was moving fast as my friends moved on in their schooling, relationships and careers. What I wanted to do (music), I couldn’t do and I was failing and flailing. While my depression owned and structured my past, my anxiety, it too beastly, spoke of my future; anxiety came in costume, dressed as a jester and as a plague-doctor, it mocked hope and it spoke to me of my pestilent future while inside my racing heart (a heart stopped and yet beating fast). I felt panicked.
My corpse-corpus moved about. I feigned living. My anxiety mimicked feeling and always, always, felt the need to remind me of my past – a past, it whispered to me, that was to be a done deal, certified, and thus my future forevermore futile (yes, yes this was my dad’s septic insight).
I lost control one night in my basement, throwing expensive recording equipment to the floor. I punched holes in the wall paneling, breaking my fingers and puncturing my knuckles with finishing nails and splintered wood. My mom came running down the stairs crying and yelling for me to stop. I fell to the floor and sobbed. She sat by me and I put my head in her lap. She stroked my brow and bewailing she said, “What can I do, I don’t know what to do…what’s wrong?” I hadn’t cried in such a long time. “There’s nothing wrong, mom,” I think I said, “I’m just not right…I’m just arms and legs.” I was about 25 years old.
Time is mooded and slothful when you’re depressed, and I had wrought my circumstances then like Marley’s chain. Any move I made was going nowhere. Back then depression was indeed like arms and legs; my arms reached for things and my legs took me places. I began to drone on laboriously. People would talk to me, I heard humming. Go to a party— lot of humming; at a job, nothing but the vapid hum. Worst of all, around me were other people in need but I heard nothing but my own narcissistic hum.
TRYING TO CATCH THE LEAVES AS THEY FALL
Here’s the thing. I worked really, really hard at changing my life for the better. I saw my therapist sometimes twice a week, I read interesting and beautiful books, and I began to take care of my physical health. I met and became friends with a warm, progressive, intelligent (and thoroughly odd) woman; we fell in love and wed. We had the child of our dreams (seriously). I went to college (Undergraduate) when I was 31 years old. I’ve gone on to many wonderful things since then that I can scarcely tell you about here. Suffice to say, my life is full and often joyous. When I visit my mom we hug with a reverent and remembering ease about the past now remembered as a healthful present.
One autumn day, my little boy and I ran around our back yard trying to catch each leaf that capriciously fell from the trees. What splendid, giggling and awestruck play and what futility! What a vast and meaningful effort nevertheless!
THE GRIM MUSE DIED
When my father died I feared I would become depressed again. He was only 65 years old. He was an English Professor, a writer, and a daydreamer. He did little else but write, read, travel and drink for 20 years. He was a sort of guru to my friends. I had a cool dad, and when we were young we all would go visit and hang out with him in his furniture-sparse and book-laden apartment. He always had at once specious and sapient words to say. My friends would tell me, “You’ve got a great dad; a cool dad.”
When I got older my dad and I became good friends. We loved to talk about books and films. He used to come see my band when we had gigs. He respected my wife, Carol (despite the fact that she doesn’t like John Updike’s work), and he was pleased at my son’s precocious ways.
Dad constituted his depressive misery with an enchanting flair. He had it perfectly structured (the maudlin Irish writer). But when I saw his dead body splayed out on a gurney in the hospital room I thought, could it be possible that he is even deader in this moment than when he was alive? Never more keenly did I feel the all important distinction between death and deadening. I felt this real death, rather than the familiar death of his existence, was the completion of a journey for both of us. I stood there and took him in, with Carol by my side. I took in all that was in that room in the hospital—all my anger at him and all my fear of his looming shadow and love of his dark romance. Something astonishing happened—I mourned my father’s death. I cried, I was ambivalent, I talked about him and I looked at old pictures. No slowness or deadness came upon me, and I did not feel empty, but full, full of sadness and regret. I was yearning. For weeks I wallowed in a mourning moonlight that was not depression; it was the extravagant moon of existence (i.e., a moon that blushes with the vagaries of excess), the one that lights the way.
DEPRESSION AS A STARVING THIEF
Ah, if only I could end this here, if only I had a happy ending. But no, I cannot. I have spent nearly 20 years enjoying my life. I drew great sustenance from raising my son and being with Carol. I finished my doctorate degree and began to teach. I loved teaching and I was exuberant. The idea of being depressed was long gone and I suppose I imagined myself as immune, cured, free and clear. Perhaps I was too exuberant, too involved with my own contentment and joy. Is this possible?
The details of this depressive story, some four years ago, I cannot tell as I feel I still live with a Sartrean nausea; a purple wound walks just ahead of me, a kind of interpersonal another right there before I meet others.8
What I can say, and with much trepidation, is that I wasn’t safe from depression and it came for me again.
The passivity in this trauma ravaged me. I could not rely on my anger to mark my experience, to provide a direction; in fact, I could not express anger as this would have made things worse for me. Then, and oh the strangeness of this occurrence, while this depression emerged as a mugging thief, I was mugged again literally, at gun point, as I walked home from work.
“Give me what you got” the mugger said.
“I’ve got nothing,” I replied, and with a gun pushed into my stomach I nevertheless shoved the mugger out of the way and kept walking (Would he shoot me in the back, I wondered? But, then again, how befitting).
“What were you thinking?” everyone said. But, I thought, foolish muggers, what were they thinking trying to mug a dead man in the cold gray of February?
In the thick of it, with the thief searching for entry, I sat in my car in the parking lot and wept. But, crying failed me, it did nothing, no release; I was the opening that was devouring my soul and said opening let the thief in. That night, I pulled the covers all the way over me and shuddered.
What was most ghastly was that I could not hide it from my son. Now much older, he was having a difficult time at school and my pain hurt him. I could not and would not recreate the disease in him, as my father did in me, but I didn’t know what to do. He watched as I let the thief steal my spirit.
Carol and I grew even closer, we hunkered down; we locked arms and, unlike my dad, I included my son in the true story of my pain and he supported me. This was not a romantic story, it was simply what I was going through and how I felt – something, again, my dad never shared with me. This depression surely was not romantic and it did not have the violence of the beast.
It was, however, the most desperate of them all. It was starving and it wanted something; I had, after all, more to lose, and it came after much of what I worked for and treasured.
This depression was qualitatively marked by its vacuity, by its ultimate aim of vanquishing, stripping bare. This depression ripped at my optimism, it stole my trust in others; it was after love, not just my love, but all love as it wanted me to live in a loveless world. This depression was a crook, hell bent, on me heavy, and this time anxiety did not race my heart but filled my mind.
I fought it, though, but to no avail: one day I went bike riding on my favorite path that runs through some farm lands. The exercise, the meditative and tranquil nature of this attempt was laughably ineffective—my mind recounted my troubles with a barrage of regrets, thoughts, worries…I wanted to scream. The scenery passed by me without notice. I rode like an automaton. Giving up, I put my bike on my roof rack and headed home, and on the way I must have made a wrong turn (although I’ve driven the same route many times) and I ended up in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Who was driving? My mind was so full of dread that I did not know where I was or even for how long I had been driving. My heart pounded and I looked over to the passenger seat to see if Carol was with me. I felt fractured. I pulled the car over and cried, sobbed. I’ve ruined everything, I thought.
This was my old man depression, the corrupt depression that stole time when I had no dream, no rebound, no phoenix anymore…would I become like my dad? Would I pass my disease on to my son?
I remember reading the story about the first firefighter who deliberately set a circle of brush ablaze around him to protect himself (and his team) from the massive fire that was consuming the forest.9
He begged his comrades to enter the circle, to not try to run from the fire or fight it. On the ground, he let the burn overtake and override him, and lived to tell about it.
My hope here was to offer a phenomenological and qualitative account of how depression comes, like a fire rolling asunder, broken up as a part of you, feeding on its self, devouring, romantic, enticing and terribly dangerous. Depression is not the same for all of us and depression, for each singular person, feels differently at different times in her or his life.10
Depression, perhaps, is a way of responding to a sometimes overwhelming and harsh world, a difficult upbringing or a distinct trauma. We deaden down in order to survive it. But this is not to be understood as a conscious effort, or mechanism, on our part.11
My life as a romantic composer, a lovelorn wretch, troubled son or a foolish idealist has revealed the pace of my being. That some of us characterologically tend towards depression (hamartia) may be true but we need our nemeses: poor parenting, mean-spirited people, vapid institutions, devastated communities and so on. Remember though that our nemeses are unique to each of us for otherwise we cannot recognize the tragic myths that ultimately hold the meanings that will uphold and care for us.
Sadness is aliveness, as is anger, as is grief and mourning. I believe, with all my heart, that we can avoid the devastating effects of most depressions (without medication) when we stand within the enchanting possible-impossibility of moonlight and sunlight—when we allow suffering, sadness and grief their due course as ways of being human. The pathological symptom, Hillman (1977) tells us is “the first herald of an awakening psyche which will not tolerate any more abuse” (p. 158).12
I finally did listen to the romantic, beastly, and rapacious depressions but if they continue to lurk, I suspect, one must be prepared. Again from Hillman: “One turns to the archetypes, not so much for getting to the causes or roots of pathology, but to come upon the background reasons that give pathology significance” (p. 176).
I know why the moon loves the sun as each provides the other the promise of dawn and dusk. The hope we have then, our saving grace if you will, is, imaginably, to find the bravery to live at, and journey within, this confluence.13
1 See, for example, two classics: Frankl, V. E. (1959/1985). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Beacon Press. And, Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books.
2 On the phenomenological anecdote see M. van Manen, (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
3 Conrad, in the film Ordinary People (1980), metaphorically describes his depression: “It was like falling into a hole…and it kept getting bigger and bigger and you can’t get out and then all of the sudden its inside and you’re the hole and you’re trapped, it’s all over, something like that…” (Directed by Robert Redford;
The novel written by Judith Guest and the screenplay written by Alvin Sargent). See also Robert Romanyshyn’s (2001) work Mirror and metaphor: Images and stories of psychological life. Pittsburgh: Trivium.
4 “To assume the phenomenological attitude means to regard everything from the perspective of consciousness, that is, to look at all objects from the perspective of how they are experienced regardless of whether or not they actually are the way they are being experienced” (pp. 87-88). See A. Giorgi (2008), The Descriptive phenomenological method in psychology: A modified Husserlian approach. Duquesne University Press.
5 Some of us could dwell with the positive, integrative and healthful benefits of the daimonic as shadow more than others. See May, R. (1969). Love and will. WW Norton & Company.
6 I am, of course, referring to Sylvia Plath’s (1971) work The Bell Jar, Bantam Books. It had an intense influence on me as a teenager growing up in the later 1970s: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream” (p. 193).
8 Sartre, J. P. (2013). Nausea. (L. Alexander, Trans.). (Original work published in 1964).
9 See Maclean, N. (2010). Young men and fire. University of Chicago Press.
10 I refer here to Jean-Luc Nancy’s (1991) notion of singularity, see: The inoperative community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Nancy contrasts the individual of individualism (a being closed off from the world and from others) with the singular person – maintaining individuality as singularity and plurality.
11 When you hear experts talk about the importance of a good support system – take heed: I believe in therapy, the healthful support of those who love you and I believe in communities that can heal.
12 Hillman, J. (1977). Re-visioning psychology. HarperCollins.
13 In part, this work was inspired by the lovely Cat Steven’s song Moonshadow: “Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?” And, “The first essential in redemption of the shadow is the ability to carry it along with you…” (Hillman, 1991, pp 242-243, in an outstanding assortment of perspectives on the Jungian and mythological shadow see: Zweig, C., & Abrams, J. (1991). Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature. JP Tarcher.