Looking backward, I’m amazed I didn’t know. It was all so obvious.
I think I was touched by depression the whole time I was growing up, but I remember one day in particular. It was the day I was touring the State U campus before matriculating. I’d wanted to go somewhere else, but there’d been a last minute financial catastrophe in the family — ironically, due to my father’s depression, about which nobody had ever breathed so much as a word to me — and I couldn’t go there. I was walking the campus, and it was a grey, dull day, and quite frankly I felt above the place, like I was going to be wasting the next four years in a grubby hick backwater. (I was wrong about that, in many ways, but leave that aside.)
This was the moment: a cloud drifted across the sun, and it was as if this dark scum or membrane rose up out of the ground and slowly covered the sky, as though I were in the center of a vast glass dome that was being coated from the bottom up to the top by a pellicle of filth and grime. Eventually the scum met at the apex of the sky and everything was qualitatively darker and dimmer and blurrier after that.
The cloud eventually moved off the sun, but nothing brightened. It was if the sun had been replaced with a lesser, more pallid sun.
The sky didn’t brighten again for years and years.
This is a moment whose significance I’ve reconstructed retrospectively. At the time, I thought of it as just another bad day. But the dimming-out of the light is something that many depressives describe, and they often talk about the remission of their depression in opposite terms — a beam of light finally cracks through an endlessly grey sky. There is a brightened patch that slowly grows bigger, and as it grows bigger life seems possible to live.
But in college, in the next few years, I thought I was experiencing a perfectly rational self-hatred and self-disgust. I could rarely sleep well — particularly at night — and I would walk the campus in what I know now was utter psychic agony, but which then I thought was merely a natural regret. I can’t believe I thought that, now. I can’t believe that I thought the reason that in the middle of the night I’d sit for hour after hour in patches of deep shadow off the edges of paths, or lie curled behind furniture in dorm lounges on floors I didn’t live on, wanting to tear the skin off my body just to distract myself from the indescribable pain in my head, was because of how very clear-headed I was, how clearly I saw that I was a bad person.
It’s a question of experience. You go through certain kinds of pain for enough time and your scale is changed. It’s not, somehow, that a given level of pain is less painful. It’s that you’re thoroughly familiar with it. Your pain is a traveling companion. It’s always there, sometimes a little stronger or a little weaker, but always there. You plunge a hand into a pot of boiling water for the first time, and you’re disabled, as much from the shock. You do it every day…
Then I happened to read Darkness Visible by William Styron. I know, I know, it would be from a book. I’m sure people in my life tried to tell me. You know what? I don’t remember a single instance. Not a one. It just rolled off.
I remember once I was sitting on a landing in the student center, staring ahead, in so much pain that I was in a kind of dissociated fugue. I hadn’t been back to my dorm in a while. My girlfriend (and maybe some other people) finally came to find me. She asked me how I was. I told her, and whatever it was I said made her burst out crying and run away. I don’t remember what she said or what I said; I remember not being able to see or hear very well because the pain in my head had begun to eat away at my ability to process ordinary sensory information.
I know I wanted to die. Maybe that was it.
Anyway, there are passages in that book by Styron — it’s his memoir of depression — that captured perfectly how that felt. The identification was complete and immediate. And then I knew. It was a thing. I had a name for it.
The next day I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and shortly started my first antidepressant.
It’d round things off well to say “..and it’s been great since,” but, like many people — maybe even most people — who take antidepressants, the response is only partial. It’s a struggle. It always will be. Sometimes I’m still in a lot of pain.
At least now I have a way of separating depression from myself. Depression is no longer simply how I understand myself. We are separable. My foe and I. To attack my foe is not necessarily to destroy myself.