Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Unique Perspective on Depression

Nothing I've read on the subject of depression has ever rung true for me. Depression isn't a lack of energy (though the sufferer seems, to external observers, to lack it), and it doesn't feel like sadness. It's a whole other thing. And I believe I have a fresh way to articulate it.

The core mental process is very simple, even though outcomes may be complex: the mind obsessively locks into endless rumination.

There are great benefits to the ability to invest attention in repetition. A composer, for example, faces impasses where he's unsure of the best next note. The time-tested method is to loop back for another running start at the impasse, hoping something new/fresh/useful pops up. If not, repeat. Again and again and again and again! That's the underpinning of creativity: the capacity for deeply immersed mental repetition.

Most people are incapable of it. Uncreative people marvel at those able to create beauty. They assume it simply "comes to them". Which is both true and indeed "comes to them" (no creative person believes they own their epiphanies), but nothing about it is simple. Creative people give inspiration ample opportunity to arrive. Myriad match strikes might draw nary a flicker. You ceaselessly roll the impasse around in your mind, attention locked like a vise. Eventually, ingeniousness arrives. Eureka! And you move on to the next impasse.

Creative people don't ignite ingenious flickers more easily. They're just more committed to the process. They tolerate the tedious looping, because it's their nature to thirst for the treasure at the end of the infinite loop.

Obsessive rumination is a great boon to humanity; it's responsible for all our beauty, all our insights. It's also the worst of human curses when rumination locks onto something unanswerable, e.g. Why are humans so cruel? Why does my life seem to lack meaning? Why did my friend/child/parent die?

You may ruminate and ruminate, but there's no answering. No flame to be kindled, no ingenious solution, no treasure at the end of the loop. Just a misuse of rumination for a "problem" you well know to be insolvable. It's the creative mind's version of angrily shaking one's fist at heaven and crying "Why must it be thus?"; an endless re-steeping in the drama of a fait accompli; a neurotic looping of outraged despair. Outrage and despair are natural (and useful) human emotions. The looping, however, is another thing.

In its healthier applications, repetitive rumination works best when it's all-consuming. The outer world dims as all resources obsessively feed the rumination. We literally create a new internal world, and nourish it with our attention. Everyday creation (with a lower-case 'c') is much like Creation. For a new reality to be born, one loses touch with the outside world - the old reality - for a while. Observers think you lack energy, but your internal furnace roars. The disconnection is a sacrifice creative people periodically make (Beethoven worked in a diaper). It's worth it for the eventual beauty, insight, or "eureka!". The deeper your lock, the deeper your result.

However, when rumination is tenaciously applied to unsolvable issues, you're taken out of the world without reward or result. The lights go out but nobody's home. One endlessly sucks a lozenge of horror in response to some inescapable reality. That's depression. And a given bout of depression or grieving only ends when one tires of the empty, fruitless repetition. The obsessive reconsideration of unviable options simply gets boring.

The strategy of taking myriad running starts at an impasse, hoping for a breakthrough, has created all our art and science, but it is a failed approach for emotional impasses. That's the misapplication of a useful tool; a self-inflicted torture of horrific immersion for no good purpose.

Creative people aren't prone to depression because the creative life is difficult. They get depressed from misuse of the unique faculties of their creative minds.

Further reading:
The Main Cause of Major Depression
Depression Resuscitation Kit
A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide
The Evolution of a Perspective
Framing as Hilarious or as Catastrophe
All writings on depression in reverse chronological order


Daniel said...

I’m not sure this is true for everybody. I have experienced excessive rumination and the inability to stop thinking about something but that didn’t feel like depression to me. I have also had periods of no energy, where everything was grey and lifeless and there was no point to anything. In those instance I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I assumed those periods were depression.

James Leff said...

One of the characteristics of depression is a lack of self-awareness as the mind gets caught in some negative loop. I’ve had people tell me the same tale of woe five or six times in an evening without realizing they were repeating themselves. It’s a story they clearly retrace many thousands of times per day, but even if you bring attention to it, they won’t realize that’s what’s happening.

It becomes Reality rather than some background mental machination. It’s what the world is and what life is and you live there. It’s a form of relentlessly reinforced self-hypnosis.

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