Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Main Cause of Major Depression

Nearly everything I write about perceptual framing (here are all postings so labeled, in reverse chronological order) sheds light on depression (here are depression postings), though I haven't always connected the two directly.

What Depression Is

Depression is the ultimate result of frozen perspective; of the inability (really, the unwillingness) to reframe. You forgot you've been holding the remote control in your hand all along.

Frozen perspective is a kind of obsession. This unwavering mental lock-in is highly useful if you're composing a symphony or concocting a scientific hypothesis. But if you freeze into an unwavering outlook without any intention of producing a tangible end result - some sort of tangible creative output - that's depression.

The content of this obsession is just some indulgent scrap of mental drama, e.g. "Why must I die?"; "Why are people so cruel?"; "Why don't I ever get what I deserve?"; or "Why does everything suck so much?" You obsess, lavishing in the unceasing rumination until it becomes the more captivating universe - as this one fades to a distant shadow.

The same mechanism is used to generate great art: deep attention, total immersion, obsession. But depression is a misdirection of the creativity machinery toward malignant mental fluff without an exit strategy. You're not "working on something", you're just going through the motions of working; endlessly flicking your lighter knowing no flame will appear. Soon you've forgotten that it started with mere mental whimsy.

If you kindle this process stubbornly enough for long enough, you will develop and inhabit a separate internal universe...while your lights go out in this one (it's often confused with "sadness" or a lack of energy, but depressed people are fabulously energetic; they're spilling massive energy into a deep dark pit). Creative people, with their deep and tenacious immersion skills, are much more commonly afflicted. Depression may be thought of as a perversion of useful creative faculties.

I've already covered much of this here. This time, I'll zoom away from the mechanics of perspective to look squarely at the mental content. We humans are so naive about framing, depression - everything going on with our minds beyond rote calculation and recall - that we've failed to recognize the most common cause of major depression - the kind that grips for years.


The Impasse

We all have ridiculously heroic self-images. If you don't recognize that you do this, you surely have noticed it in others. Hardly anyone sees themselves as just some person, however modestly they present themselves (I've found, to my surprise, that quiet, unassertive folks often harbor the most titanic self-images). And, of course, none of us is as studly, magnificent, and Essentially Good as our inner narrative would have it.

The Big Problem is that, over time, contrary evidence builds. The world has a way of rubbing our noses in our non-studliness, unmagnificence, and not-so-goodness.

If you're reasonably intelligent you can't easily disregard this mounting evidence. Unless you're completely cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, you can't deny or rationalize your way through it. It’s very hard to go a full 80 years without hitting the brick wall of reality re: who you actually are. So a huge segment of the population lives with a mounting internal conflict between the hero they imagine themselves to be and the run-of-the-mill shmuck the world mercilessly reveals.

That there is The Problem.


Options, We Got Options!

When evidence contradicts lofty self-image, and it gets increasingly hard to ignore, you have three options:

1. Shut Down
The truth is fundamentally unacceptable. I've spotted the approaching checkmate, and I don't wanna play anymore. Fuck y'all, I'm out of here (perhaps figuratively - via depression and/or addiction - or perhaps literally).

2. Anxiety
Fueled by existential fear, you muster your remaining energy reserves and you lash out. You scream and strive and slash and flail and holler and fight, turning it all up to "11". The gloves come off and you behave with shameless, remorseless selfishness - whatever it takes to put points on the board to prove, in cold hard stats (e.g. your bank account, your houses, your hot spouse, your kill list, and, most of all, praise or attention of any sort, no matter how fake and cheesy) that you're NO SHMUCK. You all are the shmucks! Not me!

This is not an irrational strategy, and it will immunize you from depression, but only at great cost. You will damage your world and your loved ones (aka victims). And the inner cost is high, as well. You’ll live in endless anxiety from the impossible task of sating infinite insatiability - of filling the bottomless hole where your soul once resided. Let’s call this the "Very Stable Genius" option.

3. Acceptance
Sanity! But also peril. More on this in a minute.


Acknowledging the Unacknowledgeable

Even if you're one of the few who recognize that you absurdly inflate your self-image, it's not something you feel in your bones every moment. It's a quirky foible you'll laughingly concede under the bright light of conscious thought, but it otherwise remains, unresolved, in the dim back room of your unconscious. So once depression has you in its clutches, you won't remember to look there for the reason. One of the most pernicious aspects is blindness toward the basis.

“Oh, I get it!” no one in history ever gushed; “I’m an egotist who's gradually been made aware of his un-specialness, and has shut down rather than accept the unacceptable truth that’s become starkly obvious: I'm actually just some ordinary shmuck!"

Yeah, no.

Instead, body and mind gradually grind down to a whimpering malaise, plunging you into a fog of bottomless misery, all stemming from the steadfast refusal to really see - much less recognize, much less admit - this incontrovertible-but-unacceptable truth. Having derailed your train to avoid a certain patch of track, you are unlikely to head there for a picnic, snapping photos and giggling at your silliness. It remains your psychic no mans land.

And that’s why no Slog reader will recognize her/himself in this, except perhaps in an intellectual, arms-length, cartoonish way, sidestepping gut-level recognition. You may acknowledge that others are caught in this mental trap, but it’s easy to neglect the Slog Mantra: spotting delusion doesn't mean you're sane; it just means you're observant.


Stuck and Bewildered

When the self-chronicle of your life drama hits this intolerable snag - you’re actually not the person you assumed you were - you could simply shift the narrative. In the words of my GPS, you'd RECALCULATE. Easy peasy if you're cognizant of your reframing latitude. You’d immediately embrace it, or self-forgive, or learn/change/grow, or behave better, or meditate, or relax into a less fervid strategy in the game of life. Or, best of all, mature into a recognition that you’re not the protagonist, and never have been.

But depressives have lost all cognizance of their innate ability to shift. It's like a constitutional crisis of the mind. With no viable way out, attention freezes and you live there, not here. One's creativity percolates a vast inventory of grim thoughts until a gristly full-blown world arises from within ("internal towers of brooding discontent" as I put it here).

You're likely to resort to excessive drugs, alcohol, sex, work, etc., to dull and distract yourself from broaching the unthinkable pain point (I’VE NEVER BEEN THE HERO IN THIS FILM). But even sober, it’s maddening how you can't quite make out the eye of the mental hurricane. Hey, how would you, after literally building worlds to avoid it?

Of course, this particular impasse is not the only basis for depression. Myriad obsessive loops, detours, and avoidances can spark and feed the condition. But this one's the biggie; the one that steals years and never completely ceases pulling, however far you've managed to drag yourself from its tightest grasp.


An Aristocratic Perq

Depression was never as widespread as it is now. Living outside the current First World, like 99.999% of historical humanity, you’d have been occupied with labor and/or peril all day, every day. Up until a couple generations ago, a lion might have eaten your kid at any moment, or an infected paper cut could have killed you. Oh, and the local landlord/warlord would like to rape your wife tonight, so pencil that in! There was no time to obsess over mental constructs or to cultivate heroic self-images. The world reframed our perspective for us unceasingly, like a perpetual rollercoaster ride.

The depression epidemic stems from the whimsically horrific mental conflict available only to those privileged with the spare time, energy, and attention to willfully and dementedly self-frame their dramatic narrative, aka Rich People's Problems (here’s why we do this).


The Third Option: Acceptance

Most people choose to shut down into depression and/or addiction, or to ramp up into anxiety. The move almost no one chooses is to fully recognize, embrace, and own one's flawed shmuckiness.

This is the basis for the old Catholic "miserable sinner wretch" meme that seems so odd from a modern perspective. It indeed is very, very odd, even with the religiousness stripped away (I’ll explain why in a moment). You needn't beat yourself with whips nor don hair shirts. It's sufficient to simply recognize that you're not the hero you've imagined yourself to be. It’s a framing choice, and no framing choice is harder than any other. We enjoy infinite freedom to shift perspective. The only resistance is caked-on habit...and forgetting that we hold the remote control.

From your perspective, having tried some acceptance, life becomes a delight. You've dropped your puffy illusions about what this story is and how it needs to be and how in control you are and how much it all matters, leaving you feeling deliciously light and free. The world's a ride, not an ordeal.

But from the perspective of Option #2 people - the anxious strivers (i.e. much of the non-depressed population) - you've damned yourself needlessly and repulsively. There’s something seriously wrong with you for not recognizing the existential peril and declining to fight the hysterical fight.

And from the perspective of Option #1 people - the shut-down depressed - you have just shut down. Way more than they ever did. At least they still have their self-respect!

Amid the pity and disgust, acceptance can start to feel repulsive even for those who've experienced its soothing catharsis (and so ought to know better)! It's hard to stabilize there without powering up the old drama engine and plunging back into depression. It’s a great peril.


The Peril of Acceptance

No one warns you about this central peril of the less-traveled path. I've never seen it articulated, which is why I repeat it a lot, in different terms and contexts. Here it is again.

Once you recover, even just a little bit, from narcissism (and nearly everyone's narcissistic, especially those who make a grand show of their selflessness), the initial burst of relief can be swiftly followed by a strong impulse to dramatize the un-dramatization. If you let yourself be caught up by that impulse, you'll go all the way back to square one, facing major depression. It's a loop.

In a posting titled "Two Points of Spiritual Progress", I wrote:
#1 (spoken in a bitter, self-pitying voice): All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!

#2 (spoken in a voice of bemused relief): All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!
It's important. Read more about this here and here.


Summary

If you manage to glimpse the impasse between self-image and Reality - and can resist blaming it on Reality - and you'd like to avoid major depression (or the alternative, haunted anxiety), the way through is easy:

1. Own your shmuckery (optional: maybe try to improve a little, just for kicks).

2. Beware of the impulse to weave this acceptance into some fresh bitter narrative, reigniting the silliness you just got done opting out of. Don't dramatize your un-dramatization! Resist the temptation and proceed unburdened, enjoying Paradise. The water's fine!

3. For bonus happiness/sanity, notice (really notice!) that what’s missing doesn’t matter.


Ironic Note

If you choose this route, you'll have an outside chance of becoming a hero after all, though it won't be any big fluffy ego thing, so you won't properly enjoy it. The first step to bona fide heroism is ditching egomaniacal delusion.


I'm working on a series of easy exercises to practice reframing (aka shifting perspective), making it easier to help yourself get un-stuck. Watch this space for more information.


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