Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Depression 101

Most of my friends are depressed. And I’m surprisingly not. In fact, I’m happier than I ever thought I would. And that’s a startling thing to say for someone who’s been suffering from suicidal thoughts for more than 10 years. Suffering from that type of depression that makes you look at the train tracks in a somewhat ambiguous way. ‘Are you happy?’ – just a few years ago that question was silly, utterly inappropriate, the answer too clear. And now I want to ask it every person around. How did we end up at this strange place?

Most of my friends are taking antidepressants. I don’t blame people for loving chemicals so much. Let’s take a moment to contemplate the beauty of chemical compounds. Sertraline, Venlafaxine, Tofisopam, Paroxetine. Who names this shit? WHO, AHFS? Bupropion, Fluoxetine, Escitalopram. If Nabokov was alive, he would have forgotten little girls and wrote about these instead. Mirtazaline, Quetiapine, Risperidone. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down. Seroquel, Remeron, Effexor, Cipralex. The tongue taps, at two, on the teeth. Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac.

No matter how mesmerizing, the recent research raises skepticism about the role of chemicals in causing troublesome brain states. Anxiety, neurosis, panic attacks, troubles with sleep. Observing people around makes me conclude that there’re three types of depression over there. Here’s my taxonomy. The first type is stemming from suboptimal lifestyle choices. Second – from the lack of authentic being. Third – purely chemical misbalances. Only the latter one earns my empathy and should be treated with a direct chemical intervention. The others are fixable upon applying a proper effort.

The first level of taxonomy is about material conditions and living arrangements. The baseline misery. People around me list the following causes of it. Being too exhausted from work, not having a career which is good enough, having a burden of raising a child, problems with psychologically unstable relatives, lack of purpose and meaning in life. Mo matter how shattering they may seem from the first hand perspective, these excuses sound doubtful to me. All except the last one are easily fixable. Alright, not so easily, but these are certainly things within our control. As for the last point – there’re some pretty good theories on how to fix that one too.

The path out of misery is quite straightforward. The first step is always about securing a solid material foundation – just as the grandpa Abraham Maslow devised – the money, job and career. For 90% of people around, the cookie-cutter life-track of middle class would work with ease. First, researching which professions are currently on demand on the labor market (in 2022: finance and computer science). Second, dedicating a few years to obtaining education in one of these spheres (even with getting a bank loan, it’s well worth it). Third, researching which companies provide the most straightforward career paths and decent remuneration (multinational corporations, not local businesses that offer nothing but a dead-end career). I don’t believe that any of the above steps require any special talents, predispositions, or intelligence. Anyone can do IT these days, and anyone can research how to create a compelling CV. Money, in turn, solves most of the secondary problems: it helps to obtain freedom and at least partial independence from relatives and annoying children, to attain self-confidence, recognition, and whatnot. In societies with predominant middle class, the material side of human life is easily fixable. Apart from the material basis, there’re a few more steps in the pyramid of Maslow (such as interpersonal relationships), but I’ve already written about them somewhere here.

What’s the end point of it all? Theoretically speaking, out of countless parameters we may choose to optimize, there’s one that stands out. Neither wealth nor pleasure makes sense as the durable end-goals, as those are merely second-degree attributes. What people mostly mean by them usually corresponds to the maximization of leisure time – just as Aristotle advised. Having enough leisure time is the only way to obtain space needed to figure out more important things in life crucial to one’s happiness. On the contrary to what capitalism and corporations want you to think, a man is not defined by his occupation (profession is a mere necessity), but by the way he spends his free time. By the thoughts he thinks (as Emerson said: life consists in what a man is thinking all day). No wonder: judging by my own empirical observations, people interested in philosophy these days mostly come from computer science backgrounds. The market is in such a tremendous misbalance that doing IT gives people conditions that allow to maximize freedom and spare time. No wonder programmers have all the money and free time in the world to contemplate philosophy and have a luxury of suffering idly from their little tristesse and ennui.

Which leads me to the second level of taxonomy. The second degree depression comes from too much freedom and the lack of purpose.

Normally, people struggle with finding purpose in life because the world is unrelatable. So huge and messy and so utterly unrelatable. Merely because it’s so large and magically efficient. The thrownness, Heidegger’s Geworrfenheit. From the moment of birth, we’re thrown into this world, both its physical and cultural domains, that existed long before us. It leads to the lack of direction, confusion, and the constant background feeling that one is wasting time not doing something – even though we don’t even know what exactly we’re supposed to be doing. The attention is scattered all over the place. The Marx’s alienation. To fight with alienation of the big scary world, I find it valuable to start something that one can be entirely responsible for, from the beginning to an end. Creating art, writing a book, running a business. Creative pursuits are a cure against alienation.

This is closely linked to the theories of psychologist Martin Seligman. For example, in his PERMA model, Seligman lists factors that tend to drive human happiness. According to him, these include: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. Basically, the idea is to find an outlet for doing something constructive that would seem meaningful enough to engage a person into some regular activity. Upon applying sufficient effort, the properly chosen activity is likely to result in at least some achievement that in turn is likely to produce positive emotions. That’s basically the mechanism of a positive feedback loop: receiving praise for doing good work that in turn motivates one to do even more of it later.

Meaningful activity requires the choice of a format. Logically, such choice should be rationally based on one’s talents and competences. It’s perfectly natural not to be good at many things at once but there must be at least one activity that someone could perform on at least a decent level. And that’s a good starting point. Words or visuals. Text or speech. I’ve seen people perfectly content with expressing themselves via conversations. And others perfectly content by expressing themselves though written texts. If I had charisma, I would have shown my face on camera. With photogenic appearance, I would have had a visual blog. If I was social, I would join politics. Being able to deal with people, I would have dared to become a movie director. But I’m an antisocial, borderline-autistic person who speaks like Slavoj Žižek, and looks more like a hunched mongrel dog rather than a normal human being. Not the best combo to be born with in a world obsessed with visuals and spoken words. Obviously, the formats of Instagram and YouTube are closed to me, but the text will do just fine. If I was witty, I would have become a micro-blogger on Twitter. But my thoughts barely fit into 500 words, let alone 280 character, and I feel like a classic landscape painter in a world obsessed with instant photography.

But it’s not enough to have a format. One ought to have something to say. A point to prove to the world. Where it comes from no one knows. But it’s the stuff that makes one emotional, that resonates with inner feelings (and I believe that feelings hold a primacy here over reason). Treatment of animals on farms, fight against totalitarian regimes, configuring mechanisms of consciousness, critique of consumerism. Whatever. I started with a humble and simple, totally non-controversial conviction that surfaced over years and years of observing myself (primarily myself!) and others. The humble certainty that the modern world is utterly wrong and people are living their lives in utterly wrong ways. And I dare to claim that this project is constructive.

There’s one more demon to fight on this road, something that’s the direct opposite of constructive. Nihilism. So freakin’ uncool, totally out of fashion. I’ve been meeting people proud of being audacious nihilists. Cynical, skeptical, declaring everything as utterly meaningless. Could have been brave in the 19th century for sure – but in the post-Nietzschean world introducing yourself as a nihilist is an explicit marker of inner weakness. You won’t surprise anyone by stating the obvious fact that in the post-modern world we’ve successfully managed to deconstruct and get rid of all meta-narratives that had been traditionally shaping human life through centuries. There’s no unquestionable truth and indisputable meaning left anymore, and so what. Get over it. Post-modernism is as empowering as it is destabilizing. Because the truly superior human being is capable of conquering both God and nothingness. You seriously think you’ll challenge me stating that all values I hold as dear are objectively meaningless? There’s no such a thing as objective meaning these days, and that’s the beauty of it. In the post-Nietzschean world, the sign of true power is a daring to invent your own values and your own legislation, and that’s the only way to keep up one’s face and not to spoil one’s reputation for being a weakling. I would also gladly repudiate and reject 99% of things around as pointless. But one remaining percent – that one I’ll stand for with all my might.

Some will still say that they don’t fit into any of the available activities and formats. Too weird to live. I struggled with it my whole life, but now I find it beautiful. Even such things as autism (metaphorical), social isolation, constant suffering, being nonverbal, excessive oversensitivity can be advantageous, if you apply a really (really!) strong effort. Give me a point of reference and I’ll turn the world upside down. Well, I got a point of reference and it’s utterly weird, but well, still better than nothing. Finding oneself as weird means one has an unusual perspective on things and therefore something non-trivial to say. Being overly sensitive and not falling for explanations satisfactory for most people around. Your incompleteness as a human being. Just a difference, not a disease. True artist is a sufferer, and I found myself in this quest. Still better than nihilism.

Finally, the third level of taxonomy. The roughest, almost clinical case, and the only one driven by legitimate chemical misbalances. That’s when one has all the money and free time in the world, as well as purpose and meaning in life. Sitting on top of the Maslow pyramid. And yet suffering from severe depression, the moodiness and desolation. I cannot help in this domain of chemicals. And psychotherapists cannot help either. These are the only people I feel empathy for. If I had unlimited power, I would have cured my friends from being unwell, from distress and anguish, the evil joke of malevolent chemistry, from the severe depressive states they cannot control. When one stops maintaining their hair, stops putting pins in it – and what starts with a few uncombed locks becomes an episode of the harshest depression and exacerbation of a bad anxiety disorder. What’s the point of searching for like-minded people around, when you find truly remarkable ones and then lose them to the deadly grip of despair? Life is pointless and death is pointless.

But at least I no longer look at the train tracks with ambiguous feelings. In fact, I’m afraid to die unexpectedly without having at least a few weeks or a few days to sort out my drafts and formalize my thoughts. Deeming them valuable is an audacious daring. And yet it helps against the total alienation from the world. So these are my two cents on the quest of living life that’s not totally unbearable.

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