Writing from depression

Throughout the dissertation, I held the personal at bay. Or at least in a separate box. Theorizing the affective structures of depression was something I needed to keep separate from the experience of depression, somehow. I’m thinking about Ehrenberg’s observation that all the American cultural theory books on depression contain this confessional, group-therapeutic element which he finds either perplexing or disgusting. I think he actually finds it a little indecent, though he doesn’t quite come out and say so. I don’t find it indecent, of course; if you had asked me a few years ago what I might want to write about depression, I think I would have said, well, the personal is political, I can’t help but write about this at least partly from my own experience. I couldn’t help but care about the cultural space of depression as a potentially creative thing. But then it seemed like the memoir gremlin might take over everything if I let it out of the box even a little bit. I couldn’t afford it, not in a dissertation. So I drew myself up. Tight.

Foucault says genealogy is gray and meticulous, and I think the spirit I tried to enact was one I found in History of Madness. I think I wrote a depressing, laborious dissertation about depression and labor. Not a bad one, necessarily. Of course there’s a lot I want to develop much further for the book, but I kind of like it, for what it is, for where it is; it manages to achieve a feeling of a kind of completion of thought despite being a waystation towards a finished book. But it is just … a little grim, and sort of structuralist, not in a precise historical sense, but in the sense that the structuration of affects and mental health and labor pressed down heavier and heavier into what I was writing, and questions of agency, some of which had prompted the exercise, began to feel outside the parameters of what I was doing.

My point of course is not that agency is impossible or irrelevant, but that it is structured; the old humans make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing bit. I don’t think my disillusion with the possibility of liberatory praxis has reached Adornoesque levels, really, though I joke about that sometimes. The point of the dissertation really was to analyze structuration, the relationship between the two poles of acedia-melancholia-neurasthenia-depression-mood disorder on the one hand and acedia-sloth / laziness (which I argue somewhat confusingly is a decent external, pathological name for the thing whose inner but philosophical name is “alienated labor”)-burnout / compassion fatigue / procrastination / writers’ block / etc. on the other. That last sentence makes sense if you read it very slowly. But my inability to find a precise but pithy way to say it is the challenge of turning it into a book, I think. The argument is just not clear enough, at least to anyone who doesn’t already know it. Part of the challenge is identifying the things that are in relationship here. Really the first series should start with melancholia and go through depression / mood disorder. But to say it’s a genealogy of this thing is to say it’s a genealogy of a thing with changing definitions, boundaries, and discourses which govern it. It is a humor, a demon, a thought, a struggle, a sin, a nervous condition, an unconscious mechanism, a biochemical effect, etc. To say that the object of which I’m giving a relational genealogy is depression or mood disorders or even an aspect of mental illness or mental health would be to hypostatize one phase of it and its contours during that phase. And the labor process part of it is tricky too, because I’m trying to put into relationship affective structures of work (that series), changes in the labor process, changes in management techniques, and a historicized account of alienation. All of these are related dialectically and historically, but keeping them straight in a narrative is difficult.

It’s good to write about this again. I didn’t set out to review the problems of my dissertation, but it feels good to get into that headspace.

What I started trying to write was this, paraphrasing Tolstoy: normal people are all alike; every depressed person is depressed in their own way. I’ve never understood the kind of depression where people get angry at people who tell them dumb shit like, stop being depressed.* Anger is not something I’m capable of when I’m depressed. Voluminous amounts of shame and guilt, yes. Usually my cycle looks something like this: I will convince myself that I can pull myself out of a depressive pattern for a few hours: optimism! Then, I find myself replicating it: shame.
It has been a long time since I’ve had anything like a major depressive episode. I remember them like I remember young love: it’s hard to imagine feeling that kind of intensity again. I think I have settled into a dysthymia which hardly ever lifts for more than a few hours. It is very rare that I go a whole day without some kind of a depressive, non-working-and-beating-myself-up-about-it lull. In the old days that would have been self loathing, but these days, I can hardly summon the intensity or the suspension of self awareness that would be required for loathing. It’s worth observing that the beating myself up process at this point, while certainly having elements of guilt and shame, is largely made up of a kind of subdued and almost psychosomatically depressed-out-of-its-nature anxiety. Oh, sometimes I do feel acute anxiety: like when I stare at my budget and expenses. But my quotidian depressed anxiety is an anxiety that is deeply disgusted with everybody else’s frenetic anxiety and busyness. Good for them that they can summon the energy to care and run around and do shit, whether effectively or ineffectively – but that’s not me. No, anxiety usually sinks me deeper into the hole of hopeless inaction.

I suppose this all sounds bad, but I’m sure I’m dramatizing. I don’t think I’m really depressed right now, at least not acutely so. This is very steady. If somebody asked if I were depressed, I’d probably say no, even on a day much of which was absorbed with the kind of dynamic of the last paragraph. And though my life does have some real, objective anxieties right now, in a sense I can’t really imagine my dysthymia going away even if I got a steady job I liked, thereby resolving one of my main reasons for anxiety. Sometimes dysthymia just seems like who I am.

Despite all my resistance towards biochemical reductionism, maybe I am just chemically out of balance. (Though Paxil certainly never did anything for me except to numb me out physically and emotionally. I feel like it removed a notch of my ability to experience life with intensity in a way that will never be restored. Not that it was a unique culprit … it just hastened the decline.) I’m sure if I ran every day and ate healthily, I would not be depressed. And indeed for a week or a month I might do that. But to do it month after month I would have to be the kind of person who eats healthily and runs every day, not the depressive that I am. Depression for me is: knowing I am inferior to the people social advancement has made my peers, then contradictorily believing that I am not inferior despite those feelings of inferiority; and then quotidian crises of validation and loneliness anxieties and real objective rejections (academia’s a bitch) strike, and I fall back into a muddle of dissatisfied inadequacy. I am not the kind of person who eats healthily and runs every day. I am not the kind of person whose undeniable will overcomes all obstacles. No, I am part of Nietzsche’s bungled and botched whose outsized feelings of inferiority and ambition will never amount to much more than a puddle.

I don’t think this should entitle me to anything. Oh, I feel it should entitle me to things all the time. Struggling with feelings of entitlement and then deep shame that I am the kind of person who would have those feelings: I suppose that’s my White Male Burden that I try to keep to a low enough roar that other people don’t have to deal with it very much of the time. And I don’t think this particular struggle is even very interesting. But: I’m somebody who writes about depression. And who lost the ability to write about my depression. Maybe I should write about it somewhere else, somewhere people can read it who might think it’s interesting but where no one would know it’s me. There would be something delicious about that freedom, freedom from wondering whether an act of writing is a legitimate act of communication or a self-indulgent, bizarrely intricate cry for help. I don’t know that I can use this space for this very often. Too many people who know me can find me here, and I don’t remember who you all are. It’s a bloody business, this semi-anonymity. Writing maudlin shit, & then the audience is mostly seepage. I will post this & wish I hadn’t, maybe lock the entry in a day or two.

Part of the point of writing was this: do I hoist myself out of depression in order to write? Or do I write from depression? The dissertation was kind of a forced march, in which the subdued anxiety finally became an acute anxiety attached to a deadline and a feeling of, holy shit, if I don’t write like heaven, it’s going to finish me. Performance anxiety is usually productive for me. And this was sort of like ongoing, exhausting performance anxiety that had to walk through a wall of shame and regret first, regret that I hadn’t written more, sooner. It worked, and it felt satisfying to get done, but it felt not only exhausting but ashen at some points. Then, I feel like a lot of people write their dissertations like this, albeit maybe not so much right at the end as I did. So anyway, learning that I could do that if I needed to, kick my own ass and basically draft a book in a short period of time, was very valuable. I’m sure I’ll do that again at some point. But it is not a model for the slower times. I think I’ve been trying to elevate myself from depression in order to write, when maybe I’d be better off writing from depression, letting the gray, meticulous clarity of dysthymia unfold itself onto the page.

If I can write from depression, can I also get more physically active from depression and eat a little better from depression? Can I resist or elide my own temptation towards and implication within narratives of conversion and sinful sloth? I don't know, even posing the question that way still sounds strangely like false optimism. See, I'll try anybody's snake oil, but I never fully sign onto anything that seems like it might have a trace element of Pollyanna.


* I love the Hyperbole and a Half depression series, and there's a lot in it that makes me chortle and empathize. But not the getting angry or agitated with people who are trying to help sincerely but wrongheadedly. I am incredibly gullible when it comes to people telling me there's an easy fix for my problems, even when the back of my brain knows I won't even try it.
Yeah, thinking about different kinds of exercise is worthwhile. I have never tried Pilates, and only tried yoga once; I enjoyed it, but never did it again because it's just so hip. When I get into a groove with running or going to the gym, I actually enjoy aerobic exercise, but it seems like it never sticks forever. So I don't think my problem is that I hate running and am just trying to make myself do something that's wrong for my body, but it's possible that there's something else that would be better. I often wonder if team sports wouldn't be good for me, because running or going to the gym are basically solitary, and a lot of my life is solitary. If exercise involved other people, and it didn't seem like an either/or choice between going to the gym and having dinner or a drink with a friend, maybe I would be better at sticking to it.
My favorite team sport for playing used to be basketball, but I injured myself playing years ago and haven't really done it regularly since. I've never had the coordination for tennis, but did enjoy racquetball when I was a kid (which I guess is similar to squash?), and I used to enjoy ultimate frisbee in college. It would take some work to find a spot to play as a loose adult, but definitely worth considering.