A close friend of mine took his own life last month. I was stunned when I found out, and kept wanting to check in to ask what was going on, and was he ok? Kind of like how we kept close tabs on each other during a recent hurricane: Are you evacuating? How are your dogs? Keep me posted! The impulse to check in was unbelievably strong, even though there was no longer anyone there to answer.
I moved on to a sickly sadness. My friend and I had been talking openly and deeply about depression for over a decade. I know something about the abusive voice that had taken up residence in his mind. It was a lot to endure.
The anger just hit yesterday. He had everything going for him: talent, brains, humor, the works. He took all of it with him one night. Today, I’m just mad.
At the same time, I get it. The amazing trick that depression pulls is this: it takes over your brain and feeds you garbage information around the clock. That kind of internal threat is hard to sequester and fight. The great lie that depression tells you is that now, and only now, you are seeing life and the world as it really is. It feels like all the veils of denial and comfort have been stripped away, and now you have a special, clear line of sight into this desperate truth: all is already lost.
I distinctly remember the worst of my own time, back in the early 2000s, when the first thought I had about anything was, “I wonder how this plays into my ultimate destruction? I can’t see the threat from here, I suppose I will have to find out as it unfolds.” That was the only question worth asking, the only one that felt like it linked up to the version of reality that my mind was creating for me. The cells of my brain had launched a propaganda campaign on every other cell, so that I dragged myself through the days, clogged with a weirdly resigned panic.
When I emerged from this depression, I found a perspective that I still really value. I learned, just from living inside of my own mind, that it is NOT necessarily trustworthy. Because our minds generate our sense of reality, this is a deeply counter-intuitive lesson to learn. We naturally assume that our perceptions are real, and are a solid basis for decision making. Looking back, I can see that my brain simply edited out huge swaths of information and selectively fed me badly biased and tainted impressions of things “out there.” That’s actually an insight worth having every day, not just when depressed.
The awareness that my brain can do such editing makes me fascinated by research about perception. It turns out that we are all living with wildly cherry-picked information, and assuming that we know what is going on. Our senses only pick up a tiny fraction of the wavelengths around us, and organize what we can perceive into narratives and patterns, whether we want that to happen or not. Before we get a chance to consciously review anything, our mental machinery has already digested and packaged a lot of it. Add to that all the biases that we each walk around with, and the open emotional wounds which amplify the way certain triggers “land” in our experience, and you have an entire species walking around making pretty flawed assumptions about what we can and can’t trust in our worldview.
This, I think, is the great gift of coming through a depression. Learning that life is much bigger than your perception is a gift. It can lead to being a little more humble, a little more hopeful, and little more open to learning about someone else’s perspective…it could make up for a blind spot in your own. Just knowing how isolating it can be to get truly stuck in your own version of reality might invite a more compassionate approach to someone who is stuck in theirs. Whether our brains are feeding us pathologically destructive perspectives or not, we are ALL vulnerable to mistaking the narrative in our heads for objective truth, and that can be painful, destructive, or just intractably unhelpful in everyday normal life. There are many avenues to this insight, but depressives have a head start on realizing this quirk in the way our minds work. We have to: depression forces the issue or we may not survive it.
There can be no mistake: the potential gift comes intertwined with deep grief. Those of us who have walked with depression can only describe the rough contours of the landscape. The deadening, relentless, thudding pulse emanating from that landscape can’t really be conveyed. And, of course, the sorrow of depression is not limited to the mind of the suffering. Those of us who see the pathologically distorted perception operating in someone else find that we can’t untangle it from the outside, and this is its own horror. Depression is a dangerous and devious house of bent mirrors, fragmenting the light at the center of a person into disorienting and scattershot shards.
This took my friend. He desperately needed the potential gift of depression—a gentle impulse that leads us away from our locked-in perspective. It can be so difficult to receive this gift while locked-in, with only the grief of depression in play. Introspection, medication, time, and listing obvious facts which oppose the prevailing perceptions can all help. We look for any way to call out the mangled version of reality that an unhealthy brain is creating, to say, “I don’t believe you. This is a malevolent fraud.”
I am sure that the fraudulent picture created by my friend’s mind included a sense of being alone. But, he is loved, missed, and valued by so many people, and this is a truer report, straight from a member of the community that lost him.