A short essay on depression
All those experiences, which beyond a certain limit we call 'depression', should be considered in all seriousness and with the utmost respect. If it was as easy as telling oneself “Come on! Snap out of it” then perhaps it would not be depression. Depressive moods and phases can take various forms and affect people in different ways. Generally speaking, it varies from feeling that things are being particularly difficult at this one moment in time, to being almost literally paralysed in bed for months at a time. Already here we can see emerging the notion of stillness.
First, let me acknowledge to the reader that I understand he or she may recognise very little, some, or perhaps most of what I will attempt to flesh out in this paper. Following on what in the end can only be a poor, quick and ultimately inadequate description of something much more complex and personal, I will then share some analytical views on what may possibly be at play in this phenomenon. My aim in this article is primarily one of helping the reader see above and beyond to a place from which, hopefully, things can start moving again. Depression may not be such a synonym for doom as it initially appears. After all, why should it be so different in kind from most things in life and not actually have something in it that we can use creatively?
The 'noisiest' symptom caused by depression most often expresses itself in this annihilating feeling that, simply put, things somehow seem to have stopped going anywhere. We are trapped in a moment. If this ordeal wasn't incapacitating enough, a certitude imposes itself which becomes ever more difficult to shake off: something has been lost forever. Everything around us seems suddenly absurd and pointless, as if all along we had been deceiving ourselves with made up stories and fantasies. What in our close friends and significant others used to move, stir, incite or even anger now leaves us untouched, detached, painfully bored and dreadfully lonely.
The impression that 'we don't get it anymore' only adds to the certitude that something is wrong. As if trapped in a bubble of one's own, everything from meanings to tastes have become colourless and bland – nothing can lift us for very long. The desire that used to drive our most cherished ideals has evaporate in thin air. Arrived at the end of a circle, we stand outside looking in. Finally, exhausted from this dangling above a bottomless abyss, we take refuge in the one possibility still offered to us: suicide.
Is there any way back from this black hole? What I believe may be at the heart of depression is what I call a manifest fall of fantasy. For our usual ways of looking at things, people and relationships now appear so painfully real. Could it be that learning something about the enemy, here the Real, help us find a way out of depression?
Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches us that the Real is one of three registers that constitute a person's life-world, the other two being the Imaginary and the Symbolic. For example language, the law, a career, the authority, morality or ideals belong and shape the symbolic – we can define, debate and say something about each one of them. In turn, the imaginary, as its name indicates, regroups our fantasies of what we imagine is taking place such as in this situation when someone says “he/she doesn't love me because I am not 'up to it'”. Just like the symbolic, we can clearly formulate something about those fantasies since they are literally 'stories' we tell ourselves in order to deal with the unknown that a particular situation has caused.
What characterises the real however, is its being literally impossible to describe in any way, shape or form. It is there, everywhere around us all of the time, yet completely outside of our being able to talk about it. It is what cannot be said. If we could it would not be the real anymore, but something between the symbolic and the imaginary.
Now according to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan the real intrudes into a person's life in one of two ways. In the case where we have been repressing something for some time already, then the real may express itself in a symptom. If it is forbidden to say or even think something because the symbolic would not allow it, for example if a child says “I don't want to go to school today. I have a headache!" – as opposed to just saying “I hate school!” to his parents who happen to put a high value on the academia – then the real manifests itself in a symptomatic headache. In other words, this child's not saying he doesn't like to go to school is not articulated in language, but in a real headache.
In those instances where external circumstances are such that they go so far as entirely inhibiting the ability to think and create imaginary 'theories' to help us take control of the situation – sometimes known as the deer in the headlights effect – we may say that the real has invaded the Imaginary in the form of a trauma. This intrusion may not be as sudden and violent as the above expression suggests, but can well be repeatedly experienced for years on end.
Using a Lacanian perspective in an effort to shed some lights on our problem, I would like to suggest that the phenomenon of depression may be regarded as a more or less total erosion of the register of the imaginary. As a result, the dreams and desires that were pushing us to create, explore and want to play more in the direction of our ideals while at the same time protecting us from being too close to the real, has disintegrated. If desire is an immune system against a deadly real, we may say that it has turned against itself, resulting in a toxic deadening feeling whose seriousness I would like to emphasise again should not be taken lightly.
The British child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein understands depression as a 'position' we are naturally forced to return to repeatedly as part of a necessary process of adaptation. For Klein, there inevitably comes a time when the fantasies we used to orient ourselves with in life become obsolete and so must be shed for new and more adequate ones. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan takes this idea further and posits that our sense of existence derives solely from the actual movement between two thoughts or signifiers. In depression the real has put a stop to this movement. The distance between the subject and the object cause of desire, for example a house, a car, a good marriage, a perfect life, etc. is reduced to null. In depression the object(s) that used to drive us forward has lost its shiny gloss – it doesn't work its (protective) magic anymore. For the 17th century Deutsch philosopher Baruch Spinoza “All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love”.
Simply put, depression lurks when motion stops, when nothing else comes after the last sentence, when there is no longer anything to transport desire in metonymy. Heroes in horror films will tell everyone accompanying him that they have keep moving if they want to stay alive.
More to the point, Lacan demonstrates that, exactly like a division which doesn't produce an even number without a leftover, desire is the necessary remainder of our trying to explain what is our lived experience in words. The more we attempt to circumscribe what may be happening to and in us using language, the more desire should be generated as a result. Moreover, as the experience of depression progressively unravels in the presence of the analyst, a creative movement inevitably ensues which, although causing a certain amount of frustration for it is impossible to completely describe the real, will nonetheless kick start new connections as part of a process of understanding whose valuable knowledge you didn't know you had.
What is your personal experience of depression? Is there any particular circumstances in your life that are blocking your moving forward? What is its context? What is depression teaching you? Can you share your knowledge of it so people can benefit from it? How would you actually talk about it?
Indeed, your analyst/therapist may very much want to know more about it.