I used to think I was depressed. When I was a teenager, a bittersweet melancholy beset me on Sunday afternoons and lingered to the next Friday. I felt special and misunderstood. At times I was sure that I was actually the only one who really understood how complicated and simple and wonderful and totally fucked up everything was.
Then, in my twenties, my teenage blues deepened into a withdrawal from others. I realised that I didn’t actually understand a thing as a teenager, but that I now understood everything. I became obsessed with my dreams and the nature of consciousness. I screwed up everything I did. I lay awake until 4 am, reading Douglas Adams, and became convinced that my life was in fact a lie and that the books were real. Then I hid in my bed until after lunch.
I thought I was depressed but I was simply lazy and afraid. When I got myself sorted out — it took until my thirties — I decided that depression was the result of not being busy enough, not getting enough exercise, of choosing the wrong thoughts. That’s what was wrong with me. It also seemed to be what was wrong with my best friend, Jack.
Jack was depressed and suicidal and had always been that way. He wasn’t busy, he never got any exercise and he always chose the wrong thoughts. His favourite word was “but”. Once, when he was out of work for about a year, I went to some trouble to arrange a job interview for him.
“But it cannot be a full time job,” he warned. “I need time to think.”
On another occassion we attended a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor. There was a woman in the choir who appealed to Jack and he decided to fall hopelessly in love with her at a distance. He was giddy with lust. Then, over the next few days, he outlined the failures of the relationship they’d have and ended up hating her and wanting to die.
“It might be better if you actually met her,” I suggested.
“But she’s shallow and a cock teaser,” he countered. “What’s the point of meeting her? What’s the point of being alive?”
I thought that all Jack needed was to see some sense. What he needed was the one-lion cure for depression.
The cure works like this. Jack is darted with a sedative and flown to a town in Italy where they have a spare amphitheatre. When he wakes up he is lying face down in the dust. He has no idea where he is nor how he got there. He struggles to his feet and sees that he’s surrounded by a twenty-foot wall. There’s no way out. A trapdoor in the ring floor opens and an old, hungry lion is let out. The lion was chosen carefully from a group of infirm lions so as to have a top speed slightly less than Jack’s. The rest is nature. Not once during the next few minutes, as he runs for his life from this lion, would Jack consider letting it kill him. Not once would he be depressed. He’d be too busy. He’d be getting plenty of exercise and he’d be choosing the right thoughts. In this way I hoped to help Jack see that his depression was something he could snap out of.
But of course it wasn’t so. Now, many years later, I know that what I thought of as depression in myself was merely puerile moodiness. Being chased by a lion would’ve helped me, but it won’t help Jack shit. What Jack lives with is something else altogether. He is angry at the world and disappointed by the people it contains. Most of all, he’s disappointed in himself. He toys with the idea of dying for the same reason he yearns to be asleep — waking up is the real nightmare.
“Life,” he often says, “is a cancer of the heart.”
Talking about depression as an outsider is like trying to tell someone else’s dream. Decades of knowing Jack has taught me this. While I cannot know what it’s like, his state of mind is a completely valid response to the world.
“To be alive is an insult,” Jack often declares. “We’re gonna die. There’s tax. Things decay. People lie.”
Before you can respond, he adds, “Nothing matters.”
In the same way, of course, happiness is also a valid response to the world — we’re alive when so many others didn’t make it; we’re alive, in fact, because things die; people lie but they also tell stories and compose music; everything matters.
In a way, depression and happiness are very similar, both valid and ridiculous at the same time. Most of us are neither particularly happy nor terribly depressed, but rather somewhere in between. Even those near the extremes are not always there. You may have won the lottery, be in good health and surrounded by loved ones, but you may be crying because your dog just died. You may be trapped in your own private jail and wish that you could escape it into permanent darkness, and yet you will laugh for a while when something is funny.
I’m left with how Jack once explained it to me.
“We sit at the window of our eyes,” he said, “looking out. We can stare at our reflection in the glass or we can see right through it. No one knows how we choose.”