Sometimes I get depressed.
It happens maybe once every 3-5 years. Typically it lasts days to months. The impact can be anywhere from mild to debilitating.
Over the years, I’ve built up a robust set of skills and coping mechanisms. But each time the depression hits, it still consumes me. There’s something particularly insidious about the depressive mind.
Having recently gone through another round, I’d like to record my experience. I hope it might help others, or at least my future self.
For me, the defining feature of depression is a sense of permanence.
Mere sadness, by comparison, is extremely tolerable. When I’m merely sad, I can imagine what it’ll be like for the sadness to lift. I can remember what joy feels like, and I can imagine a future where I’m happy and laughing. I almost enjoy the sadness—it leaves me with a sense of contrast and wholeness.
In depression, the sadness feels permanent. Actually, “sadness” doesn’t quite capture the feeling—the word despair, with all its implied hopelessness and impotence, seems more accurate. When I’m depressed, happiness is inconceivable.
I even struggle to remember positive events accurately—every happy memory feels fake or tainted.
Most recently, I experienced a train of thought along these lines:
When was the last time I was truly happy? It must have been years ago. Maybe in college…but no, I was depressed then too. Every supposedly happy time I can recall, I was on drugs. I was probably happy as a child. I guess I’ve never really been happy in my adult life.
Literally an hour before, I’d been laughing with my girlfriend and our puppy in a local park. Somehow, the depressive mind recasts positive memories in a negative light. It infects everything it touches.
Worse is the inability to conceive of any future happiness. The conviction that things will always be this way compounds my present-moment sadness, enlarges it to an infinite magnitude. I’m crushed under the weight of all that future suffering, and its apparent inevitability.
It’s easy to see how suicide starts to feel like a good option. Death is the only escape2.
I’m lucky that I’ve always been able to convince my rational mind that the sense of permanence is false, even if I can’t fully internalize that belief. I wouldn’t say it gives me hope exactly, but it keeps me grounded enough to stay safe.
I’ve always been skeptical of neurochemical explanations for depression, and was happy to see a recent large meta-analysis provide evidence against that narrative.
The root cause of my depressive episodes is a single aberrant belief: the belief that I am somehow doomed, cursed, damned, fated to be miserable. It’s this belief that turns mere sadness into an all-consuming depression.
This belief has flapped on and off throughout my life. At best, it manifests as a sense that I’m broken as a person, categorically different from the happy people around me. At worst, it takes on cosmic proportions, centered around an obsessive fixation on Christian hell. The latter usually comes about if I also believe I deserve to suffer—say, because I’ve done something selfish or hurt someone I care about.
Worse, the belief that I’m intrinsically sad is extremely sticky. It creates its own evidence: believing it makes me unhappy, which further convinces me that unhappiness is my fate. The longer this vicious feedback loop continues, the stronger it gets.
True to what predictive coding would tell us, this belief colors the world around me. I expect the world to be ugly, and that makes me more attuned to ugliness.
Everything starts to look like dog shit.
You’d think distraction would be a simple way to at least alleviate the symptoms of depression. Just lose yourself in something you love—even a guilty pleasure—and you can get some relief for an hour or two.
Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. My favorite shows, music, video games, food, etc. all feel pointless and bland. Depression literally changes your perception, decreasing visual contrast and impairing auditory processing.
Most recently, while struggling to fend off despair, I decided to have a drink. That’s something depressed people do to cope, right? I got through about half a craft beer—one I typically love—and poured the rest down the sink.
When I’m depressed, all the easiest paths to enjoyment are closed off. This only reinforces the sense of no escape.
The fact that minor vices lose their appeal during depression might be a feature rather than a bug. Drinking and media-binging are likely to deepen depression long-term, even if they sometimes provide temporary relief.
What’s truly perplexing is the inability to engage in healthy behaviors.
The best way for me to escape a depressive spiral is to engage in wholesome, productive activities. Walking outside; exercising; cooking; spending time with people I love; all these chip away at the underlying cause of depression. They remind me that I’m capable of self-generating happiness.
Problem is, all these things seem awful in the moment. The last thing I want to do is be around people. And I have no energy to get off the couch, let alone work out.
This is easily the strangest feature of depression. It’s like if dehydration made water taste awful, or if hunger made you vomit.
Conversely, I crave activities that will reinforce my depression. I want to sit on the couch and ruminate on all the things that are wrong in my life. I want to poke the sadness with my tongue like a canker sore, tasting it over and over again, reminding myself it’s there.
The one exception here is meditation. It’s the only healthy activity I can easily slip into, probably because it requires no energy, and I can start off by ruminating.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend beginning a meditation practice while in the throes of a depressive episode. I fell into depression when first learning to meditate, and it probably exacerbated the issue. I would sit there for literally an hour or two, silently obsessing over all the things that were wrong with me.
But now that I’ve trained my mind a bit, it’s a tremendous refuge.
For minutes at a time, I can sit in a mindstate where any sense of past and future evaporates. And as a result, any sense of permanence, of being stuck, disappears as well. The depression reverts to mere sadness, and even that usually dissipates into a comfortable equanimity.
To be clear, meditation is a potent salve, not a cure. When I stand up and come back to the world, the depression is still there waiting for me. I usually have more strength to shoulder it, and it feels a little lighter. But it’s still there.
The only cure is to flip that aberrant belief back off—to convince myself, at a deep, instinctual level, that I will feel happy again in the future. And more importantly, that I deserve happiness.
If I ever find a way to do that reliably, I’ll report back.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, help is available, and it does get better. The Samaritans, SAMHSA, and the CDC have some great resources, and Zencare can help you find a therapist.
Assuming you don’t believe in hell, that is. While I hate to give too much credit to my Catholic upbringing, an irrational fear of damnation has probably helped dissuade me from a messy attempt at jailbreak, even as it exacerbates the sense of imprisonment.