What is depression? In her exquisite memoir, Wintering, Katherine May defined depression as “a season in the cold.” In a harrowing image, Sylvia Plath compared her depressive episodes to suffocating in “a dark, airless sack.” Van Gogh, yet another genius who didn’t survive his dark season of the soul, told his brother his depression was like “lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well.”
In his latest edition to the School of Life library, A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton attempts to better understand this malaise of the soul. Though depression is widespread (it’s estimated that over 16 million people suffer from depression in America alone), the condition remains deeply misunderstood. In many ways, depression resembles sadness: much like the sad, the depressed cry easily, isolate themselves, struggle to sleep, and generally feel hopeless.
However, according to Botton, there is one major difference between depression and sadness: the sad person knows why they’re sad, the depressed person doesn’t. Sadness is usually associated with an external event: a job loss, a break up, a bereavement. Depression, on the other hand, has no clear causes. While a sad person can easily explain why they haven’t been able to get out of bed— their boss berated them in front of the whole team, their wife recently left them— a depressed person doesn’t possess the same self-awareness. There’s no reason why life feels empty and pointless. The despair of the depressed person is made all the more devastating because it can’t be explained with logic.
Though the melancholy can’t explain their low spirits, there is a reason for their depression— it’s simply been forgotten. Something in their past was too tragic and traumatic for them to process, so their minds pushed the event beyond the outer regions of consciousness. As Botton writes, “Depression is sadness that has forgotten its true causes.”
Perhaps as children the depressed were abused or neglected or perhaps their parents just didn’t pay much attention. While their friends came home to chocolate chip cookies and a series of curious questions, their parents rarely asked them how their day went. No one checked to see if they’d done their homework. No one took them to soccer games and ballet classes. Rather than confront a devastating truth (that their parents were selfish in many ways and weren’t always there for them) and all its attendant implications (their parents didn’t love them; therefore, something is fundamentally wrong with them), they feel depressed.
So how can we dissipate the dark black cloud of depression? Botton argues what the depressed person needs more than anything is the chance to process past traumas and grieve their unmourn losses. Ideally, this can be done with the support of a trusted, trained psychologist. In some cases, medication can momentarily lift the fog of despondency so the sufferer can find some relief from their condition.
However, Botton warns that brain chemistry is not where the problem either “begins or ends.” In our instant gratification culture, we want fast and easy solutions. Depressed? Take some Prozac and be back to your old self again! We like to imagine depression is a common cold: it can be cured with a pill and a few days in bed. But depression is far more complicated than that. If anything, medicine is a band-aid solution: it doesn’t get to depression’s root causes. The depressed person doesn’t need the medical miracles of Big Pharma— they need to be allowed “to feel and to remember specific damage, and to be granted a fundamental sense of the legitimacy of their emotions. They need to be allowed to be angry and for the anger to settle on the right, awkward targets.”
The goal of treatment, then, should be to help the sufferer gain some sort of self-awareness. Why were they depressed? What distressing thing had happened to them in the past? What misfortune have they failed to mourn? What decades-old tragedy have they repressed?
An impossible-to-please father.
A narcissistic mother.
A shattering divorce.
Is it painful to revisit these disappointing childhood figures and traumatic events? Of course, but if the depressed person resurrects the ghosts of their past, they can finally put them to rest.