I stopped feeling at all (part one)
I can recount three depressive periods in my recent life. First toward the end of high school, a time about which I can remember only my discontent, exhaustion, and anxiety; next the winter and spring before my nineteenth birthday, when the deaths and illnesses of others turned into my own; and later that year when I was nineteen years old and my vitality slipped away from me more quickly than it ever had before.
Sometimes, reflecting upon these, they seem to be just one long depression of three years, punctuated by weeks or months of respite, each new bout of illness feeding upon the previous. But they were different, and they worsened each time.
After seeing Andrew Solomon's TEDx talk on depression for the first time this week, I began to rethink these episodes, and now, reading his The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, it seems that Solomon's luminous words have helped me to formulate my own.
My most recent point of depression, when I was nineteen years old and still a university student, descended almost instantaneously. I had not wanted to attend college at all, in part because of the long depressions I had experienced earlier, and in part because of the indescribable happiness I felt the summer before my matriculation, which I spent working at a music festival halfway across the country, away from everything that had made me so sad.
Toward the end of the festival, an implacable fear of returning home came over me. I knew that the life I had left behind, one I had only just begun to come to terms with before I departed for my summer work, would still be waiting there, exactly as I had left it. I was right. The pain and anxiety were still there, and I fell backward into them. I had more than a month before I was to move to school, and I hated every moment of that interim.
But upon my arrival, I felt almost a sense of relief: because I had fulfilled my obligation (to myself and others) to make an attempt at school even though I had no such desire, and because I knew that, having made that attempt, I could easily leave school having proven myself right – that I didn't like it, and I'd be better off elsewhere. I knew from the first day that I would never graduate, and that was a comfort that I carried with me – that this period, if it was to be trying, was only temporary.
It didn't take very long at all to lose sight of that comfort, though, because each moment became unbearably long. Every academic class was boring and useless, and the only bright spots were my literature professor, whom I utterly adored, and my dance class, where I learned how to move and feel instead of think. I didn't attempt to make friends because I knew I wouldn't be able to keep them for very long. For the same reason, I didn't join many student groups or apply myself too much. I maintained excellent grades because the classes didn't challenge me, and because I didn't have to care much to do well.
But my feelings went beyond discontent and impatience. I completely forgot the comfort that the situation's transience had afforded me. I was trapped, and I saw no approachable end. I stopped caring about all the values I once held dear, and instead reverted to my depressed and hateful high school self, only more intense and more anxious.
Six weeks into my university term, I wrote to a friend, "I can't explain the kind of sadness that comes over me in this place. It happens everywhere, for seemingly no reason at all some days, and I cannot control it to save my life." The panic attacks I had had the previous spring returned more often and more severely. I skipped classes most days (I can remember attending only a few of them now), and I stopped eating in the dining hall, where I would have to face my classmates and the apparent reality of their success.
I attributed my sadness to being stuck in a school I didn't want to attend in the first place, but once I started to consider transferring, I felt that it wouldn't solve any of my problems. It became evident to me that this was true depression, and while it was affected by my circumstances, it had gone on to change my brain chemistry and mental acuity. Occasional abatement came in the form of visits to my favorite professor's office, writing papers for his class, and a friendship with a fellow literature student completely different from myself. These were welcome distractions. Playing the piano brought me no pleasure anymore; I could hear only my lack of skill and enthusiasm. Even when writing and studying for my literature class, I was overwhelmed by a sense of futility. After spending more than fifteen hours, on and off, analyzing an episode from the Mahabharata, I sat in the library trying to formulate a conclusion and wondering why I had bothered at all.
My memory was sieve-like, but I can recall a few moments. I can picture myself sobbing uncontrollably upon returning to my dormitory after having dinner with my father and sister. They reminded me how far I had strayed from the person I used to be, and how alone I was without that reminder of my former contentment.
I remember a day when I woke up early and lay in my bed, attributing my lack of energy to the fact that it was still dark out and I hadn't completed my assignments. But as class time drew nearer, I simply stayed in bed, finally deciding to leave my room around dinner time. I was not hungry, but I knew that I needed to eat, even though that sentiment didn't make sense to me. The fact of my existence had lost its logic, as though I simply didn't believe that I was real anymore.
I became anxious, occasionally terrified, at the prospect of seeing my classmates, as though their seeing me would make me real again, and it would make my ridiculous condition real, and yet I would still hide it. I never felt worthless or undeserving. I simply stopped feeling at all.