Fundamentally Wrong: I Can’t Just Do It If I Choose

One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.

These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.

My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.

I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.

Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.

For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.

I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”

This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.

I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.

In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.

It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.

Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)

I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.

So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.

One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.

What’s It Like to Not Be Depressed?

The fact that probably very few people will ever see this post doesn’t help, of course, but I’m very, very depressed at the moment. As in, to the point where I can barely function day-to-day, and the smallest of chores seem overwhelmingly impossible. I can’t even watch TV or play video games to zone out, because they seem pointless and inane. And for some odd reason I’m having trouble sleeping during the day, so all that’s left is to stare blankly at the wall.

I’m not necessarily concerned; I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again, and it’s something I know all too well will pass in time. But that knowledge doesn’t alleviate the immense weight that is bearing down on me, making me feel like my life is meaningless, worthless, and destined to end in a pitiful whimper of existisitential boredom.

I think a part of my depression is coming from a deep social isolation as the world locks its doors and I stay home day after day; even for an introvert having limited human contact is psychologically harmful, and I’ve gone from a job where I interact with dozens of people a day to absolutely no one (at least not in person). It also doesn’t help that I’ve been riding a bipolar high for the past few weeks, and I know that this is a natural aspect of the downside of that high.

As I often do during these periods of affliction, I wonder what it must be like to not be depressed. And I don’t mean what it’s like to be happy, because I know happiness; I know joy, and the buzz of the bipolar high and the anxious, burning desire to create. But even in the whirlwind of emotions that come with that high, there’s a trace to depression. There’s a knowledge that the deep, dark despair is just on the other side of the coin, a hair’s breadth away and waiting eagerly to consume me. I can’t ever, ever escape depression, even at my happiest, and I wonder: what must it be like to simply not have these feelings?

I imagine, I suppose, that it must be a little bit like being high, or really, really drunk. A subconscious thread of uncaring, of believing that a better day awaits tomorrow. Sure, you might get sad, you might even feel depressed, but it’s because of something that happened, and eventually you work out how to handle that problem, put it behind you, and move on.

I wonder if living without depression is easy. I mean, I can understand that everyone faces struggles in life, but maybe it just boils down to the age-old glass-half-full mentality: perspective is everything. Is life a road with obstacles to be navigated, or is life all obstacles, and you somehow have to find a road between them? Imagine believing that there’s a road; imagine knowing that there’s a destination, and that it’s good. Imagine, if you can, a world where current events are just a stumbling block, and that the world might actually return to normal. Imagine a world of hope, and not one of despair.

You see, that’s the problem with depression. It’s all-consuming. There is no escaping it. Therapy, counseling, medications … they all do their part to alleviate the symptoms, but in the end it’s always there, underlying everything you think, say and do. I’ve lived with this for nearly twenty years, and despite my mental state’s mutations and changes, it’s one thing that has remained ever-constant.

I wish I could not be depressed. And I don’t mean now, in this moment, the feelings of drudgery and despair that are filling my head because of whatever chemical shift happens to be occurring in my head at the moment; I mean, I wish I could know what it’s like to just … not have to live with it. I suppose, really, what I’m asking for is to know what hope is.

Oh, fickle hope – between that and despair the world teeters. Some of us cling to one, and the rest can’t escape the other.

And in the end, what is there to do but trudge wearily through the snows of life? We can believe that there is sun to be found over the horizon, or we can believe that we will die before the day breaks; it doesn’t really change the realities of the world. The world is indifferent; the world doesn’t care.

But to think that the difference between hope and despair is a choice … that’s a belief I can’t hold. Ask yourself, truly: regardless of your own personal outlook, could you choose to be the other way? If you are depressed, can you choose to be happy? And if you’ve never known the cold, wretched clutches of despair, can you choose to feel that iron grip on your heart?

They say life is about choices, but I don’t know if there is such a thing. After all, you can’t ever know what the other outcome would have been, so what difference does any choice really make? I don’t know if there was ever a choice I made that led me to where I am now, how I feel; in the end, life is just what happens to you, and you can try to make the most of it all you like, but in the end – how much does it really matter?

Like I said, I’m very, very depressed at the moment. I’m not looking for sympathy, or consolation; really, just a way to say what I’m thinking. I know these feelings will pass, but even as I know that, I know they’ll one day return. Is life happy with bouts of depression, or depressed with bouts of happiness?

Who knows; who cares. All I know is that tomorrow is another day; that isn’t a statement of hope, nor of despair – it just is. I’ll probably make it through it, just like I did today. How I’ll feel at the end of it … that’s really anyone’s guess.

Here’s to hoping it isn’t in despair.

The Isolationism of Depression

I’m sitting in a brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. People bustle around me, eating, drinking, talking and laughing, and here I am in the middle of it, ignoring it all. I have noise-canceling headphones in, and the most I hear is a faint whisper of spoken word, the slightest hint of movement out of the corner of my eye, and the distraction of someone jostling me as they try to get by. Otherwise, I’m in a world of my own, oblivious to the people around me, focused on the music in my ears and the screen in my eyes.

In many ways, this is a perfect analogy for depression. I know there are things going on in the world around me, but I can’t connect to them. I know there are people who might be watching me, trying to talk to me, but I can’t pay attention. I don’t hear anything but my own focus, don’t see anything but myself. In the same way that the sounds around me are muted and distant, so are the feelings of people around me, and even the brightness of the day is somehow more subdued than it used to be.

Depression is very isolationist. It really doesn’t want me to interact with people, or do my job, or pay attention to my family. All depression really wants is to escape into a lost, solitary world, a place where no one sees me, and I don’t have to see them. Where no one hears me, and I can’t hear them.

This is a place I’m intimately familiar with. I’ve often felt huddled in a corner, looking out on the world from a place of dark loneliness; I frequently lapse into periods of nonexistence, where I’m not certain if I’m dreaming or not, if I’m in bed or at work. When depression steals over me, it mutes the whole world in both color and sound, and it’s all I can do to stay cognizant enough to make it from place to place, from moment to moment, until I finally get to retreat into the soft warm covers of my bed once more.

I’ve been told I get very self-centered when I get depressed. I think this is probably accurate; it’s difficult to assess others’ problems or empathize with their troubles when nothing seems to matter. When the darkness creeps over me, I just stop caring about anyone else. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct; perhaps I’m just trying to stay sane enough to live the day out. The same is true of duties and responsibilities; I’m having a really hard time focusing at work, convincing myself that any of it matters at all. I want nothing more than to go home, go to sleep.

Sometimes depression is a deep, overriding despair. These are the times when I can’t even get out of bed, never mind take a shower, or brush my teeth, or make it to work on time. This is when the world is black, I can’t see past my own feet, and everything is spiraling out of control to a point where there seems no way out.

Other times, however, depression is a kind of blank limbo, neither feeling nor unfeeling. I do things as though nothing were wrong, going through the motions of an otherwise normal day, but there’s no connection internally; no meaning to any of it. Do I speak up at that meeting or not? It really doesn’t matter. Do I go shopping after work? Who cares? Should I watch a movie or fall asleep? Same difference.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I haven’t written more of The Redemption of Erâth in a good few weeks. I haven’t written more music. I haven’t done … well, anything, really. I just keep plodding on, step after step, day after day, getting up and going back to bed with nothing in between. Leaving the house, going to work, having dinner with friends … all of it, nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.

I hate losing touch with reality like this. I don’t want to just go through the motions. In fact, I think I’d rather be utterly incapacitated with despair than well enough to do things, but ill enough for it to all mean nothing. I’d rather feel something than nothing, even if that something is misery.

Mostly, though, I’d rather just sleep the day away. Then I wouldn’t have to sit in this brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. Then I could just be on my own, in my little isolationist bubble, and feel nothing.

The night isn’t far away.