Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Suicide, Depression, David Foster Wallace

But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state. I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words, to any that I received, was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had laid weeks, or even months, on my writing-table. Without the aid of M., all records of bills paid, or to be paid, must have perished; and my whole domestic economy, whatever became of Political Economy, must have gone into irretrievable confusion. I shall not afterwards allude to this part of the case; it is one, however, which the opium-eater will find, in the end, as oppressive and tormenting as any other, from the sense of incapacity and feebleness, from the direct embarrassments incident to the neglect or procrastination of each day's appropriate duties, and from the remorse which must often exasperate the stings of these evils to a reflective and conscientious mind. The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations; he wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt. He lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: -- he curses the spells which chain him down from motion; he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.

From Thomas de Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He isn't writing about depression in this passage. He's writing about opium. The pain of addiction. It is, nevertheless, a remarkably accurate representation of the deepest stages of depression. I suspect the neurochemically induced states of opium addiction likely share many properties with the neurochemically induced states of "natural" depression. I note this in passing. It's important to my concern but not its focus, not the motivation for writing this post. My motivation is the suicide of David Foster Wallace--or more accurately, some comments I've heard, and a few that I've read; comments that evince a profound lack of understanding of depression--of the experience of profound depression. This surprised me. With all that's been written on the subject, this surprised and disturbed me.

Riding on the bus and the el to class I turned this over in my mind. What can I say that hasn't been said before? I'm not sure I've come up with anything new (unlikely), but perhaps one or two neglected points--not clinical information, but regarding the experienced reality?

The normal everyday "healthy" mind goes through his or her routines with an unquestioned and seldom shaken belief in "free will," or whatever name you want to use for this... this... whatever it is we mean by those words. Important words! An important--essential belief, however distorted the mythologies we wrap it in. I'm not a "determinist." I too believe in freedom, but I don't think of this as something possessed by, or a capacity of individuals. Rather, it is something that happens between us.

Something given. Given and received--or rejected. I like how Hannah Arendt represents this idea. That action--speech action--before another, action that is not "acting," the purpose of which is not to control or manipulate, but to relate to--to present to the other one's own reality--that such action releases, initiates, a chain of unforeseen and unpredictable consequences.

Therein is our freedom. And nowhere else.

The Roves of the world want to control every outcome, but in the end, make themselves slaves of the chain of cause and effect... or more accurately, the slaves of their pre-conceived notions of cause and effect, more and more profoundly divorced from reality, more and more profoundly enslaved to each bound action, each designed in turn to gain their desired ends against the threatening possibilities of genuine freedom.

Received notions of "free will" are not about reality. They are about preserving "necessary illusions."


the very idea of law depends on this illusion. That we are free, and hence, responsible--in some simplistic way for all our actions. Nowhere is the illusionary nature of this assumption more apparent than in the formulations that tie responsibility with "knowledge of right and wrong." As though "knowing" were in itself the necessary and sufficient condition for free action.

How many have we collectively, in the name of the law, disgraced, imprisoned, murdered in the name of this delusional claim?

Which brings me back to my subject: depression. The distinction has recently eroded between "pure" depression and it's cyclical relatives. That seems wise. Even monopolar depressives are not always depressed--so there is always a degree of cycling, of transition from state to state. The need to categorize tempts us to make distinctions where they are not justified, or to ignore the spectral relationships--as early definitions of species ignored the genetic boundary lines.

Manic-depression (a term I much prefer... as does Kay Redfield Jamison--co-author of the definitive clinical text on this disorder), is likely the oldest described "mental" disorder. Understandable, as those who endure it pass though stages that must baffle those near to them... from "normal" intelligent... and not uncommonly gifted individuals... to manically delusional to profoundly melancholic... and suicidal.

A parenthetical note here: mania is commonly thought of as a kind of super euphoria. It may begin that way, but never ever lasts more than a few hours in this state... after which, it is really a kind of supper depression... on fast forward. Make that... super fast forward. Equipped at its worst--as are the depressive phases--with hallucinations and delusional episodes that parallel (why manic-depression is so often misdiagnosed) schizophrenia or other more intractable brain misfunctions.

Now I come to the point. What I wanted to write about. Two elements of the experience of depression. Or perhaps, two that are one. The first has to do with our assumptions about "freedom." The second, with assumptions about the governing power of "reason."

When we entertain taking action--from the trivial to the profound, we imagine the possibility before we set out.

Imagine this: you are profoundly depressed. You have to get up and go to work. You have to buy food so you can eat. You look out the window. Across the parking lot is a supermarket. This is what you see. You understand that it would take a few minutes to cross that lot and make your purchases... but that isn't how it feels. It feels like you are looking across the Atlantic Ocean. And to get to that store, you would have to swim. And you cannot, cannot, cannot imagine how it would be possible. If you can't FEEL the possibility, how do you take action?

But you do. You go to work. To perform the daily routines... but it as though you had weights clamped to you ankles, to your wrists-- an enormous weight on your back. Every exertion drains you... and you cannot, absolutely cannot.... until.. there is no more energy left.. There is nothing left for relief from this futile effort... which you've kept up for the sake of those you love... nothing.... but death

Second part.

You are standing on the platform of the el at rush hour. The train is speeding into the station.

You think: I could step forward now. Or I could wait.

If I stepped forward now, the speeding train would smash me to blood and splattered organs. I would become a nightmare to all who saw this...

Or... I could wait.

The train would stop. The doors would open. I would step in.

I understand the difference... but emotionally. Makes no difference.

Spock is not the answer. We need emotional intelligence. If we can't FEEL the difference, we're in big trouble.

Someone deeply depressed, or manic, may KNOW and UNDERSTAND way better than any goddamned normy in shouting distance... but their affective understanding has become ripped loose from their reasoned understanding....

... so it's a toss of the coin.

...do I step forward now...and get smashed by the oncoming train?

... or do I wait 30 seconds... and walk through the open doors?

I walked though the open doors.

By the toss of a coin.

... I didn't have time to pick up the penny...


  1. There are so many people who have negative thoughts and are plagued by negative thinking. These negative thoughts create fear, suicidal thoughts, anger, and agitation and there is seemingly no apparent reason for these thoughts to occur. Everyone who has this habit must try to learn how to stop it and must try to bring on a more positive way of thinking. http://www.xanax-effects.com/

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  3. Why do you assume you are the agent of your thoughts? Do you call them into being before they are? Or do they mostly appear, unbidden?

    We are so full of bullshit ideas of stuff that is so far removed--not just from reality--but experienced reality... and we don't even see it...