Disrupting Depression's Negative Feedback Loop

[Content note: depression]

Recently I went through a spot of depression. I’m not sure if I’d call it “An Episode Of Clinical Depression” or not; when you have a personality that already meets several of the diagnostic criteria for depression and you’ve had it since your earliest memories, it can be hard to tell what is or isn’t “An Episode Of Clinical Depression.” So, I don’t really care what I call it.

The whole thing seemed to draw on a few of the recurring themes in my life: I Cannot Date Like A Normal Person; Everything Good In My Life Is Over; I Will Never Have A Real Career Or Any Money; and, my personal favorite, There Is Nothing Redeeming About Me Except My Writing Ability. (Make a note of these; they’ll be on the exam.)

Of course, objectively, everything was going pretty well for me this winter. I have great friends in NYC that I see once a week or more. School stuff was going fine. I love New York. I have a no-longer-very-new partner that I like very much and whose only significant drawback is having the misfortune of not living in New York. (Alas, not everyone can be so lucky as me.) The fact that I managed, in light of all this, to be entirely convinced of my own failure in every conceivable department (while I remained confident of my writing skills, I berated myself endlessly for underutilizing them) was the first sign to me that something was once again significantly off in my brain.

Depression is really nothing but a huge negative feedback loop. The worse I felt, the more I became convinced that I have nothing of value to offer other people as a friend, partner, or anything else. I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

My various attempts to talk about the depression itself (only when people asked, of course) generally got nowhere. Either they would be like “That really sucks, I’m sorry :(” and the conversation would end there (as it should–I don’t want to force anyone to listen to this) or they would attempt to fix me and that would fail and there would be frustration all around. A few people would listen patiently and then say very little and I had the distinct sense of over-stepping, and so I tried not to ever do it again.

To make matters even worse, I couldn’t stand hearing about their lives, either. Hearing about someone going on a date or otherwise doing romance-/sex-related things became a literal depressive trigger. One time I ended up going back and forth between crying and just being miserable for the rest of the day because someone told me that someone else we know went on a date. Not because I begrudged them their happiness at all, but just because I was entirely convinced that I would never go on a date again because for whatever reason I can’t handle going on dates. (Long story. In sum: introversion.) I also hated hearing about job-related success because I was (and remain) convinced that I will never in my entire life have a job I like OR a job that gives me enough money. I’m not even talking both, mind. Either/or. But that’s also a long story.

So, since I couldn’t talk about my own life and I could only listen to other people talk about their lives as long as they weren’t happier with those lives than me, that left me with…not a lot of conversation topics. (My other mode is RAGE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE!, but I’m only okay with doing that when someone specifically starts a conversation with RAGE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE! Otherwise I assume nobody gives a fuck.) And thus I ended up largely avoiding conversations. And that only made me more and more convinced that I’m broken and wrong and cannot interact with other people like a normal fucking human being, which only exacerbated the depression, which only made me more and more convinced–and so on. There was even a point when I hit rock-bottom and made a list of ways in which I’m a total worthless failure compared to one of my friends and I came up with 21 reasons. That is a lot of ways to fail. And I could’ve probably kept going.

Sometimes there is no rhyme and reason to any of this. I remain hopeful that someday researchers will understand exactly how and why it happens and how to stop it, but for now, the depressive feedback loop continues ad nauseum–until it’s suddenly interrupted. What it takes to interrupt it is something that varies from person to person. For some it’s drugs or therapy (drugs worked that way for me once a long time ago), for some it’s getting out of a situation that’s become intolerable, for some it’s finding a way to make a situation tolerable, for others it’s totally random.

For me, it was reconnection. Everything suddenly flipped around on a random day when a friend saw a sad tweet of mine and offered to listen if I wanted to talk. Knowing this friend is struggling with depression too, I told them a little bit about it and they responded kindly and helpfully, neither trying to fix me nor leaving it at “sorry, that sucks.” We didn’t talk for long, but it was enough to disrupt the depressive feedback loop. (It was also enough to make me realize that one of my major mistakes this entire winter has been attempting to discuss depression with people who do not have it. Of course that’s not going to go anywhere. They can’t possibly have any idea what the fuck I’m prattling on about.)

That day I started talking to more people. People I hadn’t talked to much for a few weeks or months, or that I’d been talking to a little bit not very authentically. I let myself believe that I am the sort of person who actually talks to people long enough to become that person again. And the more I felt like a competent and sociable person who has positive traits, the less I got insecure and anxious when people talked about their own accomplishments, and the more I was able to show genuine happiness for them, and the more I felt like a competent and sociable person who has positive traits.

And that evening, I found out that two of my closest friends are moving to New York this summer. These are the kind of friends that I feel comfortable asking to hang out when I’m feeling down, the kind of friends I’d invite to my shitty little apartment, the kind of friends I don’t need a “reason” to go see. The kind of friends that my other local friends will eventually become, but not yet.

Already the huge city felt less lonely.

Later that night I took a hot shower because why not. I could hear my phone pinging with messages from my friends. The bathroom window was open because the city was finally unfurling from its long frozen sleep, and the steam from the shower was billowing out the window into the darkening sky. I’ve often felt a strange nostalgia and comfort standing at this spot, and that night I finally realized why: my grandma’s apartment in Israel is the only other one I’ve spent lots of time in that has a bathroom window, and for a moment I felt like I could almost be back in my first home again.

The second I realized that, I suddenly knew that everything would be okay again.

To be sure, I knew that there would still be awful nights after this one and that it would probably take a long time to be as happy and hopeful as I was during my senior year of college. But every time in the past that I’ve gotten that unmistakeable “it’ll be okay” feeling, it was the beginning of a long but steady trek up and out of the ditch I’d found myself in.

I recently saw the movie Frozen (yes, just recently). A lot of things resonated with me in that movie, but in particular I liked the theme of connection. In the movie, Elsa tries to hide her magical talent (and, by extension, her entire self) from everyone around her, even the little sister she loves, in order to keep them safe from the magic and to keep it a secret. That to me sounded a lot like a metaphor for depression, whether or not it was intended to be one. I also go to certain lengths to keep people from seeing how miserable I sometimes am*, and I also do this in order to “protect” them from worrying about me, from the frustration of being unable to help, and from whatever mild or severe drop in mood they may experience upon exposure to me. Like Elsa, I ultimately fail at this.

Elsa discovers in the end (spoiler alert) that the only way to prevent her gift from consuming her and everyone around her is through connection with others, through being close to people she loves and experiencing the positive emotions that brings. Likewise for me, there is no relief from depression without connection. Locking myself away in a tower makes for a good fairytale, but not so much for a recovery.

But that’s where my story diverts from the Frozen metaphor. There is no turning my depression into a wonderful force for good that makes a big happy ice skating rink for all the villagers and a cute snowman who talks and a beautiful ice palace. I have always resisted the societal imperative to turn all adversity into a “blessing in disguise.” While I certainly learned useful things from the experience of being depressed, that doesn’t mean that depression itself has positives, at least not for me. If you’d like to view yours that way, you are of course welcome to.

For all the fuss I make about how I can’t do this or that or I totally fail at this or that (I have basically decided that I am never going on a “date” again and I have also given up on trying to find a summer internship because they’re all unpaid and I’m fucking tired of paying for public transit and for lunch every day without being paid for my goddamn work), I’m actually improving in all sorts of ways. My writing’s never been better. I’ve started writing for the Daily Dot, which demands a level of confidence I did not previously have. I’ve been starting more conversations with people online, which I don’t usually do (especially not while depressed).

And, for the first time ever, I’ve written a blog post that’s purely about myself and my life and I don’t even have the slightest urge to put a big disclaimer at the top about how this is a personal post and you probably shouldn’t read it.

That’s right, I actually don’t give a fuck if you read this post and think it’s a waste of your time. Too bad, I guess. 🙂

Now that I’ve gone all meta, I’ll just say this: this is not an advice post. Please don’t leave me angry comments about how suggesting that you talk to your friends more isn’t going to help. If you’re going through something that may or may not be “An Episode Of Clinical Depression,” please do whatever makes the most sense to you or seek advice from a qualified professional. But what I do think that anyone can glean from this story is that sometimes you have to find a way to disrupt the negative feedback loop somehow. The challenge is figuring out what will disrupt it for you specifically.

What I went through this winter was pretty mild compared to other depressive things I’ve gone through, so it makes sense that the solution to it was also pretty easy and simple. Letting my friends back in felt like opening the curtains and letting the sunlight back into my room after a long, dark winter.


*By the way, the fact that I write publicly about depression is not at all incompatible with the fact that I hide the worst of it. I do pretty much everything described in this perfect article about how to be a “good depressive citizen.” In fact, I’ve probably done it in this post. But I tried to circumvent that a little by letting you see a little bit if how I actually felt.

Edit: So I got curious and read the Wikipedia entry about “The Snow Queen,” the fairytale that Frozen is loosely based on. It sounds like an even better metaphor for depression than the movie:

An evil troll (“called the devil“)[2] makes a magic mirror that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects. It fails to reflect the good and beautiful aspects of people and things, while magnifying their bad and ugly aspects. The devil teaches a “devil school.” He and his pupils take the mirror throughout the world and delight in distorting everyone and everything; the mirror makes the loveliest landscapes look like “boiled spinach.” They try to carry the mirror into Heaven with the idea of making fools of the angels and God, but the higher they lift it, the more the mirror grins and shakes with delight, and it slips from their grasp and falls back to earth, shattering into millions of pieces. These splinters — some no larger than a grain of sand — are blown around and get into people’s hearts and eyes, freezing their hearts like blocks of ice and making their eyes like the troll-mirror itself, seeing only the bad and ugly in people and things.

Disrupting Depression's Negative Feedback Loop

13 thoughts on “Disrupting Depression's Negative Feedback Loop

  1. 1

    Interesting points about disconnection.
    Connection and disconnection became a huge area of research in my drive to understand myself and my depression. I have come to see depression as a complete disconnect. Ultimately, I saw my depression as a disconnect from myself that lead to a disconnect from others. Obviously, when depressed we get sunk in this negative feedback loop, in our heads, but I came to see that these thoughts were an attempt to avoid my feelings. I wasn’t disconnected from my thoughts, but I was from my body and the feelings that resided there.
    I also found that my ability to connect with others was directly related to my ability to connect with myself. Put another way, I saw that emotional connection with others came through my body and my feelings

    Ah, it’s hard to describe.

    Good for you in finding a way out of this recent hole you found yourself in. Theres nothing so good as talking to someone who understands, and who doesn’t try to fix you.

    Your point about not making depression a ‘blessing in disguise’ is interesting. I can’t remember how I felt about it back with I was badly depressed. I was depressed for nearly 20 years before I was able to heal a large part of myself and climb out the hole. I didn’t and don’t enjoy being depressed (who does?) but I see it as a necessary and helpful part of being human, in so much as it warns us when something is amiss, like pain tells us to take care.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, have a good day!

  2. 2

    “I have always resisted the societal imperative to turn all adversity into a “blessing in disguise.”

    Oh Jesus, yes. I feel the same way. I posted a semi-long rant on facebook saying as much. I used to do yoga and made a number of FB friends from that, so I see a lot of “Sorry the world’s shitting on your right now, but have you considered that that may be a good thing?” type posts with a picture of the Buddha/waterfall/rainbow/hippy bullshit.

    Many people, for whatever reason, just can’t accept that some things just irredeemably suck; these things have to become a teaching moment. I think it’s about their need to maintain a façade of competence (get bent firefox, I spelled “façade” correctly). Even when things aren’t going well, you have to demonstrate that you have a hold on something, even though it might be overwhelming you, because vulnerability is seen as a weakness.

    Also, Stephen Fry had an interview recently in which he stated that “feelings come first.” He was talking about music, but it applies to all feelings and made me why so much pep-talk fails.

    I think feelings are utterly overpowering things, and I’ve had real difficulty making the debilitating kinds “go away” by simply adjusting my outlook. One of my therapists once gave me a printout of “10 forms of cognitive distortions” from “Feeling Good” by David Burns, and although I recognized these in my own thinking, it had absolutely no effect in terms of adjusting my mood. I’ve found that doing/working toward things that make me feel confident is what helps. If I feel confident about something in my life (appearance, a skill, etc.) and focus on that, my shortcomings aren’t on my radar. This is a recent realization for me, but it seems to be working well for now. I don’t mean to tell you what would “work” for you, especially because I strongly resent personal advice from strangers as well, but I just thought I’d…”share,” I suppose.

  3. 3

    Sorry to go off-topic–I’m uninterested in talking about my own depression, let alone yours–but I have a point of pedantry to make.
    ‘Feedback loops’ are concepts with specific technical meanings in both control-system engineering and physiology, and you have gotten it wrong.
    A feedback-loop control system detects a stimulus (a change in some controlled variable) and induces a response to the stimulus that affects the controlled variable. A ‘negative feedback loop’ is one in which the response is in the opposite direction of the detected stimulus, and in a ‘positive feedback loop’ the response is in the same direction as the original stimulus.
    For example, the human body maintains homeostasis of a number of controlled variables via negative feedback loops: if body temperature rises, sweat glands secrete water, the evaporation of which brings body temperature back down; blood glucose goes down and the pancreas secretes glucagon that signals the liver to release stored glucose, bringing blood levels back up. These are both negative feedback loops; the ‘negative’ does not refer to the variable decreasing (it may as well increase) nor to any value judgment about the usefulness or desirability of the effects (these examples are both obviously good negative feedback loops!).

    So what you-ve described–a phenomenon with which I am only too familiar–in which depression causes ‘negative’ thoughts that make one even more depressed, etc. is, technically, a positive feedback loop, because the effect is in the same direction as the stimulus.

    (I told you it was pedantic.)

    1. 3.1

      Thanks for the info, but this is pretty rude and inconsiderate. Why the preface about being “uninterested” in talking about my depression? Obviously it’s fine that you’re not, but saying so is callous.

      I’ll save my rant about how technical concepts develop lay meanings for another time. Please do not comment here again if it’s going to be to argue with this.

  4. 4

    I actually don’t give a fuck if you read this post and think it’s a waste of your time.

    It feels really, really refreshing to “waste my time” on your blog, Miri. Thanks! In return I’m giving you this totally unhelpful comment. Reading it is a complete waste of time, so better stop now. Otherwise, enjoy the impression you made.

    The OP was very personal and I comment in kind. Impressions, associations and memories; nothing more than that. (A lot of laughter as well, mainly at myself. Sorry, I can’t help it.)

    I Cannot Date Like A Normal Person; Everything Good In My Life Is Over; I Will Never Have A Real Career Or Any Money; and, my personal favorite, There Is Nothing Redeeming About Me Except My Writing Ability.

    Wow, this sent me giggling! (Inappropriate reaction, YES, I know.) Been there, done that – just delete the last four words. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the freakiest of us all?

    I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

    I have only one online friend. When she is in trouble, depressed, doing shitty, she writes sometimes how much she needs messages from me. “Even if you send just a line or two, it helps so much”, she says. Then I shake my head thinking “Helpful? Me? How can she be so blind? I’m an impostor, I’m incompetent, I can’t help anyone!”. Then (of course) I write her, as impostors always do – thinking of it as inconsequential, a pebble thrown into a pond, expecting no ripples to follow. But if something follows, I feel like an impostor again: just how on earth can she be so blind? The circle closes.
    Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the freakiest of us all?

    It was also enough to make me realize that one of my major mistakes this entire winter has been attempting to discuss depression with people who do not have it

    Here at last I’m definitely better and more reasonable than you! You see? Even in my worst periods I didn’t attempt to do anything so obviously stupid!!! Hmmm … okay, I didn’t attempt to discuss depression with people who had it either. Alright, ALRIGHT, when I think of it, I didn’t attempt to discuss it with anyone at all.
    Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the freakiest of us all?

    Hearing about someone going on a date or otherwise doing romance-/sex-related things became a literal depressive trigger.

    Yup, I remember. But if this is so, let me enter my “helpful” mode for a change. (I lied, I’m actually quite good at it!) Here it goes:

    It becomes definitely better when you approach 50 and you don’t go on dates any more. You should try it one day, it’s a simple solution; moreover, it really works! Unless of course it doesn’t work … then don’t blame me.

    Now, that was very helpful, I know. I told you I’m good at it!

    [Apologies for the impish mood. Please believe me that I’m laughing at myself. Thanks again for this post.]

  5. 5

    It was also connection that dragged me out of my depression but for me it was connecting with my own body when I started boxing. I can still find myself falling back to that way of thinking if I leave it to long without a regular workout routine.

  6. 6

    Thank you for sharing this. As someone who periodically falls into black holes of depression, it’s always comforting to realize I’m not alone. (In fact, it appears I’m in excellent company here.) I tend to isolate myself when I’m down, and then it becomes a spiral. I feel the need to “protect” the people who care about me from my darkness. Of course, that’s self-defeating. Right now I’m climbing out of such a hole, and I’m making a conscious effort to speak honestly about what’s going on.

  7. 7

    Ah, so familiar! I’m not sure which is worse though: “There is Nothing Redeeming About Me” or “There Is Nothing Redeeming About Me Except.”

  8. 8

    Chalk me into the “wow, so familiar” category, too. Early on I recognized the exact same, that depression was a positive feedback loop (as in grows out of control until stopped, not as in a good thing). In my case, I noticed that made depression predictable; I could recognize depressive thought patterns, no matter what triggered them and independant of their actual content. By training myself, I created a sort of mental “circuit breaker” that gave me a chance to break the loop before it had spiralled out of control.

    It allowed me to control my depression without medication, which is a pretty neat trick.

  9. 9

    I have to say I’m somewhat jealous of people whose depression features Actual Concrete Negative Thoughts. When your enemy has a form you can grapple with, you can eventually find a way to defeat it. But in my case, depression doesn’t cause any concrete bad thoughts at all, it’s all just a nebulous bundle of miserable feelings, and I have no idea how to even approach trying to get rid of them. I can spend hours *sincerely* thinking I Am Awesome Everything I Produce Is Awesome My Life Is Going To Be Awesome, and feel like shit all the way through it all. There’s a complete disconnect between what I think and how I feel. I sometimes think about getting a therapist, but I have no idea how CBT would even work for this.

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