(Content note: depression. Obviously.)
So I’ve been in this weird place in recent weeks, or maybe not so weird. I’ve been in this place with my depression where I have good days and bad days. I have days where I feel entirely fine — more than fine, actually, days where I feel good and happy and productive and joyful and engaged and connected and optimistic. And I have days where I can’t muster the motivation to work or shower or dress or leave the house. Because these days are coming in somewhat rapid succession (that’s unusual for me — I tend to slip in and out of my depressive states more gradually), it’s giving me a unique opportunity to observe some things about my depression. And here’s something I’ve noticed:
When I’m depressed, my brain sometimes does this weird thing with time. When I’m having a thought or feeling that’s pessimistic or despairing or otherwise depressed, my brain goes back and rewrites my memories — so I think I’ve always felt like this. It writes a revisionist, retroactive-continuity version of my life, in which I have always felt like this. And it filters my perception of possible futures, so it seems obvious and self-evident that I’m always going to feel like this, forever.
The specific example that made me want to write about this: I was having this experience, where every time I had a moment of happiness or joy or connection, it would quickly be shot through with an intense consciousness of mortality. “Sure, you’re happy now — but remember, someday you’re going to die, and everyone you love is going to die, and everything you’re experiencing is going to disappear.” And these moments of consciousness of mortality weren’t just fleeting bits of awareness of the obvious. They were intense, they were powerful, they were painful, and they obliterated whatever pleasure I was experiencing. It was, unsurprisingly, extremely upsetting, and extremely hard to deal with.
And I wasn’t just having this crappy experience. It felt as if I had always had this experience. It felt as if every moment of joy I’d ever had in my life had been shot through with an intense consciousness of death. And it felt like this would be true for every future moment of joy, for the rest of my life.
Unsurprisingly, this made the experience that much more upsetting. Grief is hard enough, without it feeling like it’s the permanent condition of your life. It felt like, “How can I go through my life like this? If every moment of joy and connection is ultimately going to be about death and grief, how is that bearable?”
But a couple of weeks later, I had some intensely wonderful experiences of joy and connection; marvelous conversations with friends both new and old, in which I felt very much alive, and very much present in the present moment. And I did not, in fact, have an overwhelming awareness in the middle of these conversations that we were all going to die. I did have a couple of little meta-moments, moments of thinking, “Hm, this is about the time when my brain usually starts screaming, ‘You’re going to die! They’re going to die! Everything is going to be boiled away into the sun!’, I wonder when that’s going to kick in” — but it didn’t kick in. I was fleetingly aware of the reality of mortality, I noticed it — and I returned to the conversation, and to the joy I was taking in it. If anything, my awareness of mortality inspired me to stay present in the conversation. In the middle of intense conversations, I sometimes get scared of the intimacy of it and feel an urge to make an excuse and take off, but my fleeting consciousness of mortality told me, “Stay here. Stay with this. This is what gives your life value, and it doesn’t happen that often — sit with it, and run with it.” (That’s a lot more normal for me: my usual, non-depressed framing of mortality is that it drives me to make something of my life and to experience it as fully as I can.)
And I started wondering: Why did that “consciousness of mortality” experience seem so permanent? Why did it overwrite my memories, and block my sense of future possibility? It is not, in fact, even remotely true that every experience of joy I’ve ever had has been immediately tainted with an intense and obliterating consciousness of mortality. Most of my joyful experiences have not been like that. Joyful experiences being obliterated by the consciousness of death are very much in the minority for me. So why did it feel like it had always felt this way?
I don’t actually have an answer here. I’m thinking out loud here. And I’m asking other people with depression: Do you have this experience? Is there any kind of logic or sense to it? Or is this just how depression is sometimes? Is the sense that “I have always felt this way, and I will always feel this way” just another symptom of depression, like hopelessness and lack of motivation? Is this just another of the many almost random ways that depression lies? Or is there something else going on — some internal logic, or some lesson about how consciousness works?