My friend James Shelley, in his wonderful series of books called the Caesura Letters, writes about despair.
“Despair is certainty. Absolute certainty. Certainty that you have apprehended the universe in its entirety and found existence wanting.
Despair is a destructive self-delusion — the foolish conclusion that you have perceived the whole of everything. Hopelessness is the inability to see any possibility beyond the horizon, yes, but who are you to project your own blindness onto the cosmos? Who are you, ant, to profess such omniscience?”
He concludes thus:
“What is hope, if not the conscious, humble acknowledgement that everything you perceive and contemplate is but a sliver of what is? How foolish, indeed, to project your fractional perspective onto everything you have yet to see and examine.
If despair be the disease, curiosity be the cure. Doubt, self-doubt, is the antidote. Be suspicious, mind, of your despair: for only an eye so foolish to claim that it has seen everything can claim that there is nothing worth being seen.”
My response is that of a man who has lived with lethal despair for decades. I live with what they call Major Depressive Disorder, and this is my response. It is not for the faint of heart, or those who know little about depression but want simplistic ‘cures’ for it.
What is not often discussed as regards depression is the way in which it dominates every thinking and feeling process, and, essentially, negates them totally. When major depression takes hold, it has already done its nihilistic work on the mind and world view, so that there is no ‘seeing’ beyond utter, comatose emptiness. At the time, it may be felt as despair: but it is just as likely to be experienced as a total lack of mind/body engagement with the inner and outer worlds – that is, a state close to catatonia. When such despair and catatonia or nihilism (or any combination of these) takes over, there is no reasoning with the individual, no enticing the mind to be curious about what it does not know, and thus coercing it toward a sense of meaning or hope.
This is not momentary despair, which can lift, giving room for the wedge of curiosity to open a space for light. Momentary despair, by comparison with that suffered under major depression, could be seen as a self-indulgent delusion, which sounds like what you are describing. A delusion can be ‘untriggered’ sometimes as easily as it can be triggered, or with difficulty. Arguably, it can, ultimately, be accomplished, at least in theory.
The despair that is integral to major depression is not that species of despair at all. It cannot be reasoned with, seduced or enticed into better behaviour. It does not make room for optimism no matter how much you wish it would. Often, the only way to survive such despair, because believe me, that comatose, isolated, terrifying condition cannot take you very far into anything resembling living – is to either induce prolonged sleep (which may or may not work) or entertain the option of suicide. For many, suicide becomes the solution. With major depression, suicide is as logical and reasonable as 1+1= 2. And there is its horrible lethality. It does not listen to reason, it does not engage with hope, because you have none. Hope is an empty word, as are so many kinds of human converse. This despair leaves you with nothing other than absurdity, pain and a desire for annihilation which will end the physical pain of meaninglessness, of being worth absolutely nothing.
Curiosity comes in at no point on that existential stage. I cannot stress that enough. The despair of major depression is a cancer that devours you, piece by piece from the inside; it works for years, even decades, even while you are being treated by drugs that to some degree manage to keep the horror restrained, stifled. When the drugs work well, despair is the memory of something you have been tough enough to survive. That memory is the Croix de Guerre that reminds you just how incredibly tough and resilient you are, because you are still surviving, and, yes, finding moments of curiosity and engagement with your life.
Then, when the drugs inevitably fail you, for a multitude of reasons, and this deepest despair conquers body, soul and mind, you are doing nothing but fighting for your life, like a terrier with his teeth clamped to an apex predator out of your worst, suffocating nightmare. This despair has no antidote in curiosity and does not lessen with the help of friends or loved ones. It can only be engaged with by means of an automatic (ironically hopeless) power of will, on which you bet your life.
If that will allows you to hold on in the utter blackness beyond the visceral desire for death, beyond the suicide-planning and out the other side, then you have won the battle. The war, however, continues. Major depression, when it strikes lethally, means that you are absolutely alone; more alone than you can possibly imagine, even in the midst of family and friends. The depression that drives you toward suicide is not an external phenomenon to be battled, like two warriors engaging. It is yourself – a being you used to know, with a name and desires and hopes – who now has become absolutely nothing but annihilating, visceral pain. You are the nihilistic zero. It is not something outside you. That is what makes you the nihilistic, zero-point of utter despair. It is not outside coming at you. It is inside, destroying you.
I wish I could have added something pleasant there. Well, the fact that I am still alive; along with millions of other near-suicides, or failed suicides, has to be positive. But curiosity about life did not keep me alive. Sheer, war-zone, battlefield, shell-shocked willpower is what keeps us alive, to find, somewhere along the timeline, another moment of joy, as if stolen from the jaws of death.That, honestly, is the utterly horrible reality of major depressive disorder. I have been surviving it since I was a young teenager. Every battle is just as bad as the previous. The war is endless, its guns sounding off in the distance of even the brightest of days.
Out of such war zones come the Churchills, the van Goghs, the Hemingways, the comedians and actors and the heroes and heroines you see every day and do not know. We do not ask for your pity, or least of all your advice. But our lethal illness… we would benefit, just a little, from your improved understanding of what it is. Perhaps, then, it would not be sensationalist, tabloid fodder, only trotted out when a celebrity suicides.