I wasn’t officially diagnosed with depression until 2008, but when I look back on my life, I can see the beginnings of it started much earlier. Whatever part of my brain is responsible for producing the sensation of guilt has been working overtime for as long as I can remember.
When I was in high school, I tended to respond to the experience of feeling bad about myself by trying to fix things about me. I figured that if I just managed to figure out how to be an ethically flawless human being, I would be happy. I spent a lot of high school and college trying to manage being 100% perfect at honesty or pop-culture-Buddhist emotional detachment. I figured that was the key — I figured people felt bad because they were doing things wrong, and so when I felt bad it was because I was doing something wrong.
So every time I felt bad, it was because I wasn’t being as honest as I could be about this thing or that thing, or because I was attached to people in ways that prevented me from being able to see them clearly. It was because I needed to fix something. In the end, though, no matter how much effort I put into becoming ethically flawless, it didn’t ever seem to make me much happier. In point of fact, it tended to do the opposite.
It took me a very long time, even after I was diagnosed with depression, to understand the size of the mistake I had been making. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to fully articulate the bait-and-switch that happens when I’m depressed — the fact that all of the flaws that I find with myself when I’m feeling bad aren’t the cause of my depression, but a symptom of it. It was more recently, still, that I finally made the connection between depression and chronic pain.
The thing that it took me so long to realize is that the emotional pain that comes from depression is just as unreliable as the physical pain that I experience in my back. I needed to realize that the emotional pain doesn’t necessarily mean I need to fix something about myself in the same way that physical pain doesn’t necessarily mean I have physically damaged myself.
As I discussed in the last section, the process that I have learned to go through when I experience chronic pain symptoms goes roughly like this: when I notice pain, I try to think if anything has happened recently that is likely to have produced an actual injury. If I can think of something, then I treat it like an injury. If I can’t, then I assume that the pain is a mistake.
I almost never ignore pain entirely, but if I suspect it’s not actually due to physical damage, I treat it like a paranoid delusion, rather than something physically wrong. Much like you might try to calm down a paranoid person who is convinced “everyone is after them” by talking to them about why that’s probably not true and trying to calm their nerves, when I judge my pain to be the product of a paranoid brain, I focus on all of the evidence that nothing is actually wrong, I try to reduce stress, and while I don’t completely avoid physical exertion, I do try to keep it relatively mild so as not to further scare my brain. The interesting thing is this: what I have learned to do with respect to depression is almost exactly the same.
When I notice emotional pain, I try to think if there is any actual good reason for it. If I can think of something, then I try to address that. If not, then I treat my brain like it’s being paranoid. The only difference is that where in the case of physical pain the paranoia is resulting in an inaccurate picture of what is going on with me physically, in the case of emotional pain the paranoia is resulting in an inaccurate picture of what is going on with me, shall we say, existentially. I think of emotional pain as my brain’s potentially flawed artistic rendering of the state of my existential self in the same sense that physical pain is my brain’s potentially flawed artistic rendering of the state of my physical self.
The impact of this model on my mental state can be quite powerful. I have had the experience of waking up in a state of pretty severe depression, and thinking “I can’t think of any reason for these feelings to be happening, therefore they probably aren’t accurate, and there is probably no good reason for me to be having them.” and having the depressive feelings dissipate. It isn’t always that easy, but it is, at times, a powerful tool to have in my toolbox.
Even when it doesn’t have an immediate effect on depressive feelings, this model of thinking is an incredibly useful tool for critically examining depressive thoughts. Nowadays, when I feel bad about myself, I understand the problem to be the fact that my brain produces this emotional pain without good reason to do so, and instead of assuming it is a sign that I need to fix something about myself, I assume it’s a sign that I need to do some maintenance on my brain.
Now, when I experience physical pain that begs for a physical explanation or emotional pain that begs for a problem-with-me explanation, I am able, when it is appropriate, to deny them that — I’m able to say “No, this is not a problem with me, it is a problem with you, Brain.”
In the next post: how this same model applies to ideas and arguments.