I am going to share something personal, with the hope that some of you who have had similar experiences will understand you are not alone.
I, like many other people, have episodes of Existential Depression. Some call it psychic pain. Sometimes events trigger an episode and other times it is spontaneous. About the time I started blogging, I thought I had it beat, but I didn’t. It came roaring back in February.
I first encountered existential depression was when I was about five years old. Kristi, a Kindergarten classmate, and I were sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking a stream that cascaded down a rocky embankment into the Red River of the North, feeding each other kernels of popcorn while we planned our lives together, promising we would marry and have a family. A few days later her father died alone in a single vehicle accident on a remote rural highway. When I realized her father was never coming back, I walked back to the knoll where Kristi and I had made our promises. I looked at the stream, and I saw something caught in the rocks… the empty bag of popcorn we had shared… I picked it up, held it in my 5-year-old hand, and sobbed as I thought… when we shared this popcorn… Kristi’s father was still alive… and now the bag is empty… gone forever… like the moment on the knoll… like Kristi’s dad… what’s the point if everything ends up empty.
Another episode happened a few years later in grade school, when a teacher taught me the importance of protecting the environment for future generations. About the same time, I was obsessed with Astronomy and my father took me to the local university astronomy club where I learned about the life cycle of stars. When I discovered that our sun will one day become a Red Giant and engulf the entire earth, I thought… what’s the point in saving the planet if it’s just going be incinerated anyway? It’s just a matter of time. What difference does it make if it’s next year, or billion years? The outcome is still the same.
The latest episode was spontaneous starting in March with an abstract thought I had about passing time that I can’t justify with words, but I can give you an idea…
We never actually experience the present, by the time it has registered in our minds, it is the past, and since we cannot relive the past, we can’t possibly live in the present. It isn’t even happening right now; it happened a millisecond ago, so we are constantly losing it, and everything we think we know is really only a memory in our imagination. It was a feeling that we are constantly falling away from everything in our lives, and even our hopes for the future are gone as soon as we reach them, so what’s the point? We are constantly losing everything because as we move through time we can cling to nothing, and our experience of it may be pure imagination.
I hope that didn’t sound too weird. And, no, I don’t do drugs.
It’s been easier to work around this in the last few years, because I know what it is and that it will eventually end. When I was younger, it was different, I’d lash out at people, separate, and isolate. Today it isn’t as acute.
An event based episode occurred in 2005…
I won’t go into details about the device, except to say it is meant to prevent rape and identify the attacker.
I agree with Sonette and her advocacy of this device, but I had to question why…
Why did Sonette, a South African woman, invent this device? What drove her to dedicate so much time to developing this product?
That’s when I discovered the rape epidemic in South Africa… and I couldn’t understand it. Some surveys indicated that 20% of the men in South Africa had raped a woman.
So I dug deeper, and I discovered stories of farm murders, genocide, and indescribable atrocities. I immersed myself in the history of the region – Apartheid, Racism, Tribalism, Colonialism, Genocide, Boer War Concentration Camps, etc. I read The Covenant – 2000 pages by James Michener , so I could better understand this insanity. I had to make sense of all this hate and violence. Why? Why? Why?
Then Katrina hit…
And I slid into a long existential depression…functional…but…crushing.
Many of these bouts begin with anger – a righteous indignation over some horrible injustice. Since the anger is futile and targeted at things I cannot control, the anger turns inward and becomes depression.
I knew I couldn’t change history or end the crime epidemic in South Africa. I knew I couldn’t change the fact that Katrina wiped out New Orleans and dozens of other cities. But I couldn’t deal with the unfairness of this all. I couldn’t understand how my life… my family’s life… my neighbors lives… could be so good… unaffected by these tragedies. I felt tremendous guilt for having it so good, while people were being raped, burned, and drowned. Life seemed meaningless in the face of injustice.
When I try to share my thoughts with someone else, and they recoil in horror, wanting nothing to do with it, it drives the depression even deeper. All my life I’ve gotten responses like… “Why do you think about that shit? Please Stop.” or… “Quit being all philosophical and pass me a beer.”
Eventually I get past an episode, and I don’t know how, except it’s a bit like grieving, I just have to give it time. Today, I try to avoid the news because it is a potential trigger.
I realize almost everyone feels bad for victims of violence and disaster, and I’m not saying that I feel worse than anyone else. I’m just saying that I have repeated this cycle since I was five years old and I haven’t found a way to end it. I’ve dug myself into deep emotional holes over things I can’t control.
Why sit around vomiting over South Africa? I can’t fix it. The people that live there can’t fix it… they would if they could, and I pray they find a way.
Maybe if I just accept who I am – both the positive and the negative – and that these cycles will be part of my existence – it will help. I’ve discovered that if I focus directly on my pain (both emotional and physical), instead of trying to avoid it or deny it, it doesn’t hurt as bad and I recover quicker.
I am quite lucky because my episodes are mildly debilitating. Unlike many others, I can get out of bed, show up to work, and get things done. In fact when I am in a depressed state I can be a much better problem solver… or problem identifier…or opportunity catcher…whatever you want to call spotting negative shit. But depression kills my positivity and it will show in my posts… from time to time.