When I had clinical depression my daily life was dominated by a pervasive feeling of pointlessness. It was all-consuming, terrifying and nearly destroyed me, but I coped because I saw it simply as a symptom of an illness which I expected to completely disappear when I got better. Except it hasn’t.
While these days not every waking moment is punctuated with the feeling that we’re all just pointlessly spinning into the abyss, neither do I wake brimming with a deep sense of purpose each day, or, to be honest, any understanding of the point of my earthly existence. Was I naive to assume that once the mists of mental illness cleared my path through life would become clear and abundant with meaning?
Deciding whether or not there’s any point in going to the cinema/bowling/leaving the house at all doesn’t catapault me into an existential crisis anymore, and I can’t express how happy I am to no longer have that devil clinging to my back – but I guess I’m a little disappointed that my brave new depression-free world isn’t as simple as I’d hoped. It turns out you actually have to work at creating meaning within your life, it doesn’t just gently drop into your lap like a whisp of dandelion fluff on a summer’s day.
I’m not religious but I’ve always envied the way faith provides comforting, iron-cast answers to the big questions – proffering meaning and purpose in the face of the worst kinds of abject cruelty and indiscriminate destruction existing in our world. One of my good friends from University is a devout Christian and she has mental grit and inner strength to rival a she-bear. But, alas, the God thing’s just never held water with me – so I have to place my faith elsewhere.
One thing I am getting to grips with pretty successfully in these halcyon days of better health is an ability to shake off any anxiety arising from these thoughts about why we’re all here and what on earth we’re doing. These moments of philosophical meandering rarely reach any sensible conclusion, and that’s alright. My life is pretty great in the present – and as long as I’m appreciating it in the here and now, moment to moment, it doesn’t really matter too much what it’s all about.
Is the way to avoid terminal angst over the meaning of life just to accept that there isn’t one – we’re all just floating in the void, and it’s time to get OK with that? Perhaps. Or maybe the key lies in just not caring too much either way. Now the black dog isn’t constantly snapping at my heels I can usually get through the day without some sort of hysterical crisis over what the point of my daily activities are, and maybe that’s enough for me.
On the dangers of wading into the murky waters of philosophy, my dear old Dad once quipped: “Aristotle spent all day pondering life, death and the universe but I bet he didn’t let any of it put him off his tea.”
He was of course right, but I was in the throes of severe depression at the time and couldn’t even cope with the basic tenets of existence. Try talking to me about the infinite nature of the cosmos and you would have had the misfortune of witnessing my brain cave in on itself.
I did a joint degree in English literature and Philosophy and spent many an hour debating the deep questions of the universe with my fellow students and teachers. Why were we here? What happens when we die? How can we know we’re not just dreaming? If a tree falls in the forest and the only one to hear it is a lonely stoat, did it really happen? It was scintillating, wonderful and generally a weird experience but that’s why we all loved it so much. After all as the man Socrates said himself, a life unexamined isn’t one worth living, and if we’d examined our space in the world any harder we might have rubbed it out entirely.
So it’s safe to say I was comfortable navigating the Big Questions. Until severe depression arrived at my door a couple of years ago. The sheer vastness of the universe terrified me, I simply couldn’t handle the fact that one day everyone I loved would perish and my fear of the unknown threatened to consume me. I can vividly recall a conversation with my brother about the possibility that nothing was real and we were all living in the matrix. It suffices to say his response that it would be ‘awesome because we’d get to wear capes and jump about like Keanu Reeves’ didn’t lift my spirits. I then went on to ask what would happen if I went blind, then deaf, then somehow lost my arms and legs…and he slapped me upside my head. And I deserved it.
Because that’s what depression does – it makes you project all sorts of potential terrible situations and fixate on them until you’re so far gone you’re scared of a bowl of porridge. Rational thought leaves the building. I remember being terrified every time the phone rang because I assumed someone had died. The telephone handset, to me, was a doomed harbinger of all kinds of awful news. I had absolutely no reason to feel like this, it was just my warped, poorly brain telling me to fear the worst in everything around me.
I can happily chat about philosophy now. Of course there are still things that frighten me, I’m vulnerable as every other human being on the planet is vulnerable. Life can be difficult. But my less depressed brain is much better placed to cope with what the world throws at me, and I’m aware that when things get tough I’ll probably have at least most of my arms and legs to help me get through it.