“It could well be said that we all live pretty well in one great heap, all of us, differentiated as we otherwise are by the countless and profound variations that have developed over time. All in one heap! Something urgent drives us together, and nothing can prevent us from satisfying its urging. All our laws and institutions, the few I still remember and the countless I have forgotten, go back to the greatest joy that we are capable of, the warmth of togetherness.”Kafka, Investigations of a Dog
When I’m depressed, it helps me to write things down. While I’m thinking in scattershot, I can take notes, get them on paper, and then rearrange them to make more sense in a better moment. The act of writing brings clarity. It shines light. It provides exposure.
It’s a catch-22, though.
When I’m depressed, I often go to write down a thought and forget it before I can open my notes. They come to me right as I’ve found a comfortable position for sleep, or just after getting into the shower, or in the middle of a run, or during my commute. I don’t choose when to think.
But maybe that’s not quite true. Maybe there’s a pattern.
When I shut down my computer at the end of the night and the whirr of the cooling fans fades away. When I leave work and escape from Slack notifications and the music I use to cancel out office chatter. When I’m sitting in the waiting room getting ready for therapy. When it’s quiet and I’m removed from distractions, self-prescribed or otherwise. That’s when I ponder.
I wonder if my notes are too often out of reach.
I’ll use the Notes app on my phone most often. I have a legal pad that I use as a thought journal for therapy. I still carry a Moleskine in my back pocket, something my first creative writing professor taught me to do — I use that one the least. Sometimes I tweet. Maybe I should take voice memos when I’m driving. I could even save water if I hurried out of the shower.
“Write a blog post this weekend” has somehow turned into “Have a series of impromptu naps this weekend, interspersed by the writing of a few wobbly and unconnected paragraphs”— Tom Freeman (@SnoozeInBrief) July 28, 2019
I’ve been thinking about writing this, this update post, for weeks now, and I’ve been waiting for the thoughts to cohere into anything substantive. It doesn’t feel right to wait on it, though. Waiting and writing don’t go together, despite how much I try to force them. It’s been too long since I delivered a good heap anyway, so here goes.
I went on another trip at the end of May. I visited two Manchesters — one in Connecticut, one in England. I stopped in London and Birmingham, both of those in the UK, too. When you travel abroad, everyone asks what you’re going to see, but it’s not about the What for me. I go to see people, not places. My people.
They’re a menagerie of creatures of the internet, like me, assembled over the years during which I’ve inhabited a society apart. In our time and space, you can make deep connections with people that you never could have met before, not without the world online. They would have existed in a sphere completely removed from yours by infinite degrees of separation. It’s so far beyond sonder — these people might as well be aliens, a hypothetical answer to the Fermi paradox.
And yet they exist, and in this ecosystem, through these mediums, we can commune.
But the internet wasn’t meant to be our home. We can’t actually live here. We can’t actually be together. We cannot sate our contact starvation in a realm where we float, as ether, instead of walking.
So I travel to England, and I feel richer for it, wealthier in spirit and fuller in heart.
Can you remember the last time you were called by a name you chose? When was the last time you hugged someone and then lifted them up off the ground, or at least tried to? Do you recall the last time you had a conversation that left you breathless?
There’s a level of connection that comes from feeling completely comfortable in a given space, one that lets you be at ease and open. It’s one that makes me say “Oh, this is how it feels to like who I’m with, and to feel liked, and to feel like I like myself.”
I seldom feel like I reach that level, and I get discouraged because there isn’t more of it in my life. Instead, I’m often left feeling like I did after getting drinks with a guy last fall.
He had DM’d me on Twitter after meeting me briefly at the LGBT Center Gala. He had also sent me a friend request on Facebook, which I hadn’t deleted at that point. This set off anxiety-flavored alarm bells. “What did I say to this guy that caused him to track down all my social media? Does he want to date me? He probably wants to date me. This is awkward, I don’t want to date him, he barely left an impression. I hardly even have other gay friends here, I can’t date anyone.”
(I later found out he was referred to my social media through someone who I hadn’t realized was a mutual friend. Innocent enough, but that person didn’t know the effect it would have on me.)
These are automatic thoughts. They happen a lot when I get anxious, and they have been known to cause paralysis. I talked the situation over with my therapist and also with some friends. What was the worst that could happen? I’d tell him I wasn’t interested and move on.
It turns out he was indeed interested in me. He thought I was cute! That’s always nice. He was very nice. He wondered why I was at the Gala alone. It’s because I got a free seat at someone’s table but my closest friend from volunteering had just moved to Philadelphia.
We were talking, and we sort of ran through the script. We talked about work, we spoke about where we went to school, we exchanged our gay origin stories. It was cordial, a full conversation.
When you’re talking to someone new, you inevitably have to talk about What You Do In Your Free Time. I’m something of an expert in free time, and so I said, “Well, I tend to play a lot of video games.”
Nothing. Zero response. Not even a change in facial expression.
“…and I like to go see movies with friends.” I don’t remember what else I said. Anything to pass the mic. I’ll stress again that he was really nice and easy enough to talk to. He wanted to make a thing out of it, though, and I told him I wasn’t looking for any sort of relationship right now. We paid for our drinks soon after and walked off in different directions.
That one moment had stuck in my craw, though.
When I tell people that games are my principal hobby, I expect the response to fall into two categories. Either “Oh, really? What’s the deal with Fortnite?” (I don’t play games, but I know of them and might even know someone that plays them), or “Oh, really? Man I used to love playing Goldeneye” (I used to play games, but for any number of valid reasons I choose to spend my time doing other things now).
No response is inconceivable, though. Nothing? Nothing? We can’t even have a conversation about this? The road leads no further. Welcome to the foyer of my soul. You’ll be here for quite a while.
I feel like I would have made a decent goth— William Heathcote (@subjunctivitis) November 28, 2018
A pause. Exhale.
I can be dramatic. There’s more to me than games. I have more depth, and I believe my friends would tell you that. But it’s one of the better ways to get me to open up. When I’m not playing games, I’m watching videos about games or of people playing games. I’m reading about games. I’m listening to podcasts about games. I’m thinking about a game I just finished or one that I might pick up next.
If you really want to hear me talk, ask me what I’m playing right now.
This is a wildly self-absorbed tangent (on a wildly self-absorbed blog), but the point I want to make is that I don’t have much luck finding new people who I mesh well with. It’s more frustrating that I should feel I need to. After all, I already have friends. Great ones.
They just aren’t here.
After I got back from the UK, I was riding a contact high for about a week before the feelings of detachment set in. I went from thinking “That was great!” to “That wasn’t enough.” And to an extent, that’s vacations and the burn of re-entry. There’s a difference between taking a vacation to get away and taking a vacation to be somewhere, though. Both are a matter of wellbeing, but the latter is purposeful.
And three weeks of paid time off for a 52-week year isn’t enough. We don’t give ourselves enough. There’s a sickness to the way we assign values and numbers to things that just doesn’t add up. I’m not a math person, but I can tell you how it feels to be part of the equation. This is to say nothing of people who are even less privileged, here and elsewhere.
It was also the Friday after I got back that I had a meeting at work. We were talking about a couple of responsibilities that were being passed from our team’s project manager to myself and my colleague, and after only a few minutes of looking at Asana (our productivity software), I felt like I was leagues away. Words were being spoken, but it was as if the speaker was trying to shout over a howling gale.
I should back up and explain what I do.
I can’t save every client from using ampersands in their branding, but I try my best.— William Heathcote (@subjunctivitis) June 19, 2019
My job title is Senior Content Editor and I work at a digital marketing company. We do Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), primarily for car dealerships but also for a handful of small businesses. We’ve got some other services, but those are the big ones. My role places me in the SEO Strategy department where I am responsible for editing copy — a majority of which we outsource to freelance writers — and facilitating a number of other tasks, which just means making sure they get done. I report to the director of our department, and I work closely with another Content Editor. I get a “Senior” in front of my title not because I do more than him but because I’ve been at the company longer.
Lately, I’ve been struggling to apply my strengths to my job. I don’t really do that much editing on a day-to-day basis. Most of what I do would better be described as proofreading. Copy comes to me, and I make sure it passes our threshold for quality, a threshold that is elastic based on time and workload. When there’s more to get through, I spend less time on each piece. When there’s less to go over, I can spend more time. But the end result doesn’t vary nearly as much. SEO content is a component of the actual value we provide to our clients, which is increased web traffic, which can translate to more leads. As long as they get more web traffic, a majority of our clients don’t look at or particularly care very much about the content we produce for them.
All that is to say I’m not getting much feedback on my work as an editor, so I wind up having days where I wonder if the work I’m doing is even any good. Have I gotten better? Have I grown at all? I don’t know. I’ve never had formal training as an editor. I’m in this position based on experience, but I’m not sure what else I’m taking away from it.
It feels like I’ve reached a plateau at my company where the only way I can become more valuable is by managing people. I’m capable of doing that, but my brain on depression hears that you want me to manage people and it turns the radio receiver off. Part of it is just what the company is equipped to do. There are plenty of people who can impart managerial training, and they’ve even brought in a consultant to hone our Leadership Skills. No one there can teach me how to create more effective content or help me improve as an editor, though. And there’s no indication that’s even a priority. I work in an industry where words will never be as important as numbers, and that’s something I have to reckon with.
Nothing about my career path is intentional, either. I studied history, I minored in creative writing. I graduated with skills in reading, writing, and doing research. I was good at school, but not a great student, so I didn’t form many lasting relationships with teachers, and I didn’t succeed in finding a subject matter that provoked or astonished me. After graduation and an extended summer abroad, I returned home and applied for entry-level positions that had anything to do with writing. I took the first offer I got. Five years later, here I am.
My boss knows all of this. She’s receptive to my Darkness whenever it comes up in our one-on-one meetings, and I believe she wants to help. I don’t make it easy, though.
What I’m aware of is that a lot of these feelings are utterly normal. No one has it figured out when they’re in their late twenties. Most people don’t have a step by step plan for their careers, let alone their lives. Nobody has all the answers.
They have a vision, though. They can conceive of a future for themselves, something they are working toward based on a connection to their emotions and values. That’s a connection I lack.
The other day, a friend was telling me, unbidden, about all the things he wants to do with his life. He wants to create a scholarship for the kind of master’s program he went through. He wants to mentor people in the way he has been mentored. He wants to be able to dote on his friends. It was off the cuff, but it had all been thought out. Maybe it was the first time he had shared that vision with someone else, but it wasn’t the first time he had said it to himself.
When I close my eyes and think of where I want to be in five or ten years, nothing comes to mind. I’ve tried to do it, at therapy, at work, in casual conversation, and if I say anything, it always feels like I’m making it up on the spot. It doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere. There’s a yawning gap between reality-as-is and reality-as-I-wish-it-to-be, and depression has robbed me of the depth perception required to judge that distance.
Strong emotions don’t stick with me. They don’t have a lasting effect. It takes me time to summon memories of pure joy, much less sustained anger or true sadness. As a result, actions and interactions don’t feel like they mean very much. I miss clues, the signposts that would point me in the right direction. Any direction.
“Hey, what about that trip you went on, the one you were just talking about? That sounds like it made you happy.”
Yeah, that’s true. A recent example, but I’ll give it to you.
The thing is, I was feeling pretty good before and during my vacation. There were things I was anxious about, but anxiety is one thing therapy and running have helped me the most with. I feel like I have strategies to deal with that. I can recognize automatic thoughts, confront them, and ultimately dismiss them. And if I can’t quite contain it myself, then I have 45 minutes of therapy every two weeks where I can sit down and talk things through with someone who can lead me out of the woods.
Before, I’d fall into depression after periods where my anxiety ran wild, so overall I have been less depressed in the past year and a half.
Yet it’s still there, a lurking shadow. Depression is an ontological predator. It is a dragon shaped like whatever you think a dragon is shaped like. Whatever form is most appropriate for your downfall. There are times like now when it just descends upon me and feeds.
Perpetual Path of Least Resistance
So, what else?
The state of the world has not had much of an effect on me lately, not because things are going well — you don’t need me to tell you that they aren’t — but because I avoid interfacing with them. I can’t handle those things right now. I can’t be mustered to show the requisite outrage at the news of the day.
“Democrats not good enough.”
“Concentration camps inhumanly cruel.”
“Supreme court despair.”
“War with Iran very very bad.”
Ooga booga politics. I’m not going to spell it out. The problems are glaring and the solutions come with an election that is still more than a year from now, and even then the courts are lost for a generation or until there is meaningful constitutional reform.
So I set it all aside. I limit my exposure to present politics to twice a day. I get an email in the morning from Popular Information, a newsletter that does a deep dive on one or two issues. It’s specifically written to ignore the chaff making up most of the news, aiming instead for the most important details you need as a citizen and voter.
Then in the afternoon, I get another newsletter called WTF Just Happened Today? That one is just supposed to aggregate the top news stories of the day specifically focusing on the current administration. It was started so that nothing would slip by during the initial firehose of awful that was the first 100 days of this presidency, and it’s carried on as a dragnet. At this point, I only read the summary at the top of the email to maintain a general awareness of what’s going on. If something seems urgent, I’ll look further into it.
The rest I try to scroll past as I see it. It is a privilege to be able to do that, but while I’m trying to get a handle on myself, it passes through.
I’m still volunteering at the LGBT Center of Raleigh. I even served on the Planning Committee for Out! Raleigh this year, our annual street festival. In the lead-up, I wrote some copy for the event’s social media and website. I didn’t have a very defined role on the day of, but I wandered around and put out small fires. In years past, I’ve wound up stuck at drink stations serving beer, so it was nice to be able to walk the street and see more of the festival. I helped break everything down afterward, too, which was more exciting than it should have been — a sudden storm rolled through as we were packing up barricades. It was a long and fulfilling day, and it was nice to have some deeper involvement to put my mind to for the first several months of the year.
Even so, volunteering hasn’t directly translated to new friendships. I spend one night a week at the Center and get to talk to one other volunteer during that time. It might be the same volunteer for a few weeks in a row, or it might be five different volunteers throughout a month. I’ve gotten to know the staff reasonably well, and I think they appreciate the consistency I bring to my commitment. Members of the community hang out at the center every so often, but my nights are quiet more often than not.
In two and a half years of volunteering, I’ve come to realize the Center doesn’t necessarily serve people in my social circle. We have powerful programs that serve elders and trans people in our community, and equally strong initiatives for youth. But the late-twenties gay guy doesn’t usually show up.
I tend to assume I’m not doing enough. Either I could go to more events, or I could make myself more open to a less homogenized friend group, or both, or something else. I don’t think about it in the moment, though. It feels good to volunteer. It feels good to be in that space. I don’t need more from it. I don’t intend to stop.
The rest passes through.
Maybe it’s Raleigh.
Several year’s back, I was talking to a friend that was visiting, and he remarked at the strange aura this place has. It’s hard to notice if you’re from here, and I’ve since found it hard to put a finger on what makes Raleigh odd. Maybe it’s that it feels like either a giant suburb or a giant strip mall depending on where you are with very little in between. That little in between is downtown, which is great in a lot of ways but feels somewhat inaccessible for some reason. I drive there every day for work, but once the sun goes down I don’t know my way around it anymore.
What is the spirit of this town? What is its identity? What does Raleigh want?
It has a reputation as one of the fastest growing places in the country, yet a lot of my experience with Raleigh is of people leaving. My friends and the people I care about depart one after another, all drawn away by opportunities, by other people, or by a wherewithal to get out. Raleigh is safe. Raleigh is home. But it’s one big comfort zone, and aren’t you supposed to leave those from time to time?
I think about what it would be like to leave, to live somewhere else. When I’m traveling, I wonder what it would be like to have to explore a new place that I wasn’t just visiting. All that silent cartography that happens when you inhabit somewhere — how well would that work if I was actively mapping out new desire paths across an unfamiliar terrain?
I can’t see the way there, though.
It goes back to not knowing what the next step is for me job-wise. How can I get out of this field when I haven’t acquired any skills or knowledge that would allow me to do so? How can I begin to look for another job when I don’t know what kind of job I want?
It goes back to having friends all over the place, but not having a lot of friends in one place. What would happen if I moved somewhere to be closer to one friend only to make the wrong choice? What if they then left that place?
It goes back to complacency. Raleigh is fine. The worst thing about it is that it’s familiar.
These concerns pass through, too.
Depression is tantamount to a state of permeability. People. Words. Thoughts. Emotion. Motivation. Light. Sound. Oxygen. Everything passes through me. All experience is negated.
I feel adrift. I feel unmoored. I feel like I am floating through life.
I have days where if I stop and focus, I barely feel a thing — the sensation of detachment returns, of being far away. If I don’t stop, I wake up, blink, and the day might be over. Without examination, several days pass through in an instant.
I could be fooling myself, saying that it all passes through. If that were the case, where would these episodes come from? How else could I rummage through all this mental detritus?
Perhaps it is more like semipermeability. Things pass through me, but traces of those things get left within, like sediment collected in a sifter. It all piles up. It heaps.
When I began working on this piece earlier this month, I was firmly in the clutches of the beast, but I’ve felt better in recent days. One of my favorite bands surprised me by releasing a new album. I’ve gotten into watching Kaizo Mario speedruns, which are ripe for laughter. I’ve been replaying Hollow Knight, one of my favorite games from the past few years, and I finished Outer Wilds, one of the best adventure games I’ll ever play. And I’ve been listening to some good podcasts — in particular, this episode of Waypoint Radio where they do a video game franchise draft was a hoot.
These things have done a good job pulling me out of my own head, and that contributes to my better spirits. But while I might feel better, nothing has actually changed. It feels more as though the black dog has backed off on its own. That’s pretty normal in my experience. Depression comes and goes, and I don’t get much of a say as to its coming and going.
Me: I actually don’t have anything to talk about in therapy today— Sam Reece (@SamanthaaaReece) July 16, 2019
Much as I welcome its exodus, it’s made it difficult to come to a conclusion here. I’m in the middle of describing the felt experience of depression and the disease just up and leaves. The nerve.
(This is not to say it was easier writing while in the throes of it. They are stubborn throes, after all. But having access to a difficult interview subject is more productive than not having access. Nothing about this is easy is what I’m trying to say. It does not flow.)
I’ve had doubts cropping up as I reckon with what I’ve written, doubts that would send me into a death spiral that ends with a deleted draft if left unchecked.
Do I edit out the part where I complain about a guy who doesn’t want to talk to me about my hobby? It makes me look pretty one-dimensional when I recount it the way I did, makes it look like I depend on that as a substitute for a personality. I just read over it again, and my retelling comes across as dismissive (Don’t scroll up, you’ve already come so far). I might be pilloried for it. I might deserve to be. Would it be more flattering to summarize it in a different way or to omit the whole encounter in favor of some other anecdote? But that’s how I felt in the moment. That was the comedown for me. I came home after that and got on my PlayStation and told a friend all about it, and the friend agreed with me. It was validating, and isn’t a place of vulnerability the best vantage for inner interrogation?
What about the parts where I talk about my job? My boss has told me she would like to read this — what if I said something here that I hadn’t actually made clear in my talks with her? I’m also not even as upset about it as I was when fell into the hole. Where did that dissatisfaction and ennui go? It must be nice to have feelings with a semblance of consistency.
Does talking about how I can’t look at the news make me look like a hypocrite based on how much I’ve professed to care about it in the past? Do I do the bare minimum as a volunteer in order to feel better about myself? I’ve been running less often and I’m not avoiding sugar or processed foods as much, am I losing my resolve? Does—
Am I behind? Am I being left—
Am I falling behind? Am I missing something? Am I running out of—
Am I out of time? Have I just missed everything? Am I getting too—
Am I a bad gay?
this isn’t worth it, it doesn’t work, it’s not working
What do I want? Why don’t I know what I want? What should I want? Where—
shut up, just
Where should I be going? Where am I supposed to be? What am I doing? Why—
it’s easier to just shut up, just delete it all and
Am I just bad at this? This is garbage, why is it so bad? How can I be so—
I often don’t feel like I’m any good at being myself, or I doubt if the self that I am is any good. That all sounds like anxiety talking, and this piece is about depression, but there’s a border dispute between their territories and they are a wicked tag team. I second guess myself, and compare myself to others, and project, and catastrophize, and that is the daily gauntlet of anxiety that I contend with, and that I have worked to deal with over the past year. Certain thoughts are intruders. They’re in my head, but they don’t belong to me.
The distinct feeling of incompetence that comes with depression is more embarrassing than even that.
“I didn’t make plans this weekend because I didn’t feel like it, and I also don’t really have the kind of local friends that I see on a regular basis.”
“I’m still at my job that I haven’t enjoyed in a while, and I haven’t made any effort to look for a different one because I have no idea what else I would do. I come home every day without any energy to even imagine other opportunities. Also I’ve never known what I wanted to be. I don’t remember having a dream or any real ambition.”
“Sorry we haven’t talked in a while. I didn’t really know how to reach out to you, and I wasn’t sure you would want to talk to me — I don’t want to bore you.”
“I’m doing ok. I have a job that isn’t terrible. I’m physically fit and healthy. I live in a place that is welcoming and safe. I’m not even in debt. I lead an altogether privileged existence. What do I have to be depressed about?”
You know how sitting in a warm room makes you feel tired? Depression feels like that all the time, and you know that other people have got up and left the room because they found the heat unbearable, but you just sit there and wait instead of following them. You wait because, well, maybe they’ll come back of their own accord. But mostly you wait because you’re tired.
It often feels like waiting, but I don’t remember why I’m waiting, or what I’m waiting for. No one told me to wait. No one said to hold out and look to the east at first light on the fifth day. It’s been a lot longer than that anyway.
It’s like waiting on a train platform and looking in the direction opposite from which the train will arrive. Maybe I already missed the train I was supposed to be on. Maybe I should get on another train. Any train will do. My ears don’t know how to hear the whistle. My feet can’t feel the approaching rumble. I am waiting for that gust of wind that comes off the carriages as they speed by, but it doesn’t come.
I’m not on a train platform. I’m in bed. It’s 3:00 a.m. and I am considering all the decisions that brought me to this point.
I haven’t settled on a metaphor for depression, and that’s on purpose. It feels a little different, sometimes by the day, sometimes by the season. It descends suddenly or creeps in gradually. It is unique for each person beyond the broad symptoms. I’ve tried to describe it in as many ways as I can — without peppering in jargon like anhedonia — because I want this to be useful.
There are people who still cannot perceive depression. They might know the definition, or they may have looked it up in the DSM-IV, and they probably know someone who is depressed. They get that it isn’t just “being really sad.” But knowing what depression is and knowing how it feels aren’t the same, which can make explaining it feel futile.
If there’s one thing you should understand, know that depression is. It is a constant that can’t be solved for. I can manage it, but I can’t make it go away. Not yet.
Ok, one more. You know when you check the weather before you leave for the day, and it says there’s a 50% chance of rain, so you take a raincoat or an umbrella with you? Maybe it’s a higher chance than that, so you even put on rain boots. Well, sometimes it doesn’t rain. Sometimes you’re stuck carrying the raincoat under your arm, or you’ve got the umbrella dangling from your wrist. You knew you had to bring it, just in case, but you didn’t end up needing it, and now you feel inconvenienced by your own precaution. That’s depression. Carrying stuff around that you don’t need.
I Entreat Ye
Attempting to describe depression has taken up the bulk of this piece. I haven’t done any editing for length, and I haven’t killed many darlings. I’ve had to remind myself several times that this is just a blog post. I wanted to give an update on where I am in my journey, and I’ve done that. Now I would like to ask you about yours.
I don’t know what I want. I don’t know where I’m going. It is unclear to what I extent I even know myself. My attempts at self-spelunking often come up empty.
Something that might guide me is hearing how other people figured out what they want out of life, or listening to them talk about how they wound up where they are. Do you feel like you know your purpose? I’d like to hear about that.
I’ll also ask you to tell me what you think I’m good at. What do you notice about me?
Maybe you aren’t there yet. Maybe you’re a work in progress, too. Maybe you feel like I do. I think if any of this resonates with you in that way, you should strongly consider speaking to a therapist. I can’t understate the extent to which I believe most people would benefit from talking to one.
We’ve all got to get through this, one way or another. All of us, together. All in one heap.