Happiness, Lost and Found.
The depressed person is pictured in a scheme of blue and gray, a hunched, scowling figure, dressed in black.
The depressed person is never recognized laughing, standing in sunshine. The actions of happiness are a performance that conceals the depressed person’s identity. Instead of sadness, their depression may simply hang as a dull, thick fog, deafening sound, blurring sight, cutting off all senses.
Diagnosing Major Depressive Disorder is almost a relief. Everything seems confirmed, and the depressed person has a name. She is The Depressed Person.
In some ways, it’s like entering the cloister, donning the habit, spending time in contemplation and mortification, and receiving a new name. Contemplation is personal, and the cloister is hidden, and seeking happiness again is a barely communicable interior journey.
As a child, I grew up on fairy tales and legends. There is always a moment where the heroes must go on a journey. They seek safety, Holy Grails, magical objects, the place east of the sun and west of the moon. It’s the basic structure of so many stories, the building blocks of how we make sense of the world. There is that moment where everything changes.
When teaching creative writing classes, there’s a handy mountain diagram, showing how the story began at a plateau and lifts with rising action, until eventually reaching the climax and the downward slope of denouement.
The terms of story structure and storytelling become real-life shorthand for the bookish. For example, there is deixis: this, that, these, now, then, and here — words that point like a finger to some important information.
This is where the depressed person grabs at metaphors to explain how she feels.
This is how the depressed person came to find a journey to seek the enchanted object, on the path through the dark woods.
In the fairy tales, the hero begins her quest alone. In literature, the moment where everything changes might be as personal as noticing a particular smell, turning the wrong corner, speaking to a stranger. The same is true in religion. Muhammad received his revelation in a cave. Moses saw the burning bush in the desert. The angel visits Mary alone, and comes to Joseph in the privacy of a dream.
Thinkers of many religions and traditions went into the wilderness to seek revelation. The path of archetypal heroes goes through the dark woods.
An illness that occurs in the mind is deeply personal, as is the navigation of the dark woods. It can be easy to simply curl up and allow the darkness to grow deeper, until the way out is a distant memory, and then vanishes altogether. After all, it may be even darker without the woods, and one never knows what may lie ahead. But you have to keep moving, because what you are searching for is so precious.
In the end is happiness.
This is the goal the depressed brain has to keep in mind.
How does one define something we only notice in absence? Depression leaves us in the dark woods without a map. The key, however, is that the depressed person has been there before, and all she wants is to go home, if only she could remember it.
Happiness is a subject covered by great thinkers, religions, and philosophies since antiquity. The Epicurean idea is entirely based on finding happiness. They set upon living a simple life with a community of friends. Depression does not like friendship. Friendship makes the journey through the dark woods easier, and the woods are lonely. Depression is a jealous illness, and it wants the Depressed Person alone.
However, once in the dark woods, finding companions is suddenly difficult. The act of happiness, miming everything one can remember of the time before, is exhausting. The smiles, the conversation, and the laughter, it is like shouting from a distance. It can feel impossible to make connections.
How can someone befriend an act, after all? It’s like falling in love with a character in a play, forgetting the actor behind the mask.
Before anyone can find friendship, they must be seen for who they are. No one can be friends with a shadow, a mask, or a performance. They will only love what they see, and not the human beneath, and the friendship will not be real. They will be like strangers calling to one another through the woods, never truly meeting, lost in echoes.
In the story of Pygmalion, the hero falls in love with a statue, and wastes away until the goddess transforms the statue into a human woman. He cannot befriend the image of humanity, no matter how perfect she may be. Friendship requires a connection between living beings that see each other, and not images of perfection.
Unlike the stereotype of the Depressed Person, depression has many forms. Many depressed people are perfectionists, trying to appear not merely stable, but thriving, succeeding, despite never feeling as though they thrive and succeed.
In that sense, we are perfect human statues, beautiful and unreal. Beneath these sculptural casts are soft, human forms, flawed, frightened, and hidden. Because of this, the depressed person must first find and know herself.
Knowledge is often held as a part of happiness. The Muslim philosopher and mystic, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, held that knowledge, of the self, of God, of the world, and of the spiritual realm, were necessary components of happiness. In Norse tales, Odin, the one-eyed father god, hangs himself from a tree to gain knowledge from suffering and isolation. Aristotle, likewise, prescribed studying reason and virtue.
Plato’s call to contemplate The Good is an exploration of the Universe and the self.
In The Republic, Plato describes figures living chained in a cave, seeing only shadows, which he used as a metaphor for human perception. The Depressed Person lives in her own cave, and sees only shadows of life, shadows of connection and love, shadows of happiness and engagement, until she is able to turn away and look to the light.
Knowing one’s self is no less difficult than gaining knowledge of the world. In many ways, humanity has great understanding of our world, of species deep in the sea and of subatomic particles, and yet much of the mind is mysterious. Even the causes, treatment, and explanations for depression are debated and uncertain, as well as what value there may be in the depressed mind.
Does the depressed mind have its own virtue? We do not know ourselves.
Many religious figures sought solace in the wilderness. Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the desert. Gautama Buddha studied meditation with hermits. Saint Benedict lived as a hermit before instating his monostatic rule. There is a long tradition of turning to the wilderness to find wisdom.
When I was an undergraduate, my depression took over my life. One day, I realized that it had been months since I had felt anything close to real emotion, let alone happiness. In the therapist’s office at my college, I answered all questions the same way, “I don’t know.”
What would make me happy? I don’t know. Who was I? I don’t know. What did I want to do with my life? I don’t know.
What I did know, however, was gleaned from a lifetime of loving nature, of hiking in the Oregon woods and the Ohio Appalachians.
“I want to go to the woods,” I said. It was all I knew.
After graduation, I lived in a campground in Alaska, working at a lodge, and spending my days on trails. In the wilderness, I felt small, not small from shame, but small physically. I began to feel the vastness of land and sky.
There is something about remoteness, something about standing alone on the top of a mountain, or having a moment of eye-to-eye contact with a wild creature whose animus is so radically different and yet so hauntingly similar to our own. It is a moment of feeling connected to a web of reality, and seeing from many different angles, like the multi-panned vision of the fly.
It contains knowledge of the world, of land as it is and land as it is modified and changed. It contains an understanding of self.
How far can one walk in a day? How many footfalls does it take to reach a summit, and how long can one hold a breath underwater? In silence, how many ideas rise to the top of the mind, how many longings, and how many questions? How many breaths does it take to finish a trail? How many seconds does it day to finish a thought?
There are times when I have not been able to go into the wilderness, and times when I can run away to remote islands or vanish into mountains and forests. However, the wild is not truly Out There. This was also something that became clear after going to see wildness.
Wildness can be present and yet un-accessed, in even the most remote locations, drowned in alcohol, blocked out by noise, cut apart into segmented social hierarchies and cliques, and fractured into a series of social media posts.
Whereas, wild can be accessed in any city or a town, in the colors changing in the leaves of a tree, in a hawk nesting on a bridge, in a fox raising kits under a building’s foundation, in wildflowers pressing for life between sidewalk cracks, and in silence inside, walking through the dark forest in the mind.
St. John of the Cross, the author of the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul”, wrote about finding a beloved in the night, in an interior garden. He wrote this while imprisoned in a closet-like cell. He was physically cut off from anything resembling the garden of his poetry. But, it was in this darkness that he found the garden inside, the night a guide brighter than the sun.
There are many ways to find the wilderness and to seek solitude. It can come even in a busy workplace, with the noticing of a ray of light in a window, a sparrow on a branch, the quiet moment of stilling the breath.
This is simply being in the moment, a difficulty for the Depressed Person, whose very condition thrives in multiplicity, anguishing over the past, fearing the future, and imagines so many possible variations on the present. The day-to-day reality of existing is secondary to a myriad abstractions.
One of the great misconceptions in society is that happiness is essentially separate from suffering. To seek happiness simply becomes an exercise in avoiding discomfort. All the while, the world parades products to remove discomfort. Happiness, they promise, can be attained after the fixing is complete.
For most people, however, suffering cannot be purchased away. A frightening health diagnosis, a lost pregnancy, the death of a loved one, or another great loss cannot be easily solved. The everyday struggles of financial duress, anxiety, the loss of friendships and lovers, these too cannot simply be removed.
For the Depressed Person, there is no excision of the chemical imbalance inside our brains and no recovery date. Suffering, whether internal or external, cannot be excluded from life.
Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist. He wrote extensively on meaning and happiness, and developed a theory of this pursuit of meaning, logotherapy. He was a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School, and held both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in his fields. And, during World War II, he was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau.
Frankl saw some of the worst suffering in human history, and acts of cruelty that register as unimaginable to those of us whose experiences are removed by time.
The existence of suffering was inescapable for Frankl and the millions of others who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the Holocaust. One might imagine that a man whose study was the human mind would turn to the subject of evil. However, Frankl’s work explored not despair but meaning. Suffering, yes, is inescapable; happiness, nevertheless, remains possible.
Even hand in hand with suffering, there is always the chance for happiness.
Most people will never experience anything like Frankl’s internment in the Nazi concentration camps. However, our daily wounds, left unhealed, can sometimes become so enormous as to block out any sense of joy in our lives. How can I feel joy when I have been rejected, insulted, alienated, and abandoned? How can I feel happiness when I have failed and disappointment myself and others?
It is a perverse sense of duty, as though to experience joy is to deny that suffering happened, or to abandon our hurt selves without seeking some sense of justice or retribution.
Perception is difficult for the senses.
When walking the Grand Canyon Rim, for example, sometimes the view seems as unreal as a matte painting. The ten-mile distance and vertical mile drop, bathed in a colorful haze over red and purple monoliths and ever-changing shadows — it does not appear to be real. The view flattens and expands with the light, as if it is some kind of tear in reality. Light and distance confuse perception.
The state of happiness is also confusing. The idea of happiness in tandem with suffering, honoring both as equally real, is a strange concept. Happiness is not the result of fixing anything, not a destination but a companion. Suffering, on the other hand, is equally a part of life, often not a choice at all, but a part of existence, to be weathered and observed, not fought or hidden.
When a Depressed Person recognizes happiness once again, it can come as a shock. The Depressed Person has been cloistered, connecting to the outside world through a screen. Suddenly, the screen is cracked, and the Depressed Person is expected to remove her veil and step out into a world that feels unfamiliar. Somewhere in depression, the disease itself becomes routine. Happiness is overpowering.
The patterns of depression are so regularly seen through their worst results: the lack of energy and interest, the anxiety, the feelings of worthlessness, the sense of never being lovable, the guilt.
However, the very things that create the cloister for the Depressed Person also force her to have a new sense of perception. She feels as if all of the protections that surround humanity in daily life have been skinned away and she can feel every stir of emotion and the entirety of the great, heaving, weeping grief of mankind, from childhoods lost to old age abandoned.
This vulnerability can overpower a Depressed Person, but it can also force her into a state of empathy, her hypersensitivity allowing her to be more sensitive, in turn, to others.
In many religious traditions, the hermit sees the pain of the world and hides away, not to escape, but that by embracing solitude she might somehow unite with the burdens of the rest of the world. The cloistered nun takes vows of solitude, only to intensely pray for the welfare of the earth.
It is possible to live in both worlds. When the screen comes down, the Depressed Person may find herself between the two, like sitting in a window sill. It is entirely possible to remain like this for some time, teetering between the two. The temptation is to choose. However, when one stops struggling, the experience of both becomes real, like flowers in a rain, or thistles in sunlight.
When happiness returns after a long absence, it can be startling to realize it was gone. The human body is capable of functioning on at motor level. It can do all of this from behind the depression screen. Feelings dry up, leaving only a hollow filled with gray.
At 7,000 feet, sometimes the clouds touch the earth, and at this elevation even the Grand Canyon vanishes, leaving nothing but flat gray. It is as if it never existed at all. Then, when the clouds retreat and the sun returns, the opening of the landscape is dizzying, and one wonders how something so enormous could disappear for so long, sometimes weeks on end, into something as ephemeral as clouds.
Likewise, the realization of happiness can be rattling, an anthem repeating over and over inside the mind, “I am happy today!” There is temptation to clutch at happiness, terrified of returning to depression. There can also be a sense of despair, knowing that depression is inevitable.
Highs of manic, frantic effort may push the depressed person to live every moment in this sun as fully as possible, rushing to experience all of life in an instant, and filling the soul with impatience. In those times, it isn’t enough to live between worlds, but to leap into what must be an infinite happiness, and the realities of suffering and depression become an agonizing rope, harnessing back this pursuit.
If there is a bard for depression, it may be David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “The Depressed Person”, is a brutal, raw examination of mental illness. In this story, the unnamed Depressed Person is incapable of connecting with others, perhaps even of empathizing with them.
Perhaps after such raw vulnerability, the Depressed Person has grown a second, ugly skin, impenetrable, where neither sadness nor happiness, bliss nor tears, love nor hate can get in or out. There is only depression, trapped inside, unable to be free.
There are tales of nuns, punished for some crime by being walled like Fortunato. There is no screen between her and the world then. It can sometimes seem this way to the Depressed Person, as if beyond the depression there is nothing else.
It is in these times that the Depressed Person must seek out cracks, chinks in wall where light may come in, spaces in clouds, and ways to interior gardens. When one finds it, it is important to notice, to take pleasure in it, and to realize that sometimes the value of suffering is its illuminating effect. There is no view of the Grand Canyon as dazzling and awe-inspiring as the one after the clouds finally part.
Chloe Donaldson is a writer and artist, working in public wild lands in the US. This year, she will be speaking at the International Trails Symposium on inclusion in outdoor recreation for people with depression and other mental illnesses. She recently moved from Alaska to Grand Canyon National Park, where she teaches interpretive training classes.