Depression and the Lie of the “Real Self”


[Content note: depression and suicide]

Mitchell of Research To Be Done has a fantastic post up about this idea that when you’re on psychiatric medications, you’re not “the real you.” I’ll shamelessly quote about half the post:

This is just a for the record, for everyone, whether you’re talking about antidepressants or any other form of medication or life circumstances: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “REAL YOU”.

You know why? Because HUMAN BEINGS ARE CONTEXT-DEPENDENT CREATURES.

You are the real you when you’re being flirty and charming and totally hitting it off with someone adorable. You are the real you when you’re crying on the floor of your room and wishing the world would end. You are the real you when you’re living it up on vacation and you are the real you when you’re just getting through the day at a boring job. You’re the real you when you’re on vacation and hate everything about it, and you’re the real you when you’re flying through the day at an amazing job. You are the real you when you’re at a party, and you’re the real you when you’re staying in with your cat. You are the real you when you’re drinking, when you’re high, when you’re reading, when you’re fucking, when you’re lonely, when you’re surrounded by friends, when you feel absolutely worthless, when you’re brimming with confidence, when you wish the universe would leave you alone, and when you love everything about it. You’re the real you when you’re unspeakably angry and hate everyone, and you’re the real you when you’re ecstatically in love and feeling on top of the world.

“THE REAL YOU” IS A MEANINGLESS TERM USED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW HUMAN BEINGS WORK.

I wanted to expand on that idea a bit and talk about why it’s extremely harmful to people who are suffering from mental illness.

When I was depressed, I believed that Depressed Me was The Real Me. Not only that, but I believed that my depressed view of the world was The Most Accurate View Of The World. That when I was depressed and thought that everyone hated me and that I was an alien in this world who should die because I don’t belong here, that was, in my opinion, the most authentic view I could possibly have.

A large part of me feared recovery. Cheerful people grated on me, and of course, in this optimism-fetishizing culture, I thought that the only alternative to miserable depression was peppy, bubbly cheerfulness. That, after all, was what everyone seemed to want me to be, and that felt wrong wrong wrong.

There were a lot of reasons for my belief that depression was “real” and happiness was “fake.” First of all, as I just mentioned, I had a totally skewed image of what happiness actually looked like. Many people make that same mistake, of course, and it’s only now, when I’m healthy and happy but not that outwardly cheerful, that I realize that happiness just doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes it looks like hours spent alone reading. Sometimes it looks like passionate anger at injustice, and doing something about that injustice. Sometimes it looks like writing over 1,000 words in a sudden rush of ideas and creativity. Sometimes it looks like playing footsie with a partner while we do our homework in silence. Sometimes it looks like sitting at the coffee shop with my best friend, just talking about stuff. Sometimes it looks like savoring a meal I cooked myself. Sometimes it looks like waking up early on my first day back in the city, putting money on my metrocard, taking the subway, and walking up the stairs out onto the street, awestruck every time. Sometimes it looks like the moment I received my graduate school acceptance letter. And sometimes it does look like exactly what you’d think–dancing with friends and strangers at a party, knocking back shots and laughing at our own stupidity.

A second reason I believed depression was more “genuine” was that there was definitely a bit of sour grapes going on. No matter what I did, I hadn’t been able to feel happy with myself and my life since early childhood. That’s a lot of failure for a young person. So by late adolescence I was spending a lot of time being like “FUCK YOU HAPPINESS I DIDN’T WANT YOU ANYWAY YOU’RE ALL FAKE AND BORING AND SHIT.” It seems childish, but it was probably one of the only defenses I had. If I’d really known what I was missing, really felt its absence, I’m not sure how I could’ve made it through.

Third, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, even as Western culture promotes optimism and cheerfulness and happiness as mandatory, especially for women, it simultaneously elevates misery and depression to an exalted status. There’s a stereotype of depressed people as writers or artists, people who See Humanity As It Really Is and bring those insights to us through beautiful works of art or literature, and who die alone, unappreciated, perhaps drunk in a gutter or by suicide.

For a pitifully long time, in fact, I wondered if I could ever be a Real Writer if I became happy.

In his book Against Depression, Peter D. Kramer writes:

To oppose depression too directly or completely is to be coarse and reductionistic–to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. And here it is not only the minor variants–the psychiatric equivalents of tennis elbow–that bear protecting. Asked about eliminating depression, an audience member may answer with reference to a novel that ends in suicide. Or it may be an artist who is held forth, a self-destructive poet. To be depressed–even quite gravely–is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to adopt the posture of rebel and social critic. Depression is to our culture what tuberculosis was eighty or a hundred years ago: an illness that signifies refinement. Major depression can be characterized as more than illness, or less–a disease with spiritual overtones, or a necessary phase of a quest whose medical aspects are incidental.

(How can this image of the depressive exist in the same culture that stigmatizes depressives as pathetic, lazy, selfish, whiny losers? Why, you have to be depressed in the right way, of course.)

The final reason, I believe, was a property of the illness itself. The thoughts and emotions conjured by depression are so strong, so urgent, so potent that they felt more real than anything I’d ever felt before. The insights it gave me–they felt so brilliant at the time–could never come to me any other way. There was no other way to just know all these things about Life and Humanity. (This is also why I think that some of the aforementioned artists and writers might not be quite so brilliant as we may think.) When I was depressed I felt like a character in one of the Russian novels I love (where depression, incidentally, often plays a starring role). What could possibly be more genuine than this?

And during those times I’d forget how good it felt not to be depressed. I simply lost access to those memories. I wanted desperately to not be depressed anymore and I was also desperately afraid of who I would become if I were to stop being depressed. Depression skews and poisons everything. All of your memories, all of your identities, every sense you have of who you “really” are.

The result of all of this is that I felt that my depression was authentic. It was The Real Me. Recovering, especially through taking medication, would not be The Real Me.

I can’t know for sure now how that affected my eventual recovery. There are those who say that it must’ve significantly delayed it because I had to Really Want To Get Better and all that, but that’s straight-up victim-blaming bullshit. I DID want to get Better. I was just lost and confused and didn’t know what Better would even look like. And even when I didn’t want to get Better, that was a symptom of the illness itself. Depression is a feedback loop.

I do know that it made the decision to take medication (which brought me back from the brink) a lot more difficult than it needed to be. All that anxiety about potentially losing my ability to write was a waste of time and energy. Those fears that people would only like me if I was Deep and Insightful and Mysterious? They were crap.

And, anyway, here I am, nearly a year post-recovery and still writing, still being moody and weird, still doing my best not to have an overly rosy view of the world. Still ruining your fun.

But it’s deeply unjust to trick people suffering from depression into believing that they won’t be their Real Selves if they recover (especially if they recover using medication). People love to be all like “Yeah well what if anti-depressants had been around in Van Gogh’s time?” Well, maybe we’d still have his amazing art. Maybe it would look a little different. Or maybe Van Gogh would’ve done something totally different with his life and we’d never know the difference.

All I know is, no painting in the world can be so beautiful as to justify that sort of suffering.

Comments

  1. Lynne L. says

    Umm, just… yep. The first time I was on meds, Prozac, 25 years ago, I didn’t ever feel like I wasn’t me. I just… felt better. I haven’t been on meds in about 10 years, and I still struggle with depression, but I absolutely know that depression doesn’t give me some kind of profound insight into the nature of reality. I’m as much myself when I’m not depressed as I am when I am depressed.

  2. Thanks for that says

    There is no “real you” or “not real you”, but there is a degree to which you can possess the qualities that someone thinks of when they think of you. That social factor can have a huge role (helpful or harmful). I’d be interested to see how others’ perceptions of your authenticity interact with your perception of your own authenticity, and I think it’s important to distinguish between the two.

    I’m surprised that, when asked to imagine a well-medicated person and an untreated (ill) person, someone would identify the former as the “not real” version. If anything, I’d think they’d identify their ill friend as “less like himself”.

    When a family member finally hit the right cocktail of meds, the only way I could describe him was that he seemed more like himself than he had for ten years. It was amazing. Not that he was ever not his “real self”, but that it was like a curtain between him and the rest of the world had been lifted, and there he was, brilliant and funny, just like before, only now everyone else could see it too.

  3. Jean says

    I’m sorry but you’re not ruining my fun (actually I’m not sorry at all). And I’m really glad you started blogging here so that I get to read posts like these. Thank you.

  4. Ariel says

    It was a bit uncanny to read this. So many points in common – fear of recovery, despise and envy of the “normal and happy”, depression as giving “The Most Accurate View Of The World”, the illusions of depth and insightfulness … and Russian novels on the top of it?! Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, Miri, you betrayed yourself. We must have met; I must have told you all of this!

    Ok, there will be something about differences now. What really struck me while reading your account is how little difference these differences made, at least to the way one feels about depression. That’s what really uncanny.

    it’s hard to ignore the fact that, even as Western culture promotes optimism and cheerfulness and happiness as mandatory, especially for women, it simultaneously elevates misery and depression to an exalted status.

    It was different in my culture, at least years ago, when my worst episodes took place. You were expected to complain. You were expected to indicate bad things that happen – both to you and around you. Otherwise you risked being received as superficial. Of course much of this was just social ritual. To give you an example, I remember that the question “How much do you earn” was not treated as rude. On the contrary, it was welcome. It gave you an opportunity to say how your salary doesn’t satisfy your needs and how hard your life is. (If you answered differently … oops, a faux pas!) To be sure, sometimes the answers must have been real, but nevertheless I think it was largely a cultural thing – a ritual, something you were expected to do.

    You could say in effect that we had even more of the “exalted status” of misery than you. Perhaps, but the funny thing is how little difference it made. My experience is that people discern easily whether they talk to someone who is engaging in the ritual, or to a real alien. If the second, you are barred from social life as quickly and as efficiently as anywhere else. End of the story, deal with it.

    The second difference was the lack of internet, support groups and easily available information. The idea to get help was so completely … I don’t know. Unobvious. Outlandish. No incentive to even ponder it. My first contacts with professionals took place only in the nineties (which in my case means: quite late), after a lot of things changed.

    But again, in terms of what it was like and how it felt, it also doesn’t make much difference. Uncanny, and I don’t really know how to feel about this.

    Oh, there is also this:

    Still ruining your fun.

    I’m with Jean #3. Hmm, the only thing is that Jean was too polite. So my version is: no, you won’t get it that easily. Next post at once!

    • says

      It was different in my culture, at least years ago, when my worst episodes took place. You were expected to complain. You were expected to indicate bad things that happen – both to you and around you. Otherwise you risked being received as superficial.

      Can I ask where you’re from? Because this sounds EXACTLY like every Russian social setting ever. (Although I grew up mostly in the U.S., my socialization is very much Russian.)

      • Ariel says

        Poland here. But your remark about the Russians definitely rings a bell. I’ve usually found it easier to communicate (in social interactions) with them than with the westerners. However, it seems to me that our younger generation is quite different. Too much coca cola instead of kvass.

    • says

      ha. I know what Ariel is describing, and TBH I still feel more comfortable with that than with the American cultural obsession with optimism and feeling-happy. I’m actually one of those people who still answer the question “how are you”, before realizing the other person doesn’t actually give a fuck, they were just saying “hi”. At least in Poland and Germany I wasn’t made to feel guilty for not being extroverted/not being able to function on almost no sleep/not being always cheery.

  5. says

    A few disjointed thoughts:

    First, I have this other theory about why it’s so often feels like the depressed you is the real you when you’re depressed. I think some of it has to do, at least for me, with the way I and up interacting with people when I’m depressed. When I’m dealing with serious depression, the times when I feel most authentic are when I’m pouring my heart out to someone about the depression. The times when I feel the most fake are when people I’m not particularly close to ask me how I’m doing, or “What’s up?”, and I answer “good”, or “fine”.

    Being depressed tends to put me in a place where I always feel the most authentic when I’m expressing my depression, and I feel the least authentic when I’m expressing feeling fine, because most of the time I’m not actually feeling fine. With those associations regularly reinforced, it sort of makes sense that authenticity and depression gets so linked.

    Also, on “Not wanting to get better”, I definitely think that there is some truth to the idea that my brain is resistant to getting better. Not just because depression does that to you, but because the way you’ve always been is familiar, and I think we all have a tendency to assume that if we’ve been a certain way for a long time, there must’ve been a reason for it. I have moments where I can feel my brain looking for things to be anxious about, because I haven’t been anxious for a while, and it feels strange and unfamiliar. The logic goes that all that time I spend anxious must be for a reason, and if I’m not anxious now, I must be missing that reason — I must be missing the thing that I ought to be being anxious about right at this moment.

    It’s not exactly not wanting to get better, it’s being afraid that abandoning the old way of thinking about things is abandoning something that was important and there for a reason. Depression becomes familiar, and leaving familiar places is hard, even when the new places are way nicer. It strikes me that maybe there’s an analogy between the idea of staying depressed and the idea of staying in an abusive relationship — it’s what you know, or it’s familiar, or it’s what you think you deserve, or there are reasons to fear leaving it behind.

    Final thought: I forget if I’ve ever linked you to this before or not, but there’s another thing I wrote a while back about the idea that depression is a more accurate perspective on the world. For the most part, obviously, I don’t think it gives you a more accurate perspective on the world, but it’s not for the reasons most people think that, I think. I tend to think that the idea of an “accurate perspective” is, in some ways, orthogonal to the idea of being sad or happy about the world. I think that’s another one of those “One of my better ideas, but perhaps not some of my better writing” posts.

  6. says

    Also, how selfish are those van Gogh people? You would rather he had to suffer so you could look at some pretty paintings?

    Also, re: “I’ll shamelessly quote about half the post”: GOSH, MIRI, HAVE MORE SHAME!

  7. shari says

    Miri, there are so many reasons I love reading your work – you are certainly a talented writer and you have as sharp eye for the human condition!

    I’ve dealt with depression (very situational on two occassions, but it runs in my family, so I keep a weather eye on it when i am in a funk) with medication with two results.

    One, my brother – terminally ill at the time, hence the depression on my part (and probably his, i was pissed they weren’t addressing That at the hospital!) got furious that I was on ‘happy pills’. I was apparently so freaking excited about getting out of bed, showering, and FUNCTIONING that i was exhausting to be around. Now, I certainly forgave his anger – and explained later to my mom – that it was go on ‘happy pills’ or not even make it to the fridge, let alone the hospital.

    Two, I also noted my serious reluctance to get diagnosed and treatment. I thought it was a pretty evil trick of depression to make me think ‘it’s not worth it’. Nice frickin’ disease! Glennon Melton recently did a pretty good TED talk about her anxiety, bulimia, and addiction – and why she thinks she was so prone to them. And how she deals with sobriety now (although, i don’t recommend an unplanned pregnancy to anyone to ‘snap’ them out of it!! won’t work for everyone!) Her talk touches on some of the same aspects of inauthenticity – ‘how are you? Fine! – and you?’ as this post, although I don’t think she explicitly stated ‘depression’ in the talk.

    People should learn to get that ‘true self” crap out of their dialogue in any case – most of us have that great ‘day one’ moment after a nasty cold or bout with illness – where you go ‘holy cow – i can breathe out of both sides of my head!’ and until your sinuses start flooding again – you feel AMAZINGLY energetic – you write to-do lists! you shower! you swear to wash your hands three times an hour and plant a hand sanitizer in your cube! That’s how medication made me feel – like I was really grateful to be alive.

    If that’s not authentic, I guess maybe I am ‘good’ with ‘fake’ ;-)

    thanks so much for your post, I think I want to share this on FB.

  8. CaitieCat says

    Two things from this, you impressively impressive writer (that’s impressive ^2!):

    1) Sometimes it looks like writing over 1,000 words in a sudden rush of ideas and creativity.
    Wow, does that sound familiar.. But it was closer to 1100 words! I need to edit myself better. :)

    2) Great post, and I think when i see my doc for a renewal in a few weeks, I’m going to ask for another dosage bump. After nine months this time, I should be seeing improvements more than I am. Definitely better than I was – writing was proof of that, and I got my sink clear of dishes for the first time in weeks yesterday too (I’m physically disabled somewhat, so this is challenging at the best of times). But not…well.

  9. says

    My experience of depression is completely different. I understand that this sentiment is out there, as I’ve heard it before, but my experience is that depression is something that comes and sits on me, but isn’t part of me at all. It’s an invisible foreign body that’s making me feel horrible and suicidal, but it’s something other than me.

    • shari says

      Neschria, in a way, that would be….comforting, maybe – kind of like ‘oh, crap, look what the cat dragged in – how do i throw it out again?’. My experience was definitely different, I just was in a fog of little to no movement – since the genesis was a specific, lengthy situation, my perspective that I wasn’t functioning well was way Way off. I think it’s safe to assume that there’s more than one mode of affliction, and your experience might be easier to spot than what I went through.

      I don’t think I’ve had anyone spell out your kind of experience to me in the past, so if I do find myself listening to someone who is battling depression, I have a larger frame of reference – i am sorry you deal with this, and I thank you for sharing your viewpoint – it may help me keep my foot out of my mouth when I am actually trying to listen and be helpful!!

    • fmcp says

      Neschria, that’s exactly my experience. It was always an alien thing, which was scary, but also (as Miri said) quite adaptive in that I suspected all along that I needed a doctor. I actually had a hard time acknowledging that depressed me is just as authentic as healthy me, but it really is. I wish desperately that I didn’t have to put up with it, but I also have made peace with the fact that’s it’s not something a surgeon can cut out. It has made me hyper aware of others’ moods as well, which has served me well (although painfully) as a teacher who works with some very sad and angry teens.

      I can’t remember where this came from, but something really clicked for me when I first heard the term “phase blindness” – the idea that, when depressed, we can’t remember what it feels like to be healthy or imagine that it will happen again. For me, because my illness is clearly episodic, I also have reverse experience – when I’m healthy (as now) I absolutely cannot fathom the mindset that depression creates in me. (I also very rarely experience hypomania – that’s a whole other level of weird.)

      Anyway, thank you for posting, Miri – I really enjoy your writing, but I also feel good knowing that these conversations are happening. They weren’t 20 years ago when I screwed up my courage and called my doctor, and it was very, very lonely at the time.

  10. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Depressed me is a scumbag. Most of the time, he is merely incredibly withdrawn to the point of hermitude. But sometimes he is selfish, manipulative. aggressive, cruel piece of crap. I’ve never liked him – even when I WAS him – and the idea of him being around my friends wearing my skin gives me chills.

    I haven’t been him in a while, and I don’t miss being him a bit. If depressed me wais the ‘real’ me, then I’d be happy to think that he dies a little bit with every pill I take.

    Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Brains don’t work that way. He’s no more the ‘real me’ than ‘current me’ is, except inasmuch as ‘current me’ is the one who is existing at the moment.

  11. smrnda says

    When I was in college, a lot of my friends were art students. Many of them seemed depressed or otherwise unstable, but being depressed, unstable, and self-destructive were seen by some as requirements for being a serious artist. It’s one of those memes that doesn’t seem to want to die anytime soon. It might just be that people are more likely to tell the story of a depressed, unstable or suicidal artist/writer/etc.

    Something that makes me disbelieve in the notion of the ‘authentic self’ has been how differently I’ve behaved in romantic relationships. I’ve had a few good relationships which were all pretty different, but which all seemed good at the time in their own ways. The ways that I behaved were different, but no one seems more authentic than any other one.

    • fmcp says

      Oy, I feel you – I was in theatre school when I started anti-depressants for the first time. On the one hand, having an official diagnosis gave me some agony cred, but on the other and unfortunate number of my friends worried on my behalf that I was blunting my true emotions. It wasn’t true in my case, but even if it had been, I had no desire to keep suffering!

  12. says

    It’s an invisible foreign body that’s making me feel horrible and suicidal, but it’s something other than me.

    I feel that way about tequila. Too much of it does things to me. I think drinkers are pretty good at separating the effects of our drinking from the social disapproval that comes with them. I don’t know if that’s helful for you. But some of us do, in fact, draw a line between “me when I’ve had 3 shots of tequila” and “me when I’m sober.”

  13. queequack says

    I’m not incredibly glib, but I’ll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like. To me it’s like being completely, totally, utterly sick. I will try to explain what I mean. Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach. Almost everyone has felt really sick to his or her stomach, so everyone knows what it’s like: it’s less than fun, OK, OK. But that feeling is localized: it’s more or less just your stomach. Imagine your whole body being sick like that: your feet, the big muscles in your legs, your collarbone, your head, your hair, everything, all just as sick as a fluey stomach. Then, if you can imagine that, please imagine it even more spread out and total. Imagine that every cell in your body, every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach. Not just your own cells, even, but the e. coli and lactobacilli in you, too, the mitochondria, basal bodies, all sick and boiling and hot like maggots in your neck, your brain, all over, everywhere, in everything. All just sick as hell. Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that, sick, intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom… swollen and throbbing, off-color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here, twirling off balance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place, bouncing like crazy. Just imagine that, a sickness spread utterly through every bit of you, even the bits of the bits. So that your very… very essence is characterized by nothing other than the feature of sickness; you and the sickness are, as they say, “one”.

    I would agree that anyone who wants to maintain that kind of “Realness” in someone, is an asshole.

    Of course it’s true that a sick me was still me. But being not-sick is a much better me, for me. Even if I’m still not as good as I’d like, I’m better.

  14. says

    well, i don’t know about “the real me”, but the “me on psychmeds” was worse than the “me, not on psychmeds”. And I at least was not able to be creative on sertraline, because it made me apathetic towards everything and anything, which is less useful than caring, but not having any energy to do much about it.

    Yet, if it hadn’t given me a massive anxiety attack, everyone around me would have considered sertraline-me to be the healthy me, and the not-on-sertraline me as the ill one; because sertraline-me wasn’t going to upset anyone with self-harm. That it also turned me into a giant pile of “can’t be bothered to give a fuck” didn’t seem to bother anyone

  15. says

    I have a friend who believed that if you’re happy, you’re somehow being naive. As if constantly fretting over the reality of all the bad stuff is somehow being sagacious. Fuck that, especially now that I have become involved with the skeptical/atheist movement and am now better prepared than ever to handle bullshit. I’m so glad to be over depression for many years now. Now I irritate some people with my happy-go-luckiness.

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