Updated: Mar 16, 2021
As I mentioned before, in my second year at university I fell into a deep depression; indeed, it was so deep that then—and over the decade that followed—I often thought about suicide. This post is about how I came out of that depression. The proximate cause of my depression was that, as a humanities student, I had hours and hours of unstructured time; at first, after school, this was bliss; but, as polar explorers know, lack of structure causes lassitude and listlessness—even though I read and did my work, I found myself with too much free time to ruminate and be aimless. Almost two decades before Jordan Peterson told the world’s boys to tidy their rooms, I read Theodore Roethke:
“Self-contemplation is a curse
That makes an old confusion worse.
Recumbency is unrefined
And leads to errors of the mind.
Long staring at a ceiling will
In time produce a mental ill.”
Roethke was right; and I knew that then—I read the poem in the early days of my depression, but somehow, instead of action, it just caused me to further ruminate on my inertia.
Two practical factors eventually lessened my depression; the first was when I started work, the year before I left university—finally, I acted in the spirit of Peterson and Roethke. I worked in a call centre, a job I hated; but, despite that, it gave me some structure—and involvement in a process is enough to ameliorate depression somewhat; however, it is not enough on its own. Further, during university I was overweight—as I had been, on and off, from the age of ten—but, when I finished, I lost weight. Now I ran half marathons and cycled eighty to ninety miles on a weekend. This made a substantial difference; for, as I realised years later, sugars and carbohydrates contribute to a depressive cycle of food-induced highs and lows; further, at about the same time, I gave up the consumption of pornography.
Although a structured work environment and a healthier diet contributed to a substantial lessening of my depression, I never got to the root of the problem—essentially an existential issue—until about a decade later. Depression is not sadness; actually, it is not sad at all—it is a lack of any genuine emotion. Depression is a black rectangle that blots genuine reactions; everything takes place at a dull remove: there are no real tears and there are few real smiles either; it is just a weight, a weight so great that sometimes it is difficult to leave bed—indeed, in the worst phases of my depression, at university, I sometimes stayed in bed for twelve or fifteen hours at a time.
If I did anything, I read; and at that time it was Dostoyevsky who spoke to me—particularly Notes from Underground, a novel which reflected my state of mind and also gave me the deep satisfaction of recognition: I could see my outlook in the pages Dostoyevsky had written all those years ago, so clear it could have been written that day. I have learned to recognise this fresh sensation; it is the mark of great art, because it reflects the eternal order—and it can be found in any century. The recognition in the pages temporarily elated me, but my intimacy with Dostoyevsky tells you that the root of my malaise was more than just bad diet, lack of routine, or consumption of pornography.
What sparked my depression was disappointment. I looked forward to university as a golden place, the solution to all my problems—along with a girlfriend and a well-paid job. The black rectangle was already on me at school; it was just that I convinced myself that if I achieved good grades and went to the right university everything would be better then; it was just school that was the problem—I was depressed because I wanted an adult life. When I did not fit in at school my mother would say, “It’ll be better at university, you’ll meet people who understand there.” More than this, I expected that at university I would receive answers; it was for this reason I went to study politics and philosophy, to get to the meaning of it all—yet, after the first year, no answers were forthcoming, and this was when the depression set in.
Worse, I had, as a teenager, been an ardent Marxist—and this faith had reduced my melancholy during my later years in school; but my independent reading in my first year at university destroyed my faith in Marxism. What had been an important crutch that gave my life meaning and purpose dissolved. The depression fell hard on me at university because I thought: “It’s the same as school. The people are the same. It’s the same superficiality. There are no answers, not in the books or the lecturers or the people—it’s just more nothing. There’s nothing here and there’s nothing anywhere. Nothing at all.” This crushed me, because I had pinned so many hopes on this being the solution to the questions I had before; but it was just more school—and I could see that would be my career too, more school: the sensation I thought was escapable was actually normal life; hence, I began to think, it would be better to die than carry on like this for decades and decades.
Despite the basic stabilisation from work and an improved diet, my existential problem nagged at me until about a decade later—my dark rectangle remained, and I moved under its lifeless shadow; but then there was a violent change. For many years I had lived with my first girlfriend, so far as I was concerned I would be with her forever. It was at the point I had been promoted enough at work to think that I would put a deposit on a house and marry her in six months that we decided to join a friend and his partner on a trip to Paris. When I met my girlfriend as a student, we had, within a few months, visited Paris with the same friend, and it was there I lost my virginity.
In preparation for the trip, my girlfriend decided not to take her fancy phone as a measure against pickpockets; she asked me to charge her old phone, a cheap model. When I did this I turned it on to check it worked after so long in a cold state; as I flicked through the functions, I opened her messages and there—in the header summary—were a string of texts from her boss, an older and very Christian gentleman. They had an affair, but what was worse was that almost every text contained a spiteful comment about me; perhaps my reaction would not have been so severe if I had not found out that way; and, if I had other girlfriends in the past I might have been more indifferent—today, ten years or so on, girls seem all about the same; but, at the time, for me, this was the be all and end all of relationships: I could not imagine what it would be to be with someone else. So as it turned out, the relationship began in Paris and, just as a musical score will return to the first theme in its terminal moments, so my relationship began and ended there—we’ll always have Paris.
There were nights after this when I would wake with shouts and screams, as if there were someone in the room with me—even though I was quite alone. I had suffered a total reality collapse and radiated between the desire to kill and abject misery. It took most of my conscious control not to kill; indeed, I knew precisely what I would do to the other man: I would kill his children—as an older man, they were already young adults. I would rape his daughter first; then I would kill her and his son. Then I would work on him. It was important that he knew what had happened to his children, of course—perhaps I would jump on his wife in front of him and, then, jump on his genitals until the blood flowed from his penis, and then stab his eyes out with his car keys. I was divided on whether or not to kill him or merely permanently disable him in a grotesque way—on balance I think I would have not missed the opportunity to kill.
It took all my conscious control not to act this out—or a scenario very like it. Yet, of course, Nietzsche was right as he almost always is. The psychologist or priest might have congratulated me for my self-control: “You were hurt, but you controlled yourself. You could have made it much worse for yourself, for your family—imagine your mother if you went to prison; you didn’t do anything to make her sad. Your girlfriend was a bad girl, but you can be a good man. You can demonstrate your superiority if you avoid revenge; you can build a better life, you can move on. Reframe this way: you could have ended up in prison, but instead you are free—don’t you see that, objectively, you’re much stronger?” The priest would praise me for Christian forbearance in the face of evil—all lies and nonsense.
Nietzsche said the desire for direct revenge—not ressentiment, unexpressed desire for revenge—is healthful. Man is primed by biology to secure access to his mate, with lethal force if required. As Nietzsche knew, the healthful energy that drove my desire to kill—the desire for vengeance—had to go somewhere; if the anger is not inflicted on your enemy then the energy turns against you: so I sat many evenings on my bed and imagined a noose on my door. This is why I say: morality is a lie; it is a lie to disarm and manipulate a person—anger and violence are legitimate, healthful tools to defend yourself with; only the weak and dishonest say otherwise.
If our society were more natural, more healthy the crime of passion would still be legitimate in the eyes of the law; of course, we have become clever calculators. As the rationalisers told me, “Why waste your life in prison for some silly girl? Think about it rationally; she’s just some slut—you’re lucky you didn’t marry her, then you’d have loads of paperwork for the divorce. And the children! Think of custody on weekends! Think of the money! There are other, nicer girls...” For your money and paperwork I give not a fuck, empty pig-men who have never felt or loved; just let us have the knife again, the knife that talks in steel and never lies.
Disorientated, I ventured about the world and London for a time. It was then I alighted on the works of the Zen guru Alan Watts—before my break-up a colleague had brought one of his books into work, but I just ignored it as religious nonsense; now I gave it some attention—and, on reflection, perhaps this was a synchronicity, a meaningful coincidence. What I realised during this time, aided by long walks, was that the meaning I looked for was not to be found in goals and objectives; for example, the idea that everything will be fine once I get to university; everything will be fine if I get a first-class degree; everything will be fine if I get a girlfriend; everything will be fine if I have a first-rate career, house, wife, and so on.
On the contrary, I realised, as Watts observed, that people always feel empty when they achieve their objectives, just as I felt empty when I arrived at university: the goal is not the destination—the thing you work, work, work for will not provide satisfaction. It is the old Buddhist notion, samsara—the wheel of suffering; desire is unquenchable, if you achieve one thing then you just want another. The meaning I sought came from awareness, from consciousness—essentially the naïve consciousness of a young child on a long summer day; the consciousness that observes without judgement or objectives, the consciousness that is constrained and forgotten at school and university and work—places where there are only goals and roles. Of course, many people achieve this state of naïve consciousness with drugs and so on, but I had never tried these—although sex comes pretty close, I think.
Now I would pause on a bridge over the Thames—a bridge where I had crossed with my parents as a child, hand in my mother’s palm; with my school crush who only let me hold her hand; drunk with my university friends; with my first girlfriend; and, one morning, with a one-night stand—I looked down at the broken skateboards people tossed onto the concrete anchors, to the cluster of City skyscrapers, and to Old Father Thames and his long, tanned arms. Whereas before I would look at the river and think of the jump and the brown water in my lungs, now I saw the light dance on the surface; it splintered into countless mirrors and I became the river, the change—and the change was in me, the change in the people beside me and the skyline and the light; and the pain departed, only the Fragments of Heraclitus remained.
I suddenly realised that awareness was where the meaning I was looking for could be found; not in expectations I created for myself, but just in this unmoralised and aimless observation. It was not a reasonable thing; it was not an answer, it was not science or philosophy—it just “was”; or, perhaps, “is”. I have see some writers refer to this as “Being”; however, I think awareness is better—for most people, Being with a capital “B” is too abstract and intellectual to describe the experience, itself already a state that can only be pointed to with words and not really described. “Being” is an idea, an intellectualisation of experience; but, in the world, the intellect conceals Being.
Heidegger trod this path, but to do so he developed a special vocabulary and delved into the roots of German; hence he cannot offer immediate help, since he attempted to, effectively, describe the indescribable through a poetic sensibility. Heidegger recognised that Being could be illuminated through novelty in language, particularly down at the roots; yet he was still intellectual. The mystics know that they must change their masks many times to deliver the same message, the message of awareness; hence artists seek new ways of seeing to convey the same awareness: for example, what I call “awareness” has been referred to as “the inner child”, but this term quickly attracted sentimental and cringe-inducing overtones that destroyed what it had previously conveyed, so it had to be dropped—this is the play of masks known to shamans and Nietzsche. Heidegger attempted a play of masks in intellect: he went to the roots of language to uncover Being, to produce the uncanny in his readership and so reconnect them with fundamental awareness.
The discovery of awareness was a great revelation and a comfort. I realised why there was no real satisfaction in politics or grades or travel or my career: I already had the fundamental satisfaction I was looking for, always had done—it had merely been forgotten, accreted under layers of hope and ambition and reasons and “try”; and, of course, layers of lies. I did not meditate at that time, I took long walks—a walk is, itself, a type of meditation; in fact, given our early nomadic nature, it is perhaps the most fundamental type of meditation—a reconnection with rhythm. Later, I would be more focussed; once I stared at a wall for eight hours straight—during which time I shed tears for every person I had met in my life, but also laughed with ecstatic happiness.
It took me a few years to acknowledge that what I had encountered was the divine; for a long time I just thought of God as an external force, a force that made rules—the statement “God is love” seemed sick-making to me, and religious people seemed mainly interested in control or social prestige for virtuous behaviour, though I saw they were liars and hypocrites most of the time. But when I realised that awareness was divine, the substrate that underpinned everything, religion began to make sense to me. The awareness was not “me” it watched my thoughts and feelings—as the Buddhists say—and it was everywhere, in every person and perhaps in every thing; and, indeed, so far as science is concerned it may not even be material.
If love is creation, then is not the first act of creation to perceive? It seemed to me that it was this awareness that was the substrate of everything and that it would go on forever and forever. I realised that the security I sought could not be found in my career, my books, my friends, and not even in my family—my only security was within me, the observer; an observer that was not really “me” at all. I suppose this is what Jesus, in his mystical turn, meant when he recommended a person should leave his family to follow him, for even the family is not important compared to the awareness; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it is here—right now—in our awareness.
Nietzsche also seems to have grasped this mystical core of Christ, and saw the Church—the moralised superstructure built around the mystical insight—as an aberration. And this is what religion means to me, not morals or lectures or being nice and neighbourly or an upstanding citizen; it is the recognition that the awareness is always present and always will be, everywhere—and that any real connection is presence revealing itself to presence. Hence the deepest communication can occur in silence, in the co-existence of two presences. It is not moral, the killer has it as much as the newborn child—and to know it does not make you a “good” person, or a “bad” person either. I realised that whether I was rich or poor, single or married, ill or healthy, hated or loved that the awareness would always be there; and that the awareness was what was really important—indeed, ultimately, it did not matter if my material body was here or not, either. It would go on. The place of retreat and safety is always there: it is the heart, it is the heart that perceives—not the mind, not the instincts, and not even truth. It is as C.G. Jung observed: “He who looks outward dreams; who looks inward, awakes.”
So it seemed to me that the libertarian was as deluded as the Marxist; all they sought were better plans, better material improvement—better delusions and desires. There is nothing wrong with desire—so long as it serves awareness. The priests seemed futile, too. They lecture and preach, but rarely do they talk of awareness—and this was why Nietzsche was so angry with them, for he was, like Jesus, an awakener. And, as I became more awake, I realised that when people say “listen to your dreams” this is no metaphor: our dreams do have answers—and, for those who are awake, there are messages in the world about us to perceive as well.
Over the years, I had seen many friends take anti-depressants and go to therapy; yet, though I went to the doctor for psychosomatic complaints, I never talked about depression—and the pills seemed rebarbative to me. I think this was the right decision; perhaps pills would have staved off the worst, but the pills could never answer the existential problem; nor would a therapist, so far as I can see, since therapists are mostly women—supportive but without depth—and the priests only offer morality, shame and guilt. The psychologists and priests offer moralism or ways to help you “try” to stay functional, to improve your “mental health” in a supposedly rational way; but they cannot answer the fundamental existential question at the root of depression, because that question is mystical in nature. It is up to you to save yourself; nobody else can do it for you—the masters can only point the way, most cannot do even that.
Awareness improved my mood immensely; yet there was one more ingredient required. This was a self-help book called Radical Honesty, a book, based on Nietzschean ideas—as is most therapy—that simply suggested that the best way to improve yourself is not to lie, and to speak the truth as it feels in your body. With this technique I shed a whole carapace of lies that had built up over the years—including a certain phoney Buddha-like approach to life—and immediately felt a lot better. I suddenly realised that I had been lying for years and years, to myself and other people; and that almost everyone around me was lying as well.
That all happened about four years ago. I can say that from the age of thirty-two or so—though my mood has fluctuated as any man’s mood must—I have never again felt that great heaviness of depression, the palpable deadness that dogged me for almost every waking moment from about ten up until four years ago. The great blackness dissolved away; and, in retrospect, it was mostly a lie—it was the lies I told myself, the lies other people told about me that I believed, and the lies I thought society expected of me. What had been blurred, as if by a cataract, was the long summer—a summer that was idyllic, not because it was lazy but because it was a time to perceive.
The steps to avoid depression, from my personal experience, run as follows: firstly, maintain a structured process about your days; secondly, avoid excessive carbohydrates and sugars—take at least some exercise; thirdly, avoid pornography; fourthly, remember that meaning does not come from goals or objectives, meaning comes from the inner observer—the awareness without judgement that comes about in a state achieved through meditation, exercise, sex, or a long walk; fourthly, avoid all lies—and express your feelings and thoughts about matters as clearly as possible, especially your feelings, and without regard to what other people will think or say.
For me it is the the last two rules that are the most significant and made the greatest difference, though the third is difficult to attain—it is an experience liable to sound sentimental if expressed in speech or written thought. The danger is that when we think about goals and expectations—a necessary part of life—that we confuse these for the meaning: our goals are necessary, but the goals must serve the awareness; our goals, our desire, can easily destroy awareness by making us think there is something we just need to get to in order to make everything all right, and this is illusion. The awareness comes first, and it is the awareness that society seeks to enclose and destroy, often through moralism or greed or vanity—and especially through lies. Here ends the lesson.