Depression, Recursive Self-Analysis and Creativity

To be depressed is to be thoroughly hollowed out, as if someone took an existential ice-cream-scoop and scraped out your insides; leaving a human-shaped cicada shell where a real person once was. Depression (actual depression, not just the periodic run-of-the-mill blues) cannot be understood by those who have not themselves experienced it.  It cannot be communicated to those unsoiled by its inky black discharge. But when it is adequately described, those who have come into intimate contact with it recognize it immediately. To say that David Foster Wallace “adequately describes” depression in the following quote from his novel Infinite Jest is to so flagrantly understate things as to almost be offensive. He describes a clinically depressed character by the name of Kate Gompert:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core system — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression.’ One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and . . . well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify. . . .

It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as ‘It’.

‘It’ is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”


Speaking as someone who has been hospitalized for clinical depression in a pscyh-ward and has felt, on many occasions, the intricate grooves on the underside of Melancholies’ heavy boot impress themselves onto my fleshy throat, reading this description of depression by David Foster Wallace is simultaneously hair-raising and exciting.  Hair-raising because its an example of someone explaining a feeling you have had in such a way that exceeds the limits of what you thought was linguistically possible.  Exciting because its an example of radical empathy; of having the unique relief of another human being nod in total recognition of one of the deepest feelings (or, more precisely, lack thereof) that you have ever felt. And when you are struggling with a mental dis-ease whose most insidious aspect, perhaps, is its soul-crushing loneliness, nothing feels better than hearing someone else say, in so many words, “me too”.

The thing about depression is that it exponentially gains momentum.  Like a storm, slowly blowing in over your house, it creeps up at the fringes of your periphery, almost undetectable.  But as depression develops, it creates it own feedback loops in the mind; it creates its own food source in a way.  And that is what I mean by “recursive self-analysis”; the victim does the worst thing one can do when depression starts tightening its grip: they turn in on themselves and begin to try to self-analyze their way out of the labyrinth (which, incidentally, is also the automatic cognitive strategy usually employed when dealing with anxiety: depression’s fraternal twin).  This inward spiral no doubt lends itself to that overwhelming sense of loneliness described above.  This tactic is so automatic that I don’t think its even possible to not employ it; perhaps its in a strict causal relationship with depression, and for that reason, simply unavoidable. It’s a manifestation of the depression itself.

Recently I struggled with a strain of depression that was totally unique to me: existential depression.  I had suffered from depression many times in my life, but this time it was different in form and substance; it was also welded to an abysmal anxiety. It wasn’t the normal anxiety of increased heart rate, sweating, racing thoughts, etc.  It was the slow mechanical grinding sort of anxiety that churns away at the base of your limbic system, rotting just under the surface of consciousness.  The sort of anxiety that makes your mind try and run from itself; desperately attempting to avoid certain sets of thoughts, and by trying to avoid them, aggressively inviting them. This existential depression/anxiety revolved solely around compulsive thoughts of death.  In the autumn of 2014, death thoughts began creeping in at an almost imperceptible pace. I have always been more sensitive to death than everyone else around me, but this was different. The thoughts began to consume me, and by early 2015, I fell headfirst into Nietzsche’s abyss. From the moment I woke up to the moment I managed to fall asleep I obsessively compulsively reflected on not only my own demise, but the demise of everyone and everything around me. It was cognitively corrosive, and I felt my hitherto well-established grip on reality begin to loosen.  I was going insane, and the more I tried to avoid this conclusion, the more it made itself at home in my psyche. I tried to use my only weapon, my intellect, to find a way out, but the more I strained my analyticity the more I exacerbated the problem. Throwing gas on a fire in an attempt to put it out.

“It is a gift to be able to use your brain to create and not to turn it in on yourself.”

– Amy Wallace (David Foster Wallace’s sister) talking about her brother.

David Foster Wallace, the same genius who wrote the quote at the beginning of this essay, hanged himself in 2008 at the age of 46, succumbing to a life long battle with the very depression about which he so elegantly wrote. There is an unmistakable and highly significant correlation between various forms of mental illness and great works of art, science and philosophy.  Thinkers and artists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Wolfgang Mozart, and Walt Whitman (I could go on indefinitely) all suffered from depression, and much of their work benefited from their experiences with mental illness. Although I cannot explicate exactly how and why depression is linked with creativity, it seems pretty obvious that it is. Furthermore, it seems self evident that this connection is complex and nuanced.

In my own case, I used artistic expression to pull myself out of my existential depression. As the above quote from Amy Wallace indicates, I eventually healed just enough to take back control of my brain and re-direct my inner turmoil outwardly into creative endeavors.  Now, to be sure, I had to get well enough that it became possible for me to create.  When you are in the thick of depression, you lose all motivation, and you become a passive play-thing of life instead of an active participant in it.  And therefore the fog of melancholy has to naturally thin itself out before one is in any position to do anything other than curl into the fetal position and inwardly whimper like a wounded animal. So when my depression did begin to retreat, and mental health was on the horizon again, I immediately began composing music, reading books, learning the guitar, writing and meditating. Every single one of these activities were used as outlets of catharsis; a way for me to process my emotions and turn them into something unique and expressive.  In a way, it was an attempt at emotional alchemy; transforming the base metals of my existential despair into into gilded bars of creativity. When the mind, especially the intelligent and sensitive mind, turns concave, it tends to devour itself.  The goal then becomes to re-commandeer the mind and aim it back out into the world; to harness its intelligence and sensitivity in the service of artistic innovation and expression.

Depression seems to give us the raw material to work with, and perhaps that is one reason why depression and creativity go hand in hand; they are the respective results of the mind turned radically inward and the mind turned radically outward.


2 thoughts on “Depression, Recursive Self-Analysis and Creativity

  1. Fictionatrix says:

    The quote from Wallace gave me goosebumps and chills. I have never read such a spot on description of something I felt was intrinsicly personal.
    Your analogy of the Existential Ice cream scoop was also spot on.
    Non sufferers can never understand the battles we fight within ourselves and with ourselves. The routinisation of the pain and suffering further exemplifies the struggle.
    I am glad to know that you have, in your better days picked up new hobbies and found creative outlets for your emotions. This was a very informative and amazingly articulated post. Gave me a lot of food for thought! Great Job! Take care. 🙂

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