Monday, 10 May 2010

Depression, self perception and subjective reality

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes feel when I woke up in the morning that someone had opened my skull and blanketed my brain with a thick layer of cotton wool. This  brain fog felt like I was peering out of my own eyes at a world that, although I definitely knew I had seen before, I could not quite remember where.  I now know that this experience has a name, depersonalization disorder, but at the time I had no idea what the hell was going on.  I experienced depersonalization disorder on and off for a couple of years.  It mostly stayed for an hour or two but when I was about 15 the feeling came and stayed with me for about a week.  It felt a little like the opposite of deja vu. I knew everyone's names, and recognized their faces, but something intangible was missing, as if the world had been replaced overnight by an exact copy of the world that had  existed the day before.  I knew that I had seen the objects, places and people that made up my life before, but they elicited in my brain the wrong kind of responses; as if a particular part of me was seeing them for the first time.  These feelings were the first time my perception of reality, and my perception of what it was that made "me", was altered.

In my experience depression is primarily a disorder of perception.  We can live our whole lives without asking basic questions of ourselves, without beginning to perceive and challenge the constructs and fixed modes of thinking that make up our personalities.  Understanding that our opinions are as much a product of our  upbringing, the random accidents of our birth, our geographical location, our health, our family wealth etc. as of our continued conscious engagement with the world.  Depression, very quickly, destroys any illusion that your "PERSONALITY” is something that lives in your head, a true reflection of "you".  It does this by taking away the "who" of you very quickly indeed.  Your personality is voided; removed.  It seems like you have to start again from scratch.  Now although this void is an horrendous experience in one very important way I found it enlightening.  When you sink down into the rabbit hole the blinkers are off. Your perception is flipped.  This new mode of perception is of course as much a construct as that which it replaced, but the important thing is the fact that you have experienced two separate personality states.  You have stepped out of the box. When I was severely depressed I no longer remembered who I was before the slow slide downward.  I was a essentially a different person.

Nothing has been the same since this experience.   After my first, and only, major depressive episode in my teens, I lived in constant fear of that person coming back. I did not fear being "unhappy", but of feeling like, and to all intents and purposes being, a completely different person; of being haunted by something that I could not control, that destroyed the "me" and replaced it with a different, darker, "me".  When I was depressed I knew that things seemed profoundly different to the way they were before the depressive event, but my memories of who I was then were no longer accessible. To ask me to recall being "happy" was like asking me to recall what it might be like for someone else to be happy. I knew what happy meant, I could imagine it, I could give it substance through associated signs, a couple hand in hand in a corn field, a smiling father, a happy baby etc but the essence of what was signified by "happy" was completely gone.

This is where my struggle with "who" I am comes from; my current interest in perception, identity and involuntary memory and my on going distrust of my instincts and decision making capabilities.  I struggle with whether my words, and opinions, have any real meaning or weight.  I can never say for certain whether that which I proclaim to be true is really true, or simply what I believe at any given moment in time. I am swayed Daily by the Mail and The Guardian. I think one thing that depression has taught me is an awareness of the fragile nature of ideological positions and the ease at which people can fool themselves into thinking that their opinions are "common sense".  How quickly the unusual becomes normality in society; and the previously normal becomes sidelined and abnormal. Throughout our lives we encounter people who don't ever seem to have begun to truly engage with this concept.  The world is one way, their perception is correct, that is how it is.  The Certaintists.

Many people lack any empathy to perceive that other people are not just carbon copies ejected from the same mould but individuals with their own unique inner lives. Or the imagination to see that other people may  see the world entirely differently from themselves. Not just in that they prefer cricket to football or Tory to Labour, but in profound ways that defy description. That they themselves, and our current consensus reality, is in a constant state of change.

When I'm not in a down phase I can skip past negative thoughts as if they are barely there at all, but when I feel low they trip me up time and time again.  It is at these moments that the difference between my low and high states becomes most clear to me.  I cannot let the negative thoughts go.  I have no tools for doing so.  What is effortless for the up me is impossible for the down me and the gulf between the two personalities that exist within me seems immeasurably distant. One side cannot offer solace or help to the other because when one personality appears, the other is entirely subsumed.  My mind changes the world.

When a depressive episode begins to recede it sometimes feels like my knowledge of reality, or the un-knowable, subjective  nature of reality, is becoming less real and more blurred. I feel that my brief insight into "the truth" such as it is, is being de-realized and that somehow I am retreating back into the forest.  In that forest lies the entirely illusory comfort blanket of my un-depressed mind.  This is perhaps the reason behind the great irony of how the leaden paralysis of depression can inspire great art and provoke radical thought. Because along with all of the turbulence and misery can also come a new perception and a clarity of thought that can provide a deeper understanding of the subjective quality of conscious experience and give sufferers a glimpse of the world through another's eyes.


  1. You really aren't wrong. I don't know that I could have said it better myself. I suffered from Postpartum Psychosis after my son (4 years ago) and have suffered depression ever since. What you've said puts words to what I've experienced again and again. Thank you.

  2. Wow, absolutely amazing read.
    Thanks Paul.

  3. This is the best I've read for years. Thank you for writing this.


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