Understanding mental illness: Depression as comfort zone — and why we shouldn't normalise it

Editor's note: What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering)

A few years ago, I met a wonderful gentleman on an online dating site. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar type 1, and on the occasions that I come across mentally ill persons online, there is usually a great sense of community. When we met, he wisely told me that he would not even consider a relationship with me unless I became stable – he himself had achieved a rare and hard-won stability. We parted as friends and he occasionally tried to get me to pursue better mental health. He felt dubious about my psychiatrist (he turned out to be right) and suggested someone good for a second opinion. He tried to get me to go to therapy. He explained that I couldn’t achieve mental stability if I didn’t try new medications, doses and therapies regularly. He encouraged me to focus strongly on fixing my sleep cycle. And he was baffled that I seemed reluctant to get better.

Illustration by Satwick Gade

Illustration by Satwick Gade

Perhaps my type 2 diagnosis made it difficult for me to explain to him how chronic depression (which he said he had not experienced) makes “recovery” doubly hard, or even undesirable. Apart from the usual factors that contribute to non-recovery – being enabled, the foregone conclusion of a lifetime diagnosis, etc – depression is especially crippling because the desire to get better is hamstrung by depression itself. As Andrew Solomon explains in The Noonday Demon, his comprehensive book on depression, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality”. Severe depression can be characterised by the inability to feel pleasure or pain, and the loss of a sense of self – the latter resulting in the mask that depressed people have to wear in society. For instance, with me, the ability to cry and feel self-pity is lost and I take their return as a sign of convalescence. The return of a sense of self – albeit a negative one – is again a sign of returning personhood for me. Anxiety, too, is one of these signs of life.

So yes, depression itself may decrease one’s desire to get better and thus prolong its own life. But one’s attitude to depression can also contribute to chronicity.

This is good news, because attitude is within our control. I recently came across a relatable tweet that stated: “I don't struggle with depression. Like at this point I have it down. I'm good at depression.” My interpretation: This refers to surrender, which is a common reaction to depression. We can either fight depression or coexist with it. Some of us, possibly because of the depression itself, decide to get comfortable with our depression. I myself am so “good at depression” (although not at hypomania or anxiety) that I am necessarily good for nothing else. Instead of actually working on it, I manage it ad nauseam. I discovered in 2006 that if I stopped fighting the pain and relaxed with it, if we kept each other company, that depression was present but not a problem any more. I will run the risk of ridicule here by referring to the Harry Potter books: Professor Lupin, a werewolf who loses control of his mind and actions every full moon when he turns into a wolf, is given a potion by his colleague that doesn't stop him from transforming into a wolf, but stops him from losing himself: “The potion that Professor Snape has been making for me is a very recent discovery. It makes me safe, you see. As long as I take it in the week preceding the full moon, I keep my mind when I transform … I am able to curl up in my office, a harmless wolf, and wait for the moon to wane again.”

This method of neutralising depression is a wise meditative approach when done regularly and correctly with the intention of eventual recovery. For instance, one can take up more challenges in life and use this method to counter the inevitable effect on one’s mental health. But in my case, I’ve used it as an anodyne instead. I’ve misused it by making depression my comfort zone and the rest of the world my discomfort zone. (Much of this is achieved by controlling my environment, which is a luxury I have.)

Andrew Solomon warns against this normalisation of depression. He urges action: “... act fast; have a good doctor prepared to hear from you; know your own patterns really clearly; regulate sleep and eating no matter how odious the task may be; lift stresses at once; exercise; mobilise love.” Although Solomon sees depression as an inevitable part of being human and having feelings, he compares depression to a vine that grows onto a tree and begins to suffocate it, if not cut down early. For him, depression is a parasite and fighting a symbiotic relationship with it is paramount. He tells us never to let depression lull us into a false oblivion in a fragile cocoon. He tells us not to fall into identification with it. Reading and re-reading his book reminds me that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a classic human move that we shouldn’t have to perform, but that we do perform over and over again, against all odds.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 10:51:13 IST

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