I exhale a black cloud that lingers around me, and inhaling, I taste the bitterness all around me. I exude malignancy, and all who can avoid the toxic stink that heralds my presence.
With herculean effort, I push off the covers and sit up in my bed. It’s past noon, and I’ve been mostly awake for four or five hours. Climbing over a pile of laundry that has given up hope of ever being washed, I pull on my robe and stumble to the bathroom to relieve myself. I glance about the cramped space as I do, noting that my toothbrush holder has fallen to the floor, and that the towel rod remains empty. Neither concerns me. I recall that there’s maybe a half-squeeze of toothpaste in the tube, but I haven’t replaced it because toothpaste lasts a very long time when it’s never used. The absent towel is similar; it’s in the laundry pile with all the others, but there’s no sense of urgency to clean them because it’s not like showering is a priority. I haven’t left the apartment in days, and the only person who enters without wrinkling the nose is my roommate, who must be used to it, or perhaps is in the same state; my view of other people is obscured by the emotional cloud that hangs over me.
This cloud of pain makes it impossible for me to see others clearly enough to feel empathy, and at the same time it feels like it pushes others to avoid me entirely even though they cannot see it. What’s more, it’s often invisible to me, too. It’s a cloud that bequeaths and withdraws invisibility for powerful effect. There are times when I feel utterly exposed and wish for nothing more than to disappear, yet at the same time it feels clear that no one can see my suffering. At others, what I crave is human contact, but can’t get even a smile to acknowledge that I exist at all. I can’t recall how long I’ve felt this way, or why I should even care, because thinking is the first thing to be abandoned when one is just trying to survive from minute to minute.
Social invisibility, poor hygiene, and brain fog are all aspects of depression that align with air. Depression is stale, stagnant, and still. Technically we can see air—blue skies, for example—but it usually doesn’t register consciously. That’s also true of depression: we want to look away, as if it’s got a somebody else’s problem field around it. Air is the element of intellect, which is seated in the conscious mind; depression reorders intellect such that to the conscious mind it’s unnoticeable. Our brains take in vastly more information than is ever noticed consciously, as anyone who has taken a psychedelic likely understands. We tune out what is distracting and irrelevant, such as the afterimages of moving objects, but we also train ourselves to ignore other information—such as the presence of homeless people, for example. Depression taps into that tendency and hijacks it to avoid detection.
Reduced hygiene is a brilliant choice. It’s one of the reasons why so many among us don’t see the desperate people without homes who live in nearly every community. We have come to equate unwashed with unclean, and unclean is something to be avoided. Someone experiencing depression might reduce their grooming routine in subtle or profound ways, contributing to the erosion of social ties that the spirit of depression desires. Curiously, modern attitudes about hygiene are less than 200 years old, although covering oneself with pleasant-smelling unguents is an ancient practice. We do not care for unpleasant smells, and that’s reason enough for many of us to avoid some of our brethren. Smells speak to a deep part of ourselves, and depression hacks into that system as part of a strategy of separation.
Purification is a way of clearing out the spiritual gunk and mental clutter that can make healthy thinking and living difficult. The first step in any spiritual cleansing is a physical cleaning, which can include scrubbing toilets and sorting socks as much as washing behind the ears and remembering to floss. It won’t rid someone of the spirit of depression, but it’s a good way to set it back on its heels and give some time to take stock and decide what kind of help is needed. Let’s be clear on that point: help is needed. All of that stigma about mental health, the values around self-reliance, being told to keep a stiff upper lip and never let them see you sweat is setting up for the environment in which depression best thrives. Pandemics that can only be controlled through isolation are a dream come true for this spirit. That’s because the best balm on the wound of depression is other people.
Just being around others isn’t going to wipe away the harm brought by depression, but it’s the opposite of what this spirit desires. Being around the same group of people—community—several times a month makes it much more difficult for symptoms to go undetected. We don’t have much in the way of natural communities any longer; these are people whose lives are interwoven because they depend upon one another for their livelihoods. With increased mobility, we must choose to be in community in order to gain those benefits, which gives depression more of an in. The condition is increasingly identified: those of us born after 1955 are three times more likely to experience depression than our forebears. The average age of the first onset was 30 back in 1980, but now it’s in the teen years. Worldwide, 350 million people are living with depression.
It seems that circumstances have made it much easier for humans to become susceptible to depression. Stress factors are more varied, and the human relationships which rattle this spirit’s cage take more effort to form and maintain. Let us not forget that the invisible bonds we share with all of our kind is essential to addressing the invisible shackles visited on us by the spirit of depression.