I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: Taking Action in the Face of Despair

Depending on how well you know me, you may or may not know that I suffer from depression, and have for most of my conscious life. Most of the time it presents as a sort of miasma in which everything seems pointless, or requires too much effort, or is just overwhelming enough to keep my brain turning in circles, which feeds the miasma because I use all my energy being anxious about how I’m not doing all the things instead of doing all or even some of the things.

At its worst, the despair is acute enough that I understand why people might take their own lives to make it go away, even if they know consciously that it will go away, because it has before. And before you freak out, no, I am not declaring myself a suicide risk, nor need you concern yourself overmuch about my condition, which I’ve been living with and learning to manage for my whole conscious life.

No, my purpose here is to share some of the strategies I use to move forward and accomplish things. Because let’s face it, there’s a lot of despair going around right now thanks to the election and the political situation in these United States, and if we’re going to make it better, we’re going to have to figure out how to move forward and accomplish things in the face of the depression and despair that situation engenders.

Some of what I’m going to say will seem contradictory, even paradoxical. This is partly due to the welter of contradictions-in-tension that makes up who I am. But mostly it has to do with the fact that you need different tools for different jobs (and the wisdom/know-how to pick the right one).

So, let’s jump right to the first contradiction: self-care and abnegation of self.

Depression is an illness of the mind, of, in my experience, the ego in particular. It’s a voice that says you’ll never be happy, that even if you are it will be gone before you know it, and you probably won’t even know until it’s gone. It’s a filter that shoves itself between you and the outside, a filter that dims the light and mutes the colors and focuses in on the negative. It’s a parasite that hijacks your narrative and makes you feed it. And when you feed it, it grows stronger.

The trick here is to locate value outside the ego. Deprioritize happiness. Find meaning elsewhere. In my case I find that meaning in work, specifically my fiction projects and essays like this one. It helps that it’s something I’ve always felt called to do, even though my internal resistance to actually doing it is strong. For instance, right now I’m fully convinced that this piece will end up a messy, unhelpful, contradictory ramble of no use to anyone, and that I should probably stop wasting my time before I do something dumb like hit ‘publish’ and waste yours. I might even be right about that, but here I go anyway because the idea for this essay keeps knocking on the door between my conscious and subconscious minds, insisting on its own value, however imperfectly I will serve it. It wants to be out in the world, and I choose to serve that call. Who knows? I might even help somebody.

I said earlier that depression is an illness of the mind. But the mind, nebulous though it might be, is rooted in the brain, is part of the body. And the body needs looking after. Regular exercise, getting enough rest, healthy eating and drinking, taking your vitamins, these things all add up, and when followed as a regular practice can do wonders for your headspace. And not only will they take the edge off your despair, they’ll help make you strong enough to serve the work that will give your life meaning. When they become part of your daily life-practice, they help to ground you, physically and psychologically. When you are grounded, it will help keep things in perspective.

Perspective is important, because depression wants you only to see what it wants you to see (see filter, above). It wants, as most things do, to survive and self-perpetuate. To take you over, rob you of your agency. Convince you you don’t have any, and if you did once you have lost it, never to find it again. Depression wants this because agency is the best countermeasure.

Maybe this has happened to you, or someone you know. You’re in school. You’ve got an exam, or a paper. Or you’re not in school but at work, assigned a big project. You’re afraid you’re going to fail. You’ll flunk the class, get kicked out of school, be fired from your job. Prospects will close off, the black mark will follow you. You’ll never get a good job, have a good life. It’ll all go down the shitter. You can see it, clear as day. And it paralyses you. You can’t even concentrate. The prophecy is self-fulfilling. Hell, if you’re anything like me, part of you might even want that in some sick, twisted way.

The best way to counteract that prophecy is to get to work. But how, in the face of your impending failure? Of the pointlessness or sheer scope of it?

Perspective and agency. In this case a narrowing down through perspective to what you have control over, and then doing that. Break the big problem into smaller ones, and focus on them, one after another. Keep going. Let progress be your yardstick, rather than accomplishment or success. And if not progress, then simply work. Effort. A single step in the right direction. The thing you can do right now. Then the thing you can do after that.

As I’ve taken to saying these last few years: Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. You’ll be surprised how far that will get you.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much you control. You can put in the work, game the possibilities, weight the odds a bit in your favor. Outcomes will be as they are. Indeed you’re better off expecting them to be bad. Expecting that what can go wrong will go wrong, because the universe is a contrary bastard, is sane and perfectly healthy so long as it doesn’t stop you from acting. At worst, you’ll be prepared when things go badly, and pleasantly surprised when they don’t.

But it’s important you exercise agency when and where you can. For me, that can be something as straightforward as cleaning and ordering my living space, or building something with my hands. Doing something with a visible, appreciable result, for myself or someone else, does wonders for my headspace, and gives me the strength to put effort into things that might, even likely will, fail, but that must be undertaken anyway.

Try, and you might fail. Don’t, and you surely will. So tell depression and despair to go fuck themselves, and find a way to get to work. Surely something deserves your efforts, even if they are all you can offer.

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