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What Depression Is Really Like

“The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain.”

What Depression Is Really Like

In a piercing letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh captured the mental anguish of depression in a devastatingly perfect visceral metaphor: “One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.” Anyone who has suffered from this debilitating disease knows that the water in that well is qualitatively, biochemically different from the water in the puddle of mere sadness. And yet, even as scientists are exploring the evolutionary origins of depression and the role REM sleep may play in it, understanding and articulating the experience of the disease remains a point of continual frustration for those afflicted and a point of continual perplexity for those fortunate never to have plummeted to the bottom of the well.

No one has captured this perennial plague of the human spirit with greater vividness and acuity than William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) in Darkness Visible (public library) — his trenchant 1990 memoir of depression.


Styron, who first descended into clinical depression at the age of sixty and describes himself as “one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale,” considers the cultural baggage of this “veritable howling tempest in the brain,” propelled by “the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics”:

When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression.” Depression, most people know, used to be termed “melancholia,” a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated — the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer — had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering “depression” as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.

One of the most striking paradoxes of the disease is that despite its devastating prevalence — depression is the most common form of disability in the world today — its symptoms are so imperceptible from the outside that it is extremely difficult to tell who is suffering and who is not. And yet what goes on inside is acute and unmistakable. Styron captures it with penetrating precision:

The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

From visual educators at TED Ed — who have previously explored the history of melancholy — comes this animated primer on what depression really is and how to best be there for those afflicted:

For an elevating counterpoint, see Tchaikovsky — a lifelong sufferer of the disease — on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul.


Freud on Why We Dream, the Paradoxical Interplay of Memory and Forgetting, and the Vital Vestiges Our Childhood Experiences Leave in Our Unconscious

“Every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.”

Freud on Why We Dream, the Paradoxical Interplay of Memory and Forgetting, and the Vital Vestiges Our Childhood Experiences Leave in Our Unconscious

“Something nameless hums us into sleep,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart.” But who exactly is this counterpart — this personage both us and wildly, deliriously, fantastically not-us? Where does it come from and what is its relationship to the wakeful self?

In 1895, the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) grew intensely preoccupied with this questions and how it might illuminate the psychological significance of dreams. Over the next four years, he incubated the ideas that would become the seminal treatise The Interpretation of Dreams (public library) — Freud’s quest “to elucidate the processes which underlie the strangeness and obscurity of dreams, and to deduce from these processes the nature of the psychic forces whose conflict or cooperation is responsible for our dreams.”

Although the evolution of science has challenged many of Freud’s theories in the century since his heyday, his treatise on dreams was instrumental in paving the way for our present understanding of dreams. At the heart of his theory was the idea that dreams spring from wish-fulfillment: We dream about what we dream of — a proposition that marries the two meanings of dream, the nocturnal wanderings of the unconscious mind and the motivated marches of the conscious will.


In the introduction to the original edition, Freud asserts:

Every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.

And yet what lends dreams both their abiding allure and their psychological puzzlement is that the link between the two is far from direct, linear, and easily discernible. Freud writes:

That all the material composing the content of a dream is somehow derived from experience, that it is reproduced or remembered in the dream — this at least may be accepted as an incontestable fact. Yet it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery. The reason for this is to be found in a number of peculiarities evinced by the faculty of memory in dreams.

Of this fascinating faculty, Freud asserts:

The behavior of memory in dreams is surely most significant for any theory of memory whatsoever.

Marveling at the “remarkable and theoretically important fact” that dreams frequently make use of memories inaccessible to the dreamer in the waking state, Freud points out how suggestible the unconscious mind is and how easily impressions are made on it by random images that slip in through the backdoor of our conscious awareness. He illustrates this “superior knowledge of the dreamer” with a case study all the more alarming amid today’s information-overloaded, media-oversaturated cultural landscape:

A patient dreamed amongst other things (in a rather long dream) that he ordered a kontuszowka in a cafe, and after telling me this he asked me what it could be, as he had never heard the name before. I was able to tell him that kontuszowka was a Polish liqueur, which he could not have invented in his dream, as the name had long been familiar to me from the advertisements. At first the patient would not believe me, but some days later, after he had allowed his dream of the cafe to become a reality, he noticed the name on a signboard at a street corner which for some months he had been passing at least twice a day.

One major source of these consciously inaccessible memories, Freud argues, is our childhood, which leaves vestiges of experience and fragments of memory that provide lifelong material for our dreams. But children themselves, he notes, have dreams that follow the wish-fulfillment paradigm most literally — what children dream about at night parallels what they dream of in their wakeful wishes. In the child’s mind, according to this view, the two meanings of “dream” converge most closely, which Freud takes as “proof that the dream, in its inmost essence, is the fulfillment of a wish”

Art by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Freud’s brilliant and eccentric cross-dressing niece, for the philosophical 1922 children’s book David the Dreamer by Ralph Bergengren

Counterbalancing these deeply buried memories is our accumulation of fresh ones — recollections of recent experiences, which we consolidate in dreams. But the consolidation is only possible after a certain distancing from the immediacy of the experience. Freud writes:

The impressions which have intensely occupied the waking mind appear in dreams only after they have been to some extent removed from the mental activities of the day. Thus, as a rule, we do not dream of a beloved person who is dead while we are still overwhelmed with sorrow.

But the most striking feature of dreams is that rather than focusing primarily on such major events as the loss of loved ones, the vast majority of their material is drawn from the most trivial and unremarkable details of our waking lives. This, Freud argues, relates to another perplexity — the contradiction between the enormous role of memory in the construction of dreams and the fact that we forget most of our dreams upon awaking, all the while being able to remember individual dreams for decades. He observes:

We are often aware that we have been dreaming, but we do not know of what we have dreamed; and we are so well used to this fact — that the dream is liable to be forgotten — that we do not reject as absurd the possibility that we may have been dreaming even when, in the morning, we know nothing either of the content of the dream or of the fact that we have dreamed. On the other hand, it often happens that dreams manifest an extraordinary power of maintaining themselves in the memory. I have had occasion to analyze, with my patients, dreams which occurred to them twenty-five years or more previously, and I can remember a dream of my own which is divided from the present day by at least thirty-seven years, and yet has lost nothing of its freshness in my memory. All this is very remarkable, and for the present incomprehensible.

The most important cause of forgetting, Freud notes, is the discrepancy between the structural demands of our memory and the unstructured nature of dreams:

In order that feelings, representations, ideas and the like should attain a certain degree of memorability, it is important that they should not remain isolated, but that they should enter into connections and associations of an appropriate nature… Dreams, in most cases, lack sense and order. Dream-compositions, by their very nature, are insusceptible of being remembered, and they are forgotten because as a rule they fall to pieces the very next moment.


The forgetfulness of dreams manifested by the waking consciousness is evidently merely the counterpart of the fact … that the dream hardly ever takes over an orderly series of memories from the waking state, but only certain details of these memories, which it removes from the habitual psychic connections in which they are remembered in the waking state. The dream-composition, therefore, has no place in the community of the psychic series which fill the mind. It lacks all mnemonic aids.


The different arrangement of the material in the dream makes the dream untranslatable, so to speak, for the waking consciousness.

Art by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Freud’s brilliant and eccentric cross-dressing niece, for the philosophical 1922 children’s book David the Dreamer by Ralph Bergengren

Sometimes, Freud points out, we remember only fragments of a dream and fill in the rest of the story, succumbing to the same tendency that scientists now know make our conscious memory so malleable and unreliable. He cautions:

Partial forgetting is treacherous: for, if one then starts to recount what has not been forgotten, one is likely to supplement from the imagination the incoherent and disjointed fragments provided by the memory… Unconsciously one becomes an artist, and the story, repeated from time to time, imposes itself on the belief of its author, who, in good faith, tells it as authentic fact, regularly established according to proper methods.

Revisiting the heart of his theory — that dreams are predicated on wish-fulfillment — Freud writes:

When, after passing through a narrow defile, one suddenly reaches a height beyond which the ways part and a rich prospect lies outspread in different directions, it is well to stop for a moment and consider whither one shall turn next. We are in somewhat the same position after we have mastered this first interpretation of a dream. We find ourselves standing in the light of a sudden discovery. The dream is not comparable to the irregular sounds of a musical instrument, which, instead of being played by the hand of a musician, is struck by some external force; the dream is not meaningless, not absurd, does not presuppose that one part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to awake… But at the very moment when we are about to rejoice in this discovery a host of problems besets us. If the dream … represents a fulfilled wish, what is the cause of the striking and unfamiliar manner in which this fulfillment is expressed?

With an eye to the many types of dreams in which the fulfillment of a wish isn’t easily evident — a fear borne out, a philosophical reflection (like Neil Gaiman’s dream), a mere rehashing of events past, an anxiety dream (anxiety being, for Freud, the “most terrible of all the painful emotions”) — he adds:

Is the dream capable of teaching us something new concerning our internal psychic processes and can its content correct opinions which we have held during the day?


Are there, then dreams other than wish-dreams; or are there none but wish-dreams? It is easy to show that the wish-fulfillment in dreams is often undisguised and easy to recognize, so that one may wonder why the language of dreams has not long since been understood.

Art by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Freud’s brilliant and eccentric cross-dressing niece, for the philosophical 1922 children’s book David the Dreamer by Ralph Bergengren

Freud notes that the wish-fulfillment aspect of dreams is often so distorted as to be unrecognizable — what, after all, is the wish in a nightmare? But these distortions, he argues, are a reflection of our tendency to defend ourselves against a dream we find morally unacceptable or practically unattainable — a kind of protective self-censorship. He considers the interplay of these contradictory forces:

In every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion. The question is: What is the nature of the authority of this second agency by virtue of which it is able to exercise its censorship? If we remember that the latent dream-thoughts are not conscious before analysis, but that the manifest dream-content emerging from them is consciously remembered, it is not a far-fetched assumption that admittance to the consciousness is the prerogative of the second agency. Nothing can reach the consciousness from the first system which has not previously passed the second instance; and the second instance lets nothing pass without exercising its rights, and forcing such modifications as are pleasing to itself upon the candidates for admission to consciousness. Here we arrive at a very definite conception of the essence of consciousness; for us the state of becoming conscious is a special psychic act, different from and independent of the process of becoming fixed or represented, and consciousness appears to us as a sensory organ which perceives a content proceeding from another source.

Indeed, one of the underappreciated cultural contributions of Freud’s seminal treatise is precisely this question of consciousness, a notion that continues to evade definition even a century later. In discussing the recognizable wish-fulfillment structure of young children’s dreams, Freud makes an illuminating aside:

What animals dream of I do not know. A proverb, for which I am indebted to one of my pupils, professes to tell us, for it asks the question: “What does the goose dream of?”

It’s a question that immediately calls to mind Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — a seminal inquiry into how the dilemmas of artificial intelligence challenge our core understanding of ourselves. At the center of the question is the notion that the capacity to dream is intimately entwined with the faculty of consciousness, woven into the very fabric of what it means to be human.

Complement The Interpretation of Dreams, which remains a cornerstone of cultural history, with what science has learned about dreams in the century since, the fascinating relationship between dreaming and depression, and the science of lucid dreaming, then revisit this vintage philosophical children’s book about dreams, illustrated by Freud’s brilliant and eccentric niece named Tom.


Elizabeth Bishop on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Prolonged Period of Solitude in Life

Wisdom on the rhythms of creativity from a lighthouse daydream.

Elizabeth Bishop on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Prolonged Period of Solitude in Life

“One can never be alone enough to write. To see better,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. In solitude, Wendell Berry observed in his magnificent meditation on stillness, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” For Keats, solitude was our greatest conduit to truth and beauty.

But too much solitude, surely, can isolate us and deaden the creative spirit, cutting us off from what Oliver Sacks has called, after David Hume, our essential “intercourse with the world.”

This delicate dance between solitude and communion is what the Pulitzer-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) explores in a letter found in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (public library) — the epistolary record of one of the most beautiful and enduring friendships in creative culture.

In a wink of a letter from July of 1948, Bishop suggests that solitude, like all good things, is only nourishing in moderation and can nauseate in excess:

Having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam-chowder I made for myself, I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. Or maybe it’s just too much solitude.

A few weeks later, she writes to Lowell:

I think you said a while ago that I’d “laugh you to scorn” over some conversation you & I had about how to protect oneself against solitude & ennui — but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of “suffering” I’m most at home with…

But as she grows older, she comes to appreciate the nourishment of solitude more and more — even of extended periods of solitude. Half a century before the trendy modern practice of the periodic sabbatical, 49-year-old Bishop writes to Lowell:

You ask if I have ever found “reading and writing curiously self-sufficient.” Well, both Lota [Bishop’s partner, the prominent Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares] and I read from 7 A.M. intermittently until 1 A.M. every day, and all sorts of things, good and bad, and once in a while I think — what if I should run out of things to read, in English, by the time I’m sixty and have to spend my old age reading French or Portuguese or even painfully taking up a new language? And then I’ve always had a day dream of being a light-house keeper, absolutely alone, with no one to interrupt my reading or just sitting, and although such dreams are sternly dismissed at 16 or so they always haunt one a bit, I suppose. I now see a wonderful cold rocky shore in the Falklands, or a house in Nova Scotia on the bay, exactly like my grandmother’s — idiotic as it is, and unbearable as the reality would be. But I think everyone should go, or should have gone, through a stretch of it… Perhaps it is a recurrent need.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly delicious Words in Air with Edward Abbey’s uncommonly beautiful vintage love letter to solitude, then revisit Bishop on how poetry pretends life into reality.


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