On Melancholia & Living Our Best Lives

Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.

Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:

In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.

I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.

I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.

Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.

Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.

Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.

Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?

Friend: Huh?

Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!

Friend: What’s going on?

Etc.

I admit to being a little dramatic.

The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.

Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.

Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?

No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)

What if you aren’t that kind of writer?

What kind? I ask.

The rich and famous kind.

Well, that’s obvious.

We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?

I like that. I say, and think of my two children.

And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.


End Notes:

Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear. 

I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.  

To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here

5 thoughts on “On Melancholia & Living Our Best Lives Leave a comment

  1. I love this. I think that part of your gift is that through your words you heal and inspire. There is so much truth here. Both in the quest for purposeful and intentional living and in the voices in our head that cloud the miracles in front of us and send us plummeting off our desired paths. I also love the reminder of the privilege of most of our lives

    Liked by 1 person

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