The Phenomenology of Depression

Preface: This is a post I’ve been writing in chunks because I only have the ability to write it at various times. The overlap between motivation and level of depressiveness has to be just right in order for me to function in the proper state of mind to think this way while still being able to write. Some parts may sound as if they are stream-of-consciousness and that is because I opted not to change what I originally wrote during the editing process because I felt as if it captures the experience as best as words can. Finally, the tone may vary from section to section as my mood is the controlling factor in when I write certain parts of this post and seeing as that changes constantly, the tone likely will as well.

If you’ve ever talked to me personally or know me with some intimacy, it’s easy to see that I’m a restless and unsettled individual. I fidget, flip pens, tap my feet, or look at the floor. When I’m alone, my mind takes over and runs where it may…typically to dark places. All of this is because I have generalized anxiety disorder and depression. The former manifests itself as over-thinking or blowing things out of proportion, the latter as totalizing numbness and lack of motivation, and it is the depressive side that I wish to explore. Where other depressives write in a journal or keep a diary, I thought that the best way to confront the issue of depression and the change in mental attitude that it brings would be to analyze it. Specifically, in what follows I will attempt to provide a phenomenological account of how depression affects my interactions with the everyday life-world1)The everyday life-world being a term of art used by the sociologist Alfred Schütz to mean “…that province of reality which the wide-awake and normal adult simply takes for granted…”: Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann, The Structures of the Life-World: Volume 1 (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 3. and how that change might be a radically new mode of interaction with the world that is often glossed over, if not ignored entirely, in the major phenomenological works of everyday life.

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The 20th century Austrian sociologist Alfred Schütz, in his two part magnum opus, The Structures of the Life-Worldlays out a very thorough (albeit dense) description of various acts that make up everyday life. For example, Schütz discusses interacting with other people as necessarily affecting both individuals. He discusses the formation of a “we-relationship” whereby individuals become more closely connected.  He discusses individual viewing of the world as well as ideas as a pre-requisite to action when completing a project, as well as many other experiences. While he does bracket off the experiences of the insane, I feel like his analysis is incomplete insofar as it ignores the effect that mood has on the way individuals interact with their environment.

For the purposes of this post, I intend to try to convey what depression feels like and how that alters my interaction with the everyday life-world in such a way as to preclude some activities (e.g. “action” proper) as well as discussing the effect effect that depression has on the concept of “place”, as distinguished from “space”, utilizing explanations laid out in Finnish aesthetician Arto Haapala‘s paper “On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place”.

I begin with an unedited stream-of-consciousness-esque description of my feelings on 4/27/15:

I feel numb, like a being taking in what it sees but not being affected by it. I walk down the halls with no sense of place; nothing is special or unique, it’s all just mundane. I don’t occupy a place, I am simply taking up space. I have no positive feelings and, at best, I have marginally negative feelings. I feel like a shell walking from place to place with no broader project beyond exhibiting the bare minimum effort needed to function on the most rudimentary level. I have no energy for excess food or fun; all I can bring myself to do is urinate when need be or sleep when the numbness becomes too much. I have no light in my eyes, I just exist. I have no broader project beyond fleeting thoughts. There are no long term goals, no plans. At best there’s a plan to walk to the bathroom or fall on the floor.

As one can easily see, my thoughts are scattered and with very little purpose to where each sentence is in relation to the others. This quasi-rhizomatic way of writing characterizes the first important aspect of the everyday life of depression; there is no project. Normally when I write, I have an idea of where the sentence is going or what aim the paragraph is trying to achieve (to break the fourth wall, so to speak, this paragraph aims to show that the quasi-rhizomatic way of writing inherent in my depressive state is entirely counter to the description of action that Schütz gives). This line of thinking about my typical writing style is similar to how Schütz describes action. He argues that action is not a spontaneous thing, rather it is part of a pre-planned project that gives it meaning. As he says,

In the project the goal of the act is envisioned in advance (Vorstellung); the individual steps of the act relate to this goal. In terms of the project every step should lead closer to the goal; every step is taken in order to reach the goal — step by step.2)Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann, The Structures of the Life-World: Volume II (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1983), 19.

In contrast, when in a significantly depressed state, my mind simply has fleeting thoughts, one after another, that, when written down, don’t form a coherent narrative but rather tell a story of a mental state. What’s interesting about this is that when I let my fingers loose on a keyboard, I am still preforming some action. Whether it is recognized or not, typing has the implicit goal of getting words on a page. What’s unique about this action, however, is that my engaging in it is fundamentally unplanned and despite the implicit goal associated with typing, have no goal in letting go. This is a type of action that is counter to what Schütz describes. For the depressive in the everyday life-world, action need not be pre-planned with a specific goal that one is trying to accomplish, but rather action can be spontaneous and free flowing, not traversing any pre-determined pathway. The mind jumps from idea to idea with no strict sense of linearity or spaciality and the words that are signified upon the page are placed in random sentences with little regard for readability. The words fly through multiplicities creating their own story and trajectory.3)Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3-12.

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It gets even more complex, however. After a certain point on the axes of motivation vs depression, my attitude changes. There is a transcendence, of sorts, that follows Schütz’ analysis of action but takes it to the next level. All other questions are bracketed and all other experiences are rendered null and void. When this transcendence is achieved, my brain becomes hyper-focused on one thing. It doesn’t drift or wander, but stays on one goal. Everything is planned and executed accordingly. All pre-determined paths are taken and there are no flukes. Where this deviates from Schütz, and consequently gets more interesting, is that every action is subject to intensive planning. While habituation is often used to describe actions that are repeated over and over again and thus become internalized to the point of not thinking/not needing a plan (e.g. going to get food)4)Sarah Mae Sincero, “Habituation” on Explorable. Last modified August 9, 2011. Accessed April 28, 2015: https://explorable.com/habituation, the hyper-focused depressive attitude throws all habituation out and operates as if every goal, despite the number of times it has been accomplished in the past, is new. The transcended depressive plans the most basic and habitual actions. Here is an example of a hyper-focused plan to accomplish a very basic goal:

Step 1: Stand up.
Step 2: Put on shoes.
Step 3: Open door.
Step 4: Walk down hall.
Step 5: Enter restroom.
Step 6: Approach waste receptacle.
Step 7: Release bodily fluids.
Step 8: Clean up and evacuate waste receptacle.
Step 9: Wash hands.
Step 10: Exit restroom.
Step 11: Return to previous activity.

Finally, the concept of place is fundamentally altered. According to Haapala, “[p]laces are culturally formed and defined by reference to the human body”; in other words, they are socially constructed and made one’s own — that is to say, a niche where one feels comfortable and by the very nature of existing within that space, the individual affects it while it affects the individual.5)Arto Haapala, “On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, eds. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 39-55, pg. 41 cited. This characterization, however, is not valid for the depressive.

For the depressive, no space is a place. Sitting upon my bed in my room feels no different than sitting upon a bench outside (that’s not to say there are no physical differences, for that is patently false; rather, it is to say that both feel relatively foreign to me). What’s more, according to Happalanian description of place, I ought to occupy more than just 1.7 ft^3 of space; I ought to have a presence within the space. This, however, is largely untrue. While others may perceive me as more than just 1.7 ft^3 of occupied space, the way I perceive myself in relation to the space I’m in is nothing special — there is no interaction. I feel no power within the space. I feel no ability to transform the space with my presence. I hardly feel as if I exist within the space; at best I’m simply traversing it on some other plane of existence wherein any reflective state would place me in a position where I am looking down upon myself as if I were hovering above my body.

In addition, and counter to Haapala’s descriptions, the space has no affect on me. Where normally a putrid smell would leave a lasting impression on me, in this state the air wafts over me leaving no mark on me. The people around me don’t feel like people who I could have any sort of relationship with, rather they just seem like entities taking up a given volume of space and that must be navigated around when approached. Where space ought to affect me, it doesn’t. My body becomes a character in a third-person video game that is traversing space at the whim of the player while the player remains largely unaffected by the surroundings within the game. However, in this ironic twist, I am both the player and the character viewing myself from both the third and first person who feels a constant existential loneliness and hopelessness.

 

In other words…depression fucking sucks.

References   [ + ]

1. The everyday life-world being a term of art used by the sociologist Alfred Schütz to mean “…that province of reality which the wide-awake and normal adult simply takes for granted…”: Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann, The Structures of the Life-World: Volume 1 (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 3.
2. Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann, The Structures of the Life-World: Volume II (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1983), 19.
3. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3-12.
4. Sarah Mae Sincero, “Habituation” on Explorable. Last modified August 9, 2011. Accessed April 28, 2015: https://explorable.com/habituation
5. Arto Haapala, “On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, eds. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 39-55, pg. 41 cited.