October 22, 2017.
So, you’re having an existential crisis. You’re not alone; I’m in that boat too. What even is an existential crisis? Is there a way to overcome it?
According to Wikipedia, grand modern distributor of knowledge of our times, an existential crisis is “a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value. It is commonly tied with depression and/or a feeling of a lack of purpose in life.”
In order to understand an existential crisis, maybe first we should look at what depression is, seeing as how the two are closely linked. I’ll tell a story first to illustrate the nature of depression, and I’ll divide this thesis up into three parts in order to make it easier to parse through.
1 : THE BLOOD OF SLEEP
“Come back to me
Come back with me
Back to when we were young
And making out in the mouth of the devil.
Yeah, come back to me
Yeah, come back with me
Back to when we were numb
Just bleeding out in the mouth of the devil.”
-“Mouth of the Devil” by Mother Mother on No Culture
When I was 21 years old I was still in college. I had just recently come out to my family and friends and was wrestling with a lot of deep questioning within myself. I was wrestling with the same questions I am wrestling with now : who am I? Why was I born? What’s the point of my life? Where am I going? Am I going to be alone for the rest of my life? Can I be loved, exactly as I am? Can I love myself?
That was a hard winter. The nights were bitterly cold and the mornings were…well, I’ll get to the mornings in just a sec.
I had a nightmare one early morning that I won’t ever forget. I dreamt that I was running through a suburban town, completely devoid of people or animals, but with the lights on in all the houses. I ran from the dark woods on the outskirts of town and banged on all the doors I could find, looking for help. I was running for my life.
A pack of wolves, unearthly, alien, horrifying, followed me. I could see them in the distance approaching, carving pathways through alleys or backyards, tearing across the moonlit landscape towards me. I could feel my heart in my throat. I was hyperventilating. In real life, in bed, I was sweating bullets. I honestly thought I was going to die.
In the dream, that’s exactly what happened. It was brutal and violent and I felt the agony of the Wolves and their teeth tearing my flesh. When I sat up in bed in real life, I was clutching my chest, trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my heart rate down. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It felt so real. It was 3 in the morning, and I could not go to sleep again after that that morning.
Mornings in depression are f*cked up. Everyone’s experience is different, but I think from what I’ve read waking up early and not being able to go back to sleep are typical symptoms of depression. I had nightmares on the daily, violent and deeply disturbing, usually painful in some way. I slept maybe 2, 3 hours a night for months. I was fried. Trying to go to school, trying to seem like a normal 21 year old ( I was really ashamed of being depressed you see, I couldn’t admit to myself, much less anyone else, that that was what was going on. I already felt so weak and worthless for being queer, now there was ANOTHER thing to feel weak and broken about? Come on! ), was next to impossible.
In depression, I didn’t eat. Depression’s close sibling, anxiety, made me nauseous all the damn time. I couldn’t go anywhere near food for fear of puking it all up in front of friends, in class, etc. I got very thin. I lost so much weight. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think straight. The anxiety, which was more or less a fatally broken fight or flight response (I felt under attack and in danger all the time, even safe in my bed in my room. That same feeling that the wolf dream gave me, of running for my life, was constant. In conversations, in the car in traffic, in the computer labs at night working on my homework, I felt that I afraid for my life and I didn’t even know why. ) made my thoughts race, made me overthink and ruminate on everything, every little slight by a peer or every less than ideal interaction with someone else.
2 : IN THE DAYS THAT TURNED TO DUST, I COULDN’T LOVE SO I WOULD RUN FOR LUST…
Depression also destroys all the meaning in life. One of the key symptoms of depression is called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. Imagine going out with friends, going to parties, going to movies, painting, dancing, making love…and none of it gives you the pleasure it once did. Depression has robbed it all of its meaning, because after all why would you do something if it doesn’t make you happy anymore? This is why people withdraw from their loved ones, stay in bed all day, try to sleep as much as they possibly can, cannot for the life of them get motivated to do the simplest tasks like bathe or eat when they are deeply depressed. Pleasure is such a defining motivation for human beings, and when it’s gone, you are stuck confronting the meaninglessness of the task at hand.
The Wolves also eat up your sense of identity like they ate me up in the dream. I had an idea of myself before the despair began. I was a son, a brother, a friend. Maybe a boyfriend sometimes. A best friend. In depression, every single thing about you is called up for question. You are on trial, your judges, your executioners, a panel of werewolves in white powdered wigs :
“Oh, you think you’re a good big brother?”
“It turns out you’re not. You’re a shit big brother, you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re worthless, and here’s the evidence. Jonesy, call up Evidence Exhibit 11A. We have a whole backroom full of evidence for your shittiness, and while we’re at it, you’re a f*cking f*ggot too…”
The constant internal monologue of self abuse and self loathing completely erodes your understanding of yourself. Whatever the self hatred comes from, wherever it stems from, it’s constant. There is no relief from it. And it eats away at you like you’ve been bathing in battery acid daily, hourly, for years.
3 : MOUTH OF THE DEVIL
There’s also the suicidal thoughts, which don’t come in every person’s depression, but they did and they do in mine.
Lifting a fork to eat, if you can beat the anxiety and nausea, seems so pointless when you aren’t sure why you want to keep living into the future. Why feed yourself, why take care of yourself, when you hate yourself so deeply and want to destroy yourself? Suicide is…a whole ‘other topic for a more in-depth post, but suffice it to say, one of the most deeply painful experiences a person can ever experience is suicidal thoughts.
Not only are you deeply undermined to take care of yourself and stay alive by your own self loathing, but our culture stigmatizes the topic of suicide so much that you feel as if you are an even shittier human being for even holding the thought for a nanosecond. Sure, there are suicide hotlines, staffed by human beings with lives and families, who are sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
But mental illness, which depression is, is such a deeply isolating experience. In the West, in America, our cultural ideals pertain to success, to the power of the individual to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve their dreams, to get their shit done, to be independent and depend on NO ONE, to RISE TO THE TOP AND GET WHAT YOU FIGHT FOR.
America is not a good place for illness. There’s no room for it here. The relentless pursuit of happiness is a complete 180 from the deathly, lonely, humiliating experience of depression. DEPRESSION IS HUMILIATING. It’s humiliating to not be able to get out of bed to even take a shower when you know all sorts of people do that and 1000 times more on a daily basis. It’s humiliating to be so alone in what you perceive to be your weakness, worthlessness, all your bullshit. And the stigma is so isolating. There is no talking about it. You could alienate other people. You could be called weak, or an attention whore. You, who need help, cannot get it for fear of being ostracized from the people you need in life, the only people who are tethering you to this life.
Lastly, depression is often chronic and cyclical. You might feel better after some time, and maybe you stay in remission. Or maybe later, a month later, 10 years later, you fall back into the black hole. If it’s in your genes, then most likely you will have to fend off the Wolves for life. That is such an incredibly demeaning and brutal fact to accept; that there really is no getting better. Not permanently. Life is always on the verge of falling down again. And you must live always with that in mind, always keep an eye out for signs of Wolves to come.
So, after all of this, why is life worth living? Is it really such a stretch of the imagination to think that after all of this, someone would seriously consider and plan out how to end their lives? Personally, I believe suicide is a deeply rational response to an extremely irrational situation. People who consider suicide often agonize about it. They are aware of the pain they are going to inflict on their friends and family. They are aware how much they would rather find ANY OTHER OPTION. Suicide is really only something that happens when, in that person’s mind, there is just no other choice.
So we’ve discussed what depression is and what an experience of it might be like. Is it easier now to see why it’s so closely linked to having an existential crisis? Although not everyone undergoing an existential crisis will have depression, it’s often comorbid with it, and I think to some extent everyone dealing with depression has some of the same thoughts and feelings that a person experiencing an existential crisis has.
An existential crisis is a moment when someone questions the most basic foundations about their lives : who they are, what their purpose is, whether anything they do will leave any mark at all. Depression is a real, deeply destructive mental illness that inhibits normal life because of its erosion of meaning, pleasure, self-worth, identity, purpose, connection to others, and the will to keep living.
In the upcoming post I’ll contextualize depression and existential crises amongst my generation, the Millenials. And I’ll close this essay with another post after that attempting to forge some meaning and some hope in spite of all this. Stick with me.
You’re not alone in crisis. I’m with ya too. I got you.
Take care of yourself,
II : M I L L E N N I A L S
III : H O P E