Dealing with depression
I recently had an exchange about the titular topic. I asked for permission to publish an excerpt without disclosing sensitive information, as I always do, but never got a reply (this is the norm and I am fine with it). So I decided to write something new about this topic, something personal. How I dealt with depression. The gist is to be honest with yourself, to seek help, or, at the very least, to do whatever is not actively harming you, and to take things slowly with patience.
It all started when I moved to Brussels to work at the European Parliament circa 2012. Though to understand why, I must share some background information.
At the time, I was still a university student, doing my Bachelor’s degree (the only formal qualification I have). I would work and study. I did all sorts of jobs, such as bartender and construction worker. When I was not working or studying, I would write articles for my website about the then current financial crisis in the Euro Area. The politician who I eventually worked with discovered my blog and kept following my writings. One day I received an email informing me about the matter. The politician did not realise who I was, thinking that I must be a professor or a professional of some sort. This initial contact happened in September 2011.
In January 2012 there was another contact, this time with a job offer. I still was a student and had no qualifications whatsoever. I also had no money to actually travel to Brussels. A friend volunteered to pay the ticket with RyanAir which would take me to Brussels Charleloi airport. I think the cost was ~40 EUR. From there I went straight to the European Parliament with nothing but a small suitcase of a poor fellow’s clothes. I was to become an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament: a person who learnt about me through a blog; a person from a different country; a person from a political group I knew nothing about.
I had mixed feelings from day one. I could hardly believe what was happening. A few days prior, I was working overtime to buy groceries and collect money for the university. Suddenly this. I was in a fancy place. A big building, with lots of powerful people, all wearing expensive clothes, each of them acting all-too-important. I was surprised that I could even be awarded a job in such a place. I never asked for it and had no ambition of the sort. But it was happening and I was happy that such a turn of events was even possible.
Though I never felt part of that group. They were too comfortable. I could not consider myself important. I knew what it meant to economise on slices of bread. It was my reality; a reality that I lived through in silence. The point is that I felt like an outsider and could not muster the enthusiasm to join those people. I now know that there normally are no friends in politics, though at the time I was not aware of that. Still, I found it difficult to be with them.
The affluence I witnessed unsettled me. I was comparing my life of parsimony with the frivolity before my eyes; the kind of cognitively dissonant wastefulness that was accompanied by lofty promises for social reform.
I had thought about quitting many times, but I couldn’t do it because I was in a financially precarious spot. I had to continue working and hope for better days to come. Brussels is an expensive place. I was saving money by practically not having a social life. I had to, else how would I escape? I did not go for expensive dinners, I skipped exhibitions, did not visit any museum, etc. Even at work, I would not join my colleagues for lunch, because a meal would cost ~20 EUR which was simply too expensive. I also did not want to be with them because of that outsider feeling.
I was thus isolated and awkward. I was reluctant to embrace this new world because I did not agree with its values. Though I was already a cog in its machinery. The inner conflict was harming me.
I never talked to anyone. I tried it once with a person who seemed to be sincere. “Seemed” is the operative term. In politics everyone accuses Niccolò Machiavelli for undermining our morality (because of the notion that “the ends justify the means”), but this is just some self-righteous bullshit. In truth, they vindicate what the philosopher understood and what those hypocrites conceal about their actual modus operandi. People will manipulate you, give you hope, play with your emotions, in order to gain something from you. “What” that is will depend on the specifics—it does not matter.
I figured out the charade before it was too late, though I realised there was no-one I could trust. If a seemingly genuine person was nothing of the sort, how could I talk to anyone about my struggles? Perhaps I should have visited a therapist. I had not thought about it at the time, or maybe I did and quickly realised I could not afford it… Not sure, anymore.
All I could do was to mask my feelings. I pretended to be happy and would justify whatever awkwardness as simply me being an eccentric weirdo. A convenient lie, for sure. I was lying to others, though not to deceive them in a Machiavellian way. It was to protect myself from further harm. I had to act like an eccentric because it would otherwise be impossible to explain certain behaviours.
Internally, I was dying. Externally, I was a model professional. First to arrive at the workplace, last to leave. “Will you join us for lunch/dinner/party?” I never did. Instead, I would explain how I was working on this ostensibly super-important task and that I would only meet with them if there was any time left. I took care to never have such time available.
The European Parliament’s official seat is in Strasbourg, even though the real work is done in Brussels. They go to Strasbourg just for the plenary sessions (yes, this is preposterous, but let’s not disturb the Eurocrats). In Strasbourg, you live in a hotel for three nights and will practically mingle with your colleagues at some restaurant. It is a fairly small town. To avoid such interactions, I would leave the office late at night and instead of heading to my hotel room I would go to a bar. I was still consuming alcohol at the time. Bars are the best hideouts and I like them because I worked as a bartender for years. They are comfy. Everybody is drunk, the “high society” does not go to such “lowly” places, the lighting is dim, the music loud. No-one notices you and nobody cares. I would have a whiskey alone in a corner and then make my way for the hotel.
I was a fraud. I was acting in one way while feeling another way. However, it was all internal: I never used anyone as a means in pursuit of my own ends. Even though I was masking my actuality, I did not buy into my lies. I was aware of what was happening. I was honest with myself, but had not yet learnt how to be honest with everyone about everything (something I have since worked on). I also understood that my behaviour with skipping meals was harming my health as I was not eating properly. I knew I had improve my diet, which could not happen while I was at the job.
I had offers to continue working—and with improved terms, no less. I was a model professional, after all. I ignored them and decided to leave that milieu. The pressure I was feeling was too great. I could not put up with the appearances for much longer. I would have exploded. After I quit, I had a lot of money on the side. I spent most days at home with the lights switched off and the windows shut. Though the real darkness was within me. It felt like a prolonged pause. I would sleep, say, for ten hours and would, in theory, have plenty of energy for the day ahead. Though I was exhausted and could barely move. It was like I wanted to go places but was chained to some wall.
I would only leave the place to buy groceries. One day the cashier looked me in the eyes and smiled at me. I had forgotten how that felt. Was it for a split second or an hour? It does not matter. It seemed authentic. Her eyes made me think that way. I never met her again and have no recollection of her overall appearance, though that event reminded me that I was assigning too much importance to things which were actually trivial. I was aggrandising those problems in my head. The cashier did not utter a word yet sounded like a friendly voice: “here, look at how good this is; not everything is gloomy.” She was right in her considerate silence.
I resumed taking walks. I was in the habit of walking back and forth to work, though I stopped completely after I quit. I was still severely damaged emotionally, so I was cautious to avoid busy places and would only walk during working hours or late at night. The physical activity helped revitalise me. I regained my athleticism, which I maintain to this day. Exposure to the sun meant that my sleep cycle would return to normal. I took care of my diet and started regaining control. Everything seems to be back on track, but it wasn’t.
Months later, a friend invited me to his wedding party. I felt I had a duty towards him, as he was closer to me than others. Still, not close enough to know the truth… I thought I was in a better state and could make it, so I accepted the invitation. While at the event, I saluted my friend, his wife, and relatives but was otherwise alone. I was okay with that. At some point I moved to the stand where the beers were placed. I was not familiar with the local brands though eager to grab a bottle at random and hope for a decent outcome. A person who shall be known as “MO” approached and offered advice: this one has a mellow after-taste, that is a local ale… I picked one, issued my thanks, and moved towards the main room where I took a seat by myself.
I was drinking my beer and basically staring at the walls. “MO” showed up some ten minutes later. They asked for a seat, which I gladly offered and we started talking. Apart from the formulaic “where do you know our mutual acquaintance from”, we talked about the interests of “MO”. For some reason people always talk to me about who they are and what they want to do… I am an attentive listener and can tag along without ever talking about myself. “MO” was working in the IT sector but had a background in a combination of anthropology and business. They told me about their ambition to travel the world and use their skills for the greater good. My role in this exchange was to probe for more information: I was genuinely curious!
Up until that point, it did not even occur to me that “MO” approached me in particular for some ulterior reason other than talk about whatever intersection between anthropology and business—there were plenty of seats, after all, and lots of people to talk to. I was happy to find a person at an otherwise unfamiliar place who actually had something to say. In hindsight, “MO” was an all-round interesting person and had good looks as well. Must have been about 10cm taller than me (I am 170cm), short blond hair parted down the middle, a strong jawline, and an athletic build. And yet all I could think about was the subject of our discussion and how I, too, would like to travel the world in pursuit of learning more about humanity.
When “MO” invited me for a dance, I declined. I was not ready to return to normal. I simply told them that I would wait at my seat and take it easy. In the past, this was the sort of situation where I would explain how “eccentric” I was. Rubbish! Though not this time: I was not faking it anymore. I spoke the truth as I recognised my fragility. It was not feasible to put pressure on myself. Maybe “MO” liked me and wanted to explore the possibilities? Or did they just want to dance because they got tired of talking? Who knows? Either way, I could not proceed.
The gist is that I was finding my feet but knew I had to take it slow and be careful not to get dragged into a complicated situation. I eventually moved to the mountains where I still am. At the time, I had not yet developed the mental tools I have now. I was just getting started as a philosopher. All I knew back then was that I had to be in an environment that did not put any pressure on me, starting with the appearances. The poor people of the mountains and the “donkey work” one has to do in such a place have no pretences to intellectuality or significance. They are simple: what you see is what you get.
I did not move to the mountains because I had some special interest in rocks and goats. I did not choose poverty and loneliness because I think there is anything particularly virtuous about them. I simply had to remake myself in a controlled environment. I am a completely different person now. Before, I was honest only with myself. Now I am honest consistently. Before, I was insecure and afraid. Now I am aloof and simply indifferent to what others think. Whether I stay in this remote place for much longer is an unknown. I don’t care about it and would not mind moving someplace else. I fixed what had to be fixed. I can now go anywhere.
Depression for me was like numbness. I was dead inside. I did not feel anything and could not trust anyone. There are several years I have little memory of. I was not living in the moment. Either I was hoping for a better future or was reminiscing about the past when my life was straightforward. I was basically faking it all while placing too much value on expectations and roles.
My experiences made me a philosopher. I learnt what honesty really does to you, as it lifts burdens from your shoulders. I understood the importance of a good diet and the value of an active lifestyle: the unity between mind and body (two analytical constructs which describe facets of a singular system of systems).
When people say things to sound polite like “I want to live a bit like you”, I am inclined to tell them to be careful what they wish for. There is nothing nice about this. It was necessary at a time when I had to perform a leap of faith into the unknown. No mountain, no poverty, no starvation will improve your disposition and make you more resilient. Doing those things for the sake of doing them is tokenistic. Inspect yourself. Be honest about your behaviour and talk to others. Perhaps, then, you will not be left with blank years in your memory. Though even if you do, remember that you only live in the present. Daydreaming about the past or longing for some better future does nothing to your actuality. Implement changes that work in the here-and-now. What happens next? I have no idea.