Like a lot of people, I’ve become a big fan of Hyperbole and a Half in the past couple years, and like a lot of people I was initially drawn in by cartoonist Allie Brosh’s account of her struggles with depression. Mental illness memoir is heavily-tilled ground at this point, but through a combination of plain-spoken humor and winningly primitive drawings she finds a new way to tell an old story.
What Brosh does particularly well is describe the sense of dissociation that depression brings. The hate-everything-too-tired-to-get-out-of-bed feeling is definitely something you’re experiencing, but it is also so odd, so out of proportion to your observable surroundings, that it also seems like something your brain is doing to you. It is as if some alien has taken temporary control of your emotions and body and is dragging you along for the ride. The simultaneous awareness of this dissociation and inability to express it is the crux of Brosh’s hilarious bit about the dead fish.
Our current understanding of depression focuses on the biochemical aspect of things, and even if you take this framing to be the latest swing of the nature/nurture pendulum, there are depressed people who are clearly helped by drugs or electroshock therapy. For them, depression is like a tumor, something part of your body but not part of you. Though originating in your flesh, it at some point becomes separate, so that its removal allows the real you to reemerge.
But what is the real you? Presumably the undepressed one. The one that sleeps eight hours a night, has friends and a job and proceeds through the day on an even keel with a sense of measured optimism. As a way of getting through life, this is the right attitude to adopt, but take a step back and you see the Cartesian dualism underlying the common sense. You possess an essential core that is distinguishable from both external buffeting and internal malfunction. This is the familiar improbable story about the little homunculus that lives inside your skull, steering your body like a puppet, except this homunculus is fundamentally happy.
Brosh opens her best piece, “Depression Part Two”, with a description of the exuberance she felt as a small child. It’s an experience we all recognize–playing with toys, making up stories–but she brings out the way the happiness is so unbidden. “I didn’t understand why it was fun for me, it just was.” Childhood exuberance is something visited from the outside that she runs with. Depression is its inverse–the closing of one spigot and the opening of another. This still squares with the story of the happy homunculus, though, because she’s talking about herself as a child. When you are young and unformed, you have no essential core, and can be buffeted about by external happiness. Later, that sense of contentment solidifies into the true, internal you. Things can go wrong which cut you off from this true self, but it’s still there somewhere. Maturation is the process of moving the happiness inside.
Definitely the right attitude to adopt. It’s impossible not to believe in the little person inside your skull, so you might as well posit its essential contentment. But consider another possibility, one that may very well be true even if you never fully feel it. The sense of unbidden external happiness that Brosh presents as a feature of childhood is actually just a feature of being alive. If you as a fully-formed self-determined adult feel exuberance, it is just because some particular set of external circumstances and brain chemicals have aligned. It falls into the same you-but-not-you category into which we put adult depression. For that matter, why focus on extremes like exuberance and depression? Sure it’s at those emotional high points when we feel like we’ve temporarily surrendered control–the homunculus has taken its hands off the wheel and let the world steer for a moment. But what if that’s the case even in our unremarkable moments? No homunculus, no steering wheel, not even a clear distinction between the parts of the world that lie inside and outside of your skull. You don’t live life. Life