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  • Writer's pictureDr John Breadon

Depression's siblings? experiences of void, the death drive & Exhaustion

This is a companion blog to the one on depression. These designated 'sibling states' to depression may well be a gateway to what is called clinical depression but may also, just as easily, stop at that very gateway and go no further. We may live within the near-constant swirl of the void, the death instinct, and exhaustion much of the time and still live and function well, or satisfactorily so. My exemplar in this matter is the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett. It is possible to stare into the void and still smile - though no smile is likely to greet you back. For others, though, the very raising of these topics is likely to be condemned as excessively negative or gloomy thinking. But, again, I'm with Beckett. There is too much shiny and facile 'positive-thinking' in the world; too much denial of time's hammer, of death and decay and the often brutal and abrupt changes, the little cycles of death and rebirth, that life inflicts upon us.

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born and one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more. (Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot).

But take care Reader in what what you let in for knowledge can certainly cut and ignorance - from time to time - may be preferable state. As Jonathan Dollimore writes - with his tongue firmly in his cheek I suspect - 'The secret of happiness is insensitivity'. (Desire: A Memoir, p.146)

You never suspected what lay hidden in yourself and in the world, you were living contentedly at the periphery of things, when suddenly those feelings of suffering which are second only to death itself take hold of you and transport you into a region of infinite complexity, where your subjectivity tosses about in a maelstrom. (E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, p.5)

To begin with I will sketch out some ideas relating to the (highly interconnected) notions of the void (or just Void), the Death Instinct (or Drive) and exhaustion. Therapy often ends up dealing with these subjects because, in no small part, there are relatively few other places in our culture where darkness, depression, and death can be openly talked about without fear of judgement or of ruining someone's evening.

Void, as Buddhism tells us over and over again, is what our lives are built on - if anything can be said to be built on nothing. The self in this perspective is really no-thing at all - it is a temporary pocket of energy held in flesh. There is nothing in us that stays the same or isn't subject to change and alteration. But knowing Void is not necessarily a cause for depression - hence the question mark in my title. It can in fact be a cause for joy. The joy comes from knowing and then applying this truth to our lives. But this is pretty counter-cultural and counter to one half of our base human instincts. I have met many clients who suffer with various types of death phobia. They deeply lament their impermanence and cannot abide their ultimate unimportance. I think in this respect the bigger one's ego the harder it will be to lay it aside when our time to depart comes. But Emptiness can actually be a relief and a matter of gaining a more accurate perspective and clarity on the nature of things. The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor writes,

To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable. (Buddhism Without Beliefs, p. 80)

Iris Murdoch, my favourite novelist, also happened to be a rather good philosopher.

She began her professional philosophical life as an existentialist (the branch of philosophy that has given most to the enterprise of therapy, incidentally). Though it would eventually be eclipsed by her love of Plato she never gave up her sense - which was taken from her interest in Buddhism as well - that life is a walk on a tightrope thrown over an abyss (which is a metaphor borrowed from Nietzsche, another existentialist). In her last work of serious philosophic insight - Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) - she writes a moving and richly textured chapter simply called 'Void'. Murdoch starts with the reality of suffering and its myriad forms:

Even in sheltered lives there is black misery, bereavement, remorse, frustrated talent, loneliness, humiliation, depression, secret woe ... it is not easy to discuss such a matter or to take it as a single subject. (p. 499)

Where she really starts to focus on experiences of Void (as emptiness) is via bereavement:

In such cases there is a sense of emptiness, a loss of personality, a loss of energy and motivation, a sense of being stripped, the world is utterly charmless and without attraction ... Duties perceived in this emptiness may be a source of healing. There is no one there, but the pain is there and the tasks ... Ultimately we are nothing. (p. 500)

The Void is present in the therapy room too, though more often than not, it is a-voided. There is plenty of talk, as in Murdoch's essay, about suffering as something active - racing thoughts, the experience of ungovernable and lively emotions like anger and desire - but a detached observance that we humans are essentially nothing rarely comes up. Murdoch again:

When we find our ordinary pursuits trivial and senseless are we not right to do so? The experience of emptiness may be a shock soon forgotten, or a lifelong reminder, a moral inspiration, even a liberation, a kind of joy. Of course, one's persona or self-protective personality or 'life illusion' is part of one's working gear as a human being; yet, as we are occasionally given to perceive, it is extremely fragile ... We must experience the reality of pain, and not fill the void with fantasy. (p. 501-2)

Moving further in this direction edges us nearer our second term - the Death Instinct - and this can be seriously uncomfortable territory.

Freud thought as profoundly about death as any philosopher and though his death instinct theory has never been amongst his more popular or accepted ideas there is still much worth to be had in pondering it. What I say here is only the bare bones of his theory, if even that. His concern with death's centrality was very personal. He experienced the death of a daughter and a grandson; he suffered terribly with cancer of the mouth in his latter years (though never once thought of giving up his beloved cigars).

Freud understood life to be defined by the tussle between two linked but essentially opposing forces - thanatos and eros, death and life (or desire). Most of the time desire wins; we crave and consume, we lust after and we long for. Whether it be the next sofa, or lover, or holiday or career, we burn ourselves up in projects of desire. The intensity of desire tends to follow the arc of human development - it starts off with a child's sponge brain and then, as desires get satisfied and the body wears out, we turn more towards consolidation and stasis. Clinical depression can of course disrupt this arc: we may be in our chronological prime but we are sick of life and desire nothing but the end of it. Freud understood that dissatisfaction runs to the heart of desire; enough is never enough; human hunger for more than simply food is insatiable. This can lead, he supposed, to a longing to go back. The urge to regress is everywhere in Freud. But not simply back to the day before we had our latest desire fulfilled. No; back to those earliest stages of life when we hardly had to expend any of our own energy on our longings and needs. In the womb we did nothing but still got everything we needed; or as a baby we cried and the world came running. The breast fed us, hands held us. What's not to like? So the thinking goes for Freud- death is like this. For in that place (which is really no place) need will be unneeded, desire becomes meaningless, jangling discontent and nervous excitation of our nerves will never come our way again. There is something rich and interesting going on here to be sure; an invitation to jump into the deep end of life's paradoxes without simplistic labelling of people as either sheep (healthy) and goats (sick). And just because we have moments of desiring death, a return to the blissful O, doesn't mean we are depressed and should start taking anti-depressants. This is where Exhaustion completes our unholy trinity of terms.

As Freud rightly saw, desiring is tiring, life is tiring. More precisely, adult life has plenty in it that drives us towards catastrophic wearisomeness. But can 'weariness of life' really be grounds for wanting to die? Well, yes; just look at how that very phrase is used by some applicants to Dignitas the Swiss euthanasia service. But the following caveat is important: many of us feel exhausted much of the time, in our souls as well as in our bodies, but we won't necessarily go on to take our own lives. But the very thought - and it may recur daily, weekly or yearly - can feel like part of us has already moved over to the side of death.

What is most apparent to me now, having written this reflection, is the importance of the social and cultural aspects of exhaustion. This is about the deep and embedded structures that shape how we truly live in our 24/7 culture. But there is much more to this than online shopping at 2am. It is about ideas becoming realities in the sinews of our bodies. What I mean is the whole system of working to succeed, and success as the gateway to more choice, and the equating of more choice with more freedom, that is stitched into the very nature of the capitalist project. In and of themselves these may be good and noble ideas but swallowed whole they can become oppressive and exhausting.

At the root of things here, again, is desire; but now we desire without limit - we see everything that might be ours and what we might become but we know in our heart of hearts we will never acquire all those things or ever become that person. At this some shrug and settle for a more realistic view of the world and their place in it. Others feel like wretched losers and fall into depression. One cultural commentator states the situation thus:

Depression presents itself as an illusion of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. (Alain Ehrenberg, The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age).

Life is a precarious business. We are made of the Void after all. But we are not programmed robots, nor children forever, thank God, hopelessly at the mercy of every thought or bodily desire or the next 'perfect' person set before us on social media. In other words, we have a degree of power to change the tunes we dance to - to change what we gaze at, who we talk to, how we soothe and love our troubled and depressed selves. It is working through such a humane project that good therapy should always aim to find space for. Void is our destiny but being overworked and undervalued in the office surely doesn't have to be. What might we do with our reflective minds if we had time and space enough to get to know not just ourselves but the great bright Abyss that gave us all life and will reclaim us in the end?

Photo by cottonbro studio:



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