Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that a man unexpectedly pardoned from execution by the state would know an “eternity of moments.” Mental illness works the same way. ‘Dysphoric anhedonia,’ commonly known as depression, is a mental illness characterized by chronic apathy, dissociation, lassitude, and suicidal ideation. Health Canada has determined in recent years that 11% of men and 16% of women will experience episodic “major depression” in their lives.
Until recent years, I classified depression as a lack of flexible perspective. I believed that it was brought on by an inability to appreciate the good things in life, or by a tendency to fixate on the bad. This was before I knew the plateau. To me, the plateau is best described as being at the pinnacle of a tower, like battlements scaled by knights in medieval folklore. Towers represented the scope of human imagining. I saw them as good for one of two things; rescuing, or jumping off of. For instance, consider Frodo Baggins from the widely beloved “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. Frodo climbs Mount Doom to destroy the fated One Ring To Rule Them All. When he gets there, he hesitates, unsure whether swapping godlike power for the utilitarian Good Of All is such a great idea after all. Smeagol, the former owner of the ring, stalks Frodo to the tower, eventually wrests the ring from him, and winds up plummeting to his death. People climb towers for a living. Dostoevsky called them anthills, in his existentialist masterpiece “Notes From Underground,” but it’s the same thing. Everything, all human endeavour, is trite distraction, or so I thought then.
In my mind, life was a religious experience. Meaning, it’s good to work for an overall thing, like an ideal job or a girl or a sum of money, so long as you realize that all achievements are just smaller milestones to achieving the Thing-In-Itself. The famous philosopher Plato called beauty a Form, meaning that while all things are representations of it, one can never know the Thing-In-Itself, beauty. I once saw God this way, and for a time chose to classify life in a similar way. You do things to distract yourself from an ever-present malaise, a nausea of the brain. Once you eventually reach the top of your tower…achieve your stepping-stone ‘goal,’ in other words…you reach the plateau. The plateau is a place devoid of form. It’s an endless marshmallow horizon that you can run towards forever but never, ever reach. The place is bereft of potential.
For example, insomnia is a common symptom of depressed people. I used to go for early-morning walks after sleepless nights, believing that I had achieved the impossible, that I was living in the perennial tomorrow. I saw that the tomorrows still outnumbered the yesterdays in my life, and I was scared. I looked to the ground, saw a rock there, and looked away in distaste, because…it was only a rock. Depression is losing the capacity to symbolize, to empathize, to see potential in things. When emotions do come, they’re always flood tides which make you feel like you’re a fish discovering water for the first time, and realizing that you can’t breathe in it.
By the time I had a year and a half of this under my belt, I needed a catalyst. Formerly a university student making good marks and working two jobs, I had become a despondent twenty-something living out of his mother’s basement. There were two options for me; seeking help, or suicide. I eventually decided to go to a local hospital to seek treatment. If it didn’t work, I told myself that I could always revert to Plan B after the fact.
After the longest bus ride of my life, I found myself relegated to a holding cell, which struck me as funny at the time. It was like a literal rendering of the reality that I had known for so long. It was hard for me to understand why I was hearing muffled shouts from the other cells, not really processing at the time that some people were there against their will. In time, I would learn that there are generally three kinds of inpatients on mental health wards. These are court-ordered people referred to psychiatric care by legal custody, people brought to hospital by concerned relatives/social workers, and people like myself, who were there voluntarily.
Following a lengthy chat with an insipid physician who reminded me, mannerism-wise, of Dexter from the television show Dexter, I was officially committed to the mental health ward under a Form 1. According to the Ontario Mental Health Act, a patient may be admitted to hospital involuntarily for up to 72 hours for ‘observation.’ At the time, I remember feeling vaguely reassured that someone was aware of the dire nature of the problem, that help was on its way. My doctor was a nice guy, though finding the ‘right’ doctor for mental health problems is a process about as hard as finding true love. The physicians and nurses who I dealt with over the month and a half of my commitment period were very ‘nice;’ amiable, understanding, constructive, etc. During my first night on the ward, I had a nurse who pretty well left her rotation to listen to me ramble on for three hours. Staff were there to listen, and, for the first time in a very good while, I felt like I was being heard. All the same, I had many reservations, a certain wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing sense of foreboding. This is, from what I understand, common for people in my position. Though the professionals on the ward were clearly doing their jobs to the best of their ability, a sense of obligation permeated the whole thing. In such circumstances, one feels like a burden testing the waters of professional restraint and training, an alien subject not necessarily cared for ‘as a person’ but as an interesting clinical anomaly. At one point, my psychiatrist referred to me as a ‘philosophical navel gazer,’ a diagnosis I wholeheartedly agree with.
What really made all the difference for me on that ward was not the doctors, or the nurses, or the support staff, or the ubiquitous surveillance straight out of an Orwellian schizophrenic’s wet dream. No, what really counted for me were the other inpatients there. They were a motley group of people, ranging from the affluent to the poor, from the young to the old, from the upstanding citizen to the criminal. I met a woman there old enough to be my grandmother, who had been sent to a psychiatric ward due to some ambiguous red tape with finding a retirement facility. My roommates included a guy who could have been Jack Nicholson’s twin brother and turned out to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, a brilliant scientist who had run into some hard times, a misanthropic drug addict with a young family, and one of the only real ‘family men’ I’ve ever known, with an eight year old daughter who could provide a working definition of mental illness. I met an empathic Christian about my own age, too. He believed with a fervour I have never seen before, took enough medication every day to knock out a baby rhinoceros, and probably would have been heralded as a saint in another age. I met and spoke with a former Hell’s Angel. There were mothers there too; teenage moms with post-partum depression, middle-aged Scrabble-playing mothers whose college-age sons avoided my eyes, and silver-haired matriarchs with endless reminiscences to share.
All of these people had one thing in common. They shared an immutable stigma which united them in solidarity against a world which would have singled them out. I would not have had anything in common with them anywhere else, but we were the closest of friends there. The local psychiatric ward became, for me, what countless corporate restructuring programs and political ideologies have tried to do on a larger scale. Formerly a pariah, I found myself organically part of a larger ‘group.’ While depressed, you become cognizant of just how much of the world is outside of your ‘control.’ Your body functions without you, the world unfolds of itself, shadows suffuse every waking moment of your life without you consciously knowing or willing it. You become humble. The hospital, for me, was the other 99.9%.
The “eternity of moments” for me now is in the small things. Brushing my teeth is no longer a feat of herculean energy. Showering is within the realm of the feasible. I savour the small things.