How David Foster Wallace Helps Me Battle Depression

March 10, 2016

My Depression Is a Hipster

One thing I noticed about fellow depression suffers is that we often share a serious dislike of platitudes. On the one hand, when I am depressed, this makes the most sense in the world. There are usually two reactions to telling someone that you’re depressed. The first is to be quiet, look away, and change the subject. The second is to start applying various inspirational phrases. Although I always rationally know that people mean well, in some sense it kind of feels like standing over someone with a gunshot wound and screaming the lyrics to “Tomorrow” from Annie. The sun may come out tomorrow, but the gunshot wound needs a little more than that.

That being said, my depressed brain has a very different way of looking at the world from my non-depressed brain. G.K. Chesterton once said that madness isn’t the absence of logic, but rather the absence of anything other than logic. “Poets do not go mad,” he said in Orthodoxy, “but chess-players do.”

It is entirely possible to be logical and be totally wrong. Logic is kind of like building blocks. You can build a lot on a faulty original premise. The trouble with depression logic is that the first premise has a microscopic focus on every bad thing in the universe. This isn’t at all difficult to do since the news thrives on misfortune. There is no end of information to logically back up a depressed person’s first premise. If you feel like life is too short to accomplish anything, or humanity is essentially bad, or you have no value and are too small in the grand scheme of things, there is no end of information and truths that can be fitted to back up how you feel. I have found a sort of depression-pride that pops up, some sort of mental denial. “I’m not being depressed. They are just irrational, silly people who think life matters in an ever-expanding universe. They should be more like me, paralyzed in bed, curled in the fetal position.”

It is incredibly difficult for non-depressed me to talk to depressed me because depressed me has all kinds of arguments. Non-depressed me likes nice cups of tea, fluffy animals, pretty sunsets, and flowers. Non-depressed me doesn’t have to argue for the value of happiness. Depressed me doesn’t remember how happy feels and has a hundred arguments for why it’s just an illusion.
The trouble with this is that regardless of whether or not depressed me is technically right about, say, the size of the universe, it does nothing for me or anyone I know to just wallow in the knowledge. My depression isn’t interested in just building water-tight arguments about nihilism. It also wants to keep me away for an entire week, only to spend entire days in bed. It destroys my health, hurts my ability to interact with other people, and makes it very hard for me to stand up for myself. After all, my depression is ever ready with a pile of great arguments for why I don’t actually matter, so why stand up to bullies?

I know that some people claim that depression makes people selfish, and maybe that could appear to be true in some cases. But, in my experience, depression can make people give too much. The trouble is, if people around you are used to depressed-you, you-the-doormat, they get pretty put-out when you finally snap at someone.

For most of my life, I have tried to work around having depression, which does work to an extent since most people have no idea that I struggle with it. People near me gave me affirmations, which made me feel like I should hurry up and get better because I must be such a burden to everyone. Like I said, depression-brain doesn’t always take to platitudes.

It was in the midst of one of these frantic scrambles to feel better without actually addressing why I was feeling horrible, that I started reading Infinite Jest. This is exactly the kind of thing depression-me thinks is a good idea. “Feeling down? Try an infamously difficult book about drug addictions, corporate domination, suicide, deadly movies, and tennis!”


David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, was only known to me at that time as the literary celebrity who wore that bandana. It wasn’t until reading his work that I began to read about who he was, including his life-long struggle with depression. Wallace’s work is often seen as this pretentious, weighty tome only bothered by hipsters at liberal arts colleges. Honestly, I don’t think he would have liked that at all. He observes: “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

The sentimental nature of most affirmations has always been what has turned off my depressed brain. I can also say that it has kept me from being fully human. Non-depressed me doesn’t need to rationally explain why fun is fun, or that warm cups of tea are inherently delightful. Fun and delight are feelings and very human, as are the ability to be confident, stand up for myself, laugh, fail, get angry, and even be healthily sad. Depression isn’t sadness. It’s a choking inability to feel correctly about anything. Depressed me cannot handle sentimentality and human goo-prone-ness.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that David Foster Wallace also suffered from addiction and 20 years of depression. He tragically took his own life in 2008. I read articles and listened to interviews, trying to figure out why someone who managed to say the right words to shut up my depression (because depression has a very loud voice and doesn’t like to be interrupted), had lost his fight with the very same monster. I couldn’t find any answers, only that depression is complex and affects people differently. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I know or even understand, but rather that those words managed to reach me.

There are many sources and listicles on fighting depression, things my depressed brain would dislike out of hip cynicism. My depression is a hipster and doesn’t like to take genuine, un-ironic pleasure in anything. There are also articles about using logic to combat depression-thinking. I believe a great deal of cognitive behavioral therapy is based on this, although I am not a psychologist. I began to think, if I had found these suggestions sentimental and left them untried, what might happen if I decided to go ahead and try them? It’s much harder to actually live one day at a time than it is to say the phrase.Because

Because depressed-me is obsessively logical and likes everything laid out in lists, I have created my Happy Plan: A Logical Approach to Making Myself Feel Happy When I Can’t Stop Thinking About the Nature of Time and the Vastness of the Universe. I have scheduled sleeping and waking time. I have scheduled journaling, short meditations, times to go for a walk, play with the dog, draw, paint, write, nap, read, drink cups of tea, spend time in the sun, do happy arts, exercise, get outside, do yoga… It’s all in neat, short time slots, between work hours. My plan is to use orderly logic to break down depressed-me’s arguments, including a daily log of every good and happy thing that happened in the last 24 hours. I have also decided to actually pay attention to the health books and blogs that list foods for happiness and healthy living and purchase groceries, teas, and essential oils.

These are, incidentally, the same suggestions doctors have given me that I have never actually managed to get around to trying with any kind of dedication. I have had a strong interest in clean, healthy living, but one can be as clean as possible and still unhealthy if missing certain food groups or skipping meals.

A part of me is feeling much more secure looking at my lists. This is how one celebrated author led me to appreciate self-help. Wallace wrote about loneliness, about how the feelings of being clever or important can be intrinsically connected to self-destruction, the basic work of adulating. He also said that fiction is about what it means to be a human being, and in the end, that sentimental stuff is what everything is about.

Related: How I Overcame Depression through Daily Walks

How Yoga Helped Me Overcome Depression

How I Overcame Depression by Becoming a Mindful Vegan

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Photo: Volkan Omez via Unsplash

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Chloe Donaldson is a recent MA graduate, with a degree in creative writing. She enjoys arts, travel, and adventures. When not exploring the outdoors, she teaches English and spends time painting pictures, cooking, and drinking an abundance of tea.

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