Maintenance of Depression

The following sections examine some of the reasons that individuals suffering from depression may inadvertently or intentionally seek to maintain it, and the various methods they use to accomplish this task. Depression often results in a rupture in an individual’s sense of connection with others and the world. When this occurs and the person begins to lose hope, she may begin to cling to her symptoms and depressive experiences as a representation of unarticulated pain. In this way, depression itself becomes an object of attachment, and hope comes to represent something threatening and dangerous. The various defense mechanisms commonly seen in depression are explored, as these tend to contribute to its maintenance.


Unbelieving in language, the depressive persons are affectionate, wounded to be sure, but prisoners of affect. The affect is their thing. The Thing is inscribed within us without memory, the buried accomplice of our unspeakable anguishes.

(Kristeva, 1989, p. 14)

Some people caught in the throes of subjective darkness may at times seem attached to their depression or invested in the maintenance of it. How can this be? Countless people have described the excruciating agony that is depression. So why would anyone become attached to his own misery and actively resist change? Probably for the same reason that anyone is resistant to change: even though depression is both the manifestation and the cause of distress, it is a familiar mode of navigating daily life. Depression is a solution that serves a function for every individual, despite the fact that at some point it becomes a maladaptive one. For someone who is without hope, the effects of removing the depression and the defenses that keep it in place are, in some respects, equivalent to making the individual naked and defenseless, completely disoriented from everything he knows about the world, himself, and how to navigate it.

Depressive experience is often so entrenched in the individual’s subjectivity that it is difficult to extricate it without posing a serious threat. “Even positive affect may be warded off as a threat to inner stability, whereas negative affect becomes safer, less vulnerable or volatile” (Charles, 2000, p. 70). The irony is that depression can signify the annihilation of one’s self (Eigen, 2006) or the fear of it, but the idea of its removal can be equally destructive. If there is pain and agony, disappointment, emptiness, and being alone, they are at least expectable conditions and outcomes of life from the depressive vantage point. To suggest that things might be different, to introduce hope, can at times feel impossibly dangerous. It is becoming invested in the hope of joy, and the disappointment that results from that loss, that is the most dangerous—more dangerous even than an existence of continued misery.

In some cases, subjective darkness may be the last barrier between an individual and a complete flight from reality, whether that is in the form of psychosis, suicide, or any other form of retreat from life. Kristeva (1989) says that the maintenance of depressive defenses is “the ‘normal’ surface of a psychotic risk: the sadness that overwhelms us, the retardation that paralyzes us are also a shield—sometimes the last one—against madness” (p. 42). In fact, subjective darkness is, in some respects, a heightened awareness of the negative aspects of existence: the loss, the pain, the suffering, the despair, and the emptiness. But it is not a complete rejection of those things. Although people who are depressed may have distorted perceptions of reality, and they may even fantasize about death or make attempts to leave the world through suicide, they are still very actively engaged in the attempt to make sense of their existence, or are actively mourning the loss of the capacity to do so.

In a discussion of Schneider’s theory on “depressive psychopathy,” Klein and Vocisano (1999) note the tendency of people with depressive psychopathy to overvalue their suffering and to view others with more optimistic, cheerful outlooks as superficial or perhaps naive. According to Schneider, they frequently see suffering as meritorious, and “there is a tendency to establish an aristocracy of discomfort” (Klein & Vocisano, 1999, p. 654), as if there is a sense of superiority to be found in being attuned to the “true” nature of a negative world, and all others who maintain a sense of balance or happiness are precariously misguided.

This tendency to value a depressive outlook can lead people who are struggling with subjective darkness to form an attachment to their suffering as if it were a primary object. Individuals who are severely depressed sometimes lack the feeling of a whole, integrated self, or at least the sensation of a living one. The sense of alienation and social withdrawal that often accompanies such darkness leaves people feeling alone, without any objects to fulfill attachment needs. Therefore, in the absence of all other connections, they may learn to derive gratification from an attachment to suffering. Suffering then becomes the object to which it is safe to cling. Although life is often experienced in a very dismal, pessimistic way, for some there is a sense of nobility in the awareness of all that is negative. In this way, a depressive perspective can function as an object in the place of actual relationships with people who would reject or disprove it, and therefore reject or provide evidence to the contrary of a core part of the individual’s personality and subjective experience. Sometimes, in light of feelings of blankness, deadness, emptiness, or the perception of a lack of a positive identity, assuming the role of a “depressed person” can fulfill those identity needs.

According to Klein and Vocisano (1999), people with depressive personality disorder tend to have an outlook that is characterized by gloom and pessimism. They frequently feel guilt and shame over their shortcomings, which are magnified by incredibly high standards that border on perfectionism. They are often disappointed in themselves when they fail to reach these unattainable standards and feel let down by others who are also unable to meet their expectations. Ironically, this serves to reinforce the initial pessimistic attitudes. Individuals with a depressive personality experience a distinct lack of enjoyment in their lives, and they tend not to seek out opportunities that might provide this type of fulfillment:

People with depressive personality take life too seriously. They shun opportunities for enjoyment because they feel undeserving of happiness. Joy in the present does not offer refuge from their pessimism, and neither does review of the past. Looking back, individuals with depressive personality disorder dwell on failures and experience guilt and remorse about what they did, and failed to do. Hope for the future is similarly truncated; they worry a great deal and anticipate the worst. (Klein and Vocisano, 1999, p. 653)

This is aligned with the negativistic cognitive schemas described by Beck and Alford (2009), in which instances that reinforce the negative are perceived in abundance, and any contrary experience (i.e., receiving a compliment, achieving success, or demonstrating competence) either goes completely unacknowledged or is attributed to external circumstances rather than to internal characteristics.

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