09.11.2020 Personal + Spiritual Growth

Deconstructing the Anatomy of Melancholy

Shelley Kashyap
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Imagine having a runny nose. It’s the middle of the night, you’re laying in your bed. The tissue box is just out of reach, and your nose keeps running. You know the logical thing to do: get up, grab a tissue, and wipe your poor nose. But you just can’t do it. You’re not physically paralyzed and it’s not the childish laziness of not wanting to expend the effort… you simply can’t make yourself grab the tissue box. You can’t see any point in grabbing the box and assuaging your nasal situation — because then what? You’ll fall back asleep and the sun will rise on yet another day where you get haphazardly thrown around the randomness of harsh people and scenarios for no good reason. It’ll be another pointless set of hours, like all the other days — and who wants to deal with that? 

So you lay for hours with a runny nose and don’t reach for the tissue. 

That’s depression, and it’s not something one can easily explain to someone who hasn’t felt it firsthand. It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest words for depression was melancholia, aka: melancholy. 

This was during a time when treatment for depression in the Western world included execution or being locked up. In the 17th century, Robert Burton published a book called the Anatomy of Melancholy, which acknowledged the medical aspects of mental illness, to some extent. Since then, many esteemed intellectuals including Sigmund Freud have tried to hypothesize depression and its treatments. Lobotomies became a popular approach in the late 20th century: surgically cutting off the prefrontal cortex apparently calmed patients down, but subsequently impaired their ability to make decisions and conduct important business. 

Today we still try to dissect the anatomy of melancholy, but in a much less literal fashion. Sometimes there is no tangible reason for our depression, but that doesn’t make the experience any less valid or trying. At other times, depression comes about as a result of tragic circumstances: the death of a loved one, failing to achieve an important goal, the loss of a job. These issues sometimes manifest differently across cultural lines — in India, for example, the leading cause of suicide is parental pressure in youth education. In other words, students will associate their self-worth with their grades, the issue is exacerbated by extreme parental pressure, and then the deep abyss of failure takes over everything else. In the United States, it’s easy to imagine the same process amongst young people, with body image issues, financial trouble, and social issues thrown in.

Another facet of industrial culture that has swept through the world that contributes to depression is the need to be getting something, buying something, achieving something, or doing something. Everything is a means to an end and we constantly live our lives wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else. We’re all plagued by feeling that we’re not enough and don’t have nearly enough time to accomplish everything that we are required by society to do. Life becomes a set of goals to be met. 

But who are we performing for? What prison of ideas keeps us locked onto a stage, curating our lives for our Instagram feed, trying to present favorable images of ourselves to all the people in our lives?

If we stopped constructing our lives according to the dictates of societal approval, what would they look like? If we stopped letting consumerism rule our thoughts, if we stopped measuring our existence in terms of the items and experiences we want to buy, what would our thoughts look like? 

It starts with perception. While perception won’t always make a difference (considering depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain that we’re not completely in control of) sometimes it can be just the shift we need.

There is no question that depression is like a dark cloud settling over our minds. If you only look at the clouds once in a while, they appear to be still. They appear to be permanent. Therefore, even though we intellectually know that the earth is rotating, that days pass into nights, that sunsets pass into moonrises — the heavens appear to stand still because we only ever glance up for a celestial snapshot. If we were to look up for long enough, if we were to turn off the mental chatter of our minds for a moment and just be in the world, we would see that clouds do move even in their perceived stillness. 

Depression operates in a similar fashion. It seems like the draining morass that invaded our minds has taken up permanent residence, that it’s only a matter of time before we’re swallowed up by the black hole. But that’s not true — this too shall pass. The soul-sucking negativity will slip away from us in time, as everything does, leaving us space to channel greatness. And if you feel like you have no supply of splendor to draw from… just remember that each of us is imbued with the light and creativity of an entire universe. 

Shelley Kashyap is a writer and painter who is inspired by surrealist art, 2000’s pop punk, House of Cards, the UN, and Orange County.

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