There are many different kinds of silence.
There is the silence of a child, mouth open wide drawing in air, who has fallen or otherwise injured himself–the silence every parent knows will soon be replaced by a scream. There is the silence of fear, initiated and enforced by others and their violence or threats of violence, physical or emotional. There is the silence of despair or defeat. Or the silence of indifference to the pain or difficulty of others, even when you know that breaking that silence is necessary to ending that pain or difficulty. There is the silence of confusion; there is the silence of death.
I have gone a good while these past few weeks without posting much on this blog. It happened because I realized that I was depressed, that I had been sliding toward depression for a while–months even. And I realized further that it was time for a pause. Depression is, of course, a mental illness, a very common one, and one from which I have suffered on and off since my late teens (if not before). But for all its commonality and ubiquity, or perhaps because of that, I find it often misunderstood, even by myself.
So often people talk about depression as a kind of profound sadness, an inability to act or enjoy life, a lack of desire to engage. But I don’t think this does the condition justice. In my own case, for example, depression is often accompanied or preceded by anxiety. And my response is not inaction but hyperaction. I begin to do things obsessively, but they are things that bring me no closer to peace or serenity. In the past, I’ve read book after book, watched films or TV programs repeatedly, played computer or video games over and over again. The actions do nothing to deal with the anxiety that is threatening to overwhelm me, but they do distract me from it–for a while.
Depression is too tame a word to describe what lies behind that anxiety. A better word, I think, is despair. I feel in those times a crushing sense of hopelessness about my life, about the failings in my past, the aimlessness of my present, and the lack of prospect (so it seems at the time) for any change in the future. Life feels like a continuous succession of emptiness, and the root of that emptiness is me, something fundamentally wrong with me that will always prevent me from being or doing anything meaningful. I engage in the anxious behavior to keep that despair and self-loathing at bay, sometimes for weeks or even months. But I’m not aware that that’s happening inside me until the diversions cease to work and the depression itself come crashing down.
It can be a terrifying moment, one of incredible loneliness and emptiness. It can also, of course, be literally dangerous. I have known well two people who committed suicide, and it’s not hard for me to imagine the sense of relief they hoped to feel when everything over, so heavy can the weight of that despair be. I feel fortunate never to have quite reached the edge of that precipice.
For myself, the solution I have developed sounds somewhat paradoxical. The first is to express to someone that I am depressed, to let someone know that I’m not functioning as I should or as I’d like to. The reaction of sympathy that I inevitably receive goes a long way toward cracking open the self-loathing I’m feeling at that point. The second piece for me is actually to stop everything but the most essential–in other words, to end the frenzy of anxiety. I try instead to burrow into a cocoon of quiet, of a different kind of silence: the silence of the trees and earth in winter, when everything renews itself; the deep silence of night in the countryside; the silence that precedes and follows every note in every piece of music; the silence of a refreshing sleep, or of time spent sitting, listening to my own breathing.
I have learned to recall, in those times, that some silence is necessary. As a writer, I have reminded myself that words need silence to be heard, to be distinguished from other words, to have impact and meaning. Silence is the ground of expression, the tapestry into which my words are sewn. And when I embrace it and allow it to fill me, rather than the cacophony of despair that can rush over me like a babble of voices, silence can even save my life.