Nothing. They imagined nothing. They looked at blobs of ink and saw blobs of ink. Trauma and depression confiscate your imaginative capacity. Including your capacity to imagine a way out of trauma and depression. Including your ability to imagine anything except “we’re all going to die.” Which is as absolutely true as it is absolutely unhelpful.
Depression cannot imagine a future. When you’re depressed, changing your circumstances feels impossible. Brushing your bloody teeth feels impossible. Especially if your depression is a response to very real, prolonged, and often ongoing trauma. Right now, what many of us are experiencing is a sort of cultural depression, what Patricia Lockwood calls a “fever in the collective head.” It’s easy to feel powerless. This makes depression fantastically useful to those who would rather you stayed powerless.
I don’t have an easy, neat solution for any of this, and I suggest you back away rapidly from anyone who claims to. What I do know is that depression lies. I know, too, that the same muscles that are required to survive an episode of depression are the muscles that are required for what is nebulously called “resistance” to this current dark tide. Yes, this is about about hope—but not in the way we often talk about it.
Hope is not thinking positive thoughts. Hope is not self-delusion. Hope is clinging to the life raft and kicking, even when there is no sight of land. Hope is a muscle. Like most muscles, it hurts like hell at first, but it gets easier as you get stronger, and you get stronger the more routine, seemingly pointless work you put into it. It is possible. It’s not easy. It takes the sort of work, every day, of doing what needs to be done to care for yourself, your community, your society, even when you resent having to do so and would rather lie down for five minutes or five months or the rest of your life. That’s hope. It’s not a mood. It’s an action. It’s behaving as if there might be a future even when that seems patently ridiculous.
I’m in long-term recovery from depression, anxiety, and other related species of headweasel. I’ve had some really quite scary times with it, especially when I was younger. I was lucky enough to have support in dragging myself out of them—I’m a white, middle-class person from a country with socialized medicine. But even with all of those resources, there were times when it got so bad that almost everyone was ready to give up on me. When I was ready to give up on me. I can categorically say that nothing I will ever have to do will be as hard as coming back from those times. As that leap of faith.
There is a standard toolbox for recovery—and it is standard, in a way that humbles and reassures anyone who ever thought their particular flavor of existential dread made them special. Most of it involves repeatedly making yourself do things you really don’t want to do and can’t imagine having the energy for ever again, like cleaning your house and cutting out the booze and getting some goddamn exercise and thinking practically about other people’s needs without getting bogged down by your own shame and guilt, and then getting up and doing it again. Not just once, and not just when you feel ready, because—trust me—you never feel ready. For a long time you won’t be able to see more than a few steps ahead. That’s all right, so long as you keep walking forward.
I was lucky, in many ways, to burn out very early, to have the chance to learn how to survive by ignoring the eminently reasonable voices in and outside my head that tell me how easy it would be to give in. I accepted that recovery wasn’t a one and done deal, that I would be fighting this thing for life. Quite honestly, in what passes for my political life, that’s the attitude that has kept me plodding on. Understanding that the struggle will be lifelong. That there will be times when despair seems reasonable, and when failure seems inevitable—but along the way, there will still be good things. Sausage sandwiches. Videos of dogs getting haircuts and cats getting treats and Nazis getting punched. A new season of Steven Universe. It’s too soon to start getting messy-drunk on the spirit of the age.