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Existential Depression? Another Piece of the Puzzle

Posted Jun 14 2010 12:00am

I have been trying, for years, to make sense of my illness . To gain some sort of understanding of why and where it all began. It has been like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle when you’re not quite sure what the end image is, nor when the next piece will come.

Most of them have emerged during my recovery . It was hard, before then, to see beyond the food. Now, I follow the clashes, and the discussion and the flashes of insight; and the puzzle is coming steadily along.

I no longer expect it to be completed.

Last week, I read an article on (as you do); and another piece started to emerge. It has been gradually gaining definition until I understand what it is trying to say.

I think, in essence, that I experienced some sort of existential depression; and, that my eating disorder provided a safer distraction and a sense of order that took the focus off the wider world which, to me, simply didn’t make any sense.

It’s a difficult concept that I’m still trying to work through, so forgive me if I’m clumsy with my words while I try and explain…

What the article says

I‘m not hot on the definition of “gifted” kids, and don’t know that I’d place myself under this heading; but, categorisation aside, (by James Webb) is exploring why “gifted” kids might be more likely to slip into existential depression with some ideas around how this could be avoided.

“Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or “ultimate concerns”)–death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?”

“When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. ….

…The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at “fate” or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.

In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of “unfairness.” Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one’s life. …”

Where it makes sense to me

I remember sitting at the piano, when I was about 8, feeling the world getting larger around me whilst I started to disappear. I remember my dog dying, at 7; and the nights then spent lying in bed staring at the diagonal rows of flowers on the wallpaper, wondering when it would happen to my family or me.

I remember that stomach-turning question of where does the universe end – and what is after the end? I remember the desperation of feeling like I was being swallowed up by a huge daunting world….

And time stood still.

I had my meaning and I had the illusion of control.

And now?

Time has re-started now. I only learnt the term ‘existential’ as I had a major panic attack and was flung back into the acute sense of nothingness on the way to work one day. It turned out, later, to be classic ‘existential angst’. I think it’s more common when you’re older, so I am slightly less perturbed or, at least, I appreciate that hiding from the world’s not the best way to manage it.

It helps, somewhat, to realise that I was not – and am not – alone.

It also helps to get a little insight into what was going on, back then, so that I can let that little bit go and continue moving on.

The full article is on the Davidson Institute website and can be read .

Related Posts: Life-And Death ; “We perished, each alone” .

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