Surely everyone who has ever been seriously depressed has felt at some time like just giving up. I don’t just mean committing suicide, although that is often not far from the backs of our minds; I merely mean throwing our hands up in despair and sitting on the ground, like rebellious toddlers, and refusing to take part in life anymore. Sometimes this feeling comes from some silly event. The other day I knocked over a glass of white wine. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t face clearing it up, but the event was imbued with some great significance. I am reminded of the scene at the end of the movie 2001, when the ageing Bowman eats his solitary dinner and then knocks over the glass on his table with his cuff; that clearly means something (although I have never been quite sure what). My broken glass signified for me that everything is pointless; all things come to an end, usually rather quickly. I just wanted to sit down and cry. I had had enough.
Sometimes I do some mundane repetitive task and think there must be more to life than this. I know I’m thinking a cliché, and that in fact my life is relatively comfortable, interesting, and good, but that knowledge doesn’t help. Doing the rubbish, collecting the trash, can often bring me to total despair. Looking at the toilet thinking I should clean it again. It’s the again bit that gets me most. Emptying the dishwasher. Washing the bedding. I feel despair wash over myself as I think, not again. This daily routine is killing me. On a good day I will wonder how many more times I will have to empty the dishwasher or clean the toilet before I die; on a bad day I think I can’t face doing it one more time. It is all ultimately so pointless.
The final words in the great Kenneth Williams’ diaries were “Oh, what is the bloody point?”. It is still debated whether his death was suicide or an accidental overdose, but for me that last entry can have only one meaning.
When the world ends I will have a cold, so I won’t be able to treat even Armageddon with the concentration and focus it deserves. Big Things always happen when I feel unwell. The rest of the time it’s the accumulation of little things, the endless repetition of life, that gets me down. Doesn’t everyone worry that at the very best, when they brush their teeth they’re just going to have to do it again a few hours later, and at worst, this time might be the last that we ever do it? Or does everyday life just pass most people by?
When you’re depressed, every day seems the same. There’s no colour. There’s nothing to look forward to. What is the bloody point?
I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline.
My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour.
I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do.
In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write.
For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.
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5 thoughts on “Giving up”
Dear Trevor, I have no insight whatsoever into depression. (Tom speaking here from sunny Sussex). I have felt more down in the last ten years than ever in my life, but I do know its not the same as depression. I get up every day with a sense that I can move on and things will be better even when they are shit. So, I can’t help at all with the depression thing.
What I can say, however, is that the idea that your life has no significance is total and utter bollocks. At least from my perspective. “Whats the bloody point”? Well, the point is that you have touched other lives more than you can calculate. Guess how important you have been to me? I bet you have no idea. We once worked together for a short period, living in the same house for an even shorter time. We have met once in the past thirty years. It was great to see you. But we left it another 15 years + before I send this message. So, how can you possibly be important in my life? Well,I have been doing a top 10 and, excluding wife and children and other close (often equally suicidally inclined) relations, you make that top 10. Probably 8th or 9th. That may not sound amazing. However, it really is. I meet at least five new people every day. I have 350 friends on Facebook and 185 connections on LinkedIn, and believe it or not I am picky! I have around thirty people in my life at the moment with whom I could share confidences I don’t think I could share with you. Yet you are in my top ten (8th, maybe 9th) people that have influenced my life in a positive way. And I am 54. Pretty impressive, eh?
So, I do hope you are itching to know why you are important to me.
You told me something about me that noone has ever told me, before or since. You told me that I could, independently of anyone else, be a good academic. Thank you. It has served me well for 30 years. It doesn’t sound much in print, but it really did change my life. (Actually, you said a lot more, but that was the takeaway message). I am now grossly overpaid (thanks Trevor), mostly happy (thanks Trevor), sane (thanks Mum), and healthy (thanks Jane Fonda, for whom I decided aged 8 I would emulate, having seen her exercise video and discovered arousal – yikes).
I broke a wineglass last night. I hardly touched it but it broke. I thought “fucking useless wineglass”. I did not think “fucking useless me”. Even though I often am.
The ability to break a wine glass and not think it is your fault, and that you are a bad person who deserves to die, must be wonderful. I envy you.
I am particularly pleased to make your top ten people – whatever have I done to deserve that?
I must be wiser than I think. Oddly enough I watched Jane Fonda again last night and thought it’s probably harder than it looks.
Thank you for your honest post. I know you wrote it a while ago now and so I’m not sure how you’re feeling at the moment. I can relate to the feeling though.
Thank you. I am not too bad at the moment, but I realise things will always be up and down. I just hope the ups carry on and the downs don’t get too low.