Am I (being) depressed?

Today, I want to look at the kind of guidance our language gives us on depression, especially whether it can best be conceived of as active or passive. But before I do that, I have a very small admission to make. I have never heard anyone describe the experience of “being depressed” in the way I experience it. For me, most often, it is a conclusion I draw when I notice how my inner editor—a hypothetical agent over which I have no control at all—has organized my perceptions and my memories. “Oh, look at that,” I say to myself, “I am (being) depressed.” [1]

So my experience of (being) depressed may be unusual, but I think the processes I use to get out of it are pretty ordinary. Also, they have worked pretty well so far.

What the metaphor looks like

In the sentence, “I am depressed.” what part of speech is “depressed? I’m not all that good at this sort of thing, but I would say that it functions as a predicate adjective, as “orange” would in the sentence, “I am orange.”

depressed 5On the other hand, if you were the tongue in this picture, you could just as accurately say that you “were” depressed, but you would be referring to the effect that the little popsicle stick is having on you. “It is depressing me,” the tongue would say, “therefore. I am being depressed” Notice that “depressed” is clearly a verb now. The parallel sentence would be, “I am being strangled,” in which “”depressed” and “strangled” each describe an ongoing action being aimed at you.

So…I kind of like the verb version better. The adjective version describes you: remember that depressed = orange so far as the grammar goes. The verb version describes an action that is being taken and in which you are the object; remember that depressed =strangled.

And one of the reasons I like it is that it raises the question of the origin of that action. Who or what is depressing you?” The other version doesn’t ask that question.  And it leads fairly directly to the next question which is, “What can you do to get him/her/it to stop?”

I think that is a better question, but even that better form of the question is not quite as simple as I have made it sound so far. Imagine that I was going to an event that required wearing a tie and the dress code of this event required that the tie be really tight around the neck. Presuming that I am the person who tightened the tie around my own neck, the direct answer to the question “Who is doing this to you?” is “I am doing it to myself.” On the other hand, there is a distal force [2] that is not me and that requires that the ties I wear be really tight. So another useful answer to the question, “Who is doing this to you?” is “They are.”

I do feel pressed down (de + pressed) from time to time and this last time the experience struck me as having some interesting online parallels. I have three principal ones in mind. Let’s see how the similarities hold up.

Other Readers

If you order a book from Amazon, they will tell you that other people who ordered this book also ordered, or also looked at, these other books. A friend recently asked me to read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. When I looked it up on Amazon, I was informed that customers who bought this item also bought Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel, by Maile Melde and A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, and Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir, by Amy Thielen. These books are “brought into my view” together as a result of my looking up The Wonder.

You have to stop a minute to think how strange all this if you take it seriously. It isn’t mind reading or palm reading. Amazon’s computer is guessing that an interest in one book indicates a probable interest in certain other books.

Here is the analogy that struck me. I have lived a long time and have many experiences. I have organized these experiences into categories, although I didn’t do it intentionally and I don’t know what the names of the categories are. Here’s what I know: when I take an action or receive an action or have a vivid memory, a whole batch of “similar” memories and tastes and associations come to mind. If I do something really dumb, like asking a friend how his father is getting along only to find out that the father died over a month ago, I’m embarrassed. I get through the occasion, but after that—sometimes for days after that— I am bombarded by “similar screw-ups.”

depressed 6This is the way my inner organizer arranges my experiences for me. It is very much as if I had asked for a book called Captain Klutz and was referred to a list of books with that theme. Except these “books” are all about things I have done. These may be things I have never before considered to be related to each other, but somebody—whoever is organizing and presenting these other experiences to me—thinks they are related.


Imagine further that all one’s experiences can be represented as if they were coins with a heads (positive) side and a tails (negative) side. Clearly, one side of the coin is not more true than another. Let’s say I got tired of a job and decided to leave it for another one. But part of the same experience is that someone in the hierarchy had a grievance against me or thought I wasn’t doing my job well. “I got tired of it so I quit and went on to another job” is the heads side of that coin. “I screwed up and got fired” is the tails side.

When I do something like ask about my friend’s father who, as everyone else in the group knows, died last month, it is a faux pas. I am embarrassed. I apologize. But as I am walking home afterward, I see that all the coins have been turned so that they are all tails. These are completely unrelated events. There is the time I dumped tomato soup on my clean white shirt and the time I lost my cool and insulted an obnoxious guest and the time I went to a friend’s birthday party on the wrong night. Here I am, present in hand, and I am the only “guest.”

There is not, to my mind, any topical similarity at all. They are just things that this inner organizer gathers together and puts in a category of some sort and presents to me—like so many books at Amazon—one after another after another.

Peripheral Advertising.

A lot of web sites are paid for by advertising. They are able to customize the advertising to you because they know what you have been doing on your computer. Here’s an example that still makes me smile. I wrote an essay called “Attractive Older Women” and I searched around in Google images to find a good example I could put in the essay. Shortly afterward, advertising started showing up on the websites I used. These were ads “about” (not “from”) attractive older women in the Portland area who are looking for men who aren’t afraid of commitment. This went on for months.

depression 8Some one in the Gorithm family (Al, probably) is monitoring my use of the computer and notices that I was searching for images of attractive older women and concluded that I was in the market not just for the pictures, but for the women. I search for images every time I put an essay up on my blog site. I’d hate to think that each of these searches is taken as an indication of an “interest” that can be commercially exploited. But that is what I do think.

I think that if I wrote an essay about new cars—maybe I’m just studying what kinds of words are used to sell cars these days and comparing it to the words that were used when I was younger—pictures of cars on the lots of local dealers would start showing up in the advertising space. I think that’s how it works.

And that’s why I think the process might be a good indication of how that inner processor of mine works. The part of that process I’m thinking about in this essay is concerned about fears or anxieties or guilt of shame (now new cars or old women), but I think the process is analogous. I think there is something like an algorithm that monitors my experiences and serves up “related products.” I think that if I saw a situation on a local train and thought I ought to intervene, but then didn’t, I would leave the train feeling ashamed.

Words like “coward” and “culpable” and “complicit” and the pictures that belong to my life’s experience of those words, would start to show up in my mental “ad space.” I would think of times when I showed good judgment by not getting involved in someone else’s fight, definitely “heads” memories. And I would find that all those coins had been flipped over by this inner advertiser and now all those coins are tails. I remembered it as careful judgment, but when I look back, I see that it was cowardice.

I hate that.

On the other hand, looking at these coins and at these “suggested books” and at the peripheral advertising is the way I find out that I am depressed. Some people look “inside themselves” as if there were a tag or a sign. Or they just feel depressed. What’s the matter, Alex?” “Oh, I don’t know. I’m just depressed.” These people FEEL depressed. I notice it when I see that all the coins are tails up and the books are all about being a klutz. At that point I realize that however well I thought I did in responding to my friend, I realize when I see what “books” are being presented to me, that I must be depressed and it’s going to take a while to get “un-depressed.”

What I do when I notice

Sometimes it is true that I am being “depressed”—”held down.” It is also true that I wishdepressed 4 I were not being held down. On the other hand, I know what to do about it. It isn’t instantaneous, which would be nice, but it is reliably effective. There are things I can do that are kind of like “pushing back” or at least “getting out from under the thumb.”

They aren’t magic. I do things (actions) I am proud of. Sometimes I have to do quite a few of those. And I hang out with people (associations) who like and respect me. And I don’t talk about how I am feeling. I just let the natural effect of these actions and associations do what they always do.

And then I’m OK until I screw up again.

[1] I got to thinking about this kind of possibility when I read Daryl Bem, a social psychologist who said that what we call “insight” or “introspection” is really using the same kinds of clues about ourselves that our friends use. The example exchange I remember best goes like this. Q. Do you like rye bread? A. I guess I do. When I have a choice of breads, I always choose it.

[2] In my line of work, “proximal” is a word used to describe the immediate cause (the tie) and “distal” is used to describe the mediated cause (the requirement).


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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