The symptoms of depression can vary widely among individuals. Some people openly weep for no apparent reason. Others isolate themselves for days at a time. Still others put on all the appearances of normality while constantly stifling the negativity and despair that bubbles just below the surface. That third example, that productive, even exemplary, employee who receives complements on his willingness to help and his positivity — that third one is me.
Most days I am able to conduct myself, at least publicly, as a reasonably content member of society. Sometimes I can be a bit terser or perhaps less gregarious than other times, but rarely do I betray the depths and severity of my condition. Even my family and closest friends do not often see the tumult and, even on the occasions that they do catch a glimpse, I work hard to minimize its real impact on me. I choose my words carefully when asked “How’re you doing?”, often selecting a reply in the vein of “Reasonably well.” or “Satisfactory.” Sometimes I will venture to answer “Splendid.” or maybe “Marvelous.”, an exaggerated testimony of my state of mind.
And what, you may ask, is my state of mind? As rich and broad as the English language is, sometimes it fails to capture the essence of certain emotions or feelings. Fortunately, there are abundant languages we can look to for help describing the otherwise indescribable and identifying the unnamed. Some of those words have been effectively adopted by English and are used regularly (a nod to German for zeitgeist and Latin for tabula rasa); others are more obscure and are only used by people who have stumbled upon them. The phrase that, I think, best describes the workings of my mind comes from French: l’appel du vide. It is a lovely phrase for a common, but somewhat troubling, sensation.
L’appel du vide translates to “the call of the void”. In practice, it is the name of that momentary flash of self-destructive desire one sometimes experiences upon spotting a lone car’s headlights approaching from the opposite direction while driving on a dark stretch of road. A notion blinks across the consciousness to swerve directly into the oncoming car. It’s not necessarily a suicidal or homicidal ideation and it is not something our mind’s will typically allow us to carry out. It might trigger a sudden rush of adrenaline, jolt the heart and fire the nerves, but the mind’s desire to preserve life and limb overrides all else. Still, the sensation exists and, when one suffers from depression, the sensation can occur frequently, almost without ceasing — and when it does become a regular part of your psyche it can be exhausting. It takes energy not to succumb to the void’s call, particularly when one is drowning in anxieties and an army of setbacks is holding you down. It can be a challenge not to jerk the steering wheel into an oncoming tractor-trailer. Refraining from self-destruction is not an easy task, especially for those already worn down and fatigued by Life.
When l’appel du vide is strong enough, we can find ourselves with a bottle of pills in our hand and a thought in our head. Every concrete barrier on the highway becomes a constant reminder that we are fragile creatures and that, even though automobiles are built to protect, careening into an immobile slab at 75 or 80 miles per hour would almost certainly throw us into the abyss. Depression does not mean you will act upon such whims, but it can mean those whims push you towards the edge, urging you to leap into the darkness, doing so frequently and with a persuasive whisper. The void is never too far — we might glance over the precipice one or ten times daily, depending on Life’s trajectory.