Let’s Talk About Depression
By Anthony Avice Du Buisson (Australia), Interviewed by Shazeen (UK), Photography by Flavio Emanuel (Brazil)
As a young South African teenager growing up in Australia, I found myself at a point in my life where thoughts of insignificance and self-loathing were starting to cloud my mind. If anyone has ever experienced depression, then they would know the overbearing nature of the demons that cloud your judgments each day. These demons constantly whisper doubt into your ears; manifesting themselves in the form of second guesses, pessimistic views and baseless worries. Initially the demons are mere nuisances, however, as the weeks march on the demons start to become more a burden. There comes a time when you do not wish to get up in the morning, nor do you wish to wake up at all. Every day begins to weigh down upon your shoulders.
Deep sadness, which is what depression essentially is, tears the veil of certainty from the individual and forces them to confront reality as it is.
In this respect, depression impacted upon my perspective of reality; it was my first awakening into a world devoid of illusion. To understand what I mean by “awakening” one must have had experienced depression for themselves, as the world is completely different once you have experienced it. For the first time I considered a world without my own existence. I thought no longer in line with being a part of the party that was going on around me, but I instead thought in line of how the party would go on without me. Depression erased my sense of worth; replacing it with a sense of loneliness – a painful kind of loneliness that never left me. Depression left me with a burden of self-doubt.
Were you able to make talk about your depression publicly?
For a long time I had the impression that Depression was something you kept to yourself. This impression must have come from my father, as he instilled in me the “march on” kind of mentality, where a certain weakness is attached to depression and other mental problems. You must realise that my father grew up in an environment that was privy to depression, as it was something you kept to yourself. This must have rubbed off on me because I never talked about my suicide attempt or my depression until more than a year had passed. I felt that talking about depression to people would create the persona of a “victim”, where people would expect me to be a naturally sappy person. It is because of this that I took the responsibility of outcasting myself. After I had regained my confidence, I told my parents about my bout of depression and subsequent suicide attempt. A year after that I told my closest online friends about it, and ever since then I have only opened about it to people I can really trust.
Did the world seem and feel different when you were overcoming this ordeal?
The world is different when you are confronting death. The tears that flow from your eyes clear your sight, allowing for you to see a world filled with illusions. Once you can see the illusions then you are given a choice: do you destroy those illusions or do you let them consume you? My decision was not made lightly, but it was forced out of me during depression. Many people never get to have the option to choose, as they are unaware that the options are available. Depression got rid of the veil hiding the choices and forced me to confront them. I chose the latter of the two options, but at a hard price. I could no longer look at the world in a strict positive light; I now was forced to look at the world with the illusions attached to it. However, I was more determined than ever to destroy those illusions where ever I could find them.
What challenges were you confronted with?
The challenges that confronted me had to mainly do with trying to find who I was. Here I am, I thought to myself, cast into a world without direction as to where I was to go – who was I to be? The journey of self-discovery began in that dark period of my life, where finding light was seemingly impossible. The moment I started to realise that there was no light to lead me out, was the moment I began to create my own light through introspection, reading and writing. I did not talk to anyone on a personal level, so my social life was practically non-existent. In some respects, it was better that I did not have any friends at that time. The road of self-discovery is something that can only be experienced on the individual level; and though there may be people on the way to help you, ultimately the journey is your own. We are born into this world alone and we all die alone; this is not mere rubbish, this is factual. Everyone is born as a single entity in this existence, when they die they die alone as a single entity.
I know you’ve identified yourself with idealism. How has depression impacted your idealism?
Reform is crucial for intellectual integrity. The honest mind acknowledges its faults and seeks to better them, well the dishonest mind seeks to hold onto those faults and pass them off as wisdom. I can honestly say that I was rather naive in my idealism before my depression. The thing that separates truth from falsehood is justification; and if there is no justification for something, then that something is simply false. When I was baptised in darkness, what was washed from me was my ideals of the world. It was as if my whole slate was wiped clean and I was given a new slate. My ideals were no longer rooted in the falsehood of unjustified belief and hope. Now my ideals were rooted in reality as it is, and seeking to reform reality well being within in it. In this sense, when the mirror of life is smashed in front of you and the shards begin to slice your face, it is your job to pick those shards up and remake the mirror. It is with this thought line that I began reorganising my ideals, and started grounding them in a realistic framework of reform. My idealism was reborn fresh and new.
In our previous conversation, you shared Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, and Alain De Botton had given you strength through a study of their writings. Can you explain how they had an influence on you?
The major influences on my life, the people I would recommend everyone read and at least know about, would have to be Alain de Botton, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens. In that order. Each has a part to play in the current make up on my persona, which is why I may start off slow with Alain, the individual who introduced me first to philosophy.
Philosophy is a truly uplifting and interesting enterprise. What you have to do to be a philosopher is simple: think, reflect and understand the world around you. Though it may sound simple in theory but in practice it can be difficult thing to accomplish. There are many people who will read lots of books on famous philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger – lord help anyone – Jean-Paul Sartre, David Hume etc., and well reading the major philosophers is a noteworthy thing, the ultimate thing to remember is to understand the essence of their life and signature (Their ‘signature’ is what they leave behind that changed history). Alain de Botton was the first person I read that synthesized the philosopher’s life and ideas with poetic description and moving narrative. His book “The Consolations of Philosophy” is one of the best books I have ever read, as it gave me a necessary synopsis of philosophers such as Seneca, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and their ideas, but told their life like if it were a journey of trial and triumph. Alain, in this respect, is the people’s philosopher: the person who gives a voice to the value of philosophy in the modern world through the lens of the average person, on an average level. He changed the way I think about heartache, love and hope. For example, he taught me the value of individuality through the lens of Friedrich Nietzsche: one of the most inspiring philosophers of all time. Botton’s description of Nietzsche’ life resonated with me, as Nietzsche’s heartaches were in some way related to my heartaches and feelings. Seeing meaning and love through the suffering of life; embracing the suffering of existence and seeking to triumph over it, that is true inspiration. For this reason, Alain de Botton remains as a candle on my road to enlightenment. What still gets me is how much he does not get as much appreciation as he deserves, which is criminal.
Science lights a candle when other enterprises dare not to; it is the curious explorer ever hungry for discovery. I felt like I need to make a confession: I once thought science to be a boring enterprise. It could have just been how it was taught to me at school, the boring lessons on kinetic energy and electromagnetism may have just made me uninterested in science. However, it was not until Carl Sagan that I began to start to appreciate the value of the scientific enterprise. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series and his book “The Demon Haunted World” radically altered my perspective on the role of science in education, and the value science had as an enterprise. Never was I taught that science was a method of thinking about the world; never was I educated about scepticism or rational thinking. Sagan brought these valuable tools along with his education, which was a more general philosophical worldview than a mere slice of life learning. An element of optimism echoed through his works and his passion for teaching others about the world really inspired me. Sagan taught me to value each opportunity of life; never allowing smallness to define you and seeking to inspire others through the spreading of ideas. “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” The power of ideas to inspire and transform the perspective of people’s lives are no more evident than in Sagan’s dedication to empowering people through education, which has since inspired me to take up the helm and do my best to reform education. I have since done my best to promote the notion that: “Education emancipates the mind from the shackle of ignorance and empowers the individual towards enlightenment.”
To be an essayist is to be a literary fighter actively defending one’s title. You have to have courage, honesty and a good deal of wittiness, or else you’re food for the dogs. Being an essayist is all about being polemic, analytical and blunt – to the point. I learned this lesson rather early in my writing career and in some respects I am still learning how to perfect it. This sort of polemic writing style was inspired by the late Christopher Hitchens, whose essays on politics, religion and social criticism were always lased with sharp wit, unapologetic scrutiny and brutal honesty; a formula that deters many, but inspires few…such as me. His writing style is like bullets being fired on paper: they are meant to hit hard at an opponent and stir an audience to action. It is in this light that I can thank Hitchens for inspiring me to first take up writing. The first ever book I read from him turned out to be his last, I am of course referring to “Mortality”. “Mortality” gave me a unique perspective of cancer and the dealings associated with an atheist author. Hitchens’ heartfelt description and courage to fight his disease, both in the public sphere and literary sphere, allowed for the growth in my own mind of intellectual integrity, honesty and a courage to write what I thought. Hitchens changed the way I looked at mortality and at my own condition, and gave me a voice to fight on when all others would seek not to.
The lectures and speeches that I watched from him, namely his speech on “free speech” (2006), made me think about the world. Those lectures reorganised my own political philosophy, from a Marxist perspective to a non-partisan/empirical left perspective. What I mean by this is that I use to be a very anti-establishment individual in my political thoughts. I always had the Marxist view of the world: the struggle between the upper and lower classes, and the subjugation of the lower classes by the hegemony of the upper classes. It is only when I read hitchens essays that I started to think about key points and flaws in Marxism. Like, “what evidence is there of a ruling elite?” “Can life be so simplistic as to warrant a really elaborate control of society by an elite group?” etc. Eventually his arguments for his positions started to influence my political philosophy. Overall, Hitchens influenced my life and politics from his writings.
What creative pursuits are you currently working on?
I love to read philosophy, science and history books. I find that non-fiction is greater than fiction at stimulating and inspiring my writing. The real world is the basis of the fantasy world, which means all fictitious ideas are manifestations of some-aspect of real world elements. It is in this light I find myself getting the most inspired by, as the writer has the power to create worlds of desire in form of literary visualisation merely at the stroke of their pens. My current goals are to become a philosopher in the professional sense, and to try and gain reform in the educational departments of the world. In some respects, and not to sound too cheesy, I wish to change the world with my thoughts and writings. It is no easy task I assure you, but it is a task I have set myself to do and plan on fulfilling it in some way.
In society, what is not understood about depression?
It depends upon the politics really and dominant ideology of a society.
In academia and other departments there does appear to be a systematic approach to mental illness. What I mean by this is that there is a lack of engagement going on between the analyst and the subject. Well the subject is being assessed by a psychologist, or psychiatrist, it is an assessment being conducted from afar; it lacks emotion and depth of communication. In this way they view mental illness with a combination of a patronising attitude and an ignoring attitude. Society is quick to diagnose people with mental illness; treating them with a high degree of caution than any other citizen. What I mean by this is that society is very quick to give pills to those suffering from depression, and treat the mental illness as a handicap. You know what I mean? Like the way they currently treat disabled people, with this patronising degree of caution that belittles them as people. “We need to make sure the world is safe for them…we need to give them privileges etc.” I want help, but I do not wish to be treated as a special case or a privileged individual; do not give that delusion to a mental illness sufferer. When a person suffers from depression, what they do not want to be is belittled; what they want is help and someone to talk to them. In this respect, every depressed person wants to be understood for who they are and what feelings they have.
Based on the following statement, was there a duality in this episode of your life?
“The burden was a sadness and despair. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.”
I find the statement to be very true. It felt like a curse to have constant sadness, but ultimately it was a necessary curse to have. It taught me more about who I was, where I had to go etc. When I look back on those dark days there is an inclination in me to feel sorrow, but this inclination is soon clouded by the realisation of how lucky I am to be alive. Most of us do not realise the value of life we are able to have. If you are able to have a decent access to education, basic resources, shelter and the ability to express your views, then you are a part of the aristocracy of the world (25% roughly of the world). Depression gave me perspective, which is necessary for curiosity and courage. However, on the flip side depression also introduced me to a world of havoc and absurdity, where it is my goal now to make a better and more brighter world. It is a double edged sword at the end of the day, but a sword I would gladly fight with any day.