The Crowded Emptiness of a Depressed Man

Metallica Concert

Long before I began to recover from depression, I stumbled my way into moments when time seemed to disappear. My mind cleared itself out completely, and I found myself in a kind of stillness that I can only call spiritual.

Those were hopeful experiences, the closest I’ve come to the sense of oneness that Jill Bolte Taylor describes so well in her book, Stroke of Insight. But for me these precious moments were too often balanced by others of panic and emptiness.

Perhaps this was another side of the same experience, but coming at a time when I didn’t know what it could be. The daily noise stopped, the frenetic pace broke in mid-stride, but instead of insight, there was only fear.

I was driven to fill these moments of emptiness with crowded activity. But sometimes that trick didn’t work. Then I’d have a flash of perverse insight when I felt at one with the world but full of dread. Everything in that world, including me, seemed false, an empty shell about to crack open, revealing a void. I was about to drop into this emptiness, as if the ground were cracking open under me.

That used to be a regular part of my life before I could grasp that it was one face of depression.

When the panic struck, I’d have to react fast and leap into any activity that filled the emptiness with crowds, or, better yet, helped me believe for a time that I had never been empty to begin with. I had to hold onto a structure, a purpose, a job, something that sealed the cracking world up again and filled my days with action that was useful and important.

The fast response took me completely out of my inner self and put me securely in a role that had value in the eyes of the world. That is how in the past I ran from the dread of emptiness and the fear of breaking and falling like part of an earthquake-stricken city.

For a long time, I was quite skillful at avoiding depression and the fear of emptiness by filling my life in this way. I was reminded of that phase in my life when I started watching the remarkable TV series, Mad Men.

As you likely know, it’s a drama about advertising executives in the New York of the 1960’s, the same period when I was coming of age and trying to find a direction in life. Don Draper, the central character of the series, builds a successful career under an assumed identity. He lives in dread of being revealed as a fraud. That struck me as a perfect analogy to the way I lived for so long.

scene with John Hamm and January Jones

He feels like a “nobody” from a poor family. He is so desperate to separate himself from his origins that he switches ID tags with a military doctor who is killed beside him during the Korean War. With his false name and biography he becomes a brilliant and successful advertising executive, but the fear that this world could collapse never leaves him.

The opening animation shows a man ascending to his skyscraper office only to see it break completely apart. It’s just a collection of lines that are falling, and the man falls with them, his world collapsing all around him. Draper is all self-confidence, brilliance and success on the surface but also lost and searching for something he can’t name.

In my teens and early twenties I was often gripped by that sudden panic at the sense of emptiness just behind the fragile appearance of things. That was one of the most terrifying symptoms of depression I had at that time. Yet it happened so often I took it as part of my nature as well as an inescapable dimension of the world itself.

Nothing looked stable, trustworthy, solid. It could all disappear and show itself to be as empty as I felt. That was a terrifying and perverse way of seeing myself. I was at one with the world, but it was a world that could break into dust at a touch. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

Everyone seemed at that time  to be talking about “meaning,” the absurdity of life, the remoteness of God, not to mention his “death.” Time Magazine devoted an issue to the trend. To see the world as meaningless was, if anything, quite fashionable. But this was no intellectual exercise for me. It was despair and panic. I didn’t think myself into that state – it was simply the way I experienced things. It was what I believed to be true.

Fortunately, I made life and mind-saving decisions over the next several years. The most important ones meant changing the way I lived in fundamental ways: marrying the right person, having children, eventually finding the work I was best at, and even picking the right places to live. In many of them I felt good about being alive, simply by looking around at the absorbing beauty of the natural world.

Something powerful and deep gradually changed, and the experience of terrifying emptiness rarely interrupted my life.

I’ve never completely lost touch, though, with the fearful side of emptiness. When in a depressive swing, I can get those jolts of deep panic and remember how I used to live with the feeling most of the time.

As I learned more about depression, I could see that the feelings of bleakness, worthlessness, despair that are part of that condition were not the sum of my life. They were feelings I could adapt to or change. I began to understand what recovery was all about.

Has this sense of emptiness been a part of the depression you’ve lived with? How have you been able to deal with it?


(This is a much-edited version of a post I wrote a few years ago.)