In the midst of writing about moments of spiritual insight, I realized I had to draw the other half of that picture. The lost side of spirit is emptiness. I don’t mean the emptying that can be a stage in recovery and spiritual growth. That kind of emptiness is a good thing. It means the stopping of daily noise, the frenetic pace or the addictions that keep me riding on the surface of things and avoiding whatever I can’t face. The good emptiness drains all that out of my system. Once rid of the mind-buzz and the anxiety that goes with it, I can participate in an active silence, and things become clearer.
No, I’m talking about the opposite of that rich experience. It is the empty feeling that leads to panic and what I’d have to call dread. It comes in a flash of perverse insight when I feel again at one with the world around me, but everything in that world, including me, seems false, an empty shell about to crack open, revealing a void. And I’m going to drop in a free fall as the ground cracks 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 used to strike, 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. That took me completely out of my inner self and whatever I may have really wanted and put me securely in a role or function 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.
The remarkable TV series, Mad Men, is a drama about advertising executives in the New York of 1960. Its central character creates a false self to build a career devoted to masking a reality he is afraid to reveal. Dan Draper is a “nobody” from a poor family so desperate to separate himself from his origins that he adopts the identity of a dead man to place himself in a completely different world. With his false name and false 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 collapsed. Draper is all self-confidence, brilliance and success on the surface but also lost and searching for a kind of life he can’t get clear about.
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, and yet it happened so often I took it as part of me, an inescapable dimension not just of my nature but 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 as part of a whole, but a whole that broke into dust at a touch. Everyone seemed to be talking then about “meaning” and man’s search for it, the remoteness of God, not to mention his “death.” 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.
Later I lived in many places where I felt good about being alive, simply by looking around me at the absorbing beauty of what I saw. Something powerful and deep had changed, and it had to with finding a spiritual connection to life and also seeing around the edges of depression. I’ve never completely lost touch, though, with that other fearful side of emptiness. When in a depressive swing, I get those jolts of deep panic, I remember how I used to live with the feeling most of the time. It was something I had to run from to stay alive. I had to cover myself and the world I lived in with a sense of importance, purpose, direction, fulfillment. That usually meant a driven activity that took me far away from looking closely at what was going on inside me. 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 truth of my life but something I could recover from.
I will keep writing about the spiritual dimension to recovery, but I also have to point out this dark side that I still fear – despite new knowledge and belief.