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, My 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.)

24 Responses to “The Crowded Emptiness of a Depressed Man”

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  1. Aretha says:

    I was just looking around and went across this thread. I was diagnosed to have severe depression 4 years ago and tried almost everything out there that “could” help. The only medication that worked best for me is medical cannabis. I perfectly understand that it’s not legal everywhere. At first, I was doubtful so I started doing my own research and read articles about marijuana. I found out that each marijuana strain has different uses for different diseases.

  2. Shay R. says:

    It is a long, uphill battle. There are so many diagnoses – am I depressed, bipolar, borderline personality, anxious, moody, or do I just need more sleep, exercise and vegetables? How much can I do to help myself versus “I was born this way, from a long line of people who felt even worse than I do”? I have had counseling and medication for most of my life. Now, at age 27, I am worried that my disconnect with the world is still depression. Sure, I’m not sad and hopeless anymore, but am I still trapped?

    I never really felt connected to my peers, I can’t hold a job as long as everyone else – full-time work is completely out of the question. I am silent now, but is that a good thing? Is it actually peaceful? Is it the people around me, that I just can’t connect to so I should keep searching, or is it me and I will face this no matter where I am? Is it just because I’m still in my twenties, in a fast-paced and uncertain time?

    There are plenty of things to do to keep myself grounded: art, music, meditation, yoga, self-care. How do I know that I’m doing enough? How do I know if these pills are working enough? How do I know if it’s just me or I need to change my surroundings… again? I’m not asking you for all the answers, I know everyone learns in their own way. I just thought I’d share these ideas because I’m sure others feel the same way. Now that the screaming in my soul is over, am I actually ok? How do I know when I’ve beat depression? Thanks for listening.

    P.s. It’s DON Draper, not Dan. (English degree habits, # sorry, not sorry.)

  3. Donna says:

    From about age 15 to 55 my depressions were more an awareness of mental suffering that squeezed life out of me one breath at a time. Instead of the hope and comfort of a much-needed life jacket fastened around me, I fought the constriction and compression of a straight jacket. You have a chance of making it to safety in a life jacket. Straight jackets, however, keep you from signaling for help, keep you from treading water and even from calling loudly for help. I became a muffled whisper.

    During my mid-50’s depression took a different tack. Not the tangle of pain bound up in my head, but a slide into nothingness. Better than pain, yes, but empty of hope.

    I’m 60 and surprised I made it this far. What’s next? No more pain, I hope. The emptiness can be easily filled with distractions.

  4. Ryan says:

    What do I do?

  5. Ryan says:

    I think I might need to be following your blog.

  6. I think it helps a long way to go that you’re by all account not the only one to feel thusly. “You’re not the only one” will be a standout amongst the most mending messages I’ve ever gotten.

  7. Alastair says:

    Great article, I felt the same way for nearly a year. A soul deep feeling of emptiness and an immense sense of unfamiliarity within my surroundings. Thankfully I’m gradually on the mend at the moment, although I have occasional days where I slip back there.
    Like what was said in the article – it wasn’t entirely my way of thinking that got me into that dark meaningless place, I just thought it was present reality accompanied by intense fear.
    I cannot deny that there was a slight spiritual element to my conscious awareness of the world during my experience, at times I was in an almost hypnotic state (I’m guessing it was de-realisation disorder?). Thankfully I now understand that the world/reality isn’t empty, it was just a perception bought on by depression and self imposed isolation (also bought on by the depression).
    I wish everyone out there who is experiencing emptiness a good recovery, I understand the hell that you are currently walking through.


  8. oh I feel empty all the time. i was caught by the title of your article. i’m trying to always escape the emptiness. i think the only way is to find some overarching purpose in my life
    which i’m still trying to sort out

    Noch Noch

  9. Alana says:

    Wow John! This is wonderfully written and perfectly expresses the emptiness I felt too when dealing with my depression. I have suffered from depression for many years now. I have received a lot of help when coping with my depression symptoms from I hope this is a helpful resource for others out there dealing with depression. Thank you for your great post!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Alana –

      I’m glad you can connect with the post, but also sorry that you’ve had to live with this. Thanks for the link.


  10. Shelly says:


    How beautifully worded. Not only do I struggle with this same feelings of emptiness, I used to do just what you had done: fill my life full in order to avoid the depression. But I have never been able to describe these sensations…in fact…I thought that I was the only one who experienced this. I’m tempted to print this off and share with my therapist!

    And Anne, thanks for sharing! This is the strategy that I have adopted this past year and it IS helping. Glad to hear that you have had success…it gives me hope!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Shelly –

      I think it helps a lot to learn that you’re not the only one to feel this way. “You’re not alone” is one of the most healing messages I’ve ever received.


  11. Dan Lukasik says:

    What a beautiful piece John. I’ve always had a leak in my soul where my essence seems to find a way to leave me. I’ve struggled with it my whole life. It’s depression, no doubt. But something more, something more existential. I agree with you about the lifestyle choices. There’s a great new book out by Dr. Andrew Weil called “Spontaneous Happiness” about his own struggles with depression throughout his life. A big element in his recovery were lifestyle changes – he moved to Arizona, e.g. Dan

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Dan –

      When I was coming of age in the 60s there was a whole school of existential psychologists and theologians, and courage was the guiding concept. They helped you find the courage to be, the courage to create, the courage to choose. When I look back at some of those books now, I realize that the existential questions are still there – though I definitely don’t believe that the universe or life itself is inherently absurd or meaningless. I guess the key thing is seeing myself as an active agent, no longer the passive observer waiting for things to happen to me. – And thanks for letting me know about the Weil book. It helps a lot when such a well-known person opens up about these problems.


  12. Nate says:

    Very nice post, look forward to seeing more.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Rachel says:

    Dear John, I love your posts, and this one is also wonderful. Yet, when I, as a women, who cannot just marry the right man because we have lesser control over relationships and have been discriminated against so profoundly in my career, I am sad. Our social contexts are very different and so some of our solutions will be different. Although I felt the need to share this (and I very rarely blog), I do think your site is fabulous.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Rachel –

      I agree that the social role differences between men and women can require very different solutions. I think a lot of (dominant culture) men get a taste of this as they get into their elder years. You’re not taken as seriously as you once were, you’re stereotyped, brushed aside as over the hill. But nothing like the life-time problem that most women face. I’d be interested to know what some of the differences are in the solutions you’ve found.

      Thanks for commenting.


  14. Anne says:

    Dear John,

    It happens that I have been contending with the kind of panic and anxiety you were describing, all my life and I am 62. I have come to recognise their origins in my Saboteur ( a concept developed by R. Fairbairn in the 1940’s) the one who attacks every moment of satisfaction and peace, with the clear message that I am not good enough. I have learned to create what I call vital moments – vital in both senses of being full of life, and of being meaningful, no matter how brief, and no matter how apparently trivial. I try to start each day by bringing some order into a disordered space, the bathroom maybe, or my desk. In some ways it has aspects of mindfulness. And I now accept that if all I can manage is 10 minutes a day, then that is good enough. I don’t have to save the world.

    When I read your post I had just finished putting this note into diary and it seemed apt.

    “And now the dog barks, and I look at the garden, and the first thoughts are how I have failed, not how I have helped create a space of peace and contemplation. I only ever see all the things I have not done, the flaws. And it makes me weary because there is no possible way I can do these things. Yet, if I can retrieve my insights about every vital moment, and recognise that it is in the cycle of things that some things will be done, and some not, then it will be fine. The garden blooms each year. “

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hello, Anne –

      That’s a beautiful note from your diary, and I love the method you use to counter the Saboteur. It seems such a simple and reliable way of turning your thinking around – a bit like a cognitive therapy approach. Not everyone can cultivate a skill like this and catch themselves listening to an undermining voice soon enough to turn around their mood or fear.

      Thank you for this idea.


  15. Bruce says:

    “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.”

    Jaak Panksepp and Doug Watt have written about depression as an evolutionary conserved response to terminate separation distress. The infant, when left alone, cries and when no one comes, feels panic, horror, and terror. Eventually, there is a shutdown — the depressive response. It’s nature’s way of ensuring we survive a life-threatening stress response.

    But that response becomes imprinted in our implicit memory. When we are met with stress in later life, the same response occurs. Whether that imprint can be extinguished is another thing; it occurs deep in the brain, below the level of cognition. Some psychotherapeutic approaches access it and when people get to those early feelings, they feel exactly what you’ve reported here: dread, a sense of emptiness and void, the world about to crack, etc. And what can the infant feel about the world other than being one with it? As yet, there is no self. And when there is no touch, no comfort, no love, the world is a yawning expanse of infinite, endless horror…until the shutdown (depressive) response kicks in. Then there is just numbness.

    The paradox is that by going into it this feeling and expressing it fully (with the safety of a good therapist!), you are released from its grip. Over time, the imprint loses its power although it is never fully extinguished. Other recovery methods are required, as you discuss on this blog. It takes a lifetime.

    If possible, find out how you were treated as an infant. Early infant care practices in the 40s to 60s were based on behaviorism — mothers were encouraged to not touch their babies or pick them up when they cried. The result is a several generations wracked with depression and anxiety. See:

  16. Janet Singer says:

    You have the wonderful ability of being able to get across what depression really feels like, and it is especially helpful for those of us who have not struggled with the illness. I have experienced fleeting moments of emptiness that you have described, so I have some idea of what you are talking about…….your post also helps me understand what my son went through when he was dealing with depression along with his severe OCD.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Janet –

      I’m glad the posts can help you get a sense of what it’s like to live with depression. Combining that with OCD must have made life hellish for your son. I was so glad to read on your blog about his recovery.

      Thanks for commenting.




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    The Crowded Emptiness of a Depressed Man…

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