I have seen multiple allegories being used to describe what it is like to be depressed. “An endless, dark pit of horrors, a ceaseless tunnel, and a mysterious hell where time freezes over” are some of them that have personally resonated with me in the past. Yes, depression could be a Lernean Hydra at times. One that has particularly stood out for me is a clichéd example which still holds true. An image of a deer caught in headlights could be a good description of my mental state. Just like the antlered stag in the midst of a highway, I was frightened and scared. More than that, I was confused. You weren’t sure which side to move towards. You have questions and you search for answers. “Why me? Is this the new normal? Are there others like me? Will this end at all? Does this have a purpose?”, I sought to know. I didn’t know where to go to, so I went to the place I usually go to – books. The written word holds a specific charm. It lets you not only form your philosophies, but also test them out as you move along with your depression, hoping to survive. In a rather telling fashion, I started finding everything from quick hacks and fixes to worldview changing philosophies in there. I wish to talk about five books in specific that had a remarkable impact upon me ever since I started looking out for answers.
1. Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
It was rather a strange coincidence as to how I met this book. My former company’s CEO had suggested it multiple times. I picked this book up assuming it was a business strategy book or at the best an inspirational book. I had no clue back then on what it had to offer I terms of worldviews.
The book is a travelogue that traces the journey of a father and a son as they go on a motorcycle trip, hike through the Appalachians and cross country ride through various states. Pirsig contrasts the journey with the journey that the narrator has with his conscience/ personal self/ daemon. Phaedrus, as he called him, was quite probing. It was kind of strange to notice certain worldviews like “Objective reality is just unanimous subjective reality, therefore reasoning has a church”. This book kind of helped me confront my Phaedrus and answer him as I moved through time.
2. Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor E Frankl
Perhaps the most poignant of the books described here, the entire book can be summed up to this Nietzsche quote that it kind of uses as a leitmotif – He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. The author, a Holocaust survivor, talks about life at Auschwitz. Finding purpose amidst these circumstances can be cruel. To some, it could be family, to some others, it could be a better life and opportunities. But what do you do when every purpose that you have defined for yourself is brutally taken away from you despite no fault of your own? Dr. Frankl describes how to arrive at the why of your life even when you think it has just been destroyed. I loved this book for its emphasis on the quest for meaning and portraying how meaning could change from individual to individual spatially and temporally.
- Prozac Nation – Elizabeth Wurtzel
This book was a suggestion from a good friend (the person who asked me to write this article). Wurtzel deals with depression in a very pragmatic manner. She seeks answers, writhes in pain and finally concludes that pain is inevitable and learns to work with it in an efficient manner. This book to me stood out because of one thing. It was a reminder that I was not the only person in the world who was in this state. And the world will reach out to you and try to help you out if you will let it to.
- The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch
The other books might seem gloomy, but if you’re looking for something light to begin with initially, this is a great place to start. Funny, concise and witty, Dr. Raundy Pausch writes about achieving his childhood dreams. From playing in the NFL to floating in space, Dr. Pausch takes you through his childhood dreams in a jovial manner. His enthusiasm about life is infectious. What’s the catch, you ask? He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he had one last lecture to deliver to his students. This book was written based on that lecture. Your spirit, Dr. Pausch, that poise with which you say, “Make me earn it” when you enter the room, makes me immensely jealous of the students who learnt from you.5.When Breath Becomes Air – Dr. Paul Kalanithi
I saved the best, my holy grail, for the last. Maybe you’ve heard about this book before. This is a book that I’ve gushed about to every friend of mine who was patient enough to listen to me. A memoir of a neurosurgeon who was affected by cancer, I won’t call this book gloomy or indolent. It is a celebration of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s life, his resilience, his philosophies, his striving – oh, I could go on and on. In life, rarely, do you meet people you could relate with. This book worked for me because I could see myself in Paul Kalanithi’s shoes. No, I was Paul throughout the time I read it. This book might or might not work for you like it did for me, but by all means, go for it. You would be basking in the presence of perhaps this decade’s finest writer.
The books that chronicle the experiences of depression could be moody, gloomy or even arcane. Yet, they’re worth the trouble you put yourself through for every word. Because, words help you heal. Words help you survive. Words help you resist. And most importantly, words help you answer your questions.