Obsessed with Suffering and Striving: How Reframing My Depression Eased My Pain

An ancient proverb reads: Enlightenment isn’t wisdom; it’s the feeling of lightness.

In it, one sees the contrast between striving and freedom. I resisted this adage for most of my life. In my quests, I wanted nothing more than to become something other than what and who I was. If I began to lift weights, I wouldn’t be ugly. If I read enough books, I would no longer be dumb. Enlightenment embodied the realization of some potential self that faintly resembled any part of me – in essence, the American dream.

Caught up in a cycle of dependence and despair, I was convinced that finally “making it” would remedy my symptoms in perpetuity. Filling the proverbial void was akin to filling in a grave: Here lies my lifelong sorrow, buried for eternity. Enlightenment is the feeling of lightness. So stupid. What the fuck does that even mean? Was I supposed to stop caring about my future? Was I supposed to give up my dreams and settle for some mediocre life?

In his book, The Art of Cycling, James Hibbard recounts experiencing depression, noting, “As David Foster Wallace pointed out several years before taking his own life, it’s not incidental that so many people who are suffering from depression shoot themselves in the head. It’s not just that the brain is the locus of the unremitting pain, it’s that when you’re most depressed, the thoughts go on and on until one feels that the only thing to do is to once and for all stop what the poet Emily Dickinson called the ‘funeral in your brain’ at its source.” To me, this almost perfectly represented the subjective experience of depression. But my episodes weren’t funerals in the usual sense. There were no eulogies, no friends telling me how important my life was or how they couldn’t envision going on without me. They were more like a nightmarish circus, whose sole audience member unwittingly became its star. Enlightenment is the feeling of lightness. But, I could only feel the weight of everything that I would never be.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams describes moral masochists as “introjectively organized people who have organized their self-esteem around their capacity to tolerate pain and sacrifice.” To them, pride stems only from intense effort. But for Hibbard and me, and countless other perfectionists, we failed to understand that nothing would ever be as good as it seemed. So, as I continued to depend on the world to make me happy, to reward me with praise and material success, I remained unable to fathom why I still couldn’t feel satisfied. It wasn’t even that I was happy for a while and then moved on, although that was sometimes the case. More often than not, I wasn’t even happy to begin with. My heart was, on the one hand full of sorrow and on the other full of rage. I worked so hard to fix myself, so how fucking dare life refuse to give me relief? Every achievement was followed by a reason for why it didn’t matter. And every building block crumbled under the weight of my ingrained pessimism.

“Yea, but…” is the perfectionist’s mantra.

There’s always more pain to tolerate and always more to sacrifice. All of us, at some point, learn that nothing is without its flaws, that you can either accept that existential facticity or continue to move your goal post. Overly depending on the world to make me happy, I was caught up in the Gatsby delusion: the belief that some final form of success will finally make me whole. Since childhood, depression has come and gone, and I have yet to discover its cure. But, in my relentless quest for greatness, I was desperately searching for it. Hibbard, in his book, discusses William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a first hand account of a terrifying depressive episode. What’s most striking about Styron’s retelling, a pivotal moment for me when I first read it, is the randomness of the onset and remission of his symptoms. They appear at the height of his career, when he’s on the verge of receiving a high honor, and cease in the hollow halls of a desolate ward. Enlightenment is the feeling of lightness… I fucking got it!

The belief that I could rid myself of my low self-esteem and reoccurring symptoms drove me to burnout and consequential shame. At bottom, I wasn’t allowing myself to experience even a semblance of joy in anything that wasn’t “it” and, paradoxically, I felt ashamed for being ungrateful. Yet, I was never going to fix myself; but I couldn’t accept that I didn’t have to. The shame around feeling ungrateful and the pressure I placed on myself to, in some sense, become super-human exacerbated my episodes. But, in reality, lacking gratitude wasn’t inherently problematic, as nothing is actually that good. When you have entrenched beliefs about your inadequacy, some small victory isn’t going to dispel them; the evidence against them needs to outmatch their strength. In the words of the great John Candy in the film Cool Runnings: “If you aren’t enough without a gold medal, you’ll never be enough with one.”

So, I stopped pressuring myself to fix my own mind, acknowledging that a victory is merely a victory and a loss is merely a loss. But no longer desperately needing to win may be longest lasting victory of all.

Check out our episode with James Hibbard below:


  1. As Robert-Temple.com explains in his work and books and especially recent podcast interviews about his March 2022 book ‘A New Science Of Heaven’, we are not made of atoms; instead we and everything else imaginable are 99.9% plasma – that’s pure energy – rather than solid/liquid/gas. And so when we realise that Einstein and Newton and even the quantum physicists were attempting to explain life and death and the universe using hopelessly flawed human constructs of language and science, we find it easier to reimagine, and thereby reinvent our entire being and relationships with all else. Consider that knowledge and thoughts and feelings have no ‘scientific’ mass, as in e=mc2. Let go who and what we imagined we were and wanted to be. Walking a few miles every day with mantras seems naturally to reconnect our souls with the fundamental energies of life and whatever exists outside of life. Peace is much easier to find than we believe.


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