On Hope (in a Time of Hopelessness)
Almost everyone I love is having a hard time right now. This is about hope—but not in the way we often talk about it.
Engaging with current events at this particular moment in modern history feels like an endless rolling panic attack. Floods. Fires. Elections. Impeachment hearings. An indistinguishable shower of grinning authoritarian shitclowns snickering at everyone who tries to stop them stripping the planet for parts. Affectless armies of weaponized nihilists prepared to set the world on fire rather than share it with women and people of color. All of it imploding into a sort of hectic immanence, a frantic collapse of timelines. Sometimes, it can feel like the crisis is too massive for anything any of us do to matter. Sometimes, everything is so urgent and so overwhelming and there’s so much you ought to care about that it’s easier … not to care.
Late one night not long ago, I got a DM from a friend. She was having a hard time. Everything felt futile. Self-care felt stupid. She wanted to know how I “managed to stay hopeful.” At the time, I was horizontal under a bundle of blankets, having once again mistaken being way too stressed out to sleep for wokeness. I’d been working for months on a book that is, in part, about the politics of trauma and depression. I’m still working on it, in fact, because, because I’m a lazy, terrible, tragic waste of human skin, and nobody in their right mind would ever want to read my work or be my friend and self-care is for people who deserve it, and by the way, why am I so cold and tired all the time like my insides have been scraped out and replaced by wet concrete and—oh. Well, this is embarrassing. That’ll be me getting back on the boring old depression-recovery circuit with everyone else.
When I start convincing myself that I’m a useless scrap of spoiling sentient meat whose sole value is in whether I meet the Sisyphean standards of productivity I keep setting for myself, that is my depression talking. It’s also the way culture, on some level, speaks to all of us who struggle. The idea that we can never work hard enough or be good enough. That the best you can do is numb yourself with online shopping and office politics and try not to burn out completely before the planet does. To accept your own helplessness before it’s forced on you.
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Depression and anxiety are on the rise all over the Global North. Yes, depression and anxiety are physiological phenomena, chemical processes that happen in the brain. But that doesn’t mean they’re all in your head. That’s the sort of bloodless neoliberal platitude that only works if you believe that mental ill health is a mysterious phenomenon blooming spontaneously in a sick mind. Like an aneurysm. Or the first Star Wars prequel.
In fact, mental health is a physiological and a political issue. Almost everyone I love is having a hard time right now. Almost everyone I know comes home from a hard day being ground on the wheel of late-stage capitalism and tries to wrap their shattered brain around the very real prospect of species collapse. And almost all of them believe that they’re uniquely awful, that others have it much worse, that they could snap out of it if they weren’t so weak and lazy. Unfortunately, this means that on top of having to save the world, many of them also now have to handle major depression. And when you are depressed, recovery can feel just as impossible as saving the world.
Collectively, a lot of us who want to believe in a better, fairer way of life have lost the sense that there might be a future worth counting on—and that’s no accident. Depression shortens your perspective, quite literally. One of the symptoms reported most frequently by people with severe depressive illness is lack of ability to imagine the future. It’s not just that they can’t imagine anything good happening ever again—they can’t imagine a future at all. The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, in his pioneering research on the effects of sustained trauma, showed patients the famous Rorschach inkblots test. He discovered that people who were not traumatized could imagine all sorts of pictures in the random patterns, good and bad—flowers, monsters, murders. What did the traumatized people imagine?
Nothing. They imagined nothing. They looked at blobs of ink and saw blobs of ink. Trauma and depression confiscate your imaginative capacity. Including your capacity to imagine a way out of trauma and depression. Including your ability to imagine anything except “we’re all going to die.” Which is as absolutely true as it is absolutely unhelpful.
Depression cannot imagine a future. When you’re depressed, changing your circumstances feels impossible. Brushing your bloody teeth feels impossible. Especially if your depression is a response to very real, prolonged, and often ongoing trauma. Right now, what many of us are experiencing is a sort of cultural depression, what Patricia Lockwood calls a “fever in the collective head.” It’s easy to feel powerless. This makes depression fantastically useful to those who would rather you stayed powerless.
Trauma and depression confiscate your imaginative capacity. Including your capacity to imagine a way out of trauma and depression. Including your ability to imagine anything except “we’re all going to die.”
I don’t have an easy, neat solution for any of this, and I suggest you back away rapidly from anyone who claims to. What I do know is that depression lies. I know, too, that the same muscles that are required to survive an episode of depression are the muscles that are required for what is nebulously called “resistance” to this current dark tide. Yes, this is about about hope—but not in the way we often talk about it.
Hope is not thinking positive thoughts. Hope is not self-delusion. Hope is clinging to the life raft and kicking, even when there is no sight of land. Hope is a muscle. Like most muscles, it hurts like hell at first, but it gets easier as you get stronger, and you get stronger the more routine, seemingly pointless work you put into it. It is possible. It’s not easy. It takes the sort of work, every day, of doing what needs to be done to care for yourself, your community, your society, even when you resent having to do so and would rather lie down for five minutes or five months or the rest of your life. That’s hope. It’s not a mood. It’s an action. It’s behaving as if there might be a future even when that seems patently ridiculous.
I’m in long-term recovery from depression, anxiety, and other related species of headweasel. I’ve had some really quite scary times with it, especially when I was younger. I was lucky enough to have support in dragging myself out of them—I’m a white, middle-class person from a country with socialized medicine. But even with all of those resources, there were times when it got so bad that almost everyone was ready to give up on me. When I was ready to give up on me. I can categorically say that nothing I will ever have to do will be as hard as coming back from those times. As that leap of faith.
There is a standard toolbox for recovery—and it is standard, in a way that humbles and reassures anyone who ever thought their particular flavor of existential dread made them special. Most of it involves repeatedly making yourself do things you really don’t want to do and can’t imagine having the energy for ever again, like cleaning your house and cutting out the booze and getting some goddamn exercise and thinking practically about other people’s needs without getting bogged down by your own shame and guilt, and then getting up and doing it again. Not just once, and not just when you feel ready, because—trust me—you never feel ready. For a long time you won’t be able to see more than a few steps ahead. That’s all right, so long as you keep walking forward.
I was lucky, in many ways, to burn out very early, to have the chance to learn how to survive by ignoring the eminently reasonable voices in and outside my head that tell me how easy it would be to give in. I accepted that recovery wasn’t a one and done deal, that I would be fighting this thing for life. Quite honestly, in what passes for my political life, that’s the attitude that has kept me plodding on. Understanding that the struggle will be lifelong. That there will be times when despair seems reasonable, and when failure seems inevitable—but along the way, there will still be good things. Sausage sandwiches. Videos of dogs getting haircuts and cats getting treats and Nazis getting punched. A new season of Steven Universe. It’s too soon to start getting messy-drunk on the spirit of the age.
What hope means, and what recovery means, is getting up every day in the full knowledge that nothing means anything and we’re all going to die pointlessly and too soon, and getting on with shit anyway. It means not listening to the semirational sliver of your brain that believes staying in bed drinking liquid ice cream is the better option. And eventually—maybe soon, probably not—things change. Eventually, probably not today, you feel better, or different. That’s what hope is. That’s it. That’s all. It’s bullshit and necessary and anyone can do it. You’re welcome.
In times like these, surviving—making the basic statement that your own life matters as much as anyone else’s—is a political act. When the world consistently tells you that you are unworthy of kindness because of who or what you are, being kind to yourself is an act of rebellion. It’s not the only important one, but it’s the basis of all the others. And it’s scary. And it’s exhausting, having to feel things all the time. And some people would rather fold themselves against the warm blankie of comforting lies or cower under their own violent nihilism. Because some people are cowards. But you’re not.
That’s what I told my friend, messaging back in the middle of the night. You’re not a coward, and nor am I. And when you’ve survived everything your own mind has to throw at you, saving the world will feel a bit more feasible. It won’t be easy. But you never know—we might win.
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