Stephen Fry and the Paradox of Loneliness

Stephen Fry, one of my heroes, recently tried to commit suicide, and has since told the whole tale of his battle with depression in such a way that only he can. One passage in his latest post stands out to me, a very familiar paradox concerning loneliness, especially considering he and I are both performers, stage performers even, who prize our wit and can seem on the surface to be gregarious and light:

. . . perhaps I am writing this for any of you out there who are lonely too. There’s not much we can do about it. I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.

Loneliness is not much written about (my spell-check wanted me to say that loveliness is not much written about – how wrong that is) but humankind is a social species and maybe it’s something we should think about more than we do. I cannot think of many plays or documentaries or novels about lonely people. Aah, look at them all, Paul McCartney enjoined us in Eleanor Rigby… where do they all come from?

The strange thing is, if you see me in the street and engage in conversation I will probably freeze into polite fear and smile inanely until I can get away to be on my lonely ownsome.

I’ve chosen to be more open about my social anxiety at this stage in my life because I simply don’t always have the energy to fake it anymore, smile inanely, etc., and I also feel that I’m at an age where, goddamn it, I have to be able to stop pretending at sometime. This latter principle, however, rarely holds outside the abstract. In real world meatspace, the inane smile finds its way back. Anyway.

Things I Can’t Do When I’m Depressed

  • Listen to music: If it’s somber or richly produced or instrumented (which is the only kind to which I’ll be inclined), it may only depress me further, or at least more deeply entrench me into the ill feeling. If it’s really good, it will further depress me by reminding me of all the music I’m not writing or recording or performing.
  • Read: The solitary and silent nature of long-form reading is too fragile; it leaves too much space in my mind for self-loathing thoughts to intrude and interrupt. And what’s the point of gaining wisdom or exposing oneself to quality works of culture anyway? We’ll all be dead soon.
  • Watch television or a movie: I become hyper-aware of the time that is draining away as I sit passively watching other people do things on a screen. May also serve to remind me of the acting/theatre life I left behind, and how I was never really committed enough to it to reach my potential.
  • Play a game: Again, knowledge of the waste of time stings, but in a video game I may not be aware of time’s passage as much, but then more heavily regret its passing once I’m done, inevitably unfulfilled.
  • Call a friend: I hate being on the phone and I never begin impromptu conversations with, well, almost anyone.
  • Eat: Everything tastes a little worse, satisfies less, and leaves me with guilt for consuming unneeded, excess calories.
  • Write: I only wind up making self-indulgent crap like this.

Cultivating a Good Depression

I like to cultivate a good depression.

Well, I suppose “like” is a poor choice of words when discussing uncontrolled despondency. Perhaps it’s better to say that apparently I tend to cultivate a depression — or perhaps my depression is something that induces me to cultivate it.

In any case, when depression comes on — and the difference between depression and just feeling bummed is quite palpable to me these days — it isn’t enough just to feel bad. I need to sit in it, to wriggle around until I’ve found a cozy spot. I savor my melancholy to experience all of its emotional nuance, its flavors. I sample varying degrees of moroseness and experiment with different combinations of ingredients; add a touch of anxiety, a hint of anger, a dash of humiliation, or a good pang of regret. What varieties of despair can I concoct?

I also test these various combinations on my physiology; if I have a particular kind of depression swimming through my system (for example, three parts sadness, two parts fear, one part boredom), what does it do to the feeling in my stomach? Does it produce a sickly simmering sensation, or will it add an acidic burn to the lining? Check in with my lungs, and see how deep or shallow, rushed or sedate, easy or labored is my breathing. My head might feel heavy, as though balancing a thick goo in my skull, or it might feel dense, overly packed, the molecules shoved together creating an almost inaudible hum of pressure. My limbs and overall musculature may give in to the depression, becoming flaccid and weighty, or they may find new levels of tension, the fibers of the tissue twisting in on one another, reaching a feeling of imminent implosion. There are so many possibilities.

And for whatever reason, I seem inclined to explore them all. Simply assuming a gloomy attitude won’t do. For my depression, I need to feel every aspect of the woe, and invent new misery cocktails once my senses have been fully saturated by the latest offering.

One could say that it is making the best of a bad situation. No one wants just one brand and flavor of ice cream all the time, or only one varietal of wine from a single vineyard. For something I experience so often for such considerable stretches of time, I demand nuance, diversity, dynamics.

Actually, I don’t demand it. It happens that way without my even trying.

[Note: I wrote this as a kind of writing experiment a year and a half ago, recently rediscovered it, and thought I’d post it here, not knowing what else to do with it.]