The Depressed Person Leaves the Zoom Call
Words By Maria Swiatkowska, Art By Lucija Rasonja
I remember one time sitting across a table from a woman telling me a story about how her dog ate a roof tile. My job requires me to listen patiently, even to stories I’d rather not, and so I sat there, making my best effort to look concerned and not interrupt.
I feel as though clarification is in order: I am not a monster, and anyone who knows me will readily confirm that I love dogs. Give me your spaniels, your greyhounds, and your pugs and I will cuddle and fawn over them to the point of ridiculousness.
Not this time, though. Listening to a woman’s account of a story of her newly acquired dog— a puppy, to make things even worse and to make me look like even more of an asshole—choking on a piece of tile, I felt as if her words were washing over me, leaving me intact, unbothered.
In other words, I was numb.
Before you ask, the puppy was fine.
But now, with the typical self-centeredness of our age, let me get back to my point. Which is me.
I was going through some personal stuff myself back then. Many months and multiple therapy sessions later, I realized that I had, in fact, been depressed, although if you’d asked me back then, I would have shrugged, brushing it aside with some sardonic punchline, and then changed the subject altogether. I have never been a big fan of the “It’s okay not to be okay” pastel-themed mantra that Instagram shoves down our throats, to the point where it makes me feel a bit resentful. Deep down inside, I have always felt that it actually isn’t okay not to be okay; after all, isn’t that what the whole point of not being okay actually is?
Anyway, what I did not, back then, want to identify as depression registered instead as numbness. I was numb when this nice, worried woman told me about her dog ordeal. I was numb watching a massacre unravel on one of the Netflix shows I mindlessly binged, though I admit puppy-suffering numbness does make me feel slightly more ashamed looking back. I wasn’t just willfully ignorant of what was going on in the world. The gravest toll that my depression took on me is that it made me feel numb to the suffering of others. Depression and empathy don’t go hand in hand.
I look back at that period now, when I ponder whether or not it would be appropriate to read “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace (DFW) with my students. The young people who attend my book club are so brilliant—sensitive and aware in ways that it seems only Gen-Z, in its best version, can be. The age gap between us doesn’t seem so big, except that it is—identifying as the youngest of Millennials, I already feel tired and somewhat washed-up. While it seems like their open approach to depression and mental health makes them feel at once more vulnerable and in touch with the world within and without, all mine did was render me numb.
(Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I am a boomer.)
So, there is this dilemma whether we should even read this short story in which depression is approached ironically. For most social media inhabitants, irony seems now increasingly problematic, perhaps at times hardly palatable. Irony requires us to diminish our suffering and distance ourselves from it, and sometimes it takes a while to unpack and absorb. All of these requirements condemn it to failure in the scrolling system, the quicksand of easily offensible.
The main character of DFW’s story acquires this tunnel vision of depression that prevents her from regarding the pain of others as anything else than a segue into her own doom and gloom. The author covers this pity party with a mercilessness indicative of something much more profound: the kind of hate one usually reserves only for oneself. In fact, Wallace himself famously struggled with depression, which led to his suicide in 2008. And so, we arrive at the crux of the dilemma: if you’re the one dealing with something, is it okay to make fun of it? The question is not apparent or readily available; after all, self-ridicule has had a tough time recently as well. In times when righteous indignation abounds and apology videos are legion, irony is in short supply—but whether rightly so is a different question. It may leave you wondering whether we actually lose something in this tedious process of rectification.
Reading this (admittedly hilarious) piece today, I can see how parts of it have not aged well. Putting aside the question of irony for just a moment, consider the phone! Nowadays we are more likely to associate depression or anxiety with dreading any conversations that involve listening to another person’s voice and having to respond to it in real-time. Perhaps the harrowing sound of the “empty apian drone of the dial tone” that left the protagonist feeling such a sudden blow of loneliness could now be replaced with that feeling you get after a Zoom meeting when, suddenly, after excruciatingly prolonged goodbyes and due amount of over-earnest waving, faces disappear from your screen one by one, and then there is just you, staring at your own pixelated features, face muscles gently relieving from all the smiling, as once again you register the emptiness of your apartment—or is it just me?
I recently came across a New Yorker cartoon of a raggedy young woman, sitting in sweatpants in front of her laptop, which is resting against her PC screen, which is right next to her tablet, which is right above the phone she squeezes in her hand while listening to her therapist impart kernels of wisdom: “I recommend less screen time,” albeit with a few caveats of common sense: “Except, of course, for our therapy sessions, school, work, staying connected with loved ones, dating, telehealth, yoga instruction, and searching for vaccine appointments.” A page I follow reposted it with a single “Ouch!” as a caption.
As in: Ouch, I guess I am spending fifteen hours a day in front of my laptop these days, and I guess it’s not going to change any time soon, and it’s not like I have a choice to do anything about it at this point.
But also: Ouch, that person looks familiar. I feel like I have already seen her somewhere; she looks at me with the same air of fatigue after the Zoom parties are over and everybody else has left the call.
And it sucks to be her. It sucks to be The Depressed Person (TDP).
Which brings me to the point that I would surely bring up at my book club meeting should I choose to discuss the text, which is: who do we identify with while reading this story? Who do we root for? DFW’s merciless sarcasm (in a perhaps too obviously self-loathing way) invites us to distance ourselves from TDP’s never-ending landline pity parties. So maybe we sympathize with TSF (The Sick Friend) or TST (The Suicidal Therapist), both of them quietly, tactfully, offering their attention to the pathetically clingy person in need. The friend whose not-so-vibrant and not-quite-active life is being, as we can imagine, marked by the rhythm of chemotherapy sessions. The tacitly suicidal therapist whose death Karen (because, honestly, can we just call TDP Karen at this point? You can fight me on it, but I know you won’t) manages, somehow—at the same time, both amazingly and unsurprisingly—to appropriate, turning the woman’s deliberate overdose into this grand discourtesy on her part.
I know how it feels to numbly listen to stories you’d rather not, while at the same time quietly processing something much graver. And I certainly know how it feels to feel suicidal. And to be perfectly honest with you on some deep, personal level, I do feel like The Depressed Person at times. (Sometimes. Sometimes not. But these zoom-filled days increasingly so.) Does this mean that I should not laugh at her?
We live in times of numbness and often-professed empathy. Even though I have experienced my fair share of numbness, I remain a die-hard fan of empathy; perhaps not the often-professed kind, but the quiet kind, the kind that makes you stay on the phone or look at your screen, taking in your friends’ stories of woe, even when you feel really, really tired after spending fifteen hours in front of your laptop, because they need you right there, right now.
And yet, at the same time, I also consider myself a die-hard fan of irony. The way it helps us to let go of things. The way it puts those things into perspective. Are these two qualities mutually exclusive? It may seem like it, especially judging by our all-or-nothing social media attitudes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps we could be tender to ourselves and to each other and allow irony to enter our discourse once again—not the scathing sarcasm, but the gentle irony, a smirk, a sigh, a sign letting you know that maybe, just maybe, even the grave things don’t need to be taken seriously all the time.
I feel like I have yet to find out, and the best way to do that is by bouncing these inconclusive ideas off those brilliant people who attend the book club (the therapeutic quality of which is, by the way, invaluable). Because, after all, this is what studying the classics is supposed to be about— holding them up to scrutiny to see which parts of their work have not aged well and which parts can still afford us some insight, the kind of which has lately been overlooked. We can empathize with them and/or ironize about them—and there is no better way than doing it together; ideally not over the phone, but at least for now a Zoom call will do.