Depression is a withdrawal from life. There is a kind of hubris in this withdrawal, as though being depressed were a way of saying, "this imperfect, difficult world is not good enough for me. Give me paradise or give me death." The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that de pression is like a spell that a person casts over the world to make it utterly gray and uninteresting. Then you can tell yourself, What's the use of trying? Why bother to get out of bed?
The disappointed person lingers, however painfully, in the middle of the story, even though paradise has slipped through his or her fingers. Disappointment keeps you connected to life as it continues to un fold and places an important choice in front of you. It informs you that time has gone by and things have changed since you first risked investing in a cause or a career or an intimacy with another person. Neither a utopian outcome nor easy success nor bliss in love is just around the corner. Life is more difficult than you thought. The question is, what next? Are you going to take on the vital forces of life, despite limitations and imperfections, or pull the covers over your head as an exit strategy?
A patient of mine, a divorced woman in her 30s, a graphic designer, constantly bemoaned the lack of intimacy in her life. She told me that she was prone to black depressions, particularly on weekends. I found out that she spent weekends alone in her apartment, making no effort to contact the outside world. It was as if she were waiting for a Prince Charming to arrive and sweep her away. Apparently this rescuing figure had to do all the work; she wasn't going to budge.
Behind this repetitious and unpromising pattern lay a history of disappointment at the hands of the key men in her life. Her father had disappeared behind The Wall Street Journal at breakfast, and the rest of the time into his own unhappiness over his failed career aspirations. He didn't even bother to show up at school plays in which she sometimes had leading roles. She married young, having found a man who courted her enthusiastically. But before long he, too, disappeared—into alcohol. She lost faith that any actual intimacy would meet her needs.
It became necessary to explore her deep disappointment rather than simply treat her depression. Disappointment has a future; depression doesn't. There is no where to go if you are already at the end of the story. With disappointment, the plot is still taking shape, even though there may be hard work to do—such as, in the case of my patient, learning to tolerate the unknown of the future despite past suffering and to risk rebuilding a social life anyway. Therapy aims at helping people live in the present free from the compulsion to repeat the past, but you often have to dig down to find what gives rise to the repetition.