Sisyphean Struggle

Insights on The Paradox of Rational Depression

It seems obvious to me why we call insights “pearls of wisdom.” Pearls form when an irritant intrudes on a mollusk, and the mollusk coats it with nacre until it becomes smooth, shiny, and valuable. In the same way, ideas enter our minds and niggle at the back of our consciousness until, over time, our minds polish them into something valuable.

My most recent pearl of wisdom intruded on me during a coaching session in August, when I expressed how hard it felt to do something, and Curious asked, “But does it have to be?”

At the time, that cued a weepy, defensive meltdown—I didn’t want to hear that the extent of my difficulties could possibly be my fault, because I already felt bad enough about them. But like a speck of dust in an oyster, his question stuck, and in the few months since then my mind has kept turning it over and over. Do things really have to be as hard as I make them?

Here’s the answer I’ve come up with: No. But also, sort of…yes.

I don’t hide the fact that I struggle with depression (in fact, sometimes it’s hard to get me to shut up about it). Thanks to prescription medication and a therapist, who is a goddess among men, I mostly have my depression under control, but sometimes it still sneaks up and ambushes me. For the most part, my depression manifests as a drop in mental capacity; I am no less capable of rational thought than on my good days, but everything, including thinking, becomes ten times more exhausting.

When I’m not depressed, I can recognize logically that I possess the capability to deal with the difficulties in my life, and I can act on that realization. If I have an unexciting project due, I know that I can (eventually) make myself complete it whether I want to or not. It’s like rolling a big boulder: not always easy, for sure, but possible with the proper application of force and willpower.

One of the most maddening aspects about my state of mostly-under-control is what happens when I hit a downswing. On my down days, I can still reach that logical realization of my own capability, but acting on it becomes a task of Sisyphean proportions. Completing my project is still possible, but overcoming my apathy becomes not only a much larger task than before, but often a downright repulsive one—when I’m super depressed, the idea of going back to functioning as normal feels physically uncomfortable. I still possess the ability to roll my boulder, but now I have to shift it uphill through knee-deep mud.

And yet, if I just got the right leverage and pushed harder, I could overcome that obstacle, too, right? Maybe I just don’t have enough resilience.

The problem in this case, as eloquently as I can describe it, is that when I am depressed, I am simultaneously Sisyphus (Wikipedia) and the muddy hill. The obstacle is my own brain chemistry, and while there are things I can do to optimize my brain chemistry, sometimes my brain throws me for a loop anyway.

Hence, what I think of as the Paradox of Rational Depression: I can always control how I respond to difficult situations…except for the times when I also can’t.

In both cases, all I have to do is apply the proper force and willpower, but during a depressive episode, the parameters change. The sort of thinking that would make a problem less stressful on a good day won’t always work on a bad day. However, I know that no matter my mental state, I always have the option to plot a new course or grab a bigger lever. Sometimes it’s just easier to stop pushing my boulder and wait until the mud dries up. There are choices available to me.

Everyone, to some degree, has an aspect of their life in which they get in their own way. I wish I could share the answer to this paradox and how to apply it to your own life, but I don’t yet have all the psychological and emotional tools I need to solve it (although between Curious and the goddess of therapy, I have a pretty good support team to help me get there). This is something I plan to keep working on, but if I discover any pearls of wisdom that are polished enough to share, I’ll post updates.


What is your Sisyphean task? Do you need help getting up your hill, or have suggestions for how to get out of your own way? Let us know at!

Posted by Calligraphie

I report from the trenches—I'm in the middle of my own journey to become the hero my life deserves. I feel I can best help others with their struggles and victories by writing about my own. None of us is alone! I love to hear from you. Drop me a line at or reach out to the team at!