Friday 5 June 2020

Anhedonia in the time of C-19

During the C-19 restrictions our lives seems to have shrunk to the sort of weird attenuated existence that – if my fallible memory is right – used to happen regularly on Star Trek (TNG). One or other crew member would end up the only one left in an episode in which all other crew members slowly vanished but those initially left denying, in the meantime, that anyone else had ever been on the ship or that the ship had ever comprised more than the captain’s ready-room’s ensuite facilities. Or whatever. It’s not suffering under enemy bombs (though more people have died). The panic buying subsided and there’s been only the most minor of informal rationing. But still, it seems to me that, like everyone else, what my life encompasses has shrunk.

At the same, however, my anhedonia seems to have eased. Why is this?

By anhedonia I mean…

Let me go back a bit. My parents died in 2014 in what ended up a rather horrible year. It began with the best Liptonian explanation – according to my consultant – of my sudden deafness being a life-threatening brain tumour. I didn’t cope well with this for the days I waited news. In the week that I got the all-clear, my mother was rushed to hospital and died both suddenly and slowly a few weeks later of leukaemia. My father, for whom she’d been a key informal carer, lived a precarious existence for the next 4 months rescued from death by diabetic coma on 4 occasions by visiting nurses breaking in. He died the day I went to spend three dark and gloomy months in a room in a castle in Durham weirdly shunned by the other members of the college. I underwent a thorough grief period for the rest of 2014 and then the first half of 2015. And then I slipped into depression, anxiety attacks and intrusive compulsive thoughts.

Four years later and after a variety of talking cures, much of all that has improved. But the one thing that showed no sign of lifting was a kind of anhedonia which had two key elements.

1) A loss of the ability to be struck by happiness.
2) A loss of anticipatory happiness.

By 1) I mean that while it would be absurd to say that when in a flow activity I was unhappy, I could not experience the happiness as happiness. I never had the kind of glad start of thinking: Gosh isn’t the sun on my back rather lovely! That slightly self-conscious, meta-level happiness in one’s happiness stopped. By 2) I mean that while I had a cognitive attitude to the likelihood of the kind of happiness permitted by 1) a day later when next in the pub with friends, that induction, that belief, had no effect on my mood beforehand. I had never noticed before that the prospect of future happiness permits a kind of borrowing of happiness itself. One can be happy in virtue of and in advance of later happiness.

I realised last week that I didn’t feel burdened by either of these notions. I don’t think it’s because I’ve regained the spontaneous experience of my state as a state of happiness but its lack doesn’t seem such a problem. Nor does an attenuated weekend fill me with Thursday morning glee. I'm not more happy, in other words.

Might it be this? I don’t think that the C-19 form of life would allow for that much of what I’m lacking anyway? In which case, I’ve got the phenomenology of my anhedonia wrong. The lack isn’t either 1 or 2 but a lack of self-conscious enjoyment of what’s missing in both cases. So for 1, I don’t miss a reflective awareness of my happiness, I miss a meta-level enjoyment of a capacity for a meta-level enjoyment of my happiness. To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it had ended up as indirect as this. Should have stuck to physics.