Besting the depression beast

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“But despite the enthusiastic claims of pharmaceutical science, depression cannot be wiped out so long as we are creatures conscious of our own selves. It can at best be contained—and containing is all that current treatments for depression aim to do.”The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon

I admit it – I’ve written a misleading title for this post, in large part because I don’t think there is any such thing as “besting” depression in the sense that you can defeat it completely. Can you best it in that you tame it, manage it, have good days or very long spells of not having depression rule your life? Of course. And it’s in this sense that I use the term “besting”… finding, through all the trial and error that it seems to require, the right treatment for depression to deliver you (or the depressed person) the best possible outcome and way of living. And this, at best, seems to be impermanent and something about which one must be vigilant.

People who are not clinically depressed and never have been are unlikely to ever understand intrinsically true clinical depression or what it feels like. Maybe with observation and experience, we can recognize it in others (“we”, here, being laypeople without clinical depression who are the friends, loved ones and colleagues of the clinically depressed). Maybe we can get brief but “light” glimpses of the multifarious nature of depression (and other mental illnesses, which may or may not accompany depression) when we ourselves dip into our own melancholy.

Like most, I have been through circumstantial depression (when something terrible happens, and triggered by this circumstance, I react in some way akin to ‘depression’ – which can be a whole host of different things). But ultimately I retain, or at least quickly and independently regain, the ability to cope and manage without consequences or lasting physical or emotional effects. Perhaps I am, like many, predisposed to an overly thoughtful and melancholy nature… but this is not clinical depression or mental illness. I have seen the difference up close more times than I care to recount.

I think frequently and often about depression, anxiety and other illnesses, as usual in trying to understand the people around me and, more closely, the people in my life. Those who do suffer from at least depression, if not a smörgåsbord of other issues. This need to understand largely began with my father’s late-1980s breakdown and ongoing battle with crippling depression (which has manifested itself repeatedly ever since but in different guises and ways, something to which he will never admit; he discarded his Prozac after a few years and declared that he was “cured”, but he isn’t). What I continue to learn along the way informs all my interactions with people who share with me that they are depressed or otherwise mentally ill (I have many friends, family members and colleagues who have experienced these conditions at varying extremes). More recently, experiences with depressed (often undiagnosed) addicts/alcoholics have pushed me further into the investigative field, wanting not just to understand limited textbook portrayals of depression but the much more integrative and complex web of interwoven factors that make up depression as a whole.

Looking for a fresh perspective, I turned to Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. (And strangely, I was only about a fifth of the way through reading the book when Sinéad O’Connor’s recent self-published video, crying out from the depths of her own depression appeared on Facebook. A real-life reminder that depression and mental illness is everywhere, does not discriminate, and that even if stigma attached to mental illness has decreased considerably in the last 30 years, it still takes quite a lot of courage, particularly as a public figure, to put yourself out on display in such a raw, emotive, helpless state and ask for help.)

Immediately gripping in its in-depth approach, starting with the intensely personal and detailed, and weaving itself out into a mixture of the personal (both the author’s own and the experiences/anecdotes of others who have lived with depression) and journalistic/scholarly pursuit of the history of depression and its various treatments alongside the complex web of mitigating factors that change one’s relationship to depression, e.g. poverty, demographics, politics and social perception (stigma), the book has been well-worth the difficulty and time invested.

By “difficulty” here, I don’t mean that it is a challenging or excessively convoluted or academic book – in fact, it reads much more like a riveting, long-form piece in a periodical. It’s technically quite easy to read, fixate on and think about, long after you’ve put the book down. It takes some digestion; it’s almost comprehensive and encyclopedic at tackling all angles of depression. It’s for this reason that my own writing about the book is surface-level at best – a mere recommendation for those who want to understand depression, who suffer from depression and want to see hope through information.

Moreover, despite Solomon’s relatively dispassionate account of his own journey (and those of others), the book is difficult because these accounts are so human and painful to read about, to see, even through the filter of distance, what he and others have gone through, both in the throes of deepest, wildest depression and in seeking treatment. But that is where the power of this book rests – and why this work not only satisfied my desire to know and understand, as closely as I could get to being under the skin of a depressed person, but also is important as a topic of study and discussion, as a compendium of depression and how it is seen, treated, perceived on many levels. As a springboard for continued analysis and study.

“guilty by default”

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Dénouement
Ruth Stone
You intimidated me. I was thrown into hell without a trial.
Guilty by default. It was clear the murdered one was dead.
There were only two of us. But no one came to lead me away.
A hundred eyes looked in and saw me on fire.
We loved him, they said. Then they forgot.
After many years I knew who it was who had died.
Murderer, I whispered, you tricked me.

friends or… work friends?

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In almost every job I’ve had, I gained one of the most valuable possible things: not just a work best friend (along with many nice acquaintances), but lifelong friendships that developed from these close work friendships. When I look at jobs in which I didn’t make friends (particularly close ones), I recognize exactly how empty those jobs were and how much harder it was to feel as motivated. Yes, as a recent HBR article maintains, these friendships can indeed be tricky. And I suppose that is why, as the article posits, only something like 19 percent of those surveyed (Americans, by the way) reported having close friendships with a colleague. This is framed as at least partly cultural (non-Americans may be more trusting, collaborative and less “fiercely independent” or bent on personal privacy?).

I have seen some of this dynamic in action. When a global company in which I worked all came together for a global meetup in Europe, the European and Asian colleagues became a more cohesive group, while the Americans seemed standoffish, less social, more formal and “observational”. That is, two years in a row, the American contingent seemed to stand on the sidelines and make observations about how the activities we were engaged in would never be allowed in the US, how we’d have been required to sign liability waivers (in case of injury, etc.). It may also depend on other demographic features (age, etc.) but the Americans’ uniform reserve always struck me as an interesting given how “loud” and “outgoing” Americans are generally perceived to be.

But this is a diversion.

One of my best friends started off as my “office nemesis”. For a year at least, we disliked each other but eventually ‘warmed up’ to become, incrementally, friends.

Another best friend became a friend almost instantly. We went out for dinner together on her first day working in the company, and we lost track of time until the restaurant owners were staring at us, waiting for us to leave so they could close. It was an immediate and deep connection that has only continued to grow, long after our lives changed, long after we stopped working together. And we have since become colleagues again. I cannot imagine my work life – former or current – or, more importantly, my life at all – without her.

I’ve never experienced the ‘tricky complications’ as outlined in the HBR article, but I can recognize that many of the points made could be issues. I suppose for me the depth of the friendships has always been valuable and deep enough that the relationship mattered so much more than just a job. In that sense, I guess, these friendships transcend the idea of a “work friendship”. I happened to meet these people through work, but our friendships had no real connection to the work itself. And you can feel and see a difference. Another good friend, whom I met through work, is a fabulous and intelligent person, and we are still good friends despite not working together any more. But there is a sense that the piece of the puzzle that bound us together closely and gave us something in common is missing, even if we still have a great time together. The impetus and intensity can be driven by the mutual passion or misery created by a job/project.

Overall it seems interesting because friendships are reportedly difficult to make in adulthood, and I suppose they are – where else can you make them than work? Unless you are involved in activities outside of work, or end up being forced friends with, for example, your kids’ friends’ parents or something, it is not exactly like a social smörgåsbord out there. I am not particularly social but don’t feel like I’ve done too badly…