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.

Defiant

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The other day, reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I was struck when reading her writing on Joan Baez by the statement:

She “…was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme.”

These words evoked for me the feelings I have long had about, and the image of, Sinéad O’Connor in the late 1980s, an embryonic personality driving and sometimes hindering a skyrocketing career and startling voice. I’d always felt back then that the well-publicized “mania” (I wouldn’t really call it this), early in her career, had unfairly stuck to her, giving her a reputation she could never outrun. She was so very young when her career took off, and we forget – today, as always – that people are still quite unformed and incomplete throughout their early adulthoods; I’d venture to say that many people continue to be unformed well beyond youth. She fit Didion’s description: a personality before she was a fully formed person.

O’Connor, though, also experienced very public controversies (which many would dismiss as publicity ploys), public identity crises and shifts, and quite gut-wrenching bouts of depression and battles with other forms of mental illness (and here I mean gut-wrenching for her fans to watch her go through; I cannot even begin to imagine or put into words what these bouts are like for her, undoubtedly something much worse than just “gut-wrenching” – maybe The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon begins to touch on some part of it, but certainly not all of it), which continued well beyond her youth, worsening with the passage of time.

Could one say she never had the opportunity to become a fully formed person, to move beyond the preternatural talent and preconceived ideas people had about her? And, given the revelations she has shared over the years about her own experiences with abuse and mental illness, how could she ever become a fully formed person? How could she not struggle, often – again – very publicly?

I thought about all of this rather without aim while plowing through the Didion writing, humming tunes from The Lion & the Cobra album to myself, overcome by memories of the summer of 1988, listening to this album repeatedly (when I finally got it on vinyl, after waiting forever), so in love with its extremes of ethereal wave and primitive scream. How, oh, how, I was asked by classmates, could I like this? (Perhaps another case of people failing to look beyond the shaved-head surface.) Eventually Sinéad gave us I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which, at least for a while, turned her into a mainstream favorite, and the masses could finally understand what I had been saying since 1987.

In one of those all-too-frequent little coincidences, it was only a week or so after being reminded of Sinéad by Didion’s writing that Sinéad herself posted a heart-rending video of herself on her Facebook page talking about her diagnosed mental illnesses and recent suicidal thoughts. It feels exploitative to post the video again (certainly in its complete form), although it’s on her official Facebook page to see. A cry for help, a need to be heard, a voice reaching out to others who perhaps felt as she did? In a way, this act felt very much like the Sinéad O’Connor who has always existed, no matter how lost she feels: she won’t be silenced; she won’t care if you, we, anyone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say; she is, despite being devastated by the effects of her illnesses and the rejection she has perceived from her loved ones, still defiant in the way only she can be. Hopefully it will be this defiance that keeps her going.

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash

Eyes toward the sky: Don’t be ‘ground clutter’

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The air traffic control radar beacon system (ATCRBS) is a system used in air traffic control (ATC) to enhance surveillance radar monitoring and separation of air traffic. ATCRBS assists ATC surveillance radars by acquiring information about the aircraft being monitored, and providing this information to the radar controllers. The controllers can use the information to identify radar returns from aircraft (known as targets) and to distinguish those returns from ground clutter.

I returned to this piece because I wanted a reminder – an unidentified blip on my radar screen popped up recently that kind of irked me (no one wants to deal with a UFO, you see), even if it was inconsequential. Or maybe it’s truer to say it confused me.

In my annual seasonal funk, delivered right on time each year between February 1 and 8, I dipped into rather egregious self-pity and felt hurt by the mismatch of someone’s words and actions. I came to terms with all my wallowing stupidity, wrote about and got it out of my system. That’s all tired, repetitive news by now, no? By March, which now seems like an eternity ago, I was a flashing blip on radar screens of an entirely different sector of the world’s airspace.

The aforementioned blog post addresses that sense of feeling independence and freedom slip away, and the involuntary oppression of the fierceness of care that comes from witnessing someone else in trouble. But it also delivers me back to that place of centered individuality: “carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what…”. Perhaps because I already feel like I’ve flown off to new and foreign lands, literal and figurative, in the mere two months (but what does time mean? As I picked up in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: “When his great Italian friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote a moving letter to Michele’s sister: ‘Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion’.”) since that brief winter ‘episode’, I don’t feel any real, or strong, connection to that former time or place or the people populating it. Only interesting, intelligent characters and moments that, even if they do exist in the “persistent, stubborn” ‘non-time’ we live in, are not a part of my life now.

Life just goes on, sometimes at high speed and at cruising altitude. Though I will always care, it’s in a different and almost entirely impersonal, if friendly, way. Because ultimately I’m driven to move forward at all costs, I do not do well with fumbling through inertia or being at a standstill for very long. This has led me, in these weeks, to read, to study, to write, to work, to inhale music, to see films, to walk and hike and run and twist myself into new (to me) yogic positions, to unclog drains, change lightbulbs  and change the oil and tires, to let someone nearly break my back but then let the same person nearly fix it, to meet my near twin only in male form, to obsess over soup and stew, to summon apparitions from the past, to host lovely guests, to travel to new countries and cities, to spend time with my nearest and dearest of amazing friends, and even still to come back home and mail multiple rather innocuous and generic, if chocolaty, packages all over the place.

This last bit has apparently been the ‘last straw’ for one recipient/household, which is a shame, actually, because I had no idea it would cause the “dischord” (take note: the correct spelling is “discord”) they cited. I honestly thought there was only one person living in that household. I am not enough of an asshole that I would ever have sent anything had I known otherwise. Frivolously, perhaps, I thought I was supplying an appropriate “bookend” to close out the (brevity of that) acquaintance; you know, Norwegian Kvikk Lunsj, which is a bridge builder, fence mender, ski-trip snack essential, winning rival to the inferior KitKat and a neutral way to say adieu, even if it won’t keep tooth decay away.

Oh well, dear, undoubtedly lovely, disembodied soul, roger that. I meant no disrespect and no ill-will. It will never happen again.

Photo (c) 2016 NATS Press Office used under Creative Commons license.

Shrinkage

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“That was a hold-onto-the-table moment!”

Staring at my poor hand, the victim of my pen exploding on it while trying to scribble down a note while sitting in a parking lot this morning, I’m trying to remember everything I wanted to write down. Black ink everywhere. It feels a little bit like everything has of late – big splotches everywhere messing up the otherwise clear and expansive horizon.

The sun is out! Here in my corner of the world it feels and looks like spring – bright, clear daylight before 7 in the morning. Sun! Have I ever been this elated about sun in my entire life? I suddenly understand why my ex, who lived for sun, would exclaim, “There is sun here!” each and every time it appeared. He practically took the day off work to enjoy it (it was Seattle – you can’t count on getting more if you don’t grab it and enjoy the moment, which is, actually, true of most things in life). I rolled my eyes at a lot of his declarations of joy. I simply had not lived long enough yet to realize that even (maybe especially) these small things are as important as they are.

It is always a bit like this in March; I really am like a bear stumbling out of a cranky hibernation. I start the new year feeling hopeful pretty much every time, but February always knocks me down (some years worse than others). Through my own myopic stupidity, this year I let many feelings expand and expand at the expense of other things, like living in suspension (which I kind of do anyway in February). This time I came back to life for real as March dawned and realized what I have neglected, how inadvertently small the world can become/how my concerns shrink when I prioritize too much depth (and overthinking, one of my greatest weaknesses) over the broadest possible horizon.

The sun, the bright and long days, reawaken the curiosity, the desire, the urge to explore, step out of the shadows of winter – to run hills, to sing at the top of my lungs (or even quietly), to take coffee in the evening on the deck, to throw my arms around everything and everyone I love.

Photo (c) 2010 RyAwesome.

drop like a rock

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It is strange how disrupting a routine can set an emotional downturn into motion. Getting tired and overstimulated by socializing, and then feeling a great urge to sleep and do nothing else turns the mind inside-out. The great productivity and motivation of the past six weeks gives way to at least a couple of days of despondency, feeling a certain emptiness that feels like it comes suddenly, from nowhere. But all the signs that it would arrive were waiting to ignite, alongside a building resignation.

At least it only lasted for about two sleep-filled days. Now it is – and I am – back to normal. I suppose that is what we always hope for – normalcy and balance.

The best way to get there is to go back to what was before all the disruption, before all the up-down-all-over-the-place. Back to the quiet of place and mind. Back to a time before the little sounds of hope (and crashes of dashed hope) chimed.

Photo (c) 2007 Karen

Lunchtable TV Talk: You’re the Worst – Don’t Give Up

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Surprised by the first season of You’re the Worst, in which two unpleasant people – but still somehow, sometimes, likable in their vulnerability – fall in love, I looked forward to the second season. It began a few weeks ago, and at first, I was a bit disappointed. There were episodes that seemed to try too hard, in which things were neither funny nor thoughtful. The only thread that seemed to be woven, subtly, through the season was Gretchen’s increasingly irregular behavior. This is revealed to be a downward spiral into clinical depression, and this is where the story came together once again. Oddly, the seemingly disconnected nature of the story to the point that Gretchen’s behavior was explained all led somewhere – but so subtly.

The most recent week’s episode, in which Gretchen starts stalking a couple that looks perfect and idyllic to her from the outside, and insinuates herself into their life, only to discover that she’d bought into an illusion, was sublime. Gretchen is almost manic in her shift from elation at witnessing this couple and connecting with them (she seems to find a naive hope in what she perceives as their happiness) to being visibly crestfallen when the man in the couple (played by an always amazing Justin Kirk) starts confessing – spewing, even – his discontent. The look on Gretchen’s face, expressing this dawning and deepening disappointment, is bewitching in its reality and relatability. As Gretchen and Jimmy leave, Jimmy totally oblivious, rambling in his careless and carefree way, he does not even notice as Gretchen silently falls apart.

It was unbelievably touching in the sense that… well, I think we’ve all been there if we’ve ever found ourselves depressed on any level. And as much as I don’t like Gretchen most of the time, she made me feel for her.