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.

We got so far and then there was nothing

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The slight heartbreak of little things piling up has hit me tonight. Already feeling a twinge of melancholy, the evening turned into a platform of little blooms of grief.

My friend’s poor cat passed away this evening. It was not unexpected, but the loss of a beloved pet – lovely, non-judgmental pets – always breaks my heart a bit.

Of course, understated but never underrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman also passed away, and it just seemed so deflating. Such a waste. I often wonder about people blessed and cursed with so much talent. I discussed drug abuse with someone earlier, and he said something about famous people and their drug habits, but it struck me (without having any knowledge on the subject) that many of the most talented people probably already struggled with addiction issues before they ever dreamt of becoming “famous”. There is, I like to imagine, something so intense about embodying that kind of talent and losing oneself in one’s performances, that the temptation to lose oneself in drugs or some “altered state” is too great.

Eventually I succumbed to a discussion on the fucked-up things that happen to us as children and our helplessness about it and how those things influence (but hopefully don’t control) us.

Meanwhile I reflect on my own little, private issues and how I cannot bring myself to be open about them, even when there is something optimistic about them.

Now I am just hoping the Seattle Seahawks will not destroy the only good thing that can come of this day.

Where is my Firewall?

I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night – baking begins

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Soundtrack of the last two days has been a mix of stuff like The Cure’s “A Night Like This” and The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” – as well as a few songs from The Aislers Set and The Dø. There is a melancholy and nostalgia (I think nostalgia implies melancholy).

I am going to start baking and see where it takes me. I made a plan and made a list but these lists easily get well out of hand with more than 20 things on them. Is this excessiveness necessary?

My dreams last night were weird. I was living at least some of the time in France, but nothing seemed at all like the France of reality. I spent most of my time in a cafe (that was a lot more like cafes I frequented in Iceland) that served coffee in French presses (which of course is what Americans call coffee presses… and French people call them Italian – and they ARE an Italian invention. Aussies and Kiwis call it a “coffee plunger” and Icelanders call this a “pressukanna”…). In the dream people went to this place specifically for the coffee, and then one day a law passed that forced all places to serve coffee in the same way (not French press). Another law was introduced at the same time that required all EU countries to harmonize car license plates!? I don’t know where any of this came from.

The anxiety and annoyance of the US election will finally be over on Tuesday. Hearing Mitt Romney speak just makes me sick. The latest global prosperity index knocked the US out of the top ten countries for the first time. Not surprised to hear that. Norway is number one (not surprised to hear that either), with Denmark and Sweden right behind. (And lands of plunger coffee and Anzac biscuits, Australia and NZ, round out the top five.) Not surprising in the least. Confirmation that I made the right choices about where to live and work (not that I had any doubt).