Friday, April 17, 2009

Depression — a short, layman's account

I've been rapped over the knuckles for neglecting this blog, so if I explain why that has happened, as a blog entry, I can kill two birds with one stone. The fact is that for the past few weeks, about four or five, I have been afflicted by something which has plagued me on and off throughout my life. It is called depression and is a rather widespread malaise, but curiously despite that, it is not very well understood.
Furthermore, there is still - still, despite any number of newspaper and magazine articles and media broadcasts about it - a certain stigma attached to depression, as though one is somehow less of a person for suffering from it.
An added irony is that we now understand far better what the affliction is and what causes it and that despite the label of 'mental illness', it is, in fact, a physical condition in which chemicals in the brain which work with neural receptors transmitting electrical impulses don't function as they ought to. I'm not too sure whether or not we know exactly why the chemicals stopped working as they are intended to, but it is that which is at the root of 'depression'.
Historically, we have associated 'feeling very low' and 'feeling unhappy' with the condition, but in fact those states are the result of depression rather than being depression itself. It is a debilitating condition and when sufferers are severely afflicted, it is very, very debilitating. The good news is that it is said to be self-limiting, although it has to be added that it doesn't 'self-limit' quite as speedily as sufferers would like.
I know that symptoms can vary, but in my case they include a constant, though not pronounced headache 24 hours a day - rather like the kind of thumping head you can get with a hangover, but not as bad, thought the persistence is irritating —, my neck area and the tops of my shoulders get stiff and they ache, I feel tired and sleepy, lack enthusiasm for doing anything, which can often become a marked reluctance to do anything at all and I just fanny about trying to kill time (which irritates the hell out of me), I find it very difficult to concentrate on anything, I want to be alone as much as possible and don't like being in company, I get impatient - and, as a rule, I am usually quite patient - my mind goes in circles thinking about the state I am in, and all day long I simply look forward to going to bed and to sleep again. And ironically, once I do get to sleep, I sleep like a log.
I should add that this particular bout is relatively mild, and I have had far nastier episodes. Unfortunately, each episode can go on for quite some time. On the positive side, I now recognise the symptoms and know what is going on, which, oddly, I find rather comforting.
Despite the progress made in understanding depression, there are still areas which we don't understand, for example how life stresses can apparently bring it on. In fact, I suspect they don't 'bring it on at all', that when we are healthy we find it far easier to deal with problems and difficulties than when we are not, and when we are depressed, even minor issues and problems can loom far larger than they warrant. Counter-intuitively, many mothers suffer from post-natal depression, often for quite some time, despite the convention that the birth of a child is something joyous and that they should be feeling happy. The theory is that their bodies find it very difficult adjusting to different homone levels when they first fall pregnant and re-adjusting later when those levels need no longer be sustained.
I now realise that in the past, I have, though no consciously masked the symptoms by drinking, so when I now feel the first squalls of an episode, one of the first things I do is to knock alcohol on the head. I have also in the past (this first happened about 15 years ago) taken to swallowing paracetamol and codeine headache tablets to get rid of the headache and neck tension, which, initially they did rather well. However, in the process I got myself addicted to codeine. And when I realised it last June (2008) - I was taking up to four doses a day, low by some standards, but not at all good for you - I stopped immediately and went cold turkey.
The period of withdrawal lasted for several months and I found that I was instead, as a substitute, I should think, craving more alcohol and, initially, also drinking more. In fact, about five weeks ago, when I decided I wanted to lose about one stone in weight (14lb in the imperial measure), the first thing I did was to drastically cut my consumption, and I suspect that it what triggered this latest bout.
So there you have it. It is generally thought that the vast majority of people will experience some kind of depressive illness at some point in their lives, and that a substantial majority does do intermittently throughout their lives. Homesickness in children is now thought to be a manifestation of depression, but conversely simply feeling low and fed up for a few days or a week or two is not the same as suffering depression. All to often such feelings, normal in themselves, are 'treated' with one of many kinds of anti-depressants, but that will have more to do with the pharmaceuatical industry being rather keen to turn a fast buck or ten than acceptable medical practice.

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