Friday, October 16, 2015

Depression - what it is not

I thought I would, for a change, give one of my blog posts a succinct and straightforward title, and one which entirely sums up part of what I want to say. It is a commonplace to bemoan that ‘depression’ and ‘mental illness’ are not spoken of and discussed as much as they should be and that there is still stigma attached to being ‘depressed’ or ‘mentally ill’, but that complaint and social attitudes to ‘depression’ isn’t at all what I want to write about, or rather not at all directly.

I have previously mentioned in this blog that I have over my past 65 years suffered bouts of ‘depression’, both mild episodes and, far more rarely, quite severe ones. And in those 65 years I believe I have come to understand a little better what is going on, and the very first thing I should like to say is that ‘depression’, or at least the ‘depression’ I have on occasion suffered is a wholly physical not a mental affliction. And the second thing I should like to point out that it has, in my experience at least, nothing at all to do with being ‘sad’ or ‘unhappy’. Absolutely nothing.

On the first point I suggest that ‘depression’ (and I keep writing it in quote marks to highlight how much, in my view, we are mistaken about its nature and to try to distance what I am writing here from hitherto accepted notions of what it is) came to be regarded as a ‘mental’ illness simply because there are few, if any, physical symptoms. It doesn’t make you sweat, you don’t change colour, you don’t run a fever and you are almost always capable of functioning as ‘normal’ (another word I would prefer to leave in quotes). In fact, the rest of the world might well be unaware that someone is suffering from ‘depression’, unless and until that sufferer volunteers information about themselves.

As for depression having little to do with ‘sadness’ or ‘unhappiness’, well, I know that at first hand. I do admit to being, if I allow myself to be, a little to rather irritable when it comes over me, but that has nothing to do with sadness or unhappiness.

My symptoms are quite straightforward: I always have a perpetual ‘thick head’, one which I liken to the headache you have when you are hung over. This can be mild or severe, but it is continuous and

Fuck, they’re going to think I’m sad!


ever-present. It is at its worst in the morning when I wake up and lifts bit by bit as the day goes on. Another symptom is an almost crippling lassitude a marked reluctance to do anything at all. I just don’t want to do anything, but oddly when I do do something, I get very impatient to get on to ‘the next thing’, however trivial or unimportant that next thing is.

This lassitude goes hand in hand with frittering the day away, finding it very difficult to concentrate on anything - reading, watching TV, writing (I am writing this at 3.30 in the afternoon, but twice tried to write it before lunch and just couldn’t get my thoughts together), conversation or whatever work I should be engaged on. Related to that lassitude is outright boredom, completely boredom with everything and everyone. I just want to be alone and count the hours until I can go to bed and go to sleep (and dream - I always look forward to dreaming).

In the past, when things got very bad (I had a very bad bout when I started my first newspaper job in Lincoln in June 1974) my neck and shoulders locked tight and that in conjunction with an appalling and perpetual ‘thick head’ headache is enough to bring anyone down. But note: ‘feeling down’ is a consequence of physical symptoms and should be understood as ‘feeling bloody fed up with this never-ending bloody headache and aching shoulders’.

The first rather severe bout I remember was when I began my first term at boarding school. and I think it developed as a result of a rather drastic change in my life, from being a happy-go-lucky, possibly rather smug, 13-year-old German kid attending a Jesuit college in Berlin where the emphasis was on positivity and doing your best to being a rather plump, very naive and outspoken 13-year-old who didn’t take well to being teased about his shape - I was still only about 5ft 5in - and still hated the glasses I had had to wear for the past year or so. Home was warm and comfortable and my mother was a good cook. School was cold and uncomfortable and the food was rather worse than pigswill or so it seemed to me. And I was very homesick (I was one of only two boys in my year’s intake of 49 who had not already spent several years boarding a prep school).

My second bout came in my second year at college when I was possessed by what I can only describe as an ‘existential’ crisis which, I think, much to do with the final transition from childhood to adulthood and I truly felt all at sea.

But I must stress that although, as it seems to me, circumstances, or rather a change in circumstances, brought on these bouts, the affliction on each occasion was physical not mental - the thumping thick head to which I awoke and the rigidi shoulders and neck which, if nothing, else was almost painful.

As for not being ‘sad’ or ‘unhappy’, I am by nature a chatterbox and cheerful, both a day person and night person, as likely to talk ten to the dozen at 6am in the morning as 1am at night. And that doesn’t change when I am suffering from a, usually mild, bout of depression, except that often I would prefer to be on my own and that bloody thick head can make me quite irritable and short with people.

So there you have it. It is now 4.20 (I had to interrupt writing this to pick my son up from where his school bus drops him) and, having taken - just the one - paracetamol, my head isn’t too bad. But I can’t deny that I can think of nothing else at the moment than getting undressed, brushing my teeth, getting into bed, turning out the light and falling asleep. And dreaming. I always dream.

Oh, and as for the oft-made claim that ‘depressives’ are often ‘creative’, I have to say I don’t buy it and never have. For one thing both terms are far to vague to allow for any sensible discussion, ‘creative’ being even vaguer than ‘depressives’.

Pip, pip.

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