Returning home last night, I thought I’d watch some Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube. The complexity of his ideas is often very effective at numbing my brain before sleep. But after some clicking around, I was drawn to the thumbnail of a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon titled, Depression, the secret we share.
I was quickly transfixed by Solomon’s eloquence, humour and blazing eyes. He described the onset of his depression, the treatments he underwent and his quest to better understand his condition through interviewing people from all sections of society. Especially resonant and entertaining was his account of the views held by an east African tribe on the Western approach to mental health care:
We’ve had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers, especially the ones who came after the genicide. They would do this bizarre thing, they didn’t take people out into the sunshine where they would begin to feel better, they didn’t include drumming or music to get people’s blood going, and they didn’t involve the whole community, they didn’t externalize the depression as an invasive spirit, instead what they did was take people one at a time into dingy little rooms and had them talk for an hour about bad things that had happned them!
However, I was really struck when 24 minutes into his talk, Solomon said
People will come to me and say, I think if I can just stick it out for another year, I think I can just get through this. And I always say to them, you may get through it but you’ll never be 37 again. Life is short and that’s a whole year you’re talking about giving up.
Tomorrow I exit my 47th year and Solomon’s words have put a cold hand around my heart. How long have I ‘just been sticking it out’, or ‘just getting through’? How much of my life has been gobbled up by this thing that I am barely able to write about now, or admit to the world that I have? Why is it so hard for me to call the “D word” by its name, instead of ‘thing’?
I had thought that admitting my depression to myself wasn’t the problem. I’m aware of the friendships it has wrecked, the past three or four years without an intimate relationship, my struggle to settle in any place for more than a few weeks, my tendency towards isolation, my inability to concentrate on earning income and the list of creative goals I never seem to get to. Not to mention the night in Thailand last summer when I ‘acted out’ ending my life.
I had thought that the tools and routines I began nearly two years ago for appreciation, meditation and exercise would have gotten me closer to being more productive, more connected with others and less reactive now. And that all the friends, experiences and inner qualities I’ve gained during the past 4 years of traveling to and living in countries like Japan, Hungary, Thailand, Serbia, Korea, Cambodia, China and Bulgaria, would have somehow translated into a more consistent sense of vitality today. And yet, for the biggest part of most days I am so crushed by a feeling of desolation, self doubt and mental fog that I’m not able to get anything done.
So now, with the words ‘I’ll never be 47 again’ at the forefront of my consciousness, it’s time to ask if what I’ve been doing is enough. Could I be better implementing my current tools and routines? I admit I could be more consistent. Or do I need to consider other options? I’ve always strongly resisted antidepressants but can’t help wonder about what I’ve heard people describe as a ‘cloud lifting away’. I’ve lived for so long under that cloud, it’s an enticing thought. What if that cloud wasn’t there, what would I be able to accomplish? Wouldn’t it be worth finding out?
In addition to my fear of losing control, I’m concerned about the negative impact that antidepressants are reported to have on creativity. Writer Alex Preston says
Writing on SSRIs was like swimming in mud. Words came slowly or not at all; emotions were perceived as if at a great distance, alien and remote. Even at a sentence-by-sentence level, I was aware of a certain lag in my writing, a syntactic sluggishness – the imprint of a brain that was failing to catch up with itself.
This in itself is worrying, but I’m alarmed how Preston’s description, the sluggishness in particular, so accurately reflects my writing process (and often my general thought process) ‘without’ taking drugs. The overall effort to focus and pull thoughts together really is like swimming in mud. I couldn’t imagine that being worse than it already is.
Whatever action I take next, admitting my depression in this post might be the first step. So far I’ve been coping almost completely alone but as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote
We exist for one another.
I’m almost as terrified of reaching out to others as I am of antidepressants. Just the thought of publishing this post is making me quake. But I think Andrew Solomon would be the first to admit that he might not be standing there giving his TED Talk if he hadn’t been able to say to his father that morning
I’m in serious trouble, we need to do something.
As I was walking down the hill this afternoon into the centre of Porto, I saw on a graffitied wall a sticker that read, “WE HAVE HOLES”. That night, walking back up the hill, I began to see the people around me with holes in their bodies from which leaked trails of colored gas. The gas represented different human qualities: confidence, happiness, integrity, vitality, hope, compassion, courage, determination. Like wounded fighter planes spilling fuel and spiralling towards the ocean, each person I saw was in a slow, terminal descent, the result of their best human qualities draining away. Including me. This didn’t frighten me, it seemed totally natural, part of the human condition where we arrive in the world as perfect beings and gradually get shot up by life, nature and our own minds.
And now, as the ocean floor rushes up, you become aware of the eject button that has appeared. Some intelligence has put it there. If you push it, you’ll be lifted high up out of your cockpit and returned to the fight. You sense that you’ve pushed it many times before. As your hand hovers over the button again, your fingers tremble. A deep breath, you brace for impact and then repeat to yourself, “I’ll only be 48 once, I’ll only be 48 once, I’ll only be 48 once.”
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