DISCLAIMER: This is just a stream-of-conscious personal perspective. I’ve no professional qualifications of any kind. I make no value judgements about you, your situation, or anyone you know. This is an attempt to articulate what I consider the best philosophical and practical approach to a person managing their depression.
(I also haven’t spellchecked it)
So I find myself again confronting the d-word. It’s a constant background noise in my own life and, like the tinnitus which is always there but mostly ignorable, I find the only way to manage it is to consider it self-inflicted.
I don’t have figures to hand, haven’t looked any up, but my suspicion is that a majority of people who have depression do not have it for what you might call ‘physical’ reasons. By this I mean inherent problems with the functioning of their brain and body which induce a chemical state which blocks them from being happy, or causes sadness for no reason.
I believe that most people, even people who have experienced some real hardship, prompt episodic depression in themselves. It’s all too easy to do. Especially if you’re a personality type who is naturally prone to ways of thinking which prompt depression. All the sorts of behaviours and thought processes which culminate in depression are quite good at complementing each other. They become a vicious circle. Being depressed is almost a skill, and like other skills it is honed with use. Like other skills people who are depressed all the time make it look easy. But it takes lots of work to be depressed, just like it takes lots of work to stop being depressed. You just don’t often realise how much effort you’re putting into it.
The depressive personality type tends to be a person who is:
1) Quite self-focussed.
The cliche of ‘navel gazing’ exists for a reason. Constant self-reflection can feed a cycle of depressive thoughts. People who constantly say ‘I am the sort of person who…’ are potentially prone to this, unless they’re also utterly free of self-doubt. I think this is where religion can help. Any sort of rock of certainty can be a buttress against depressive thoughts. If you have no solid foundation on which to build your personality, or if that foundation is unstable then that can both be troubling, and prompt the sort of soul-searching that leads to conclusions of ‘I am a bad person/a failure’.
By contrast people who are happy tend be those who look outwards. People who find socialising enjoyable, or who are at ease socialising. I know lots of people who find socialising difficult, but no one who seems to genuinely not enjoy it (and where would I be likely to ever meet such a person, I wonder?). Altruism is one of the best ways to lift yourself from depression. I did a fair bit of volunteering and stuff at university and it was one of the things which helped me manage my own depression. I don’t do so much of it now, I try and look at how I can help people through my job (though it doesn’t always give the same level of hands-on satisfaction). Altruism is also a way to expose yourself to the mythical ‘people who are worse off than you’ which can, perversely, cheer you up by making you more grateful for what you have (if you have anything). Everyone knows in theory that people are worse off than them. But when you really see it…
2) Prone to feelings of helplessness/giving up
One of the worst things you can do with depression is attritube it 100% to an outside cause, or to ‘no cause’ – i.e. to phyisological factors which are internal and not linked to your conscious thought processes. If you are genuinely in the latter group then you’ll need medication, probably for your whole life. I’ve never experienced that, thankfully. I know a handful of people who do have those problems and it’s clear that the day to day problems it causes them are in a whole different league to the malaise and constant cycle of getting better then getting worse which I have been through/continue to go through.
But looking at the cause of depression is important. Say you believe that the tree in your front garden is giving you depression, so you cut it down but you’re still depressed. It’s easier to conclude that it wasn’t the tree, it was something else – maybe your attitude to the tree?
If you believe it’s the tree in your neighbour’s garden that’s giving you depression then you can’t cut it down. You can’t ask the neighbour to cut it down. So maybe you start to resent the neighbour? You resent the way he puts out his bins. You resent the way he parks his car. The way he laughs all the time and looks happy. You resent the fact that your friends don’t agree what a dick your neighbour is. Stupid friends, they’re just like him – with their laughter, and car parking and bin putting out. Wankers.
So maybe it’s your friends who are making you depressed as well? After all you do seem to be depressed whenever you’re around them… You remember that one occasion that you were out when everyone else was having a good time and you just wanted them all to fuck right off. You sat there thinking what unbearable idiots they all were. And yeah sure, you were tired, you were a bit drunk, you’d had a stressful day… but those things have happened before and you were fine. So it mustn’t have been those factore, it must mean either that your friends are awful irritating people, or that some external force called ‘depression’ is manifesting itself via your friends, your neighbour, and that fucking tree!
But if you can’t get rid of the tree, that cursed tree – the edifice on which the whole of your depression is founded – then you’re powerless. In this scenario even if it is genuinely the ‘tree’ – the thing out of your control – which is causing, or at least adding to, your depression then that’s even more reason to look at your own thought processes to overcome it. Bereavement is probably the best real-world example of an un-cut-downable tree.
3) Inclined to be drawn to certainties
I’ve said a bit about this already. The same sorts of people whose self-determined behaviour makes them depressed can often be the same sorts of people who are drawn to quick-fix stopgap solutions to their problems. Things like crystal healing, religion, spending sprees, running away on holidays, isolating yourself, giving up. I’d extend this to include seeking medication or counselling – though i’ll say more about that below. The attribution of your depression to causes beyond your control, be they internal or external, makes simple solutions more attractive. the same as the tree above.
When your constant refrain is ‘I should be happy, why am I not?’ then there are two approaches. One is to focus on the second part ‘why am i not happy?’ and seek solutions – such as tablets, such as religion, such as buying that one wonderful new product which you simply must have to achieve X – which require only a modest investment from yourself.
The other approach is to look at ‘I should be happy’. Why should you be happy? What are the things that make you happy? Think of occasions when you were happy. Think of occasions when you weren’t. Does your life function in such a way as to generate more of the first kind of situation, or the latter?
An example, everyone in the world hates their job. True or false? The answer is false. No one wants to work, no one wants to be compelled to spend their time beholden to someone else, merely to earn the money to exist. Some people, if they won the lottery, would pour their time into ‘work’ helping others or running some sort of business. Not everyone would spend their time sat on cruise liners eating foie gras for the rest of their life. But the point is that most people have some element of frustration with their job, but they don’t actively hate it.
Sometimes I hate my job. Even though, objectively, I know I’m lucky to have it, and I’m glad to be somewhere I feel useful and good at it – sometimes I still abjectly fucking hate it. This is because I have the sort of personality which gets fixated on problems, particularly when I think other people are not addressing the problems in what I consider the best way. Because my job links into so many genuine social problems it means I get a lot of ‘raw material’ to get upset about. More so than any other job I’ve had, my current one is one that I ‘take home with me’ – weekends ruined spent in fug, fixating on things that I’m not-quite-powerless-enough to change (because sure sometimes just going ‘fuck it’/having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change(vom) can actually be the best way).
It also detracts from the mental energy I have to do stuff I enjoy, like going out, or making music. So I don’t do them. Sometimes I try and do them and the base level of frustration and fucked offedness stops me enjoying them fully. My basic happiness level is precarious. It doesn’t take much to set me off – someone returning an item they bought off me on gumtree for example. Time and again I conclude, wrongly, that ‘I’m just not enjoying being out’. There’s then an easy, and potentially inaccurate, step to ‘I don’t enjoy going out anymore’.
This isn’t my job’s ‘fault’ – my job is a set of behaviours I engage in, and it isn’t even depression’s ‘fault’ – depression is a description of a different set of my behaviours. So I risk blaming my behaviour for my behaviour, without making the logical leap to changing either behaviour.
If I go out, hoping to have a good time but fail, then that’s unfortunate and can be demoralising – but that just happens sometimes. But if I build a narrative of helplessness around that failure, or a narrative of external blame then it increases the likelihood that I won’t enjoy future nights out. Or worse that I’ll give up on going out, turn down invites and stay in. Which then feeds back into more navel gazing and transference onto other solutions. ‘I won’t go out, I’ll buy a nintendo DS so I won’t be bored if I stay in’. When actually I’d be better just going out more, even if that means more shitty nights out, because I’ll also have more good nights out.
The problem with good nights out of course, is that you (the depressed person) seldom come home and reflect on them. You don’t come home and do a blow-by-blow analysis of the great time you’ve had, like you would if you’d said something slightly inappropriate which you instantly regretted and spent the rest of the evening worried about.
Good times therefore are less likely to self-reinforce in the same way as bad times do.
In building up to my conclusion that non-physical depression is ultimately entirely within the control of the person suffering it, I can’t overlook the role insecurity plays. No one wants to conclude that their own behaviour is ‘wrong’ – whatever that means. Insecurity survives in depressed people by a process of natural selection. Insecurity can lead you to reject constructive criticisms of your own behaviour (by friends, family, medical professionals etc….) which might lead you to change it, thereby engaging in new patterns of behaviour which contribute to more ‘happy times’.
Insecurity can also be an instigator of depression, or at least of specific instances of depression. ‘No one laughed at my joke, maybe they don’t like me?’. But there’s a kind of insecurity which manifests itself as ‘No one laughed at my joke. They must have no sense of humour because I am really funny. Fuck em, I don’t need them’. This again can contribute to the self-isolation and transferrence to bogus solutions (I promise I’ll come onto meds shortly) which further exacerbates depression.
Of course no one wants to admit to being insecure, especially not an insecure person.
So what am I banging on about? Am I saying depression is ‘all your/my own fault’? Well I wouldn’t put it like that, no. What I’m outlining is something which I consider to be the most empowering way of thinking about depression. I once expressed this as ‘You can’t fight the situation, but the feeling you choose’, and I genuinely believe we choose how we feel about things. It’s just a question of which choice is easiest. If happiness is up a mountain and depression is on the sofa then choosing happiness is a harder choice to make, but it’s a choice nonetheless.
Let me try and move swiftly away from bullshit sounding self-help textbook style analogies.
Say you are:
Who lives in Manchester
Married to Alice
Who socialises with Bob and Roger
Spends £100 a month on DVD’s
Then what can you do? There will be numerous factors tying you to each of these things – but which one of them makes you happy and which one makes you depressed? More importantly, which one makes you a depressed person?
Quit your job
Move to Wales
Tell Bob and Roger you never want to see them again
Throw out your DVD player
Then who are you now? Are you the same person? Are you the depressed person? How would you even know?
Philosophically I believe who we are is defined with reference to who we interact with, and what we do. Regardless of whether you, philosophically, believe in an innate ‘self’ then in practical terms you must accept that if you completely changed every aspect of your life it would be hard to argue that you were being ‘made depressed’ by any of them any more.
Now I’m not suggesting that people with depression should all change every single aspect of their life and start from scratch. I’m just trying a thought experiment whereby you take away all the external factors and ask ‘would you still be depressed?’.
Should you quit your job? If you quit your job, would you still be depressed? Yes or no? If you honestly conclude that the answer is ‘yes’ (which is a harder thing to admit to yourself) then you need to address your relationship to the job, your thinking about it. etc etc. I’m not saying the answer is definitely yes. It’s entirely possible that quitting your job, or at least getting a new job, would reduce depression in a lot of people. But if that’s the case then it’s even more in your power to change it, because it’s easier to change jobs (up to a point) than it is to work internally on your attitude to the job you, until recently, were accusing of making you depressed.
Chopping down the tree is as easy as getting your ass in the garden. Feeling better about the tree is harder, but it might lead to greater insight and to genuinely solving the problem.
So far I’ve probably sounded like I’m pretty down on the idea of people taking medication for depression. I don’t think I’d want it to be the first (formal, external) thing anyone tried – ahead of, say, counselling. I’ll admit to that but nothing stronger. I’ve friends who found it helped them, and I’ve friends who found it made them worse. I think it all has to do with what you (the ‘depressee’) expect it to do.
The people I knew who found it made them worse were the ones who viewed it as a quick fix, who viewed it as a crutch, or worse of all who viewed it as just part of who they were (as I said before, people with ‘physical’/chronic depression are completely different and I don’t consider anything I say here applies to them). If you take pills and they make you happy then it’s easy to conclude that you need to keep taking pills to be happy. But they don’t work forever, and they don’t stop you being unhappy about things which just genuinely make you unhappy (like if yr dog dies).
When they work is if you view them as a ‘holiday’. A sort of flipside to divorcing your wife and moving to Wales. The insight meds can give you (if they work) is that you can be happy, or at least not depressed, in your current situation. You can use this period of respite to look at yourself and be a bit more self-critical about your previous behaviour – ‘yeah I guess I was withdrawing myself from friends and stuff’, ‘yeah I guess I was pinning all my hopes on chopping down that tree – how silly’. Then when you come off them (and you should always be aiming to come off them, at least when you first try them) you’ve got new insight when the depression inevitably returns. And it will. Again and again. But at least now, maybe, you understand it, you own it. You’ve accepted it.
It’s possible to have a happy life overall and still have periods of depression. It’s even possible to have your life enriched by periods of depression. Have you ever met anyone who seems superficially to be glowing with happiness but there’s something somehow… missing? Just a kind of glaze over their eyes that suggests nobody’s home? I reckon those people are feeling just as hollow as us depressed folks feel when at our whats-the-fucking-point-iest, except they still feel happy – so it confuses them.
The basic point in all of this is that I believe very strongly that depression is an emergent property of the personality that ‘hosts’ it. It’s a meme, if you like, which needs a supportive environment to thrive. If you provide a great habitat for it then you’ll find it difficult to rid yourself of it. But you can kill algae by putting chlorine in a pool, and you can manage depression by accepting that it’s in your power to do so.
Everyone who has ever overcome or learned to manage their depression has achieved this, whether they realise it or not. Whether they had help from medicine, counselling, God, or hundreds of bags of Haribo – they did it themselves. There is no sense of pride to be had in managing without help, depression’s not a competitive sport. But if people recognise that they’ll ultimately only help themselves by taking a long hard look at their own life, their own thoughts, and their own behaviour, then making some harsh judgements and doing some difficult work to change things, then that’s how they will get better.
Of course lots of external support from friends and loved ones helps too, but like the other means of support it only helps you to make the changes that ultimately can only ever come from you.