I find I learn what I think about something as I write about it. Composing words on a screen (I stopped writing by hand when I gave up clinical work- I have a writing corn from years of scribbling in notes) helps me to formulate what exactly it is that is troubling me. But for a few weeks I’ve had difficulty writing anything very creative other than a single blog. I’m well aware I’ve been grieving for my beloved cat; I was feeling very sad but I began to feel a little better again. Then I had a visit from a family member, which stirred up unwanted thoughts (and dreams) about the past. I began to ruminate again about all sorts of other ‘stresses’ in my life although I’m still not sure how really threatening they actually are, and, for a couple of weeks, my mood plummeted downwards.
It’s become fashionable in some circles not to use the word ‘depression’ but to refer to ‘misery’ instead. ‘Depression’ is a contested concept and there is a powerful view that it is primarily a state that is socially determined, a natural response to life events that will respond to social and/or psychological intervention without the need for anything more. Particularly medication.
While I wholeheartedly agree that the DSM concept of a unitary ‘depression’ is simplistic and that there are, as the founder of the Black Dog Institute in Australia, Gordon Parker, has suggested, many different ‘depressions’, I really must draw the line at the increasing use of the word ‘misery’. To be described as ‘miserable’ not only means being constantly unhappy but also has connotations of wretchedness and being an awful burden to others. ‘Misery’ as an idea I can just about tolerate, but to be described as miserable because you feel down feels like yet another form of stigmatization of the ‘undeserving poor’ who are unable, or cannot be bothered, to help themselves.
And the question is should all experiences of depression now be lumped together as a result of social causes? This is as simplistic to me as suggesting its all down to incorrect or ‘faulty’ thinking or something wrong with the level of monoamines in the synapse. All of these are, for me, similarly discredited ideas. Surely our brains (and our experiences) are worthy of more complex theories than these?
What I’ve learned is that there are times when something really seems to shift in my mood, as though some unseen worker in my brain pulls a lever. Usually this happens in response to a build up of life events (yes, social factors play a key part), and when these events are of a particular kind that holds an inherent threat to my sense of who I am (the psychological part), then my mood is much more likely to shift, and quite rapidly too. When I was working full time I could move from feeling anxious, but keeping my head above water, to quite a different state of mind, within a day. When I am there I feel quite different. I don’t only feel sad, I feel physically ‘changed’; heavy of limb, tired, unable to sleep yet also very agitated. I ruminate about things that at other times I would be able to cope with easily and I am full of ‘fear’. When I look in the mirror I am quite sure I can see it in my eyes. There are times when my fear can shift into frankly paranoid thoughts and feelings of wanting to end my life. It’s terrifying and yet oddly familiar at the same time. I’ve been there many times, and I’ve just been there, albeit fairly briefly this time, again.
I’m fortunate that I haven’t had depression severe enough to warrant admission to hospital but I’ve had several episodes in my life. Why does this happen to me, but not to so many others who seem to be much more resilient? If I’m just ‘miserable’ perhaps it’s because I’m just inherently weak? For me, this is the obvious conclusion I must draw.
What I do believe is that ‘depression’ is a complex, multidimensional experience incorporating everything from profound and painful unhappiness to suicidal thoughts and psychotic degrees of despair. As I’ve said before, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are also very closely linked to the degree that I don’t find the idea of diagnostic co-morbidity useful at all.
The only way I can explain why only some of us seem to become depressed in response to life events is by drawing on the concept of vulnerability. A combination of genetic factors, early life experiences and unremitting life stresses such as lack of support and long-term physical illness add to our vulnerability. Such that, when a torrent of life events come along, those of us who have the greatest vulnerability and lowest threshold for becoming depressed, will get washed away by the waves while those who are fortunately more resilient seem to remain standing.
I don’t find it difficult to identify all of those factors in my own life. I’ve used biological (medication), psychological (therapy) and social (retirement from a stressful job) strategies to overcome them. Most of the time now, it works for me. But there are still likely to be times when my mood just seems to switch gear again and I begin to see an image of the world distorted through a glass, darkly. I’ve never been clinically high, but when I begin to feel better I do sometimes feel an odd surge of well-being to be back in tune with life again.
Just please don’t call me ‘miserable’.