Saturday, 23 August 2014

I'm Depressed - But Is It Allowed?

"He didn't die by suicide, he died from depression", said quite a few people on the social media networks this week about the actor and comedian Robin Williams. One pointed out that when a person dies of cancer, we don't identify the embolism, or morphine overdose, or cardiac syncope, that was the precise and immediate cause of death, we blame the whole disease, not the immediate presenting symptom.

A very great many people suffer from depression, and thankfully few of us suffer it as badly as Mr Williams, and with fatal consequence. But many need, and some use, medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, silence, music, yoga, meditation, walking, and other ways of keeping what Sir Winston Churchill, who suffered it badly, called "the Black Dog" at bay.

I notice more and more the casual idioms of our culture - "you all right, then?" "cheer up" "chin up" "worse things happen at sea" "never mind" "it'll be all right" "it's all for the best" "smile for the camera" - all designed to squeeze away any possible space for admitting things are not OK, and happiness is for the time being unthinkable. And that most uncomfortable thought for the healthier mind - that it might be OK not to be OK. After all, if my unhappiness is reality, might not your happiness be illusion? It's all rather threatening.

In a culture geared up to maximise the possibilities of success - and therefore of failure - the chances of depression which is geared in part to external circumstances are enhanced. You take a job, it's rubbish, you get crushed by it, you have to leave, you're unemployed, earning nothing, worthless, the spiral spins downwards. It can happen as much to the high achievers - the intensity of expectation that last time's triumph will be trumped again, and funders and backers and fans and all who thrive on other people's success, will be so dismayed if you fail. The pressure is intense. Even just being a parish priest, as a custodian and messenger of the Good News, to sit there at the front of the church with a long face, is to have failed in your ministry.

There is no cure. Some depressives hit good times that never end, and bravo for them. Some live always conscious that below the plank are crocodiles; and some fall off it. But if I have a plea it is for it to be OK not to be OK. That bad days are no one's failure, and if someone in answer to your kindly question says "actually, it's a bit rubbish", that's no reflexion on you, nor a challenge to make it any better. In fact, by just listening, allowing your friend to tell the truth, and by being yourself - because it's their life, not yours - and then making, or accepting, coffee or tea or whatever, you may be making it better. Just allow it. Be a friend. It's OK to be not OK.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014


  1. I wondered if when I retired I would be depressed, after all I'd lost a life time vocation, 43 continuous years in the womb of Her Majesties forces, but the opposite happened. The freedom of choice after 43 years of one way of life was liberating and really a release. It was if a pressure valve had been released in my brain and I knew that whatever happened in the future it would be my decision to be where I wanted, doing what I wanted, not as a duty, but a voluntary option.

    I had known depression, particularly a major episode lasting for nearly a year in the late 80's. It was triggered by a number of traumatic events, which I coped with at the time, but which rebounded later. My father died a slow lingering death from uncontrolled diabetes. A good friend committed suicide and my marriage foundered. Coming in fast succession, I didn't have time to react and was struck down.

    I still remember and dread the huge darkness that seemed to be there, all around, the thoughts that passed through my mind and the withdrawal from society, family friends and the visible sign of a huge weight loss, until I was skin and bones, literally. The army wisely parked me in a quieter spot for a few months, but being 300 miles away from my children didn't help.

    In the end, a few good friends and a personal realisation that if I stayed like this and did nothing to help myself I would end up in the gutter seemed to help me to return to some modicum of normality, at least on the surface, but I continued to be troubled for months after, until I met someone who made my life whole again, and thank God, we're still together 25 years later.

    Anyone who believes that depression can be shrugged off is deluded and dangerous. It's an illness which can return at any time, as I've had one or two shorter episodes since, but ones among close supportive friends and family who really helped me, not with platitudes, but with being there, listening, hugging and crying with me at times when it was needed. Medication has never featured, perhaps a life where taking drugs could be dangerous to others (would I trust myself with a gun while on anti-depressants?) just meant that I couldn't even consider them. Perhaps I suffered more because of that, I can't argue as I don't have the experience of benefiting from such medication. Given the choice today, it would be the same. I want to have a little control over what goes into and out of my system and have to take enough drugs to continue turning over each day to want more.

  2. As a life-long melancholic ( I prefer the term to depressive), I have experienced many long periods of greyish calm lit by an occasional flash of pure unalloyed happiness. The grey days can just as easily become black days when nothing and no-one can get through the thick walls.
    I had one severe spell of wretchedness in 1970 which led to a suicide attempt.
    The result was five days of coma followed by apparent total recovery.
    *It was a long time before real recovery took place and it was then that a new way of life (38 years of marriage), turned me into a 'normal' person.
    Taking any medication is fraught with risk and I decided to beat the 'black dog' by myself.
    Until my husband died it mostly worked, but after his death the clouds drew closer day by day.
    I put myself on a course of St. John's Wort which, together with being baptised and confirmed at the age of 75, and becoming a volunteer in the church has kept the balance fairly well.
    Lately I have dropped my herbal treatment and have found it hard to find any light spots in the day.
    My blog has fallen silent (No bad thing some might say), and long silences are becoming the norm once more.
    Time to try to engage with life more actively I think. Watch this space, b ut don't hold your breath.

  3. I have found the internet a great friend in the times when it is hard to deal with people.

    And to both of you, thank you for your frankness. This thing is not a stranger in our midst. We are complex creatures, and we must be allowed our bad times.

    For my part, when I look at my aspidistra, and don't think, "oh how wonderful", then I shall know I am going somewhere bad again. I watered her today, and she has 6 fresh shoots.

  4. Thank you for what you have written, Richard. I am just re-reading Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness - The Anatomy of Depression. Have you come across it? My life-long interest in this aspect of human experience dates from a period in my late teens when I experienced a nightmarish couple of years that were a response to the suffocating situation I found myself in. (The term 'reactive depression' seems to have been done away with). Your post brought a couple of thoughts to mind. The first was R D Laing's view (I over-simplify) that much mental unwellness is a perfectly understandable response to the madness of the world. That can't hold of course as a pure truth, but I find it persuasive in this sense: so much of what we take to be normal (the violence that is endemic, careerism, competitiveness, oppressive aspects of patriarchy and the images of 'how life is' as served up by media and advertising) is in fact far from 'normal' or good. Thoughtful souls may, in some situations, react to these absurdities by what we call depression. The other thought is that being truly listened to is rare. I don't mean in some gooey 'pastoral' way but in a more subtle way - a way that could, should, inform most of our encounters. I can't say I have experienced that much of this kind of attentiveness amongst clergy, and we are meant to know why it is important. But then again, exceptions abound.