Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Time for some more therapy

I had lunch last week with a friend who responded to the conventional inquiry “How are you?” with the arresting statement “I’m having a breakdown”. I could hardly complain, since I have a terrible reputation for wrongly assuming that people asking me that question actually want an answer. Nevertheless, it struck me how much it is not the English way. We do not announce “I’ve got terminal cancer” but murmur apologetically “I’ve been a bit poorly” or, better still, “Mustn’t grumble”.

Ironically, this exchange took place on the very day that a “major study” pronounced that anti-depressant drugs were completely useless. If you were affected by this verdict, do not fret. I am sure that there will be another “major study” along shortly, proving precisely the opposite.

At the risk of getting into the same sort of trouble with my aunt that resulted when I jokingly claimed in this column to be an alcoholic (as opposed to the bizarrely more socially acceptable reality of a habitual drunk), I can disclose that I have suffered from depression for 35 years. I took various prescription drugs for well over a decade, and can vouch for their effects: some good, some frighteningly bad. They certainly made more of an impact than any of the various “talking therapies”, and the notion that they do nothing at all is simply risible.

Like many depressives, I actually have great sympathy with the “pull yourself together” school of thought on how it should be treated. In my case, I certainly cannot exclude the possibility that it is rooted in nothing more than self-obsessed attention-seeking; and perhaps finding a medically acceptable excuse for inactivity that is rooted in nothing more than sheer laziness.

Nevertheless, I think it is helpful for sufferers to get it out into the open. There should be no stigma attached to depression. It didn’t stop Churchill leading our successful war effort, and a glance at the internet reveals that it would be considerably quicker to assemble a list of famous writers, artists and composers who have not suffered from it. It certainly has not helped me in relationships or my career, but I haven’t starved either, as my current need to diet testifies.

Please learn to spot the characteristic signs of depressive behaviour, and try to help those who are suffering. The alternative may be people you love descending into the sort of despair that leads to teenagers hanging themselves. Sometimes, as with my friend last week, people have really good reasons for being sad, though there may not be any obvious solution to them. For others, as with me, misery may descend out of a clear blue sky when they have no reason to be depressed at all. I don’t think it does any harm to point this out, though the chances of the victim saying “Oh, that’s all right then” and making an instant recovery are vanishingly slight.

I finally weaned myself off pills a couple of years ago by taking the stress out of my life. This also enabled me to stop taking the medications for high blood pressure that I was warned I would always need. There are simple practical solutions to a build-up of gloom: get up early, take exercise, keep busy, don’t eat or drink too much, but do find time to socialise with real friends.

I have found that perhaps the single most helpful thing is what I am doing now: writing. Sadly we can’t all have the immense privilege of a newspaper column, but there are millions rambling happily away on blogs, including me. Self-regarding tosh, no doubt, but I am hard pressed to see that it causes any harm. I look upon it as cognitive behavioural therapy that only wastes one person’s time, representing a productivity increase of 100 per cent.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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