Getting things done when you can’t do anything at all

The world is awash with books and articles by people out who are depressed and yet who have done so much. I wonder if they are so depressed, how can they do so much? Yet they hold down careers, raise children, write books and talk on radio and TV about their experience of depression, and maintain an amazing social media profile.

You might think I get by OK, being a professor of psychology and having written a few books, so I assume most of these people do the same as me: periods of miserable inactivity punctuated by spells of being able to get something done. And of course there is always the possibility that these people are now no longer ill.

When I look back over my life I’m amazed I’ve ever achieved anything. I have always felt a fraud, fearing that I’m soon likely to be caught out. Reading about academic impostor syndrome over Christmas I realised I am not alone: many academics seem to feel that they’ve cheated their way to the top (or at least somewhere near the top). I can never decide if I have overachieved or underachieved: I think on balance I have failed to deliver my schoolboy potential. I was at my best when I was 17, when I was anxious and obsessional but not too depressed. I wonder what things would have been like if I had had a full life, rather than half or even a quarter of a life, the rest stolen by depression. I envy people who can get up every morning knowing they have a clear mind and will be able to work for as long as they like. If you’re one of these fortunate people, cherish it: you don’t know how lucky you are.

It’s been some time since I’ve written, and it hasn’t been because I’ve been very depressed. First writing about psychology and the weather, and then about the science of consciousness, has taken priority, with other book projects have been piling up behind it. Being owned by Beau, a poodle, has taken up a lot of slack in my life. Perhaps more on how being with a dog changes your life later. So perhaps I have answered my own question: most of us scrape by.

Depressed people who get anything done deserved to be lauded. But I think if you’re ill and don’t feel successful, the last thing you should do is feel worried about it. You have enough problems already. Hopefully one day you will feel better enough to find some peace.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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