My planned post can wait: last week was UK Depression Awareness Week.
I used to be sceptical about these special days and weeks, but now I think there is a great deal of benefit to having a concerted surge of activity because at the very least it generates publicity.
There used to be a great deal of stigma and shame associated with any kind of mental illness. People felt forced to hide their suffering. They were discriminated against, made fun of, and even bullied – things that of course just made people even worse. At our school, many years ago, boys who were slightly odd were given nicknames based on the local mental hospital. People found it more difficult to get and keep jobs. I remember an employee, a long time ago and in a place far away from here, feeling forced to tell me that he had been off work for some weeks with a “very bad cold in the head” – whereas there were rumours that he had had a “nervous breakdown”. There was very little advice available in the NHS, and there was a much more restricted choice of drugs. Prozac only became widely available in 1988.
Things are by no means perfect even now, but every time a celebrity “comes out” as mad, there’s another step forward. Every time someone is honest at work or with their friends all of us are a little more liberated. Those of us who can owe it to the others to stand up and say we’re GLAD TO BE MAD. Well, maybe not glad, but we are, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Stop the stigma now.
It’s not easy being depressed, and it’s not easy being a writer. Being a depressed writer is worse than the sum of the parts. I often wonder why I bother; why not just go for the easy life of staying in bed all day long, which is often what I most often most want to do? Instead I struggle to make time for my writing.
It does mean that for depressed writers there is the question of how can we best arrange our time to facilitate writing? Of course it’s a problem all writers and creative people share. One of the best books I have read recently is Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey (2013). Unusual creativity comes from unusual people living unusual lives. It is quite difficult to discern a pattern in the most creative lives. Have a look at this nice graphical representation of the daily routines of a sample of creative people (including creative scientists):
With all sorts of caveats, and with many exceptions, the pattern seems to be get started early, exercise, relax. I’m not being prescriptive: until I cut down my quetiapine medication I was incapable of getting started early. And when I was Dean I had countless 8.30 and 9.00 am meetings, which really got in the way of getting deep work done (see my earlier blog on “Deep work”). There is robust evidence that some people are morning types and some evening, and if I were going to be prescriptive about anything, it would be to work out when you have most energy and feel best, and do your most creative work then. So of course there are many exceptions to this general pattern of writing first thing: some writers can only really get going at night after a few martinis. (Amazingly though Ernest Hemingway always started writing at six in the morning, even if he had been up late the night before with hard drinking, and worked until about noon.)
For me it ‘s good though to get the writing out of the way. I can never relax until I’ve completed my writing goal for the day. Another problem with starting late is that I never know how a writing task is going to take until I’ve done it. I’m writing a book on consciousness at the moment and I’ve set myself the target of a thousand words a day. It preys on my mind until the target bar in Scrivener (my currently preferred book writing software) reaches 100% for the day.
It is worth spending time on working out what is the perfect day for living the perfect life, in the sense of maximising quality time to get what we want to get done, done. It’s obvious that routine is important; routine crystallised to the point of ritual in many cases, as the title of Currey’s book suggests. Routine does bring its own problems for living – routine is the enemy of spontaneity, unless we schedule some hours in which to be spontaneous, which almost defies the purpose. But when on a creative burst, writing a book with a deadline, I need routine. A rigid routine or else I will not get it done. This routine means being tough on myself as well as other people. No exceptions.
I do wonder how some people manage to get so much more than me. I struggle at the moment with work, let alone writing. I try and free up as much quality time (for reading, writing, and thinking) as possible by outsourcing things like cleaning and mowing the lawn. I’m lucky that I can. How do people with children manage? But there are some days when I am so depressed that I just want to sit and cry and stare into space. Fortunately these days are much rarer when I’m writing; perhaps the sense of purpose writing provides helps us lift my mood. But one of the most depressing things about being depressed is how much time is lost to being ill. It is tragic.
In my last blog I described how I had decided to take the leap from being employed to self-employed, and become a full-time writer. I’ve done this in part because of course I want to spend more time writing, and in part because I think being wholly responsible for my life will help my battle with depression and anxiety. So far – and I’m aware that it’s very early days – I’m optimistic; mostly, at the moment, I feel remarkably happy and anxiety free. Taking complete control of my life has almost been an instant cure. I still have some bad days when I feel a bit depressed, but the bad is now nowhere near as bad as it has been. Of course the days are getting longer as well, and the perpetual gloom of the Scottish winter has started to lift; I’m sure that helps, but I don’t think the weather is the main reason for my improvement. Being free is I think the major factor. I’m sure the feeling won’t last for ever – people soon adapt to changes in their circumstances – but I think it’s a good and important change.
So I have decided to reduce my medication. I have gone down to only two quetiapine a day. Quetiapine is an atypical anti-anxiety drug that is very effective against anxiety. It worked great for me, but made me extremely sleepy. I was worried that this reduction in dosage might interfere with my ability to sleep: I love the instant unconsciousness quetiapine gives you at night; I like the way I put my head on the pillow and I am asleep. In the morning I don’t even remember switching the light out the night before. I was afraid that I would lose this instantaneity of falling asleep, but I haven’t (so far). I don’t sleep quite as deeply later in the night, but I do find it easier to wake up in the morning. I hate the way quetiapine makes it so difficult for me to wake, and leaves me feeling like I just need to go back to sleep for the first couple of hours of the day. Reducing the dose has greatly reduced this zoned out feeling. So far, so good. And I’ve had no rebound in anxiety levels, which I also feared might happen.
I’ve decided I need to make other changes too. Now the general advice when changing your medication and life when mentally ill is only to change one thing at a time. So I’ll give the reduction in quetiapine some time to bed down. My previous “big change” was to try to get fit and go to the gym. This change has more or less worked out, and I’m now fitter than I have ever been. I still can’t say I particularly enjoy the gym or exercise though; I find cardio painful – literally and metaphorically. I hope to reduce the dose of quetiapine to one a day soon.
But it is also time to rethink my daily schedule to see how I can maximise writing time. The research shows that many great writers start early in the morning and get going with those words. I would need at least a cup of tea before I could do anything, but I could make writing the number one priority of the morning. No checking of email or Facebook until those thousand or whatever the target number of words are out. At the moment I go to the gym some mornings, and as the anxiety builds up, take quetiapine. Although it calms me down I feel a bit sedated as well, and I don’t like that feeling. Often (and of course it’s not always possible to do so) I fall asleep. I then feel good and perky for the later afternoon, evening, and early night. Of course at the moment the writing time is naturally heavily constrained by the day job; I won’t be able to change my life fully until I actually finish. At this time of the academic year student project work and marking more than fills the day. For now though, work comes first. The writer’s life is not an easy one. And being depressed is not easy. Being an employed depressed writer is very difficult indeed.
I’m a little short of time this week, so for inspiration I decided just to Google “meaning of life depression” and see what came up. The first hit was this page:
That’s a very interesting page but the whole site is full of useful ideas and information. As the page points out, there are no easy answers. The authors view depression as a challenge for us to make meaning: that “Some people think that the pain of depression can be seen as a kind of ‘signal’ to ourselves to take stock and reassess our lives. At the very least, we may need to recognise and change unhelpful habits like depressed thinking. It may also be the opportunity to think more deeply about how to make our lives more meaningful.”
Spot on! I wish I’d written that myself. But the main theme of my blog is HOW do we make our lives more meaningful? I’ve considered so far that there is a distinction between meaning in life and passing one’s time in a fulfilling way. It’s relatively easy to do the latter, but in the absence of religion, there is no meaning in life. We have to make our way as best we can in what we have to accept is a meaningless world.
One of the few good things about being depressed is that there are a lot of web sites, such as this one, and resources out there for us. It must have been awful to be alone and depressed twenty years ago. (Actually I remember what it was like.) At least we need not feel quite so isolated right now. There are quite a few forums for depressed people and in forthcoming weeks and months I hope to try some.
Surely everyone who has ever been seriously depressed has felt at some time like just giving up. I don’t just mean committing suicide, although that is often not far from the backs of our minds; I merely mean throwing our hands up in despair and sitting on the ground, like rebellious toddlers, and refusing to take part in life anymore. Sometimes this feeling comes from some silly event. The other day I knocked over a glass of white wine. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t face clearing it up, but the event was imbued with some great significance. I am reminded of the scene at the end of the movie 2001, when the ageing Bowman eats his solitary dinner and then knocks over the glass on his table with his cuff; that clearly means something (although I have never been quite sure what). My broken glass signified for me that everything is pointless; all things come to an end, usually rather quickly. I just wanted to sit down and cry. I had had enough.
Sometimes I do some mundane repetitive task and think there must be more to life than this. I know I’m thinking a cliché, and that in fact my life is relatively comfortable, interesting, and good, but that knowledge doesn’t help. Doing the rubbish, collecting the trash, can often bring me to total despair. Looking at the toilet thinking I should clean it again. It’s the again bit that gets me most. Emptying the dishwasher. Washing the bedding. I feel despair wash over myself as I think, not again. This daily routine is killing me. On a good day I will wonder how many more times I will have to empty the dishwasher or clean the toilet before I die; on a bad day I think I can’t face doing it one more time. It is all ultimately so pointless.
The final words in the great Kenneth Williams’ diaries were “Oh, what is the bloody point?”. It is still debated whether his death was suicide or an accidental overdose, but for me that last entry can have only one meaning.
When the world ends I will have a cold, so I won’t be able to treat even Armageddon with the concentration and focus it deserves. Big Things always happen when I feel unwell. The rest of the time it’s the accumulation of little things, the endless repetition of life, that gets me down. Doesn’t everyone worry that at the very best, when they brush their teeth they’re just going to have to do it again a few hours later, and at worst, this time might be the last that we ever do it? Or does everyday life just pass most people by?
When you’re depressed, every day seems the same. There’s no colour. There’s nothing to look forward to. What is the bloody point?