Taking the leap

Morning cirrus

Last week I took the plunge and decided to “retire” from my full-time job as an academic and go free-lance as a writer from 1 August.

Some call me brave, some lucky, and I worry I’m being stupid. I’ve been fortunate in life so far in being able to do the two things I wanted to do when I was young: be a professor and to write. After spending most of my time doing the first and only a little of the second, I now want to devote my life to writing, reading, and thinking. (And going to the gym building the perfect male body.) I realise I’m lucky to be able to pursue my dreams, but it is something I have been working towards; it’s just a bit earlier than I originally planned.
I’ve had twenty wonderful years at the University of Dundee. I love the place, and I’m proud of the Psychology group I managed and built up there. I love teaching, particularly those huge first-year lectures with an appreciative audience. But the times they are a-changing, and I’m starting to feel just a bit out of touch with academic life and the young of today. So it’s time for a change and a new challenge. Mainly I want to be free and I want to write. It remains to see what sort of living I can make.
I’ve never taken well to following orders – I remember I particularly hated PE at school not because I disliked sport or exercise, but because I hated the regimentation that went with it. And the cadet force at school was also most unpleasant: what was the point of shiny buckles and marching up and down just for the sake of it? In any job, however good, where you’re not the boss, you have to do what others tell you, to some extent at least – it’s hardly unreasonable if you’re getting paid, and particularly if you’re getting paid by the tax payer. But I have found that having to do things seems to make me anxious. My psychopathology again. So, non serviam.
I have several projects on the go that aren’t too far away from being completed. There’s the second edition of my beginner’s guide to the psychology of language, Talking the talk. I’m proud of that because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. There’s a student guide to the philosophy of science and psychology on the way. And then there’s a book on consciousness. That should take me to the end of this year. And there’s my book on depression, anxiety, and me, for which my agent is currently trying to find an editor. Publishers and editors interested in the definitive book on the experience and science of depression, contact us (trevor.harley@mac.com).
And the effect of making the decision and signing the deal has been enormously beneficial to my mood and anxiety levels. I feel HAPPY (I do want to shout here) and my anxiety has virtually disappeared. So I’ve decided to reduce my medication.
So I am taking big steps to taking control of my life and trying to cure myself of depression and anxiety: in the last few months I’ve started working out with a personal trainer, and changed the job. And so far it seems to be working. But I know many battles lie ahead.

Internet resources on depression

Mar 15 eclipse 11

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:

Depression and the meaning of life

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.

The cycle of consumerism

Newtyle house 6 Jan 14 15 – Version 2


Anyone who knows me well knows that I love my stuff. I love the latest gadgets, particularly if they’re from Apple. I like my car and big TV. I like my stereo and home cinema. I love buying books and music.
And yet, I know there’s a hollowness at the heart of all this consumerism. I know stuff shouldn’t make me happy (but it does, a bit, at least, and at least for a while). I think in addition to all my other problems, including OCD, I have a slight shopping disorder. If I see something I want I get it; waiting is not a word I know. It’s not bad enough to ruin me, and I don’t have a cupboard full of shoes (books maybe), but it’s at the boundary of normal and pathological. In part there’s this completeness obsession – the idea that I might be missing something. Or even worse, that one book in a series might have a different kind of cover.
Yet in the end, totally predictably, stuff doesn’t make me happy (well, just a bit). Shopping doesn’t make me happy. Owning stuff doesn’t make me happy. Or if it does, I only feel happy for a short while. In the end, it makes no difference. If anything I feel a little encumbered by all this stuff.
But not encumbered enough to do anything. Money can’t buy you love, but I’m sure it helps. All the research shows that if you give someone a lot of money, eventually their happiness reverts to the previous level. I’m sure that most people who struggle with debt or to pay the mortgage or even just who want to live in a better house will find that very difficult to believe. I do. I’m sure that if I just had a bit more of everything, I would be much happier for ever. Really happy. If I won the lottery my depression would lift at once and permanently. But surely everyone knows this joke:

“There is this guy who’s always been poor, and one day he decides to pray to God that he could win the lottery. He prays and prays, but doesn’t win. Every day, he prays to God that he could win the lottery, and it never happens.
One day, when he’s very old and frustrated, he gets on his knees and says, “Look, God. This is the last time I’m going to pray. PLEASE let me win the lottery, or at least tell me why you aren’t letting me win.”
Suddenly, an angel appears before the man and says, “Look, sir, could you do God a favour and at least BUY A LOTTERY TICKET???!!!”

Let me finish with some quotes from that master of pith, Tyler Durden in Fight Club.
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.”

The afterlife

Brandon marsh frost

I would love to be able to believe in God. I can see the advantages of the promise of an afterlife, the lure of goodies for ever as long as I obey a few simple rules in this life, we provided a way of living without having to think about myself, and meaning on a plate. I envy the faithful.
It is of course more difficult trying to live a good life if you have to work out what good is yourself from scratch. The Bible tells us what is good, and we just have to follow the good book. To be fair the Ten Commandments largely provide a short cut for a moral system, as stripped of their religiosity they are good sound ways of being good to others, or at least not harming them, based on the golden rule do unto others as you would like to be done by.
But it’s the meaning I envy religious people most. Meaning on a plate; ready meal meaning. The rest of us have to make do with having no meaning. But because I think there is no ultimate meaning, it doesn’t follow I think that there is no purpose. We could, for example, give ourselves maximum pleasure in life. The Greek philosopher Epicurus advocated finding pleasure in life, although his pleasures were rather more modest than stuffing ourselves with champagne and caviar; he sought the pleasures of friendship, freedom from fear, and peace. And we have to titrate short-term gain with long-term pain: I could rob a bank tomorrow, and in the unlikely event that I succeeded in coming away with a few pounds, blow them on a first-class flight to Sydney. Any pleasure gained from this escapade would be more than outweighed by the grimness of the inevitable twenty years or whatever in prison afterwards. In any case robbing a bank would violate my ethical system of trying to do unto others as I would be done by; if we all robbed banks we would soon be in a pretty pickle (and all in prison).
I often think psychopaths have been dealt a lucky hand in life. The ability to put themselves first and not worry about must be pretty wonderful. I on the other hand fret about every action and how it’s going to affect others. I’m still a pretty selfish person, but I worry. And how I worry about retribution.
The loss of God (to many of us) has of course led to some well known consequences. The existentialists in particular have thought and written about how we should think and live in a godless world where the only certainty is death, sooner or later. Like many other depressed and anxious people I am obsessed with death. If you have no hope of an afterlife then what we experience now and in our remaining days is all we can hope for. The philosopher Kierkegaard said that anxiety, angst, comes from within us, and our dread at the existential choices we have to make in the face of our fear of death. He said that confronting this fear expands the soul and fulfils the self – assuming we can resolve the fear and accept the ultimate meaninglessness of life.
“Learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it.” – Kierkegaard.
We have to accept that we will die, and that will be it. I find that idea very hard to accept. It’s unfair, but it seems that there’s nothing I can do about it. And although the idea of not existing is so incredibly painful, perhaps it’s only when I feel that pain that I feel truly alive.


Giving up



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?

The war against sleep

phesanat phriend


I worry I sleep too much, particularly being depressed and having been so ill. I would like to get up cheerful and alert at 7.15 every day, but rarely manage to do so. If at all possible, I nap in the afternoon. I need at least eight and a half hours a day, and preferably nine, or even more. That’s a lot of my life asleep. And as I struggle out of bed, my first thoughts are wondering when I can next get back to it again.

When I was much younger, with two scientifically minded friends I tried a sleep deprivation experiment. We went for 40 hours without sleep – missing one night. The going is hardest in the few hours before the time you would naturally wake up. So come 5 am we felt pretty rotten. The worst symptom I remember was nausea, which fortunately seemed to be cured by a good old-fashioned fry-up at the normal time for breakfast. I don’t think I could get past 1 am now, I need my sleep so much.

A few years ago I came across the obituary of the British writer Colin Wilson in the Daily Telegraph. I was both slightly surprised, as though I had expected a greater fuss to be made of his death than a short obituary a few days after the event, and sad, because in spite of some of his strange musings on Atlantis and the paranormal, I thought he was an inspirational thinker and writer. He called himself a “new existentialist”, and wrote about how humans routinely underachieved in failing to fulfil their potential.

Wilson introduced me to the ideas of the Russian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff (d. 1949, birth date uncertain). Gurdjieff sported a Dali-esque moustache and had apparently perfected the useful technique of being able to give a woman an orgasm just by looking at her in the right way. He also argued that we spent much of our time “asleep” . By this he meant not just that we were in bed dozing away much of our lives, like me, but that we we living automatically, reacting to life without being fully aware (also like me). Colin Wilson talks of “the robot taking over” our lives.

These words strike a chord, and I know exactly what they mean by living automatically and the robot taking over. I am in this automatic, non-reflective state much of the time. I wake up, have breakfast, start work, have lunch, a rest, do yet more work, have a bath, have a glass of champagne, watch a movie, listen to music, read, go to bed, and then invariably have vivid violent dreams. And I repeat the next day. The robot lives my day; I am in a sense asleep even when I am awake. I am less clear what the alternative to being asleep is though. Of course it’s being awake, but what does being awake feel like? I do have moments of what are called in the literature “epiphany”, when I feel a surge of happiness and almost mystical oneness with the world. Being awake is I think being aware, and being aware of being aware. You’re aware of being alive and aware of being awake. You can place yourself in a context. Living properly is a war against sleep.

I remember a story told by Gurdjieff’s follower John G. Bennett. I have tried to find the exact quote, but have failed, so if you know where it came from (and perhaps can tell it more accurately), please let me know. Bennett describes how he had spoken to Gurdjieff, and then carried on with his life. The robot took over. Then a few weeks later something prompts him, and he comes to his senses again. He says something like “I realised that I had been asleep for two weeks, and then I woke up”. I know exactly what he means.


Would a life spent just reading be one worth living? What about a life spent just listening to music? Or even one reading while listening to music? I find there’s a limit to the amount of time I can read. Being depressed, my concentration is poor, and I often find myself distracted while reading. I talked about the importance of focus on meaningful work such as reading as deep work last week. Reading properly takes time and effort, and there’s a limit to how much anyone can do in a day. I’d be interested to hear how long people typically spend reading each day, but I seem unable to manage more than a few hours in total. Even a “light novel” where the reviews say “I finished this in a morning” will take me a week.

I’ve always found reading to be very enjoyable. I remember when I was about ten my mother would tell me to go out and play, but really I wanted to stay in and read. I consumed a great deal of children’s fiction, and reading was what I most wanted to do. Some people my age might remembet the Puffin Club – in retrospect a clever marketing device to get us to consume more books, but I found it a revelation when I was young. Here was something that revered reading.
I learn a lot from reading. I am always entranced by the prospect of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, and am continually discovering new authors and new books. I can tell I’m seriously depressed when even reading loses its enjoyment and allure. I can imagine a life with every spare moment spent reading – maybe doubling up, and reading while cooking, eating, and even exercising – would be enjoyable and satisfying. And yet … something would be missing.
Yin and yang, good and evil, black and white, Cheech and Chong – we like dualities. What’s the opposite of reading? Writing. What’s the opposite of listening to music? Making music. While reading is largely a passive activity where you consume someone else’s creation, when writing you create words that someone else will read (hopefully). But then a life spent writing would be impossible, for me at least, because I need to read to have something to write about – or at least to know what I am writing about. Sadly you can’t write academic books while just speculating on your inner turmoil. So there is a balance to be found with some writing and some reading. A morning spent writing from the early hours, then exercise, a walk, an appreciation of nature, a little nap, and then the rest of the day reading while listening to music – that would be a pretty satisfying day. A meaningful day. To consume isn’t enough – for me at least. I need to create as well. But people differ and perhaps you disagree; if so let me know below.