I have just filed my first newspaper column in four weeks. I could not produce one for 18 December because I was too depressed to think, let alone write. Then 25 December was out, for obvious reasons, and on 1 January I was still pretty depressed (it’s enough to get anyone down, New Year) and fundamentally couldn’t be arsed.
I alluded to my depression in my last column of 11 December. I have suffered from it for more than 40 years and during that time I have tried pretty much every therapy available apart from electric shock treatment and a frontal lobotomy. I have seen psychiatrists, psychotherapists, cognitive behavioural therapists and counsellors; taken Prozac and at least two other anti-depressant drugs; read countless articles and books on the subject; and tried a wide range of self-help measures from teetotalism and a tightly controlled diet to binge eating and getting monumentally pissed.
So I think I know a fair bit about depression by now.
And yet, every single time I write a word on the subject, up pops at least one angry letter to the editor asserting that I am not taking the subject seriously enough, and have no idea what I am talking about.
To me, frankly, this is like some slurring bloke in a Cambridge pub telling Stephen Hawking that he knows fuck all about cosmology.
This time the letter to the paper came from a Newcastle city councillor, lumping together my column with something written a few days later by the self-styled poet Kate Fox: “Both writers I felt seriously under-estimated the impact that this condition has on the individual, their family, friends and employer. Eating a bar of chocolate is no solution to this devastating illness as Kate implies.”
Well, he’s right there. Eating a bar of chocolate won’t cure your depression, but it may well raise your spirits temporarily – as the trip to London I described on 11 December did for me, before the dark clouds descended once more.
On the whole I have found that a complete change of scene is one of the more effective specifics against depression. The difficulty is the complete unpredictability of the condition. There have been times when drinking a couple of pints of beer with a friend has lifted me out of the deepest pit of gloom; many more when I simply could not face drinking with anyone; and others when I have accepted the drink and the well-intentioned company and left the pub far more miserable than when I went in. And done nothing at all for the mood of the person or persons I was with.
I THINK, after all these years, that I discern some patterns. I am much more likely to succumb to depression in the winter months, when daylight and sunshine are in short supply. The prospect of events I loathe, like conferences and parties, always induces gloom (so the combination of winter and the festive season is invariably bad news).
I have also formulated the following simple self-help rules, which I have shared with others and know that they have proved positive for them, too:
1. Get up early. Don’t lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself. It only makes things worse.
2. Take exercise. The single most positive thing anyone can do to drive away depression is to take a long, brisk walk – ideally in the hills.
3. Don’t overeat. (Says the 16 stone porker with a lifetime’s supply of chocolates stacked up by the sofa at home.)
4. Don’t drink – though, as noted earlier, moderate tactical intakes of alcohol may help to shift a stubbornly low mood.
5. Read a good book: it’s got harder and harder to find the time, as we all become more and more addicted to social media, but getting really involved in a genuinely “unputdownable” book has proven itself time and again as a wonderful way to raise morale.
Now, I know all that from long and bitter experience, but it did not stop me from spending the best part of December lying around feeling miserable, unable to kick-start myself out of my torpor. As a fellow sufferer remarked to me over Christmas, it’s like walking in treacle. You can’t think straight, you can’t work, you don’t want to socialise, you know you’re going to be lousy company and it seems fairest all round to stay at home alone.
Getting out of the house for a walk seems like torture. The first half mile or so is almost unbearable. But persevere and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.
Similarly, going back to work is hell. I did it yesterday morning, and every single task I attempted took at least twice as long as it should have done, and left me convinced that I had made a complete hash of it. In the days when I worked as part of a team I would shout and scream at people on the slightest provocation on first days back like this, and reduce them or me (or both) to tears.
Yet the reality is that the quality of my written work does not suffer if I can just force myself to produce it. Bizarrely, I have come up with some of my best humorous material at times when I have been almost prostrate with depression.
And, as with the walking, perseverance brings its rewards. It is now the afternoon of Day 2 and I am feeling better, able to answer the phone without dread, engage in a spot of banter and work my way through many of the tasks that I have now been putting off for a month because I could not face them.
I may come across in print as being unsympathetic about depression, because I am quite unsympathetic to myself. Fundamentally, I know that I am a lazy sod who hates parties, so saying “I can’t go: I’m depressed” is almost too convenient an excuse. But like the bloke who set out to get himself repatriated from Colditz by pretending to be mad, and duly ended up in a British loony bin, the symptoms are no less real and painful for perhaps, to some extent at least, having wished them upon myself.
Why am I writing this? Because I do know about depression, and I thought it might be useful to set out why, and some of the lessons I have learned. If you are feeling as miserable today as I was a few weeks ago, try getting up and going for a walk. And if you really can’t face it, maybe think about trying it tomorrow.
The other reason is that far too many people are too embarrassed to acknowledge their condition. I used to be that way myself, blaming my absences from work on stomach upsets or flu (with the inevitable result that I would be stricken with a genuine stomach upset or flu shortly thereafter, and would be bereft of a convincing explanation). It is so much better to be honest and upfront. You’ll be amazed how many people respond by saying that they have suffered from depression themselves, or have first hand experience of it in their families.
At any rate, I have never encountered anything but sympathy and have somehow managed to hold down a reasonably pressured and well-rewarded job for 35 years despite my periodic bouts of misery.
But then, as my wife likes to remind me at least once every day, I am a very lucky man.