Emotionally investing in a condition AND its treatment ~ something to watch out for
I’ve suffered from depression off and on since I was a child. For much of my childhood and teens this was not acknowledged or treated, but as a student at university it became much more acute, and even life-threatening. Now as a middle-aged woman, I write about it extensively. I still don’t talk about it much, in public. The relative distance that the internet provides means I am able to discuss it with people from every walk of life and from anywhere in the world, and this astonishing freedom of sharing is a life-line at times. More and more people are not only admitting to suffering mental health problems, but many are identifying themselves with the condition before even job or gender. This is an immense leap forward in the face of continuing stigma and ignorance, but it carries a possible side effect that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
My own respite continues, making the new challenges we’re facing not as daunting as they would be, but while not being continuously and acutely depressed at present is a wonderful novelty, it has made me think about things differently. Why do some people become depressed and others never do?
Evidence is emerging that suggests that tendencies to depression may be genetic. It certainly does seem to run in some families, like noses, but standing back a little further, I started to ask myself that if it is something genetic, what purpose does it serve in terms of benefit to the species? Trawling around I found an article in Scientific American that explored this very question:
To précis the article, it would seem that the tendency to chew over problems deeply, even apparently insoluble ones, is of powerful value. Becoming bogged down for weeks or months on end, may not seem advantageous from the outside (or even the inside, to be frank) there is little doubt that many breakthroughs have come by someone tenaciously plugging away often for years to find a solution to a problem. I also have a very subjective feeling that few inventions have come about because people have been happy with the status quo. There is a desire in many people who suffer from depression, to make things better. The cry I hear is “There’s got to be a better way to….” . I wonder if those with depression have this cry somehow embedded in their genes….
Now the article had an odd effect on me, after I’d read it. Somewhere deep and hidden inside myself, I sensed a growing nugget of pride. Not the good sort either. The sort that medieval theologians would have considered something of a mortal sin. I found myself wondering whether this theory meant that I was somehow a better human being because I’d suffered so much with this condition. That was when I realised that I am to some extent emotionally invested in depression. It’s become a badge I wear with pride. Of course, I needed a bit of a slap for that but one of the things I’ve always wanted is that my struggles have some benefit, not merely for myself, but for others. It’s one of the reasons I write about it. But discovering I’m more heavily invested in it than I thought was a nasty shock. To walk the tightrope between being me with an illness and identifying myself by that illness means sometimes I stray too far to one side.
Having found various strategies where I am feeling mostly OK, I have begun to work more deeply with my dreams and with my awareness of the world. Now those strategies are ones that are working for me. I have no idea who would benefit from them, but I’d mentioned them before in case that information was useful to someone else. I’d opted not to take medication the doctor would have prescribed, and while I am aware that they work for many to alleviate symptoms I felt sure from experience they were a blind alley for me. If you discuss depression anywhere online, it becomes swiftly evidence that what works for some doesn’t work for others, and that includes traditional medicine and holistic modalities. This week a study was published that set tongues flapping:
For years it’s been the advice to folks with depression that moderate exercise alleviates depression. Personally, I have only ever found the benefit to be very minor, and have noticed many who have become addicted to the endorphin-high vigorous exercise brings. There have been days in deep depression where the idea of taking exercise of any sort is horrifying and frankly impossible. Energy levels plummet to such a low, getting out of bed is often a huge effort. There’s always been a sense of worthlessness brought on by the exercise advice. I’d never want to go to an exercise group of any kind, well or not, because I’m not someone who enjoys group activities at all. But for those of a more sociable bent, perhaps simply being with other people is what lifts them, not the exercise.
That said, exercise is beneficial, if you can manage it, to your general health. But it’s not the answer to depression by itself. Nor are pills. Or massage. Or any one single thing. There is no definitive cure/healing for depression that will work for everyone.
And yet, there was a deafening outcry online from people who were furious that the idea that exercise IS the answer BECAUSE it works for them, has been cast doubt upon. There have been similar outcries when studies about the efficacy(or lack of it) of anti-depressants have been published and even louder ones when evidence has been shown of the serious, dangerous and even life-threatening effects of medication.
Over the years I have come across a good few times something I find very upsetting. It’s when you are communicating with someone who has had an illness that is similar or the same as yours, and the person tells you that they got better by doing/taking X. It matters little what X actually is, because if you admit that you have tried X and it didn’t work for you, the person can become agitated and often angry. You get told you didn’t give it long enough, or try hard enough, or you did it wrong, because X works, full stop. I had a taste of this last week when someone buttonholed me at an event to tell me precisely how they’d found a cure for an illness their daughter suffered from (the same as that suffered by my daughter). I was at the time too focussed on the event to really engage with this, but I do wonder if I had explained that yes, we had tried this method and it had made little difference, would I have become the enemy?
In the end, I believe that depression itself is a symptom of a deeper malaise that itself, and each time I treat the symptom and not the root cause, I delay finding true and lasting healing for my own self. But in doing that work, I must remember that I am not my condition and that my journey is only mine. To become heavily invested in both illness and cure is a distraction from that journey I alone can take.