This is a complicated post, but then it’s a complicated subject.
I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, certainly for years before I was ever diagnosed. I am not currently depressed and I haven’t needed to take medication to manage the symptoms in a long time, but the depression is still there lurking.
Depression is a complex and multifaceted illness with many causes, sometimes including no cause at all. Anyone who ever asks someone who is depressed why they are so sad when they have such a nice life has no understanding of depression: you don’t choose to be depressed, and suggesting someone just cheer up is about as helpful as suggesting someone with a broken leg just stand.
For me, depression is like a great weight pressing down all the time. It’s not that I can’t feel happy, but more that I don’t feel anything very much. Everything is grey and heavy and just not worth doing.
Still and all, debilitating as depression is, I count myself as lucky that I have never had thoughts of self-harm. That at least means that depression is unlikely to be a fatal illness for me, as it has been for so many.
It’s Not A Disorder, And It’s Not A Deficit
The roots of my depression are in my ADD*.
I grew up in a time before ADD was widely recognised or accepted, but applying current definitions to my behaviour as a child and ever since it is pretty clear that I have a number of ADD behaviours: distractibility, difficulty in focussing, poor sense of time, and hyperfocus amongst others**.
Where the depression came from was that I didn’t understand that the negative effects of this cluster of behaviours was not something I needed to be ashamed of or guilty about. For a long time I motivated myself to do things by telling myself how worthless I was if I didn’t get it done. Years of concentrated self-loathing will make anyone depressed.
Inaccurate and unhelpful as the term ADD is, having a label helped me enormously: I could read around the subject, and I could come up with strategies to manage the distractibility. This is why I have such elaborate time and task management systems: I use them to stay on track, and to organise the things I need to do in the future because keeping all of that in my brain just doesn’t work.
Still, these things sometimes fall apart.
A Lesson Too Long In The Learning
My family has a history of cat allergies. My father especially reacts strongly and immediately to cat fuzz, and many years ago I realised that I had some reaction: if I hadn’t been around cats in a while and then started stroking them, my skin would peel a bit. Not a lot, and not immediately, but the outer layer of skin cells would slough off.
I should say that I do actually like cats.
When I met my wife she had two cats. The cats used to sleep on the bed, one of them even curling up in the crook of your neck for belly rubs and purring. It took years before I finally realised that breathing in the cat fuzz overnight was making me stupid and depressed: I couldn’t think straight because I wasn’t breathing properly, and it took going away for a miserable camping weekend to make me realise just how bad the cats were making me feel. We went cabin camping on the coast in February: we all had colds and none of us slept well, but despite that I still felt better for being away from the cat fuzz-filled house. The cats were banned from the bed and things got better.
Unfortunately, my sensitivity to cats increased over time to the point where I couldn’t think straight very often at all. I couldn’t sit and watch the telly because the sofa was covered in cat fuzz; I couldn’t have the cats on my lap because I’d feel my sinuses filling up almost immediately. Finally, my wife suggested some allergy medicine – that made all the difference.
When the cats passed away, I stopped taking the allergy meds and then I learned that they too have a cognitively depressing effect: I think more clearly now than I have for years.
So Many Ways To Take A Step Back
So I’m basically doing well, managing the ADD behaviours and keeping away from depression, when something will push me back. These events are usually one of these:
- a cold – colds do me in. They replicate the sinus-filled misery of my allergy reaction without the need for any cats at all.
- unexpected cats – expected cats I can deal with by taking allergy meds in advance, but sometimes I’ll forget when we’re visiting a cat owner and then I’ll be miserable for a day or two after.
- paint fumes or sawdust – both of these trigger the same allergic reaction as cats do, unfortunately.
- stress – the day job is interesting but sometimes overwhelming. That makes me realise how close depression always lurks.
… and so on.
Keeping the brain ticking over at something approaching a functional level is non-trivial, but it is its own reward.
[*] attention deficit disorder, in particular the non-hyperactive variety.
[**] the presence of both “difficulty in focussing” and “hyperfocus” in this behaviour cluster is one of the reasons I hate the label ADD, because there is no deficit present – there’s plenty of attention, it’s just concentrated on things that the ADDer finds interesting. And hyperfocus is great.