Monday, July 10, 2006

Who let the dogs out?

In an earlier post I mentioned several subjects I would be covering in this blog. To no-one's surprise I guess, "Depression" provoked easily the biggest response. So, finally, I'd like to take a look at some of the ways depression has informed and shaped me as a writer. Hopefully, as fellow writers, we'll be able to share your experiences and maybe later we'll look at the way other writers have developed strategies to cope with the illness.

In speaking openly about what is such an emotive subject I need to make it very clear at the outset that this post is not in any way a cry for help or sympathy. I'm very comfortable with where I am at with the illness and most of the time I believe I have it under control. The black dogs are usually safely in the kennel, even if they are continually straining at their leashes.

If the subject doesn't interest, or affect, you in any way, you may want to skip the next few posts and come back when the party at the Pundy House starts again. More than likely, the only people who will find the discussion remotely interesting will be anyone who has read my novel A Half Life of One and who wishes to gain an insight into the extraordinary mind of an author who can write such a bleak and depressing book.

Before I can begin to examine the ways depression has influenced my writing I will attempt to put the illness into some kind of context and also try and define the varying degrees to which I am, and have been, affected. You need to bear in mind that I am coming at this from an entirely amateur approach although I have read a lot about mental illness, anxiety and depression over the years, and even spent two years at university studying Psychology (not Psychiatry, but there is an overlap). What answers and insights I have gained are purely my own.

I must also confess that there is a lot I disagree with in modern psychiatry and having observed the science in action for many years at first hand I have become deeply sceptical about its efficacy. As a young man I was a big fan of H J Eysenck, whose views on the effectiveness of pyschiatric treatment were controversial to say the least. I still hold to many of his opinions.

Some background:

It is generally accepted that there is a genetic component to depression. I became aware of this at a young age and the knowledge gave rise to a great deal of worry. As far as I could tell, my father's side of the family were poor, but perfectly normal folk from the Sheffield coalfields. There did not appear to be any mental illness on that side of the family (although curiously my father died when he was 50 of congenital polycistic kidney disease - I have a 50% chance of inheriting the same, a fact which caused my personal insurance premiums to rocket). My mother, as I have alluded to in other posts, was a different story.

My mother's family came from Ireland, a tiny village in County Monaghan. As well as my own mother there is a long history of mental illness in the family. Her mother went "insane". A brother spent his entire adult life in a mental institution. I believe there was a suicide in the family. My mother's sister was hospitalised with depression and my mother herself was variously diagnosed as schizophrenic or manic depressive and spent most of her life in an institution. It was hard to trace the family history further back - they were all illiterate - but I already knew enough. The omens were not good. From a young age I have continuously monitired my mental condition. Later on I kept a very close eye indeed on the mental wellbeing of my two sons, both of whom, I am happy to report, appear to be in robust good mental health. They are fully aware of the family history.

As well as the genetic component that may, or may not, be present in depression, there is also the environmental factor. Having lived, at varying degrees of proximity, with my mother and my aunt for the best part of 55 years I can see where this too my have had an impact on my mental disposition. That's why the book I am working on now is called "Mummy's Boy."

Types of Depression

I believe I have suffered from four main types of depression at varying times in my life.

Low-level depression: This is my normal mental state. You would never guess I was in this condition.

Mid-level depression: Usually triggered by a specific event or a stressful situation. I struggle to function as a working human being but I get by. Quite common. If there is a significant gap in my blogging this is usually the reason why.

Clinical depression: Severly depressed. Difficult to function on any level. Impossible to think. Only been in this state once and it lasted for about five years. This was the period during which I wrote A Half Life of One, literally one painful word at a time.

Chemical depression. Very odd. Feels like my brain has been flooded by some sort of toxic chemical. Infrequent. Lasts about twenty-four hours. Impossible to combat or ameliorate. I don't believe anyone could possibly live for very long in this state.

There is a further twist to these four categories, namely that I am pretty sure I am a manic depressive too. At one point I thought of running a competition in the blog for readers to guess which bi-polar phase I was in at the time. I gave up on the idea. Far too easy.

I should add that I have never had any kind of medication or treatment for my depression, nor have I ever been hospitalised. This isn't a boast. The fact is that I believe I am tough enough to cope on my own.

There is another reason which I expect may invite ridicule but here goes. I have always wanted to be a writer. To write well I need to know what I am really like. As a consequence I wouldn't allow any drugs to alter my consciousness and thus my personality. If I did I would never be able to find the truth. Doesn't stop me getting pissed of course with a fair degree of regularity. Hm. I can see the inconsistency.

In the next post I'll try and look at what effect these various mental states have had on my writing.


  1. I fall into 'chemical depression' and at times I am, literally, flooded with toxins. They come from a liver that is unable to process enzymes quickly enough and the build-up causes, amongst other things, depression.

    I can remember going to the doctor years ago and saying:

    - "This doesn't happen to people like me, I'm the most sensible person I know"

    The great thing about my condition (totally benign, in case you thought I was going to pop my clogs at any moment) is that alcohol and drugs stay in my system for longer, so negating the overuse of manufactured chemicals!!
    Many 'Gilberts Syndrome' sufferers rely on 'natures drugs' to combat a variety of symptoms - great excuse, eh!!

  2. I am familiar with this too, Pundy and Minx, although perhaps not the chemical variety. I think I have experienced something like it when on some of the many anti-depressant/sleeping pills I have tried (and usually hastily rejected) and found myself strangely disconnected from my cognitive abilities, eg my brain telling myself to say something and odd noises coming out, not words. Nothing making sense.

    Most of the time I am in low-level depression and work people (usually the only people outside my family I see) would not know.

    At weekends I predictably plunge into despair and self-loathing. It is always a toss up whether I'll win the fight and get through it, or succumb.

    I have read so much on the topic, had god knows what types of therapy, tried pills, tried all kinds of approaches.

    I agree that there has to be a strong genetic component. But also there is an element of social and environmental stuff -- does that sound banal or what? Probably not communicating well but it means a lot to me anyway.

    Pundy, to me it is obvious that you are (at times) a manic depressive. I suppose it is common to feel the euphoria of relief from it and go too far the other way -- I do that anyway. Have you read Stuart Sutherland's works, including Melon or Lemon or something like that, which was made into a play or movie starring Alan Bates, hearthrob of my youth but I think someone himself suffering from profound depression. Both he and Sutherland both dead now. I believe depression killed them both.

    I could do a PhD all over again in the topic. I am degenerating into a mix of unfocused ramble and urge to outpour lots of awful thoughts and confessions, so will stop here, but look forward to your future posts on the topic. I suppose like many depressives, i am a bit of a junkie for it.

  3. Anonymous12:06 am

    I intend to come back and visit to read your further posts on depression, Pundy, as I too have a little black dog that follows me in my shadow. On times, the little bugger has had a burst of adrenaline and overtaken me, crushing my momentum and spirit, for a while. I'm interested in your further thoughts and those of your readers.

  4. Hi, Bill. About 15 years ago I read an article in the New York Times about music and depression. It seemed that certain songs or tunes were able to lift people out of depression. Somehow it had been tested and proved that music was able to change the brain chemistry. I told my father about this article and he said something like: "If this is true, it's the biggest advance in psychiatry in my lifetime." He was a "neuropsychiatrist," born in 1914. The specialty of the house was "shock therapy." He strongly believed in that and was one of the few physicians who persisted in using it on his patients long after shock therapy fell into disfavor. (It's back, I think.)

    I do feel there is something about music that changes your mood. Some songs can immediately make you happy, almost ecstatic and joyful.

    As to you A Half Life of One, I found it very different and I liked it a lot.

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

  5. Maxine, your bit about the weekends strikes a chord with me too. I don't look forward to them at all either, rather dread them in fact. I guess that's why you'll find me blogging on a Saturday when I should be out roaming the hills. Whatever happens I'm definitely going to take more exercise in future.

    Minx, trust you to have a condition that allows you to stay pissed for a week on a glass of sherry.

    Lynne, about the only thing that worked for my mother was electric shock therapy. In the fifties it was pretty brutal and cruel and she was terrified by it. Later on they seemed to have refined the process somewhat and it was less traumatic. No one knows why, or how it works though, which is a little scary.

    Anonymous, keep that dog on a tight leash. Train the little bugger.

  6. Anonymous4:58 am

    Your are Nice. And so is your site! Maybe you need some more pictures. Will return in the near future.