As part of my author guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot. Damien Black the author of Devil’s Night Dawning has been kind enough to write a guest blog post for MightyThor…
For the latest from Damien Black, please visit his Blog page at http://www.damienblackwords.com, which is due to be up and running on 1 July 2016. I’ll see you there!
Let us be frank – knowledge of the human brain is in its infancy. Don’t take my word for it – ask any psychologist or neurologist and they will admit as much. Chemical imbalances don’t show up in brain scans – or at least mine didn’t. In fact, Golders Green gave me a clean rap sheet after putting me under the machine. No abnormalities there – despite my having been suicidal six months previously and a heavy drinker for twenty years.
So am I depressed because I have a chemical imbalance? Hmm, sounds like theorising to me. And theories are just that until proven – theories and nothing more.
Another diagnosis I was given was OCD, this from the Central Middlesex psychiatric ward in north-west London. Only OCD doesn’t show up on brain scans either. So it’s hard to say for sure whether that’s due to any kind of naturally occurring brain abnormality too.
Then there is alcoholism – according to some sources, 13% of drinkers have a naturally occurring allergy that makes them automatically crave one drink after another. Only that didn’t happen to me until I’d been drinking for quite a few years, suggesting nurture rather than nature in my case.
So while the jury is still out on whether my various disorders are naturally occurring or not, let’s explore a few other theories. I’ll be frank again – I’ve come to the conclusion that my problems are caused by societal issues: deeply rooted, chronic ones that are adversely affecting huge swathes of the human population in varying degrees of intensity, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Last year I did pretty much everything I was advised to do by the medical profession and other recovering alcoholics: I gave up the demon drink, went to meetings, started meditating, took up rigorous physical exercise, went to a therapist, took medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, read up on anxiety and depression, kept busy with hobbies, and after a much-needed break, got myself back into the workplace.
In other words, I was the model student of recovery. The result? After a few short months I slipped back into depression, prompting an eventual relapse back into drinking. I’ve kicked the drinking again thank God but the depression is still kicking the sh*t out of me.
What went wrong? The answer, I believe, is this: I did it society’s way. And in the messed-up world we live in, I’m afraid society doesn’t always have the individual’s best interests at heart, especially not if that individual happens to be a freethinker. I’ve noticed that many of us alcoholics and depressives fall into just that category: we are highly intelligent and fiercely independent people who naturally resent being spoonfed a one-size-fits all paradigm of how one should behave.
And we resent it with good reason. Because we are not stupid – or at least we weren’t until we started pouring gallons of commercialised poison into ourselves. We do not like to be told how to think, how to behave, whom we should socialise with and why, whom we should sleep with and how, what we should believe, what we should be eating and drinking… in short how to conduct our lives from the minute we get up to the moment we lay our heads down at night.
At any rate, this highly intelligent depressive alcoholic doesn’t. So let’s get right to the heart of the matter: I’m not depressed because I have a ‘chemical imbalance’ (whatever the f*ck that is supposed to mean); I am depressed because through no fault of my own I was born and raised in a society that has relentlessly tried to shape me into something I do not want to be – a consumerised, taxable unit of GDP whose sole purpose in life is to be a productive cog in a machine that ultimately serves the interests of a tiny elite of wealthy individuals whom I will never have the dubious pleasure of meeting.
I’ll come back to this in a bit. For now let’s review all those things I did in recovery. I’m not saying they don’t carry individual merit but what do they all share? An absence or negation of thinking independently for oneself. Therapists shape the way you think, they try to influence your thoughts; you pay money to a vested ‘authority’ figure who is supposed to ‘tell ‘ you where you have been going ‘wrong’ in your thinking. AA works on a very similar format, as anyone who has read the Big Book closely can attest to. Exercise and meditation are not of course bad things in themselves, but they both undeniably steer one towards a disavowal of thought – the former promotes the supremacy of physical action over reflection and contemplation, the latter trains the mind to nullify thought processes by not following individual thoughts, especially painful or difficult ones, through – ‘just let them pass by like watching cars on the road’, said one meditation guide I used.
Sometimes this is welcome – we all need to get out of our heads once in a while, preferably without using drugs or alcohol. But is this always the right course of action? For instance, would the Suffragette movement have happened if Emmeline Pankhurst and co had simply let all those pesky, troubling thoughts about women being treated as infantilised adults at the ballot box just pass them by?
Sometimes we need to think – to follow thoughts through for ourselves, without outside interference from any vested authority figures, and see where those thoughts lead us. That is how human societies progress and I believe most of the innovations that have helped advance the cause of humankind have resulted from this often complex, laborious and at times downright excruciating process. To put it another way – in living in this highly complex and sophisticated world of ours there is no avoiding the complex and sophisticated thought processes that must inevitably go with it. That cat is long out of the bag. But as I will suggest, it is by using those thought processes that you can light a path back to a way of life that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, better suits the person you were naturally meant to be.
As for medication, this is another potential minefield for the beleaguered mind. Doctors are now routinely on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies to promote their products, which (you guessed it) have no hard science backing up their beneficial effects because as discussed above we do not know the human brain well enough to map accurately what antidepressants actually do to it. One study I read suggested that meds only work on about a third of patients, and even then the effects are likely to wear off over time, necessitating a change to another form of medication – this of course is great news for Big Pharma’s profit margins, but what benefit is an already troubled individual getting from being hauled over from one drug to the next time and again? I myself have been on about half a dozen different forms of meds in the past five years, and the result was always the same – a slight improvement during the first few months (which may or may not have been the placebo effect – remember we still lack the technology to prove that meds actually do anything) followed by comedown and return to depression. I won’t harp on this particular subject because it is already well covered – there is thankfully a growing concern being expressed at the increased uptake of antidepressants throughout the West, and to my mind the right questions are being asked about their efficacy.
So taking all of the above into account, what kind of picture begins to emerge? That of a troubled group of often highly intelligent people with a degree of sensitivity being prescribed a way of life by the NHS and other institutions designed to turn them into gym-going, shrink-dependent, pill-munching Buddhist monks who have come to believe that abandoning not only concerted thought but also one’s own autonomy of thinking is the only way to save them from, at worst, suicidal depression and terminal alcoholism.
Since going to the rooms I have been depressed (yes depressed!) by how readily otherwise intelligent people seem willing to succumb to their emotional fragility and allow the framework of their thinking to be reshaped by people who were following a right-wing Christian agenda in the 1930s. I’ll speak for myself, but this kind of agenda certainly sits at odds with a lot of the things I have come to believe through my own independent thinking and interpretation of information absorbed throughout my lifetime.
In visiting therapists I have been astounded at some of things I have been told – apparently my very real doubts about whether monogamy works for me, having struggled with relationships for many years, simply boiled down to my wanting to ‘get my end away’; my not being killed by my suicide attempts was God sparing me for a higher purpose (why would He care about me more than all the other millions of unfortunates who have successfully killed themselves?); my obsessive and unreal thoughts about a girl I barely liked and knew constituted true love; I have put something in my mind that stops me from enjoying life, and I have hidden this so well I will never be able to find it (statement subsequently retracted by said ‘authority figure’ when I brought it up at the next session: ‘Oh, never mind about that, just forget I said that.’ Thanks mate.)
Is this the path to curing depression? Being told how to interpret my own thoughts by (frequently personally paid) strangers who barely know me or have not even met me? Distracting myself from the difficulty of the human condition and my part in it rather than cultivating the mental courage to grapple with my internal demons and the external ones that spawned them?
I think not – as the abject failure of the programme I have followed for the past year to ‘cure’ me bears out all too clearly.
Now let’s take a look at some of those external demons I just mentioned. I was raised by two highly intelligent and sensitive people, who encouraged me to embrace learning for its own sake and express myself artistically. I was near hopeless at every sport: do not be discouraged, my parents told me, play to your strengths and don’t get hung up on your weaknesses. Sadly, I was schooled in a system that did just the opposite: punishing the physically weak with bullying, psychological intimidation and routine public humiliation (I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers being picked last for the football team every time! Really made me feel great about myself that, and I don’t recall being publicly praised for the things I was actually any good at. Balanced criticism would have been nice). State school is like a prison system in miniature; all backgrounds are mixed in a melting pot where only the physically strong or the disingenuous and manipulative can expect to survive unscathed.
As for creativity and learning for its own sake, this has long been a sick joke of the Western education system: the powers that be didn’t set up the school system to produce artists and freethinkers; they set it up to produce doctors, lawyers, accountants, financiers, businessmen, scientists, engineers, factory workers, salesmen, menials and every other kind of occupation you can think of that will serve as functionaries in a state machinery designed for and by a ruling wealthy elite. The defects of the modern education system are explored in detail elsewhere and are thankfully being increasingly highlighted, so suffice to say here that the aim of the education system in the UK is no longer to produced well-balanced, cultured individuals capable of sifting information and thinking for themselves, if indeed it ever was: the erstwhile education secretary Michael Gove’s attempts to ‘streamline’ schooling to focus on money-oriented disciplines such as business and economics at the expense of arts subjects bears this out, and in my own school days back in the 80s and early 90s there was already a perceptible shift away from funding arts subjects to sciences, because the latter of course are ultimately more profitable to the corporate masters who own the West and keep politicians and media on the payroll (more on this later).
Virtually no musician, actor, director, artist, writer or other creative I have met in the past ten years has been able to scratch even a modest living out of their talent, however great it may be or hard they may try. I include myself in this list. Part of this is due to lack of government funding (France is an honourable exception in some cases, and has long funded aspiring filmmakers and screenplay writers), part of it a diminishing interest in the arts (owing at least in part, surely, to the education system I have just outlined).
But there is another factor that is often overlooked: the cost of living is simply too high. The driving factor behind this is, of course, greed. London, my home city, is a classic example of this: a metropolis owned by and run for a global wealthy elite who are sinking their money into the property market, unchecked by a supine government whose members turn a blind eye to the damage this is doing to ordinary citizens in return for various corporate kickbacks they can expect to receive after they leave office, ensuring no corruption charges can be legitimately brought (Tony Blair, who holds two lucrative posts on the board of directors of multinational companies and regularly cleans up on the corporate after-dinner speaking circuit in the US, is a classic example of this).
This unchecked rush by the worldwide rich to buy up London property – itself a clever confidence trick made all too easy by unregulated markets wherein the wealthy collude with one another to buy assets in the knowledge that doing so in concert will automatically push up the future value of their purchases – has the effect of driving up prices in both the buy and rental markets, which of course has the knock-on effect of pushing up the price of everything else: higher rents mean higher business costs, which means every good and service you buy will be affected. I remember commiserating with a promoter during my days playing in a penniless rock band; musicians rarely got paid, if ever, I lamented. ‘But it’s the high rents that force the venues to be so ungenerous,’ he told me sagely. ‘They can’t afford to pay you.’ If that isn’t an example of free-market avarice making it impossible for artists to scratch even a bare living from their art, I don’t know what is.
Not that this will bother the average citizen, because by the time they leave school with fifteen years of advertising and educational brainwashing pumped into them they mostly don’t give a flying f*ck about the arts, especially not any kind of art that opens up a debate: by then they have been conditioned to go out and join the rat race, earning enough money – and nowadays it is barely enough – to pay the rent and become consumers in their own right, grinding away at jobs they may or may not enjoy so they can spend a meagre disposable income on all the things they have been told that they simply must have.
That, in short, is the world I have been struggling with for too many years, and the experience of it has bent me out of shape. I am quite sure I am not alone.
So let me tell you this, my fellow depressives: your depression and the addictive soma-seeking behaviour it spawned is not your fault. Another unsettling trend I have noticed in AA, and through my own personal experiences with therapy, is how this idea is constantly pushed on recovering alcoholics and those suffering from so-called mental illness – that in taking personal responsibility we must tacitly acknowledge that we are fundamentally to blame for our condition.
Allow me to draw an important distinction: responsibility and blame are not the same things. If someone comes along and clubs me with a baseball bat, I have a responsibility to my own health to seek help to recover and get well – but the blame does not lie with me; the blame lies with the psychopath who just hit me. And, my fellow depressives, the reason you are depressed in the first place is because since school age you have been clubbed repeatedly by a repressive and authoritarian system of capitalist exploitation that masquerades as a benign democracy (an illusion that manifests itself once every five years only to be dispelled by lies and broken promises, as every election and its aftermath will readily demonstrate). We live under a media-driven system owned and operated by corporate interests and the banks that profit from backing them that tells you what to think, how to behave, how you should conduct relationships, what you should be buying, in other words everything you must do to be happy.
Look around and ask yourself whose interests this system really serves. Yours? Think back to your childhood. What were your dreams, your aspirations? How far does the reality of your adult life sit from those early ideas you had? Does your job weigh easily on your conscience? Do those of your close friends? How many of your waking hours are spent doing things you find fulfilling? When you’ve got the things you think you wanted – a promotion, a holiday, a consumer purchase, a relationship that will probably be influenced by ideas you’ve unconsciously imbibed from Hollywood movies or magazine culture since your early teens – for how long does it make you happy? In fact, does it make you happy at all?
One of the few therapists who gets my vote is Elizabeth Wilde McCormick, who wrote a book called Surviving Nervous Breakdown that I read last year. In it she posits that neurosis arises when we are pushed by life’s course from our seed self – the type of person we are naturally wired up to be. The Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau waxed lyrical three centuries ago about man’s natural state – preceding any kind of organised, hierarchical society – as being his happiest.
Ah Utopianism, you will cry. But is it really so Utopian to want to earn a humble living doing something that you are most naturally equipped and inclined to do, to love a partner (or partners) in a way that most naturally suits you, a way that may not necessarily involve marriage, prolonged cohabitation, economic codependency or even strict monogamy? This is not asking for the world – unlike the corporate psychopaths and the corrupt, vainglorious political and media classes they have bought off, who have appropriated it for themselves.
In the US, just six firms – Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, CBS Corporation and NBC Universal – own the vast majority of media across all platforms: radio, television, print and digital. In the UK a similar high concentration of media control exists – for example more than 80% of the entire country’s local newspapers are owned by just half a dozen firms and 60% of national newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail Group. Columnists are not called ‘opinion-formers’ for nothing: they control the way you think and are in turn influenced by their employers and the media barons who pay them in how they go about this.
How long have we seen the internecine mudslinging between the left and right in the UK media, a continual war of words that intelligent, well-informed people such as ourselves are tacitly expected to pick a side in? A clever ploy designed to blind us to what has by now become glaringly obvious: it doesn’t much matter which party is in power; we are still controlled and manipulated by a nexus of big banks (those who lend money), multinational corporations (those who use money to acquire assets, most notably for the purposes of this article the media) and the political class who control the military directly and the police indirectly through legislation. The political class is itself in hock to the multinationals who fund its campaigns and use their media assets to pressure governments into doing their bidding. Atop this nexus sits a tiny clique of extremely wealthy international elites, majority shareholders in many of these corporations who have vast sums of money stored in the banks that lend to private and public sector alike, along with those who sit at the top of these banks and businesses in return for exorbitant salaries. And of course, many senior politicians join or rejoin the ranks of these senior executives upon leaving office, thus completing the nefarious circle.
As such, is it any coincidence that across the West highly intelligent and sensitive people who quite possibly have an inkling as to this parlous state of affairs and have fallen into excessive drink and drug use to obviate the inevitable feelings of powerlessness that come with such painful realisation are being prescribed more drugs (oh but they’re quite legal! and thoroughly tested!) and told to go and work off their pangs in the gym or quietly meditate the pain away? Anything to keep us from following those painful thoughts through, soberly, and reaching the conclusion that we are NOT in fact ill – but that our psychological malaise is a legitimate and logical response to living in a world that is being ruined for the vast majority by a ruthless and self-serving clique of power-hungry and pathologically greedy individuals.
My fellow alcoholics and depressives, I have news for you: you are not ill; you are injured. You have been attacked all your lives – by a hierarchical and cleverly disguised authoritarian corporatocracy that wants to mould you into a spoke in a wheel, so you can make money and shore up power for the wealthy elite whose interests it ultimately benefits.
Don’t get me wrong – if you enjoy meditation and exercise, or have found a therapist or recovery group that you genuinely believe after sober and independent reflection is helping you to get better, by all means continue. But don’t be fooled into thinking that your depression will be cured by evading thought – for God did not make you that way. Chances are, if you are a recovering addict or person diagnosed with ‘mental health problems’ who has been told they ‘think too much’ or better still ‘think in the wrong way’, it means you are a highly intelligent, sensitive and rational person who cares: don’t let a culture swamped in media manipulation, materialism, doublethink and dumbing down fool you into believing that the only way to get well is to abandon your God-given gifts of analysis and insight. Don’t sell your intellect down the river in the false belief that this is the only way to heal yourself. Remember: you are NOT at fault, but you do have a responsibility to yourself and those who love you to get well and to do so without spurning the gifts of intelligence, sensitivity and compassion you have been given.
When you rediscover these gifts and you feel them informing a capacity to feel a justified sense of outrage at how far the world and its duplicitous masters are from reflecting these values, do not flinch from it. For you are absolutely right to feel outraged, at a globalised society based on deliberately confused values that has pushed you and others like you so far from your happiest seed self; that has plunged millions of unfortunates in the developed and developing worlds into poverty, famine, war, economic exploitation, slavery, preventable disease and endemic crime.
Speaking for myself, I may well continue to dabble in meditation and exercise – I do not see any harm in doing either in moderation. I will certainly fight to stay off the booze and other recreational drugs forever – and as for prescription medication, the sooner I can safely wean myself off this alternative legal poison the better. Recovery groups I will gladly attend, as the need takes me; I like meeting people. But I don’t have to agree with everything they say, or say things that they will always agree with. I did not educate myself to perjure my freedom of expression or blunt my intellect trying to recover from a man-made disease that has been inflicted on me and millions of others by human greed, mendacity and selfishness. And I won’t be seeing any more therapists – paying a complete stranger to shape my thinking just doesn’t seem like a healthy or sound idea any more, and besides, I can’t afford it!
As for work and relationships, the fundamental stuff of life, from now on I will engage in these on my own terms as far as possible. And if that means being an unemployed singleton for the foreseeable future playing the state benefits system or living off family and friends, then so be it – a situation far from ideal but by far the lesser of two evils in my opinion; rather that than try to force my psyche through a mould that was not meant for it, tap dancing around the brainwashed egos and manufactured foibles of those who are too weak-minded, stupid or plain scared to think for themselves. I don’t claim to be better or smarter than anyone else, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be told that anyone other than me knows better than I do what is best for me. I tried that path this past year, and it led me in a circle.
Or to put it another way, if I’m going to fuck up my life, I’m going to do it my way.
And if people don’t like that, then fuck ’em 🙂
In a hundred years’ time, who’s gonna care? Old saying, more than a grain of truth to it. Death smiles at us all, another truism… Either it marks the beginning of a new journey into the Afterlife, in which case everything that has gone before suddenly becomes irrelevant (unless you really, really believe in perdition), or the lights get turned off permanently. I still incline to the latter opinion (irrespective of whether or not there is a god – why oh why do so many of us presume that life after death is a corollary of the existence of a supreme being or higher power? Perhaps that is a fitting subject for another post…).
Let’s assume that I’m right. That means in around thirty or forty years I will cease to exist. Not only that, but all my memories will cease to exist. It will be as though I have never been. All my suffering, all my joys, all my interests and all my ennui will vanish. As far as I am concerned, all my successes and failures will be rendered completely irrelevant by a single stroke of the Reaper’s scythe.
On that understanding, all that therefore matters is how I feel in any given moment. If I don’t feel like doing something, why should I worry about not doing it? Either you do something, or you don’t. In my experience, most atheists define their lives by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and, if they are not completely selfish, by doing what they can to secure the same outcomes for those they care about and – if they’re real saints – extending that concern to those they don’t even know.
Right now I don’t feel like rehearsing for a gig I have lined up next week. Therefore if I choose to rehearse anyway I will be pushing myself into doing something I don’t feel like doing. The payback, and hence the motivating force in this case, is how I will feel when I perform next week. If I perform well I will say, well it was worth it pushing the issue and rehearsing. If I don’t rehearse and play badly, I will perhaps regret not having pushed the issue after all.
But what if I said it doesn’t matter how I feel next week? Good or bad, it will pass, as all moments do. Whether I play well isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. In a hundred years’ time who’s gonna care, right? Life is a series of moments which we inhabit and leave behind us as memories, until we kick the proverbial, at which point all moments and all memories cease (for us atheists anyway). So why get wound up about anything? So far I have found my life to be a series of moments, some joyous and exhilarating, others excruciating and awful, many more besides somewhere in between these polarities. Judging by the past forty years, it seems reasonable to suppose that the next forty will be similar in composition (perhaps tipping more towards the latter towards the end of my life as I grow old, sicken and die, but then this fate is – as observed above – inevitable in any case).
So why strive after anything? Has striving after things really made any difference to the overall tally of moments (and therefore memories) good, bad and indifferent? I am currently rereading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, and what strikes me most about the Meursault character is that he is presented as a man who lives in the moment and strives after nothing. The novel documents the last segment of his life, and in so doing details a series of moments as seen through the protagonist’s eyes – moments good, bad and indifferent.
All my life I have striven after things. This has, I have come to believe, brought me just as many moments of misery and heartache as it has moments of joy and fulfillment. Thus, in having striven, can I be said to be any less or more happy or sad than a Meursault, a man who strives after nothing? The only difference I can see is that I have my way of doing things, and Meursault has his: beyond this it is impossible to judge objectively who has been the more content over the course of his life.
I used to worry a great deal about letting time pass, about letting precious days slip away without making them ‘count for something’, but increasingly I find I am less concerned about such things. Death, or more precisely the apprehension of death, may have robbed my life of overarching purpose but it has also liberated it from the fear of wasted opportunity, of somehow not ‘making the most’ of life. Fundamentally who can be said to be the happier: the ordinary worker who lives for his coffee and cigarette break, or the captain of industry whose bean and tobacco plantations have made such things possible? Both persons will inevitably shuffle off this mortal coil, and when they do all their moments shall die with them.
In a previous post I observed that the depressive always thinks he or she knows best, and that this false conception of omniscience is a cornerstone of the depressed state of mind. To turn this earlier observation on its head, what could be more liberating than to realise how little one knows? It is liberating in that it a) means our negative presumptions about ourselves and our lives can be challenged and b) removes us from the awful rigidity that must come with the misplaced belief that we already know it all, that there is nothing left to learn.
I have been sober for just over four months. This is (so far as I can recall) my fourth attempt in a year and a half to get ‘clean’, to rid myself of the pernicious curse that alcohol has become. In that time, through attending various AA and Addaction group meetings I have come to appreciate how little I truly know. And that is truly a refreshing thought.
To be aware of the finiteness of one’s knowledge is to be humbled, and to be humbled is to be liberated at least in part from the burden of one’s ego, which I have come to believe is the root of all misery, both self-inflicted and that inflicted upon others. And what could be more humbling than the following realisation: take everything I know and place it besides all the things I don’t know, and we are talking about a single grain of sand on a beach. How to build a wall, organise a conference, construct a C-drive, run a factory… just a handful of random things I do not have the slightest inkling about.
This is why cooperation matters. This is why it will be, as Russell had it, the salvation of mankind. Left alone and isolated, human beings are reduced at best to a stolid, rude self-sufficiency, Crusoesque. Put the skills and talents of us all together and you have the makings of civilization, a twin-edge sword ’tis true but undeniably capable of elevating the human condition if used wisely. As a recovering alcoholic I am reminded daily of the importance of fellowship and cooperation; left to my own devices I become Crusoeque in my struggle against dependency and the malaise that underpins it, but through joining forces with my fellow alcoholics this struggle becomes elevated from a rear-guard action against the savage wilderness of my darker nature to something directional and forward-looking, an emotional journey that is capable of spiriting me to a new level of existence. An existence that does not look to a mind-bending substance for support or sustenance.
In my last post, I gave an overview of my symptomatic experiences of clinical depression. Following on from feedback given by readers, I would like to stress that this series of articles relates to my personal experiences of the illness: readers who suffer from depression may find that it manifests quite differently in them. As such, these articles are not intended as ‘gospel’, but are merely a reflection of how the malady has manifested itself in my own psyche. Any constructive criticism or other feedback is always welcome; all I seek to do is to raise awareness and heighten understanding of mental illness by contributing my own perspective.
As I said in my previous post, I do not yet know if severe clinical depression can be comprehensively beaten, or merely contained and attenuated (that is to say, made less potent and malignant). What I do know is that certain things work and certain things don’t; moreover, that some things work only if applied in conjunction with other activities.
One of the things that depressives are often told to do is to keep busy: to distract the mind so as not to allow negative feelings of depression to overwhelm us. This is a core example of something that doesn’t work if applied on its own. Yes, by all means, those suffering from depression should get out and do things as often as possible, and not succumb to the paralysis of despair. However, the fact remains that if like me you suffer from chronic depression, that persistent negative inner voice will not be silenced until it is confronted and challenged head on. Whilst keeping busy with external and social activities is an essential part of the recovering depressive’s daily routine, applied exclusively it amounts to a kind of running away; you simply can’t stay busy all the time, that would be to court burnout and further mental stress, and at some point you will need to rest. And that is precisely when depression is most likely to rear its ugly head and strike.
Another common suggestion given to depressives, based around the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) method of treating depression, anxiety and obsessive thinking, is to ‘accept the intrusive or unpleasant thoughts’. Now, this piece of advice is very tricky, because whilst it does carry considerable merit it can also be misapplied and wind up doing more harm than good. To draw on my own experiences, I spent several months trying to follow this advice, and the result? I allowed the negative, depressed side of my thinking free rein, and my psyche took an almighty battering as a result. This mistake, along with a relapse into alcohol dependency, cost me my last relationship, a loss I am still mourning.
So let’s clarify what is really meant by ‘accepting’ the negative thoughts. Accepting negative thinking does NOT mean allowing your inner demons to run rough-shod over your conscious mind without putting up a struggle; accepting negative thoughts means accepting they are there in the first place and then acting to oppose them. You cannot block out a negative thought, however painful it may be; once it has manifested, it is there. But you can bloody well challenge it. What I have found so useful in recent months – and full credit must go to a good friend of mine who also suffers from depression for suggesting it in the first place – was to write down all the positive, rational thoughts produced by my conscious mind at times when I wasn’t under depression and therefore thinking clearly.
And now the hard work begins – because if, like me, you have suffered from unchecked depressive thinking for a number of years, the chances are your negative subconscious has been firing intrusive, negative and untrue thoughts at the naturally happy conscious you for years. That’s a lot of territory to reclaim, and the only way to do that is to wage war – and I will return to this combative metaphor time and again – on the negative part of your mind that has turned on you so virulently. As such, once you have written down whatever coping statements you’ve come up with when thinking more clearly – repeat, repeat, repeat. Read them back to yourself several times a day, every day, for months or even years if necessary. Sounds too much like hard work? Sounds like auto-brainwashing? Believe me, depression has been working very hard every day for years to brainwash you into thinking you are worthless, that your life’s achievements are nil, that your life itself and everyone and everything in it is null and void. If your demons can work so hard to poison your thought processes, why can’t the conscious, rational you do just the same to reverse the damage?
Because I repeat folks, you are at war here, whether you like it or not. You are in a dogfight for your mind, and be assured that severe clinical depression will fight you for its possession down to the last stray synapse. Accepting the need to go to war is not the same as accepting the presence of an enemy and passively turning the other cheek. If peace of mind is worth having then it is absolutely worth fighting for – every day, for the rest of your life if need be.
If this combative approach still seems a little contrived to you – and yes, I initially thought so too – try looking at it from this perspective: an anorexic looks in the mirror and is convinced that she is overweight. Any healthy person around her can quickly see how deluded she is, but the anorexic does not. Accepting your negative inner voice without countering its statements is like accepting the notion that you need to lose weight; in both cases you are in fact suffering from a delusional form of mental illness that has distorted your thinking and perception and resulting emotional responses. Just as anorexics must have their self-destructive ideas about not eating challenged, so depressives (and those suffering from anxiety and OCD-type disorders) must have their self-destructive ideas about themselves, their surroundings and their very lives challenged.
To fight this war you need more than one kind of soldier, just as in a real-life war different types of fighting unit – sappers, air strikes, infantry, what have you – serve different functions but cooperate towards a single ultimate goal of victory. I’ve already touched on challenging the demonic inner voice with statements of rationality, strength and positivity (I won’t suggest specifics, as each of us suffers from our own personal demons – you’ll need to figure out your own coping statements, which will be an essential part of your arsenal against clinical depression). Now let’s look at some of your support activities, your auxiliaries if you will.
These are in themselves based around simple common sense and are things that would be recommended to healthy minded people as well, namely: good diet, regular sleep, proper exercise (as a recovering alcoholic and former slob I cannot recommend this highly enough) and meditation (yes, meditation – as well as working for Buddhists for thousands of years, it is now scientifically proven to help against depression/anxiety and is part of NHS core recommendations for treating mental illness). To torture the cliche – healthy body, healthy mind. But REMEMBER, this is only one part of your treatment – eating and sleeping well and getting regular exercise might be enough in themselves to beat mild depression, but severe and moderate depression will require that you do more. In other words, eating and sleeping well plus regular exercise and meditation is simply your base: the foundation on which you will construct your fortress.
Now the real fun begins: we already have the coping statements, what I like to call my ‘mantras’, which you will repeat to yourself every day, several times a day if necessary. That’s one key building block for your fortress. Another is prescription medication accompanied by a total (yes total) abstinence from alcohol and other recreational drugs. Oh, I’m sorry, does the latter part offend you? Fair enough: play it the way I did for three years, and drink on your medication. I ended up having a psychotic episode during which I repeatedly lacerated myself with a kitchen knife and lost about a pint of blood. I drove my partner away, and nearly drove my poor mother into a nervous breakdown of her own, and I now know what the insides of both a psychiatric ward and a police cell look like. That’s what happens when severe depressives mix booze and medication – and believe me it wasn’t much fun.
Severe clinical depression is no joke – you wouldn’t expect soldiers to fight a war under the influence would you? No. So… Put. The. Bottle. Down. For those of you who also have alcohol dependency issues, I’ll talk at greater length about addressing these in another post.
Even without alcohol and other drugs interfering, prescription medication will not work by itself: severe clinical depressives cannot expect a pill a day to chase their blues away, and meds must be applied in conjunction with other treatment methods. One study I read says that only a third of depressives can expect medication alone to ‘cure’ them, while another third experience no improvement in their mood at all. I personally believe I belong to the middle third: medication helps but other methods of tackling depression must also be applied. One of those most often touted is therapy. Again this is tricky as different kinds of therapy work for different types of people and depressives. I personally found CBT to be a useful front-line soldier – think of it as a kind of shock trooper – but not enough on its own to beat severe long-term depression. If, like me, you are the sort of person who needs an answer to things, to understand why you are thinking the way you do when depressed or in a state of anxiety or obsessiveness, you will need to combine it with psychotherapy or psychodynamic therapy, methods that tend to explore your personal history and do not focus exclusively on the here and now as CBT does.
As a personal aside, if you are in the least bit suicidal or prone to obsessive, negative and harmful ruminative thinking, I would avoid psychoanalysis like the plague. This assertion is of course based on my personal experiences, but I found it did more harm than good – psychoanalysis fails to take into account that many of our inner thoughts are irrational and untrue, and tends to follow the erroneous line of thinking that what you think must always be valid. This is patently absurd and, in a severe depressive, a very dangerous and toxic idea. As observed above in our example of the anorexic’s thoughts about her weight, clearly much of what you think when under depression is not true; and an essential tool to beating depression lies in realising this and learning to discern the untrue depressed thinker from the more rational, balanced thinker; the naturally happy you that existed before life events and chemical imbalance conspired to give rise to the depression now assaulting your psyche.
Choosing a therapist and type of therapy is a potential minefield, and I’m afraid constitutes a whole battle all of itself. My recommendation is to try several different types until you find a practitioner you absolutely trust (by this I mean you should feel able to tell them anything, your darkest secret, worst fears, etc, without fear of being judged or misunderstood). I have personally seen at least half a dozen different therapists in my life, and I’m sure there are other clinical depressives out there who’ve seen more. Above all, take your time and be patient – your illness may require more than one approach to tackle it, as mine has done, so the sooner you accept that you are engaged in a time-consuming business and in for the long haul, the sooner you will find some peace of mind.
To recap then, atop our foundation of exercise, diet, sleep and meditation, we have our fortress, so far constructed of therapy, medication and personalised coping statements or mantras. Another building block we can add to that is staying active – hopefully you should now begin to see how keeping busy works, but only in the context of a wider patchwork of different treatments. So yes by all means, get off the bed and get out of the house. Find things to do that you like. I’m fortunate in one respect in that I am an accomplished musician – so out comes the guitar and off we go to play on the streets or at an open mic night or any old place that will have me. But you don’t need to have talent to find things you like doing – go to the cinema, walk in the park, visit a market, wander the fucking streets looking at people if that’s what it takes. Just try and engage with the wider world as much as you can. Easily said, less easily done, I know – but trust me, if a formerly suicidal depressive like me can manage to do this, anyone can. And if you can repeat your mantras to yourself while out and about, so much the better. That will prove a doubly good use of your time.
Next building block: friends. Be very careful here. Some of my good friends I have had to avoid of late simply because they drink too much and while sympathetic to my condition have no understanding of what it means to be clinically depressed (lucky them). This has led to unfortunate situations where close friends have ended up inadvertantly saying things that made me feel ten times worse when in their cups (‘How can you think stuff like that?’ and ‘If you don’t stop thinking that way, you will never get over it’ are two of my personal favourites). I’m sorry to have to report that clinical depression can be a very lonely illness; drinking buddies and close friends from the good old days may be people you now need to start avoiding. Sorry, I never said it would be easy. Fighting depression is a tough business, and a key part of it is learning to stand alone when necessary.
So choose your friends carefully – people who have suffered from some form of depression themselves are ideal as they will have a much better idea of what you are going through. Failing that they will need to be very understanding and analytical enough to at least grasp in theory what you are dealing with – sympathy alone is not enough. And obviously, pity is out, out, OUT. Anyone who pities you is no friend; both pity and self-pity are toxic to the depressive. Compassion is subtly but crucially different; friends exercising compassion, understanding and tolerance are gold dust and should be treasured accordingly. Also, remember: seeing friends can be helpful, but don’t overdo it! As I said already, learning to stand alone is of paramount importance. At some point you need to be able to be alone with your thoughts, and that’s why I am placing so much emphasis on the mantras – you will find yourself in single combat with the darker side of your mind periodically, and that is a fight you will need to get used to fighting.
But what happens when the depression is so overwhelming, so potent, that none of the above works and your carefully constructed fortress crumbles? As a severe clinical depressive you will inevitably have those days. This is when it is crucial to remember the war metaphor – you may lose a battle, but that DOES NOT mean you have lost the war. A good general doesn’t waste time mourning the loss of his troops in battle; a good general thinks about the next battle in the campaign and prepares accordingly; a good general does not give in to despair as a result of one setback. And so it is with the war on depression.
Yes, sometimes you will find yourself, as I have, lying on your bed or curled up on the sofa, your mind churning with anxious and troubled thoughts, or simply overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness and despair. It is at these times that the doctrine of acceptance must be, well, accepted: you are at a low ebb but this will pass. Just as soldiers in a real-life war must be sacrificed, so those minutes and hours must be given up as lost; sometimes it is stronger to accept times of weakness and weather them than fight yourself to no avail. Because remember, fighting your demons is one thing; beating yourself up over losing a battle you cannot win is quite another. The key to attaining eventual victory is to not give up hope altogether – feelings of hopelessness must be ridden out and regarded as fundamentally impermanent. Believe me, you will emerge from these rough patches, and through learning to accept the pain of a lost battle you will gradually grow stronger.
For it is strength you need to pursue – not happiness. Focus on the pursuit of happiness and you will come unstuck, as I did. For years I chased happiness in all its gilded forms: career, money, success, recognition, travel, sex, relationships, drink, drugs, socialising, the list goes on. And I ended up miserable, despite having all of the above at various different times in my life. The lesson I have learned has been a costly and painful one, but it is salutary nonetheless. Chase happiness and you are chasing a chimera, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Pursue strength on the other hand, and you have something much less fleeting and far more dependable within your grasp. To court strength is to secure the ability to stand alone, friendless and single if need be, on your own two feet, and not be destroyed by the world or your perception of it. The strength to look your weaknesses in the eye, without recourse to alcohol or other mind-altering substances, and change them wherever possible or accept them where not; the strength to feel completely overwhelmed by despair one day and yet come back fighting again the next; the strength to have nothing and still feel you are worth something; the strength to realise that inner peace means far more than mere happiness; the strength to embrace all your emotional pain, your neuroses and your heartache and your frustration and disappointment unflinchingly and without complaint.
Because, my fellow depressives, you may not ever be happy, but each and every one of you has it in you to realise this inner strength, and in so doing lead a life that promises little joy but is also free of fear. Let go of the desire to be happy, and you will see how quickly your fears vanish. I do not believe we fear death for its own sake; we fear it for the absence of happiness-pursuit it inevitably must bring. This is why depressives so often turn suicidal – they simply give up believing that life can offer them any joy, so why not embrace death? But put happiness aside as your primary goal, and court strength instead, and you will find the need to destroy yourself suddenly becomes much less acute. This, I believe, is the state of mind that sustained our ancestors in less pampered, privileged times, and it is one am working towards, every day.
I am a long way from winning my war, but just over three weeks after giving up drinking and taking up regular physical exercise – the final missing pieces in my own fortress construction – and four months on from being a suicidal emotional wreck, I can safely say this: I have never felt stronger, or more real, than I do now. I may be less happy than I was in former times, but I am undoubtedly also less weak. My bouts of depression have lessened in frequency over the past fortnight, and are less long-lasting and intense when they do occur; my obsessive thoughts seem far less potent and real than they did last year; and my feelings of anxiety, once so crippling, are now virtually non-existent.
I am, in short, becoming a new person, someone I have never been before.
I trade on results, and these are results. I will continue to build my fortress of medication, therapy, friends, activity and mantras on its foundation of exercise, meditation, diet and sleep. I will build and build and build, as many times as this disease can knock over the things I make, I will build and rebuild. And hopefully one day, when my demons have grown tired of smashing themselves to pieces against the defences I have so diligently and meticulously maintained, I will take back possession of my mind.
And if and when that day comes, I will know inner peace.
Take whatever you will from this article. Feel free to disagree with any of it if you wish. All I seek to do is give others the benefit of my experience as well as inform loved ones as to where I am at in my struggle with clinical depression. If you are reading this and know anyone who suffers from an anxiety/depressive disorder, please feel free to share this with them. My biggest mistake in hindsight was a failure of recognition; I failed to realise that my mind had grown diseased, that alcohol dependency and unchecked neurotic thinking had poisoned it. This eventual recognition, that my mind has been overrun by depression and that a prolonged fight is now necessary to take it back, has brought me from the brink. But I had to fall very low first; I paid a high price for self-knowledge – I lost two great partners, several friends, and very nearly my life. Though at liberty I now have a criminal record, and had I continued in the same vein said liberty would almost certainly have been lost, to the prison system or a psychiatric ward.
Learn from my mistakes: the sooner you accept that your mind is ill and that you are at war with whatever demonic thoughts afflict you, the sooner you put pursuit of happiness aside as a luxury and start to pursue strength instead, the sooner you will know some measure of inner peace. And who knows, it may just turn out that, paradoxically, happiness will come to you as a result of having that strength and inner peace. But the key point here is, it won’t matter even if it doesn’t.
Because you will have become strong enough to live without happiness.
I have suffered from depression on and off throughout my adult life with varying degrees of intensity, the past four years representing the high-water mark. In this two-part article, I will attempt first of all to delineate as comprehensive a definition of this illness as I can, based on my personal experiences of it, and secondly to make suggestions as to how it may be contained and beaten, once again drawing on my own experiences and work done with various therapists. In so doing I hope to help others who are going through the same or similar pain, and express what I have been obliged by circumstance to cope with. In the latter case I hope this article will benefit loved ones who are sympathetic to my condition, but not fully aware of what it means to suffer from severe depression. I should add that I am only too glad that many of them aren’t – this is not a condition I would wish on my worst enemy, let alone people I care about.
I would like to stress at this point that I am not in any way trying to solicit pity from anyone in writing this. My troubles are my own to contend with; all I seek is to further understanding of this debilitating and destructive illness. If I succeed in doing this and reaching out to others who suffer from depression, I shall consider my time well spent. As such, I would urge anyone reading this article to forward it on to anyone they know who might possibly benefit. My name is of no importance whatsoever; all that counts is the message I seek to impart to anyone wishing to hear it.
Depression is, I believe, commonly viewed as an intense and lasting form of sadness, often not justified by the sufferer’s external circumstances. While this is a handy enough definition by way of a starting point, I feel it falls somewhat short of the mark.
Depression is not merely a feeling; it is a distortion of reality.
Severe clinical depression won’t warp your perception in quite the same way as a full-blown psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia; it works on a far more subtle and insidious level, making it much harder to spot than the more grievous forms of mental illness classified under psychosis. If schizophrenia represents a complete hijacking of cognitive awareness by rogue elements of the mind, depression is more attritional: it creeps up on you gradually over time, infiltrating and corrupting your thought processes. When you are in the throes of depression, when it has had enough time to penetrate your psyche unchecked, you will start to believe things that the healthier you of former times, and loved ones around you, would recognise as patently absurd. But the depressed you will not: the depressed you will implicitly believe your inner demons as they whisper one ‘fact’ to you after the next. These inner voices can vary strikingly in content and subject matter, taking the first, second and sometimes even third person, but they will all share one common theme: they are pronouncing statements hell-bent on making you feel as bad about yourself and your life as possible.
For the chronic depressive, the worst possible interpretation of external events and internal thoughts and feelings will always be sought out, with unerring and unnerving mental dexterity, and believed without question.
You remember that girl you used to work with, the one you had the big crush on but never said anything to because you didn’t want to betray your girlfriend? Well, that was the love of your life – you failed to approach her because you are a rank coward. As a result you will never be happy in love and don’t deserve to be, ever. No one else you ever date will come close – of course you never dated her, but she would have been the best partner you could possibly have had. You have definitively screwed up your love life, for good. You remember that concert you played the other night? The one where everyone applauded and told you how well you played? Of course they didn’t spot the mistakes you made – but you did. In that moment, you exposed yourself for just what you are – a talentless phony with no business being near a stage, pathetically hankering after acclaim you don’t deserve and never will. People who tell you otherwise are either just being nice or are themselves worthless and incapable of judging you correctly. Only somebody who thinks ill of you is worth having their opinion solicited; no one else’s counts. You remember when you fell out with that friend, a few years back? Well, he’s out there now, having a better time than you are – no matter where you go or what you do, you’ll never live life to the full. But he will. You’ll only ever be a pale imitation of him, at best.
Does all of the above sound absurd? Ridiculous? Of course it does. And at various points in my life, when under severe depression, I have thought all of the above things, in some cases repeatedly and obsessively, believing every word without question.
That is what severe clinical depression does to your mind; severe clinical depression is not about seeing things in ‘shades of grey’, severe clinical depression is about seeing things that aren’t there at all. A missed opportunity becomes a monumental failure with lifelong negative ramifications; a bad event turns into a life-shattering trauma from which you will never recover; anything and everything good in your life – friends, partners, talents, achievements, successes – becomes an irrelevant sideshow to the main act you have unconsciously embraced: the tragedy that is now your life, with you in the starring role.
One of the most hurtful and sad things about depression is that it will spur you to make bad life decisions: friends and partners who genuinely care about you will be rejected as either ‘not good enough’ or ‘too good for you’; decent jobs will be thrown aside for much the same ‘reasons’. When you are severely depressed, either nothing is ever good enough, or good enough but more than you deserve; because you are never good enough – your negative feelings about yourself inevitably colour your perception of everything around you. And as you pile one bad decision on top of the other, and the actual quality of your life diminishes and deteriorates, the vicious circle is completed and your self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom realised. Your life actually turns to shit, because you were incapable of seeing it any other way in the first place.
Now you are down, at rock bottom: and yet you feel strangely comfortable. For this is where you belong; a chronic depressive has no business being happy in any case. Careers, partners, friendships, fulfillment of any kind is a chimera, a pathetic illusion not worth pursuing. The depressive always knows better; he or she carries absolute conviction in his or her own opinions, which inevitably amount to this: you are not a happy person, and the truth must always hurt. The world is a bleak and alienating place; your time on it short and futile. Better to drink or drug yourself into an early grave than play along with self-deception like all those contented fools you are forced to rub shoulders with. The depressive is infinitely superior in his or her misery; happiness is for idiots, fuck happiness, you know far better! And the price to be paid for your penetrating ‘insight’ is pain, unrelenting and ceaseless – for are you not the star of your own personal tragedy?
Chronic depression represents the ego unbridled, left to run amok through your mind without restraint. You know best; no one can help you, and anyone who tries to is being obtuse and moronic. The latter-day savant Eckhart Tolle has correctly identified the ego as being the source of such self-inflicted misery, although to my mind his writing is not specific or thorough enough to really help somebody far gone in a state of severe depression. It is not sufficient in such cases, in my considered opinion, merely to ‘watch the thinker’. In severe depressives, the egoic thinker must be challenged, sometimes head on; his usurpation of your mind contested, without respite, without cessation, until that ego is driven far back beyond the borders which it has so brazenly encroached upon.
In my next post, the second part of this article, I will explore this concept in more detail as I attempt to outline some of the techniques and methods I have found useful in my own lifelong struggle against depression.
I don’t know yet if severe depression can be truly definitively beaten; what I do know is that some things work and some things don’t, and that applying a combination of different approaches is, in my opinion, essential to making headway against the illness. Another thing I have learned, which I shall also explore, is that those struggling with depression must also be prepared to accept losses and live to fight another day – not all the battles can be won, but that does not mean the war is necessarily lost.
Because, my fellow depressives and those who care about them, make no mistake: you are at war here, whether you like it or not, against a part of your mind that has turned rogue and is up in arms against the conscious, happy you. As someone who has had his fair share of lost battles, I can testify that the struggle against depression is not for the faint-hearted; but I can also state categorically that escapism – be it into drink, drugs or whatever – will only ever get you so far for so long. At some point we all have to confront our personal demons, and for the clinical depressive these may well be of Satanic proportions. But the fight is worthwhile, and anyone facing down a mental health problem deserves as much praise and patience for their courage and perseverance as any real-life war hero.
I will go into all of the above at greater length in my next post. Until then, stay strong and remember: it’s OK to fall down, as long as you pick yourself up and carry on. Even when every step is painful, there’s always a chance that the next one won’t be, or the next one after that: but you’ll never know unless you keep walking. Sound simplistic and reductionist? Perhaps – however, the logic is irrefutable.
Like many writers and musicians, I am a depressive alcoholic with an obsessive streak. Unlike many of them, this parlous state of affairs has led me to attempt suicide. What will follow is an attempt to write through my pain, try to express what I am going through, and hopefully reach out to others who are perhaps suffering from the same illnesses as I am. ‘You are not alone’ is a mantra oft touted about the mental health community, but part of the very problem that most depressives grapple with is precisely that feeling: of being all alone with thoughts that are all too often torturous and confusing.
By setting out some of my own thought processes and experiences I hope to bridge this gap; as a man of words I am reasonably confident I can at least try to convey what I’m dealing with, and maybe encourage others in a similar predicament to open up too.
Depression (which I will use here as a blanket term to encompass the anxiety and obsessive/intrusive thinking that have also plagued me for years, and which I believe plague many other depressives) has proved a costly illness: I have lost two partners and a job to it and, on one or two occasions, nearly my life. It has also led me to acquire an alcohol habit that can only be described as problem drinking: it’s not that I don’t know when to stop, it’s that I no longer know how to. Just as mental illness will push a relationship to breaking point, it can also damage friendships, particularly those of the less robust, forgiving kind: one advantage here is that fair-weather friends will soon be weeded out. Beware also those ‘friends’ who appear to be there for you in the first moment of crisis but may prove less willing to accept that depressives are subject to mood swings, which may render them unable to express gratitude or other social niceties as effortlessly as their less troubled fellow human beings.
Anyone who tells you that as a mental health sufferer it is your responsibility to draw the line between your behaviour and your condition has no understanding of what depression is about. Someone suffering from poor mental health can no more be expected to behave appropriately at all times than a man with a broken leg be expected to walk unaided: patience is required when dealing with us. You would not believe, dear reader, the number of times I have been told to be patient about my condition – and yet patience is a virtue that we require from others as much as it is necessary in ourselves.
Beware also of closet parasites who initially appear helpful but only give to receive – specifically a sense of power and control over someone in a vulnerable condition. Once you appear to be up and running again they will quickly withdraw support or expect you to mollycoddle them in return as if they were your personal guardian angel. Of course, many people who helped me through rough patches did not prove to be of such flawed character, but I have been disappointed by one or two initially fair-seeming acquaintances. In my humble opinion a touch more forgiveness and understanding would not ill become them, but then I suppose such people clearly have their issues too, so who am I to judge? You see – patience… we could all learn to have a bit more of it 🙂
In my next post I will do what I can to express my definition of depression, what it is and what it isn’t, and in so doing attempt to clarify one or two things both for my own benefit and for the intended benefit of other sufferers and those close to them who wish to help.
Before I address this topic, I think it best if I state where I am coming from on the subject of divinity. I am a sceptical atheist. By this I mean I see very little evidence to suggest a higher power of a metaphysical nature behind the workings of the universe, but recognising that I am not omniscient, I reserve a (very small) corner of doubt in my mind as to the non-existence of God. If he/she/it/they do exist, I do not believe said divinity cares a fig about humanity, what it eats, who it sleeps with, how it prays, or how it defines its moral compass.
My god would be a cold and mindless thing, a Lovecraftian demon-god marked by a complete indifference, perhaps even unawareness of, humankind. My god would be a clumsy god, one that hurled the universe into existence and left millennia to do the work of shaping the mountains, seas, rivers and lakes that it could not create directly itself (for this is what science tells us – those mountains weren’t made in a week, sorry my Judeo-Christian friends but the geological evidence is against you here). Likewise, the countless species that gradually emerged from the soup and crawled onto land to spend the next x million years forging the animal kingdom we know today could not have been a simple, direct creation of a potent, knowing divinity. The painful process of evolution tells us otherwise.
Put under the spotlight of science, with its power to strip away and eliminate possibilities, divinity doesn’t come off so well – he/she/it/they don’t have a lot of space left in which to manouevre. Science has left us with two choices: either god doesn’t exist at all, or he is a dysfunctional screw-up of galactic proportions, quite incapable of creating anything from the celestial clay without leaving the heavenly workshop in an awful mess. Before we even get onto man’s flawed nature, what’s with those volcanic eruptions and tidal waves? The cosmic meteors that could theoretically wipe out our painstakingly evolved planet overnight? Hardly the trademark of an omnipotent hand, methinks…
I have many friends who share my atheist bent, many more who would go one further and label themselves ‘devout’ (I personally hate this oxymoron, but that’s for another post), and quite a few who, in spite of all the above, are believers. What do we have in common?
We all celebrate Christmas.
For my Catholic and C of E friends this is hardly surprising. They genuinely believe that Jesus Christ, either literally or metaphorically, was the Son of God and therefore represented divinity on earth. For these people he is a cornerstone of their culture, an essential part of their mental furniture as Western thinkers. For them, it is obvious: of course they celebrate Christmas.
But why do the rest of us? Why is it that of all my so-called rationalist, non-theist friends (me included), not one has the courage of their convictions to boycott the whole thing? You aren’t Christian – so why give credence to the most potent date in the Christian calendar by celebrating it? Surely such an event goes against everything a good rational humanist cherishes – logic and reason over blind faith and habit?
But it’s fun, I hear you cry. You get to go out on the lash, receive presents, a chance to catch up with your family and friends. Hmm. Let’s unpick that shall we?
Number one: the Christmas piss-up. To which I say – don’t make me laugh. Since when have Anglo-Saxons (or any Europeans for that matter) needed an excuse to imbibe? We do it every week, for god’s sake (oops I mean, for reason’s sake). The pub, not the church, is the go-to focal point of Western culture, especially in Britain and Ireland. Do self-respecting atheists really need a dubious two-thousand year old claim to divinity on earth as an excuse to go drinking? I think the answer to this is so manifestly self-evident that it doesn’t warrant further examination.
Number two: the giving and receiving of presents. I have yet to meet one intelligent person over the age of 18 who would not gladly trade the opportunity to receive a few (largely useless) gifts for shedding the onerous burden of having to buy them and thus shore up a little more of what is increasingly becoming the most precious commodity of all in the hardwired, results-driven West: time. I have not recently met anyone who embraces the prospect of Christmas shopping with anything more encouraging than a steely resignation. No rational, right-thinking person enjoys it, because any rational, right-thinking person could probably think of a hundred other things they would rather do with their time (and money).
Number three: a chance to see your family and friends. I’m not going to peddle the obvious cliche that says ‘everyone hates their extended family’. I don’t believe this is true. I certainly don’t. I enjoy meeting up with my relatives, as they all live in a foreign country and I don’t get to see them very often. But again, do we really need to peg familial reunions to the birth of a carpenter’s son in the Levant two millennia ago who either had divine patronage or serious mental health issues brought on by trauma caused by the Roman occupation of his homeland? As rational, thinking atheists, who determine our own futures (as best we can given the circumstances presented to us), set our own boundaries, make reasoned, informed decisions as to what is right and wrong, are we so incapable of arranging our own family get-togethers? Is this beyond the scope of the human race? I’m not asking for the Hadron particle collider here – a bit of organisation and cooperation, and you too can enjoy a Jesus-free family reunion at any time of the year.
Having exploded the above reasons cited by non-Christians for observing a Christian tradition, I am left with one conclusion as to what impells us to do so.
It’s such a lovely word. Its three perfectly balanced syllables shoot from the tongue with the force of a perfectly restored Brown Bess musket. It makes us feel all warm inside, even as we feel a little ashamed for admitting it does. Because, as every self-respecting rational atheist knows, tradition is quite irrational. Ask the question ‘why tradition’ and the most apt answer you are likely to get is ‘just because’. It’s just the way we do things around here… And in that absence of thought, that laying aside of askance and simply accepting something at face value because that is what your ancestors have done for generations, lies the power of tradition.
It’s easy. No mental effort required. Just do as the Romans do (unless they’re hammering nine-inch nails into poor old Jesus) and go with it. This brings me back to my last post, because atheists celebrating Christmas proves my earlier point: humans, even highly intelligent rational ones, need myths. We need to embrace the irrational from time to time – even, as in the case of Christmas, when it is often onerous to do so. Because being a rational thinker is by turns exhausting, bewildering, and downright frightening. Existentialism brings its own kind of personalised hell to the table, and has been explored in detail by the likes of Sartre, Camus and numerous philosophers from Locke to Hume – anyone interested enough to have read this far (you poor sucker) will be familiar enough with this concept to require no further explanation.
Embrace the irrational, what are you on about Damo? We’re right-thinking atheists, surely not? Well, let’s turn that on its head and look at what it means to be 100% rational. Stop drinking – you are paying to put commercialised poison into your body, a substance that impairs your judgement and physical coordination. Ever been in love? Just a chemical shift in your brain, brought about by a change in sense-perception. Enjoy sex? Just nature’s way of hoodwinking you into procreation – if you have no desire to have children, from a rational perspective sex is surely pointless. Take drugs to suppress your libido and save yourself the trouble. Football – don’t get me started, a bunch of people you’ve never met kicking a ball around, it means nothing. Win, lose, it won’t change your life unless you believe it will. Art/poetry/music – can you eat it, drink it, warm yourself at night with it? Not likely – you could always burn a Monet or two, but firewood would be much more effective.
The point I’m making here is that when you stop and think about it, so many things that we do to bring joy to our lives are a) irrational and b) often bound up in some kind of tradition – a custom of doing a certain thing in a certain way at a certain time, whether that be observing Christmas, watching Wimbledon, going to the pub on a Friday night, or trying to pick someone up in a bar the following Saturday. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be rational anti-theists (to borrow the term from Christopher Hitchens) lead lives that are underpinned by a need to – at periodic intervals – stop being 100% rational human beings for a while. I want to get blotto. In the morning I will be a rational human being again, cursing myself for a fool and a lush, but tonight I want to drink until I fall over. For the next four hours I will hang on every swing of Andy Murray’s racquet as though my life depended on it. Until the bouncers kick me out at 3am I will hurl myself across the dancefloor like a wild animal (and I don’t even know how to dance).
Embracing the irrational allows us to suspend our disbelief, much as we do when we immerse ourselves in a sci-fi/fantasy novel or a far-fetched thriller. It gives us a break. We need these pressure valves from time to time – being rational all the time is not a desirable state of mind any more than it is a truly human one. Most of us spend our lives doing the best we can to balance the irrational and rational, the subconscious and conscious, as we strive to achieve some kind of harmony in our mindset.
Is Christmas one of these pressure valves? It seems to me that it is – partly a joy, partly a pain, entirely irrational. Perhaps, in so being, the annual festive season serves as a timely reminder to we atheists of what it really means to be human: a collection of often conflicting thoughts born of sense-perception and reflection that give rise to desires (some healthy, some not) and observations (some spurious, some reasoned). If it presents Christians with an opportunity to immerse themselves further in the ‘god delusion’, it presents atheists with an opportunity to learn to know ourselves better.
An old friend of mine recently sent me a link to Russell’s Brand’s flagship article in the New Statesman, which the flamboyant buccaneer appears to have temporarily boarded and seized:
When I’d recovered from the shock to my carefully constructed world order (newsflash: there’s more to old RB, far more, than being a big-mouthed rakehell womaniser who’s good at making people laugh), I got to thinking about what he’d written.
I was particularly drawn by his referencing of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell posits that mankind abandons his old rituals and religion at his peril. As I observed to my old friend on the subject:
Mankind’s religious/mythological rituals and belief systems historically gave him a nexus through which to engage with his environment and derive a place of belonging therein. Malaise arguably sets in with the arrival of monotheism: godhood is no longer anchored to the material world – divinity is placed above the stars. Gods no longer inhere in the natural world around us, they are distanced from it. From there it’s not too many steps to reach the state of play today: God created the universe and everything in it/He created it for mankind to do with as he will/if He isn’t perceivable by our senses perhaps He doesn’t really exist/but that idea about the planet being ours to exploit was still rather convenient… so let’s hang on to that one. And now we’re all atheists we don’t even need to worry about going to hell if we f*ck up the planet and half its inhabitants while we’re getting rich and turning profits. We’re all going to die (as in REALLY die) anyway, so why not?
The psychologist Jung was also outspoken as to what happens when human beings forsake the irrational belief systems that have hitherto governed their behaviour, and embrace the world on strictly non-spiritual, material terms:
‘Primitive man was much more governed by his instincts than are his “rational” modern descendents, who have learned to “control” themselves. In this civilizing process, we have increasingly divided our consciousness from the deeper instinctive strata of the human psyche […]. Fortunately, we have not lost these basic instinctive strata; they remain part of the unconscious, even though they may only express themselves in dream images. […] For the sake of mental stability and even physiological health, the unconscious and the conscious must be integrally connected and thus move on parallel lines.’
[Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl C Jung]
Modern man believes he has outgrown the need for irrational belief systems, but deep down inside the psyche knows what is good for it, and strives to return us to the fold, as it were, through imagery glimpsed in dreams. A material world, with all the comforts modern science and technology and economics have furnished, is not enough on its own to guarantee human happiness. A Chilean philosopher (whose name escapes me for the time being – my apologies) examined Ireland during its Celtic Tiger heyday in the 90s. Even before its economy went belly-up he discerned a problem, which he identified as the ‘tipping point’: economic growth continued, but human happiness stopped increasing at a parallel rate. Suicides went up, anxiety/depression did likewise, juvenile delinquency and crime worsened.
The point is that the best intentions of capitalism and socialism alike have failed to address this problem, which persists today and is still with us in very real form.
And so to the central point of this post – now more than ever, humanity needs mythologies. More specifically, it needs fantasts.
In light of all the developments I’ve touched on above, is it any coincidence that the market for fantasy, sci-fi and mythological reworkings has never been stronger? Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, remakes of Battlestar Galactica and Clash of the Titans, to name but a few examples straddling television, the silver screen and the written word; all our media are awash with tales of long ago and far away, enriched by pantheons of deities and emblazoned with the kind of myth-dream religious symbolism that would have given old Joe a hard-on the size of Middle Earth.
Is it any coincidence that said genres – once the preserve of shame-faced geeks huddled together reclusively in library corners whilst their social superiors flirted one another into bed over drinks and erudite conversation about ‘real’ writers and ‘high’ culture – are now aggressively in the mainstream? If I jump onto a dating website (yes, I’m single ladies…), I’m just as likely to encounter a stylish attractive woman staunchly labelling herself in the Geek category and listing the aforementioned GoT as a ‘hobby’ as I am to find her counterpart who wouldn’t be seen within a light-speed jump of a tale that has anything to do with a dragon or a pointy hat.
In my opinion, this isn’t just down to adroit marketing. Even the best marketing pros need a potentially willing audience to work off of. And the 21st century public has proved so very, very willing…
The real question is: why? Could it be that as we approach what could be humanity’s darkest hour, we are – subconsciously or not – reaching back towards what Campbell and Jung claim we have forgotten? Namely: our need for parables, to glimpse the struggle of humankind through myth and faerie tale, scripture and folk story, and therein identify ourselves and our place in a world that seems increasingly dissociated from itself, where a distended chain of cause and effect isolates and insulates us from universal human patterns of behaviour – despite the fact that we (in the developed world at least) are more information-rich than ever.
The ever-rising global population and its increasingly materialistic expectations are pushing us inexorably into a worldwide conflict, one that will be underpinned by a fraction that continually contracts with a vice-like and awful certainty: resources/people. Or to put it another way: dwindling resources divided by increasing numbers of people equals great calamity. The world could be about to get Biblical on us – and Noah’s ark might seem like an oceanic joyride in comparison.
Any wonder, then, that we are so keen to bury ourselves in myth, or more specifically its latter-day descendent, fantasy/sci fi? Tolkien once observed that he was trying to create a mythology for the English-speaking peoples. I’m not aware if he was familiar with Campbell’s work, but he strikes me as somebody who understood the importance of mythology to the human mindset.
Of course, one might just as easily dismiss such a hankering for tales of the fantastic as mere escapism; baby food for irrational thought that it behoves any self-respecting adult to outgrow.
A clue to the lie underpinning this perspective may be discerned in Campbell’s closing chapter to The Hero. In it he treats of the animal-god worshipping practices of early human societies, what our Christian forebears would have called ‘pagans’ and some today might call ‘primitives’. Yet Campbell claims these rituals had a beneficial effect on the societies that practised them:
‘Through acts of literal imitation – such as today appear only on the children’s playground (or the madhouse) – an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organisation.’
So perhaps ‘childish’ ideas aren’t so bad after all – it seems that part of what Campbell is getting at here is that children instinctively understand something modern adults have forgotten. And further to the point, perhaps tales of the divine and the supernatural aren’t all that escapist either. Could it be that by engaging in myth-making/fantasy we are actually reaching toward a more harmonious state of mind? Identifying with and absorbing such tales give us an opportunity to suspend our rational modern selves along with our disbelief; it furnishes us with a way of placing ourselves in a context that means more to us than the cold functionality that emerges from the modern concept of individualism – that of a tax-paying, GDP-contributing unit, bundled up into various spurious categories of commercial proclivities: drinker, smoker, fashionista, car enthusiast, what have you.
We can of course be all of the above things if we so choose. But the more you divide human beings according to their proclivities, the more you separate them from one another. Stories, like music or watching sport, can be shared in the way that many of these other more material things can’t – if I buy a beer it’s mine; I can share some of it, but not the whole thing. Likewise, I can lend you my car but we cannot both use it at the same time unless we are always going to the same places.
But stories can be truly shared, as an experience. And through shared experiences human beings can begin to make connections with one another, via touching points that cannot be accessed through the complex and electrified mainframes of politics or economics. I don’t claim the shared experience of high fantasy will wipe away the problems of the human psyche – but by embracing the genre we can begin to revisit ourselves and reassess what is really valuable to us, perhaps even what is essential to human happiness. A look at the heavyweight thought put into the best of the genre will suggest that its best writers are at least peripherally aware of this, and are seizing the opportunity presented for communication with both hands.
So rejoice, all you budding George R R Martins – the end times could be ‘a comin’, and the people are prepared to listen to what we have to say. The rest is up to us wordsmiths.