Tag Archives: melancholy

Depressed or melancholy?

There are people who will tell you that depressed people are just making a fuss, ought to pull themselves together. Take a nice walk, listen to some music, stop feeling sorry for yourself. These are people who haven’t experienced depression for themselves. What makes it difficult is that they may have experienced melancholy, and believe that the depressed person is feeling as they did when that happened to them.

Now, when it comes to a touch of gloom, a down day, a bit of melancholy, this is sound advice. Get outside, go for a coffee with a friend. Listen to your favourite album. Play with a cat. Do something you know will lift your mood, and your mood will lift. So long as you don’t wallow about in it, you can indeed get shot of it, because it’s just a mood and will pass.

From the outside, there are no obvious signs that a depressed person is experiencing something different from that. However, depression means serious underlying unresolved issues. This may be current life issues – stress, lack of rest etc, it can be a side effect of physical illness and ongoing pain, it can be unprocessed trauma, it may be a chemistry issue. Small changes won’t shift it. In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around – this was certainly true for me. Getting a change in your environment that allows you more good stuff can make a difference. But, a single shot of uplift won’t change things. In the not being uplifted by the supposed cure, the depressed person can slide further in, feeling ever more powerless and useless.

If the depressed person is subjected to a barrage of being told they should be able to fix this with an array of superficial magic cures, they are not going to be less depressed. They may get worse. Tell a really depressed person to pull themselves together, stop making a fuss, stop wallowing, let go of the self pity – and you will fuel the feelings of despair, uselessness and worthlessness that very likely underpin their condition. Anyone really keen to pull a depressed person out – don’t tell them what to do, get in there and see what you can gently do that will enable them to do it. Ask what would help. Offer support. Don’t assume you know best. Many people have no hope of healing until the thing causing the problem changes.

And, for people who are depressed, I know how hard it is not to internalise other people’s suggestions as criticism. There was a meme a bit back that basically said trees are medicine and pills are rubbish – it’s a case in point because it creates the impression that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough or making the right choices. And so you feel worse than before. If you can hang on to the thought that anyone pedalling this stuff is talking from a place of total ignorance, it helps. The really problematic ones are the folk who will tell you they know about depression, when all they really know is about sadness and fleeting gloom. They mistake their molehill for your mountain. But, when they are confident and you feel like shit, it is all too easy to be persuaded.

The bottom line is, if what someone else says isn’t useful, that doesn’t make them right and you useless. It may well mean they have no bloody idea. It is possible to prevent them from stealing away more of your self esteem if you can bear this in mind.

The bottom line for people on the other side of this is that if you think you have a simple solution for depression, then you are wrong. You may have an effective intervention for passing gloom, but anything that can be fixed with a walk in the park or a kitten photo was not depression in the first place and you need to reassess what you think depression is and be alert to the risk of blaming the sufferer.

I haven’t had a really bad bout in more than a year now. I’ve had rough patches, but I think I’m surfacing. There were no quick fixes.

Medicine for a troubled heart

One of the things about really sitting with my depression over the last few weeks has been an increased awareness of what truly alleviates it. Not in the sense of being able to tidy it up and put it away, but in moving towards a more viable and sustainable state.

In all of this, perhaps the most surprising (re)discovery has been of my natural gloom and melancholia. I’ve spent most of my life in places where a mournful nature was not welcome, and hiding that may be one of the reasons I’m here in the first place. The part of me that resonates with tragedies, graveyards and Leonard Cohen songs. Mournful, melancholic states are very different from depression because for me at least they do not confer numbness, powerlessness or an inability to act or function. Mournful I can live with, it’s a headspace I can create from and it allows me to respond honourably to all the things in this world that break my heart. Allowing my natural misery may in fact ease my depression.

Walking is helping, because I respond well to landscapes, and I find it grounding. Walking allows me to knock the destructive anger out of my body without harming myself. Not having to talk much is also good, not having to entertain, or sort anything or be useful is incredibly healing. Walking in quietly accepting company is making a lot of odds.

Hugs are an interesting double edged sort of thing. Where I’m not comfortable, those can leave me in worse places. However, in those exchanges where being hugged feels like affirmation, acceptance and care, I’m finding that really helps me to feel calmer within myself.

Iggy Pop has been an unexpected source of medicine, too. He has a Friday night BBC radio 6 program that I catch on listen again in the week. Warm, eccentric, generous, surprising and with a startling play list each time, he has a knack for making me feel that bit better about life, and humanity. Little bits of life philosophy interspersed between songs, diversity, acceptance, recognition that we are all flawed and messy and doing what we can with that. He’s my current favourite for world leader. He has also made me realise how ground down I am by the cruel, shitty, destructive, toxic behaviour of too many humans.

I can’t reasonably turn away from the things that are driving me a bit mad sometimes. I can’t ignore extinctions, climate change, austerity, human rights abuses, eco-system destruction and all that greed achieves out there. But I can cry over it, and walk, and listen to Iggy Pop, and in that mix it might be possible to be present, and not be broken by it.

Of Depression and Druidry

I know a startling number of Druids who suffer from depression. Actually, I also know a just as alarming number of non-Druids with the same problems. It’s increasingly common. In fact, at this rate it’s going to become normal to be emotionally ill. One of the implications is that the nature of depression will need far more understanding. What non-sufferers imagine depression to be all about is painfully wide of the mark. But, if you’re not enduing it, the odds are increasingly that someone close to you, will, or that you will. Understanding how it goes makes it easier to deal with. Both for yourself and other people.

I think many of us assume that depression is a form of melancholy. People who feel sad may describe themselves (often inaccurately) as ‘a bit depressed’. There’s often a sense that what depressed people need to do is pull themselves together, stop being whinging emos, and get on with it. I probably don’t just speak for myself when I say, I find myself wishing it was that easy. Faced with someone who is pale, wilting, claiming they can’t do things, it can be easy to assume you’re seeing a freeloader, someone playing up, being melodramatic, attention seeking. Now, anyone who tells you they are depressed and then starts telling you what you have to do as a consequence of this is, frankly, a bit suspect. Controlling behaviour, regardless of the excuse, is not a thing to support or facilitate. Most of the depression sufferers I know find it very hard to ask for help. Telling people that they have to do things, is hard to imagine. Depression is not something we seek or enjoy, it’s life sapping and a bloody nuisance. Some days I feel like the whole time I’m walking round in lead boots wrestling with an octopus wrapped around me, that no one else can see. Normal things take ridiculous amounts of effort.

Depression is not ‘feeling a bit blue’ or ‘being a bit down’ or ‘needing to pull yourself together’. Depression is a defence mechanism. It’s a way of coping with things that the individual cannot otherwise handle. From the outside it may look like melancholy, from the inside it’s a process of shutting down, climbing into a shell, putting up the walls to keep out whatever it is that the body can no longer endure feeling. Stress, anxiety, and physical pain can all contribute to this process. The person who is weeping over something can often be in a better sort of place than the person who is still and silent because they’ve gone numb. Depression can be all about watching the colours drain out of your world. All the hope, all the reasons to keep going, fade away, and it feels like dying on the inside. Which sometimes results in people thinking that actually dying might not be such a terrible thing.

Why are so many of us falling soul-sick in this way? I think the more interesting question is, why everyone else has not done so yet. We have unprecedented access to the horrors of an entire planet. Every really attention grabbing murder and act of abuse makes it to the media. There’s a daily diet of war crime, tragedy, political idiocy. Every day we see the triumphs of money and power over common sense and decency. We’re driving species to extinction. When did you last see an image of a sick or dying child? Recently, at a guess. When was the last time a news item made you despair for humanity? Probably in the last week, at a guess.

In making a dedication to the land, in relinquishing ignorance and trying to live ethically, Druids take a course that eradicates any real hope of burying the head in the sand, and ignoring what’s out there. And of course we aren’t alone. People of heart and integrity are bound to feel what is constantly presented to them. Of course the violence, cruelty and tragedy are nothing new. It’s just that most of our ancestors only had to deal with what happened directly in their own lives, without simultaneously being burdened with the griefs of the world. One of the big problems with the griefs of the world is that most of the time, individually, there’s nothing we can do. A sense of powerlessness will eat away at your capacity for hope like nothing else. And that, in time, will put you on your knees.

As a Druid I have to stay open and aware. I cannot look away, ignore my responsibilities and pretend that all is well in the world. As some ambling ape-descended biology, I can’t always sustain that and keep moving. I have good days, and bad days. My body has a finite capacity for coping with distress. I try and generate hope. I do not always manage this.

I saw a facebook thing the other day, the gist went like this. The media tells you what to think and what to do. You run round on the treadmill making money for someone else, to buy stuff you don’t need that is killing the planet. Your air, food and water are being poisoned. And still you shuffle along. You are the zombie apocalypse. Wake the hell up.

I think there’s an argument for saying that a lot of depressed people are that way because they are awake. Perhaps if everyone woke up, we wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. None of us. We could just fix things. And we really could just fix things, if enough of us wanted to and we could agree on how to do it. Let’s not go there. Hold the positive thought.