Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The whispering traitors of the mind

[This is a piece I published in the Adelaide Review, September 2002.]

I never really understood the fuss about depression until I suffered myself (albeit, relatively mildly) for a few years, not having been privy to any such experience by a close friend or relative. In my case, it was induced by circumstances and not a permanent imbalance of brain chemicals (and what follows comes primarily from my own experience).

To suffer from depression is to be regularly, debilitatingly, overwhelmed by one’s own emotions. All mental illness (and depression is definitely a mental illness) is a loss of touch with reality of some form or other. In the case of depression, the loss of realism is the overwhelming force of one’s sadness. I once came across a definition of depression as anger without enthusiasm. Quite so. Frustration of deep desires or emotional needs makes one angry, but the desires and the frustration are not sufficiently clear (that is, the anger is not recognised), or there seems to be nothing to be angry at or no point to anger or the source is mis-identified or whatever, so there is no resolution, so the feelings just go around and around with a deep sense of being trapped in a situation which is hopeless because there is an endless emotional treadmill with no way out. Hence depression.

I did the Australian blokey thing, and did not see any professional about my problem. I did have the advantages of philosophical training, an analytical mind and good friends, so I worked things through, slowly worrying at what I really felt, why I felt what I did, whether it was sensible to feel that way. Frustrated deep emotions are best dealt with by being brought out and acknowledged.

The way it manifest varies. A friend told me his depression hit as an overwhelming feeling of numbness, which can be so intense to become painful. Another friend was told by her doctor that, if you were intelligent and sensitive, it is more or less impossible to go through life without suffering from depression at some stage or other. Jeff Kennett, post-politics, taking up the cause of curing depression is apposite to the modern condition. It is a major cause of absenteeism (then again, workplaces are a major cause of depression).
In the TV documentary by Bob Ellis The Bastards from the Bush, depression survivor Les Murray talks about his own experience. He said depression is like being in the first Act of Macbeth, chasing the witches away from their cauldron, cutting your head off, boiling it in the cauldron for four or five hours, putting it back on your shoulders and then saying ‘I’ll do this again tomorrow’ and so ‘boiling your head’ for four or five hours a day for years on end. Yes, something like that. As Ellis responds, you can be crushed and compressed by things which, in other areas of your life, are unimaginable.

Les Murray tell us he had become to believe, deep in his heart of hearts, that, by being an induced birth, he had been responsible for his mother’s continual miscarriages (the consequences from which she eventually died of) because he had ‘ruined the works’ inside her. He had come to believe that sex kills. Then he suffered the castrating persecution of being fat at school, and continual humiliation from teasing girls. He created a new body, a body of work, of poetry to substitute for the flesh body which was unacceptable to womankind. Until, years later, a girl from his schooldays used one of the old nicknames, and he began to come apart as the unresolved wounds burst their deep poison, and he had phantom heart attacks (which were really just panic attacks) plus a spiralling down into emotional breakdown.

My depression was also mixed up with things in my past, including the consequences of the profound inner demoralisation induced by internalising my parents’ insecurities and criticisms magnified by their failure to express affection or praise, and with working through the nature of my sexuality, which was primarily directed to my own gender, so according to the tenements of my own upbringing and culture not merely wrong but wicked. As my own deep poisons welled up, I had an alleged good mate telling me things which weren’t true, and he didn’t believe, in order to make me feel better. Increased unreality is not what someone suffering from mental illness needs. I, at some level, picked up the dissonance, and his behaviour inevitably failed to match his words, so I sought yet more reassurance and around-and-around we went, my loss of touch with reality being aggravated by a friendship which wasn't real or, at least, not anchored in reality. (These comments should not be taken as an injunction to blurt out brutal truths: tact, which is to say consideration of another’s feelings, is often required in dealing with the emotionally ill—brute truth can be very needed, brutal delivery is generally not.)

Getting an email from my former friend telling me (in a particularly spiteful sort of way) that he had put so much effort into reassuring me by telling me things he didn't believe (he seemed to think he should get positive credit for this, completely oblivious to the patronising contempt his behaviour had demonstrated) was helpful. Another exchange, which finally destroyed the lingering image in my mind of the person I had thought he was and, with which I was still ‘arguing with’ in my head, helped further.

But, by that stage, it had become just another piece in the puzzle. Emails from two of my aunts about my late father’s insecurities (I had never thought of him as an insecure man, blindingly obvious though it was once pointed out) helped enormously too. As did writing a private memoir of my upbringing – and it was very reassuring when my brother said of it “agree with every word”. (There were admirable things about my parents and the upbringing they gave their two sons, but there were poisoned chalices as well. Of course, they also had a few of their own to suffer.)

It is surprising how easy it is to be a stranger to one’s own emotions, both their real nature and their causes. Murray speaks of using the weapon of poetry to get at what was cross-wired in his head, what was making him crazy, and digging it out, which he eventually did, particularly in a poem called Burning Wand.

And that is the thing about these deep, buried propositions in our head, the whispering traitors of the mind. They are ‘cross-wirings’ which wither far more easily under exposure. For then either their falsity can be exposed, or the falsity of our response to them can become obvious. But such falseness cannot be exposed, embraced, wielded until the light of reason and understanding is shone on them. While they remain hidden, buried within, they continue to work their poison, powerful because they are unseen and unchallenged: potent demons in the dark, but at their most potent only in the dark.

Such things can not only cause depression: the number of foolish or other aberrant acts which are the result of such hidden traitors is surely legion. They can manifest in all sorts of ways and from all sorts of causes – for example, a work environment replicating undealt with and unrecognised pathologies of one’s upbringing.

Then there are the ways we misread our own emotions. Ignorance of the real problem can lead the causes of our feelings to be completely misinterpreted. The ways our hidden traitors can hide and mislead are also legion.

Once you are no longer at war with yourself, life becomes much better, much happier. The constant need for outside reassurance—via sex, drugs, drink, words of reassurance, comfort eating or whatever—to fight off the enemy within dwindles away. And it is a war, a war with real casualties, and it can be deadly. Suicide (either overt and sudden, or covert via a slow ruining through destructive, escaping pleasures, or simply taking one risk too many) is the chief killer. Sexuality is a prime battleground, since it about identity and deep desires and, in our culture, is so often so poorly dealt with. Adolescence is bad enough in simply coping with becoming a sexual being, without the added burden of being the so-called wrong sort of sexual being, either in appearance or interests or clumsiness or whatever.

The suicide rate among young gay males is very high, for example. And the inner demons of the sexually unhappy can find so many ways to feed through self-punishment, of which falling in love with the unattainable – the fat boy with the class beauty, the geeky girl with the football captain, the gay man with the straight guy – is only one. Fulfilling healthy sexual desires require somebody else’s cooperation, and there was so many ways for things to go wrong, or to not happen. (And if our own emotions can be hidden or unclear to us, how much more so can someone else’s be: as all those emotionally poleaxed men whose wives announce it is over when they did not even notice anything was wrong can testify.) When you are at war with yourself, when the inner self is wounded, it is so easy to internalise and accept the judgements (real or apparent) of others — a problem naturally worse when the self does yet have the strength of maturity.

But all these things can be dealt with. And believing in your own strength is a great way to find it (just as believing in your own weakness is a great way to find that too). Not asserting oneself, endlessly putting up with things, easily makes you a co-conspirator in your own demoralisation.

As philosopher David Hume wrote, reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. Yet, the passions themselves are subject to the work of reason. Resolution of emotion is not the same as indulgence. In the light of reason, things can be put in their proper place, adjustments can be made, matters can be looked at differently. Meaning and value come out of our minds, both individually and collectively, and so the mind can deal with such matters, when it knows what it is dealing with.

The thing with depression is to hold on to the thought that this too shall pass, and it is a battle one can fight and win. And the victory is so very much worth having. ...

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