We all have what I call “gray days” and the one I had today had been brewing for a while. Its reasons are myriad and all surmountable. They range from the every-day mundane to past grief, to current matters of the heart and the general stress of being a responsible member of society.
I used to fight back whenever the depression hit and though my method for dealing with it now might not suit everyone, it works just fine for me.
We all have outlets when we feel down. Some are creative, others destructive of self or others. In the past I would go play the drums or read or go for a walk. However those activities never completely addressed the symptoms. If anything they worked like a Band-Aid until finally the pent-up emotion spilled over into other parts of my life and often with negative consequences.
The problem (for want of better word) with feeling depressed or down is that our perception of depression ignores both its simplicity and its complexity.
How and why the two opposing traits you might ask?
For starters, the simple fact is that depression is a perfectly normal aspect of being human. It is a response to a stimulus. Sometimes that stimulus is a happy one, sometimes it’s negative.
For example during the years I spent in unsigned bands trying to become a professional drummer, I craved the rush of playing on stage. I’d feel great during and after the performance: Euphoric. Then a few days after playing a gig, I’d feel sad and worthless.
According to psychiatrists, that phenomenon is common among performing artists. Performing on stage elevates serotonin levels in the brain and stimulates the production of a raft of other chemicals that make us feel good. However what goes up must come down. Our physiology is constantly seeking balance. The euphoria of performing in front of a live audience is a chemical imbalance though it’s nice while it lasts. The depression that comes afterward is the body’s way of rebalancing its chemistry. In short, the downer is a normal reaction to feeling good.
If the individual performer doesn’t recognize these symptoms for what they are the result can be self-destructive behaviours. Like Ian Drury sang “Sex, drugs and rock and roll is all I need.” The problem –at least with the drugs- is that too much will kill you. And as Steve Tyler so astutely remarked “Sex drugs and rock and roll: take out the drugs and you have more time for the other two.”
There are negative and complex stimuli that cause depression, ranging from the regular bad day at work to the death of a loved one. The last is something that nobody ever really recovers from. Put into context depression is normal. Once depression is accepted for what it is, then it becomes manageable.
Our managerial society exists in a state of denial regarding death and of most human emotions with the possible exceptions of greed and disgust. Depression is treated as an aberration instead of a justifiable reaction to real stimuli. Being incapable of admitting error, our managerial society would rather manage symptoms and blame the depressed rather than admit that there are many unnecessary and unhealthy aspects to modern living. But that’s not the focus of this essay.
The complexity of depression lies both in its cause and the way that we approach the phenomenon. The problem I had (and still have) whenever I feel down is that I want to do something about it. However, not every problem can be addressed through action or reaction. Sometimes, like a cold or flu, depression simply needs to run its course. The crux of the matter is that when it comes to being depressed – being sad isn’t a problem. It’s part of being human. The “problem” arises when that sadness lingers. Medication is an option, but in a lot of cases it needn’t always be the first response.
Sixteen years ago when I was still in university I sat in on a friend’s pharmacy lecture. The professor, whose name I soon forgot made a lasting impression. He described how medicine is intended as an acute treatment: An immediate means of bringing symptoms under control so that the underlying issue can be resolved. He used the example of a car-crash victim being given an anesthetic in order that surgeons could better operate on the victim’s injuries. He also discussed the use of anti-depressant medications as an acute treatment for a patient likely to harm themselves as a result of depression. He was critical of the abuse of prescription anti-depressants as an alternative to cognitive therapy arguing that too often anti-depressants are used by state and health officials as a cheap option rather than providing effective counselling and care for patients.
The lecturer must have used the word “acute” a hundred times during the lesson but the gist of his argument was that medications should only be used for short prescribed periods and that medicines alone are not long term cures or even adequate long-term treatments.
There are people who require anti-depressants due to existing physiological imbalances in the brain that cannot be helped. There is no stigma attached nor should there be any stigma associated with any aspect of mental health. In those cases, the use of medication is justified since it is addressing an acute problem.
However in the case of my “gray days” I’ve learned to carry out my own kind of cognitive therapy. When I feel down, I allow myself to feel down and then to ride it out. I float inside my depression and surrender to it like a man floating in a shallow swimming pool and looking up at the blue sky and fluffy clouds above. Eventually, as with the swimmer in the pool, I reach the edge of the depression. Then I stand up, shake off the water and get back to living my life.
When I feel down, I also tend to feel apathetic and then I feel guilty for feeling apathetic. Since I find it impossible to switch off my brain I seek ways to do as little as possible while still engaging my intellect, albeit for non-productive purposes. That’s where videogames come in. Retreating into the virtual world of a first person shooter, or a good strategy game is for me a great way to recharge my creative and analytical brain and lance the boil of depression. Usually after a few hours I’m ready to rejoin the real world and get back to normal.
Obviously that approach doesn’t address the underlying reasons why I felt down today. But after acknowledging the problem and allowing the depression to subside on my own terms, I feel able to address those reasons. Ultimately all my “gray days” are a means of re-balancing mind and body after a period of activity, excitement or distress.
Now I’m recharged again. Come at me world! I’m ready!