Depression Thunderbolts

Doodle

Depression can hit you like a thunderbolt out of the blue sunny sky. Literally. But first, to explain, I need to discuss the weather with you.

A Weather Report

This was one of the strangest winters I can remember, and not because of the snow or the ice. For where I live, in the Netherlands, there was no snow or ice this year. There was no winter. Warmth records have been broken. This winter, Dutch skaters got no natural ice to practice on: we had no frost. Not one single day. And so we had no real snow either, none at all. One or two days with a few wet melting flakes. That was it.

    The weird winter was like a spring, and it seamlessly continued into a weird spring. A month ago, halfway February when there might have been snow and frost, I already had flowers in my garden. Right now, halfway March, the garden is blooming like it’s May. Honeybees are already buzzing from yellow to blue to red flowers. My neighbors’ cherry tree is already in pink blossom.

Another Doodle

I do know that some Americans did get a winter, so this warming was not global. But over here, it was so warm it felt absolutely unnatural.

Depression Striking

In view of this warm spring weather a few days ago I left my coat at home. I found myself walking the dike alongside a morass where wild geese have already installed themselves. A gentle warm breeze was caressing me in the sunlight under a metallic blue sky, when suddenly a Thunderbolt of Depression Hit Me.

This depression struck me in the form of one simple thought:

“I don’t want to live through yet another summer again.”

I had already nodded to myself in agreement before I was aware that this was Depression talking to me. Depression thinking for me. Depression feeling what I apparently felt: sunshine and all, go ♦♦♦♦.

And Yet Another Doodle

Here I stood at the slope that can set the Avalanche Mechanism of Depression in motion: I don’t care for the next week I don’t care for the next season I don’t care for next year I don’t care for the rest of my life. Because according to my depression, it’s all the same ♦♦♦♦.

Lines of Defense

Maybe you notice that with the words “according to my depression” I try to put some distance between myself and my depression. This is the first line of defense in situations of acute danger: making clear to yourself that you hear your depression talking, but that this depression is not yet quite the same as yourself.

    The second line of defense is to force yourself to stop listening to what your depression is trying to tell you. This can be achieved (most of the times) by completely concentrating on some trivial object in your direct environment. The space this fills in your head, cannot be filled by depression.

    So, are there some yellow flowers in the grass? Start counting how many of them you see. Drop to your knees and start counting petals, to check if they all have the same number. Do not just smell the scent of the grass, but try to figure out a descriptive name for that smell.

One More Doodle

So far so good. Back home, I tried to analyze why this happened. This is the third line of defense: ask yourself why your thoughts slided down into the depression realm. Try to understand the mechanism, so you can see it coming the next time.

Analysis

Looking back, I think this time it was the warm weather that triggered it. I think this warm weather had taken something away: the expectation of things being different soon.

    Because things already looked and felt like summer, I must have felt I had no summer left to look forward to. Instead, I had been triggered into a feeling that nothing would really change anymore for a long time.

    This idea that the future will hold few surprises (or none at all) is a typical depression feeling. It leaves no room for other surprises than the feared depression thunderbolt itself.

    But of course, this idea is wrong. It’s a feeling that has no roots in reality, in this ever-changing world all around us. All we need to do from time to time, is to venture a few steps into this world and look instead of allowing ourselves to be blinded.

Change

Since yesterday, over here the weather has changed. I still spotted one honeybee bravely going from flower to flower, ignoring the wind, but it’s really overcast now and cold enough for us humans to warrant a coat. I cannot say I dislike this weather for now, even though it’s less than ideal. It’s a change, and this brings the promise that more change will follow.

    People sometimes tell you that change just for the change is bad. Maybe occasionally that’s true, but as a rule I disagree. Change is often a sign of life. Change is good.

Last Doodle For Now

And now you must excuse me, for I’m going to move that heavy old bookcase to another wall in my room. If I’m happy with the result, or happy with at least having tried it, this change may also help me to ward off the next depression thunderbolt.

    I’m sorry if you feel this post is so excessively optimistic that it only worsens your motionless, immovable, unchangeable depression. Well, let me tell you, of course I’ve not become immune to thunderbolts Believe me, we’re all in this together.

Music

For some reason, the song Necromancer by Soltero comes to my mind now, where they sing the lines:

everyone thinks that we’re okay
because they don’t hear what we don’t say
we found a saint that doesn’t care
and every footstep is a prayer

Soltero (album cover)



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 tip: Think of something you could easily change. And then, even if you don’t know yet if it’s a change for the better, just try to do it.

• footnote: Necromancer is a song from Soltero’s 2008 album You’re No Dream. Here is a link to Soltero’s Bandcamp site where you can get (well, buy) all their great albums.

• note: Sorry for all those doodles this time. The last few days I was so busy counting petals and stacking books that I forgot to take photos.


What Are You?

Doodle

What is your main identity? And would it be wise to try and shift or change your identity a little? In order to tackle these questions, first we need to be clear about what we mean with the word “identity”.

    We could complicate this by making a difference between your “self” (how you see yourself, privately) and your “identity” (how you present yourself to others, publicly). But let’s forget that kind of nuances here: for most of us, your private “self” and your public “identity” will largely overlap anyway – unless you’re a kind of actor or a con artist, that is.

Identity

What is my identity?So let us keep this simple. If I surprise you with the question “What are you?” and you give me a honest and spontaneous answer, then your answer will be a brief indication of your main identity.

    For example, suppose you answer “I’m a happily married economist with two children” then I will assume this is your main identity, the core of it. In this example, it is about relationship (happily married), profession (economist), and parenthood (with two children).

    Of course we can have many secondary elements in our identity too, part time identities so to speak, like being secretary of the local hockey club. Together, your main identity and such other elements form your more-or-less complete identity. By and large, this is how you see yourself and how others see you.

Depression and Identity

Any long term illness will have the nasty effect of changing your identity, and usually in a negative way. If the economist from my example gets a chronic heart condition or severe diabetes, he may not be able to work anymore, being forced to concentrate on coping with his illness. His core identity may shift to something like “I’m a former economist with a heart condition.”

What is my identity?Chronic, long-term depression does the same kind of thing to us. Only worse, because depression (like any form of mental illness) has a strong negative stigma. Put bluntly, depression makes you think very negative about yourself, which in turn makes you even more depressed: a downward spiral.

    In the end, depression can overgrow most of your former identity until it is so bad you can only blurt out “I’m a depression patient.” At that point, depression has become your main identity.

And this, in turn, can only worsen the downward spiral.

    This downward spiral is a common effect: it was confirmed by three psychologists (Yanos, Roe and Lysaker) in a 2010 research article The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness. In their summary they say:

“We propose that accepting a definition of oneself as mentally ill and assuming that mental illness means incompetence and inadequacy impact hope and self-esteem, which further impact suicide risk, coping, social interaction, vocational functioning, and symptom severity. Evidence supports most of the predictions made by the model.”

What To Do

So if we have been a depression patient for a long time, we should (as part of an overall recovery strategy) clearly recognize that depression may have eaten away parts of our former healthy identity; and we should try to somehow recover a few parts of our former healthy identity.

What is my identity?    Exactly how to do this will depend from many factors such as your situation, your former identity, the type and phase of your depression. This makes it a little difficult to outline one general strategy that will work for everyone. But let me stress three general points.

    1. Once it has become clear to yourself that your present main identity has degenerated into “I’m a depression patient”, try to recall – however painful this may be – exactly what your full positive identity used to be back in happier times.
    Try to chart your former identity as complete as possible: list the main elements (such as relation, occupation or an all-important hobby) and also the secondary elements (things like a club membership, a movie-watching habit, whatever).

    2. Convince yourself of one simple truth: the fact that you have depression does not mean that you are depression. Being a depression patient is just a part of you. It has not completely filled the rest of your identity, but rather it has left the rest of it empty and barren.
    That empty part of your present identity can (and should) be filled with something positive again.

    3. Be realistic. Fully restoring your former identity may be impossible: perhaps main elements such as your former relationship or job simply do not even exist anymore.
    So what you should try to do is single out one or two identity elements, main or secondary, that to some extent might be restorable. Like taking up an old hobby again. Try to think of something you could actually do to gain back just a little of your former identity.

My Own Example

Please allow me to do something I don’t do often here: using my own situation as an example.

    10 years ago, I was hospitalized for severe and long-term depression. In the couple of years that followed, with electroshock treatments and all, much of my former identity was destroyed. Both the marriage I had in happier times, and the university job I had (teaching, writing books, doing historical research) did not survive those years of horror. These main parts of my identity have gone forever.

What is my identity?Being a depression patient has become an undeniable part of my identity. Luckily I’m doing much better now than 10 years ago, though I have periodic lapses and still need medication. In this situation I’ve come to realize that being a depression patient should not become the only part of my identity. I realized that it would be better for myself, and also help to curb downward spirals, to fill in some empty, desolate, long-neglected parts of my identity again.

    May I use a metaphor? See your identity as a house. Once, long ago, you lived in all the rooms of this house, using it all from cellar to attic. Long-term depression makes you live in the narrow space of the kitchen, permanently. You never set foot in any of the other rooms anymore. While you’re trying to survive in your depression kitchen, the rest of the house gets dusty and empty, falls into disrepair. Depression makes you think, wrongly, that the depression-kitchen is all that’s left of your identity-house. But is it?

    In my case, the practical solution was to open a door to one of the other rooms: to see if I could recover a little of the “I’m a historian” element that used to be part of my former main identity. I cannot restore it full-time and not professionally anymore, but will take it more like a hobby. A hobby that (I hope) will prevent me from permanently reducing myself solely to “I’m a depression patient”.

    This, in short, is the reason why last month I’ve been busy with kickstarting a new, second blog that is primarily about history of mental health. Not exclusively focusing on depression anymore, like I will keep doing here. I will now also be trying to regain a little bit of my former “I’m a historian” focus and identity.

And You?

Of course your own situation, background and depression troubles can be completely different from mine. But I am fairly sure that each of us can find a long-neglected identity element, one that can be rebooted in such a way that depression will no longer the single element dominating your identity. I am sure you can find something that will shift your identity from “I’m a depression patient” towards “I’m a depression patient, but I also try to ……………

What is my identity?    First chart your former full identity, as suggested above, and then pick one element from that list that might be restorable, albeit to a limited extent (and of course with some effort).

    Re-extending your identity will not diminish your depression right away, and will certainly not cure it by itself. But that re-opened door can feel like a small kind of liberation: even if it’s only ajar, it can bring you a breath of fresh air.

    At the very least, re-extending your identity (even if only for a little bit) will halt the ever more negative downward spiral into a purely negative self-image.

    What more can I say? First be aware of your present identity as a depression patient, and then think about reclaiming a little of your former identity. Give it a try. It will give you some satisfaction even it doesn’t work out as you hoped: the satisfaction of having tried.


 tip: Instead of just defining yourself as “I’m a depression patient”, begin to define yourself as “I’m a depression patient, but I am also a …………..” (fill in some part of your former identity)

• footnote: Did you guess the identities of the faceless people in this post?

From top to bottom:

1. “I’m a physicist and I like jokes” (Albert Einstein)
2. “I’m a movie star and I love to be loved” (Marilyn Monroe)
3. “I’m a rocker and deep down I’m really sweet” (Elvis Presley)
4. “I’m a charity nun and a good fundraiser” (Mother Teresa)
5. Here I cheated. This is one you just cannot know.


Being Baby

Doodle

There is one particular kind of depression that can make us feel like a crying helpless baby. Is this strange? Not at all: for deep down, we all still are the very same baby as when we were born.

    We cannot remember the details of our birth. At that time, our baby brain had not yet learned to label and store exact impressions and archive them as recollections. And maybe it’s a good thing we forgot most of it: because for each of us, being born was a highly traumatic experience. And though we do not exactly remember it, associative traces of that shocking experience still linger deep down inside our mind.

    Since the beginning of time – an eternity – you had been floating around peacefully in paradise: in the safe, warm, smoothly fluid sea of the womb. Light was a muted reddish glow; sound was the steady, restful, motherly heartbeat all around; movement was a caressing drift of the waves; being awake was not yet different from dreaming. You were not alone, you were connected, you were a natural part of it all. There was no other universe.

In the WombAnd then, suddenly, without warning, a violent storm began to rock and shake the waters and you were pushed out. Out into a different world, into some place that was Hell.

    There suddenly was awfully harsh Light, white and blue and yellow, everywhere, so bright that it pierced right through your closed eyelids. And for the first time in your life you felt Cold, a shivering coldness so cruelly freezing your wet skin that it made you gasp, gasp for what? cold air. Air, empty air.

    For the first time in your life you felt Heavy: a nauseating heaviness pressing your backside down into something harsh, something itchy, something weirdly dry. And also for the first time in your life, you were overwhelmed by intense Fear: was some terrible monster holding you down?

    And then all those Sounds! That terrible noise! Creaking and scraping and rasping and grumbling and high-pitched whatever-it-was, a never-ending bombardment of incredibly loud sounds that kept cutting straight into your head causing a feeling of yes, there it was, something horrible you had felt never before: Pain. It made you gasp the cold air again. More pain.

Entering Into the WorldYou started to cry. And your own crying proved even more strange and hurting and painful and loud. And after some gasps it made you feel another first: Exhaustion (later to be followed by the equally new sensations of Hunger and Thirst).

    And above all, you had a yet unnamed, shapeless, but incredibly sad feeling of Loss: a feeling of wanting to go back, back, back to the safe warm world that you came from. Wanting to stop the cold and the glare and the noise and the heaviness.

    Now if you were a lucky baby, then in the next days your mother’s warm arms and breast would begin to give you some comfort, a little wetness reminiscent of the taste of your lost world, a little faraway echo of that same heartbeat you were used to be part of, a little softness, a temporary hint of safety, a voice you vaguely recognized from before.

Mother and BabyYou slowly came to trust the smell and warmth and sound of your mother, but still the world around you remained cruel and harsh. Your mother knew; she cuddled you and perhaps softly sang some lullaby. Sleep came to envelop you in a blanket of numbness and quiet: it made you dream of yesterday’s womb world, it made you almost float away like you had always done before. Sleeping was the best thing you could do.

    Still, in the first weeks of your life, every awakening came like a crude and terrible shock: a little bit like being born over and over again. It took some time before you came to understand and expect that your mother, your only tie with the Paradise Lost, was near and would hold you close again in her comforting arms.

The Onion

Well, this same horrified and traumatized baby still lives on, deep inside our mental core. It’s still there, though it’s kept silent and withdrawn now for most of the time. It’s been covered by other, more adequate, more self-supporting, more aware layers of Self. In a way, we develop like onions: growing new layers that cover the old. Our shrieking baby core was gradually covered by a childhood layer; that layer was enveloped in an adolescence layer, over that came a layer of adulthood.

    All these layers remain a part of our personality, but the inner layers are now left hidden and dormant for most of the time. This goes for the part of us that is still a child, and even more for the original core part of us that forever will remain a newborn baby. Here is a picture to visualize this onion structure of our personality:

Being an OnionUnfortunately there is a kind of depression – I like the term Regressive Depression – that roughly tears away all outer layers of our onion-shaped personality and reduces us to our original newborn baby again: reviving all the original panic, disorientation, helplessness from the traumatic hours just after birth.

    This kind of depression comes with exactly the same kind of sensory overload we experienced as a newborn baby. All light becomes a glare that hurts the eyes: we’d like to close the curtains or pull a blanket over our head. All sounds become a meaningless, painfully shrieking bomber attack on our mind: we’d like to cover our ears. We sweat and shiver at the same time, drop down on a sofa or bed, unable to stand on our feet anymore.

    Worst of all, we feel we cannot stand this cruel meaningless shrieking glaring empty world around us anymore. We want to get out of it, back into yes, maybe back into that same warm soft womb that once enveloped us. Or else, well, we’d rather die than endure this horrible chaotic loud world any longer, this thing we never asked for.

    We can feel so desperately helpless and lost that we even half-consciously start to cry for our mother, a mother who may have gone long ago: being thrown back into our primitive babyhood core, we desperately long for our mother’s arms, breast, voice, warmth to protect us against the unbearable onslaught of this after-birth world.

The Remedy

Such a wave of Regressive Depression can have different causes; please let me save that for some other time. Of course for a long-term counter-strategy you need to address a structural cause. But more important now is the question: when under acute attack of this kind of depression, what is the best short-term remedy?

    Maybe you’re going to laugh at me now for my gross simplicity, or maybe you’re going to accuse me of escapism, but my conviction here is indeed simple. When this kind of depression temporarily reduces you to a kind of powerless baby, then the best-working solution will be the very same solution that worked when you actually were this powerless baby. A solution that temporarily shields you from the devastating world. Lacking the loving care of a mother, there’s only one solution left, baby: go to sleep.

SleepThe immediate problem is of course that the same panic that you’d like to drive away with a smothering dose of sleep, can often prevent you from falling asleep in the first place. This is why some psychiatrists will prescribe a combination of an antidepressant with a sleep-inducing tranquilizer (even though such a combination is not always harmless). Alternatively, this is why some patients will take a stiff drink (even though alcohol in such a situation is not harmless, either).

    Personally I want to recommend something else: try to simulate the one other factor that helped you to survive the difficult days after birth. Yes. Your mother. Maybe you have a friend close enough to lie down beside you in bed for a while, so his-or-her arms can serve as stand-in for your mother’s arms enveloping you. Listening to some kind of soft lullaby song can also be a great way to simulate a soothing mother’s presence.

    More in general, I do know that some of us like music that induces sleep by a slow steady rhythm that somehow evokes an unconscious association with the time when we floated around in the womb. To go a step further, you could even try one of those commercial CDs with actual womb sounds. These are meant for letting babies fall asleep, but they seem to work for many adults just as well. I don’t like to endorse commercial firms, but for a random example of such a “Womb Sound CD”, see here.

Sleeping with Teddy    Even more generally, everything that produces positive early childhood associations, and the accompanying feeling of safety, can help. If you want to know how childish I am myself (yes it’s part of my onion core) let me tell you that I know that once I’ve fled into my bed, feeling ravaged by a wave of Regressive Depression, firmly clutching an old teddy bear can be much more helpful than one would rationally expect.

Awakening

So you’ve fallen asleep. When you awake after a few hours, in some cases your horrible wave of Regressive Depression will have gone. At least it will now be less strong and sharp, that much I can assure you.

    The important thing now is to focus on the more mature parts of your personality: the outer layers of the onion. Revive them so you don’t remain stuck in your baby core: get up and try to do something simple. Make coffee. Phone a friend. Read your tweets. Life, normal life, will to some degree return to you.

    Of course it cannot harm to talk with your psychiatrist or a good friend about your frightening Baby Experience. Talking about such an attack of Regressive Depression can help you to get a little more insight. For example, did something happen that day that triggered it? And if this same horrible experience keeps coming back to you frequently, then you should certainly try to get some professional help.

A Lullaby

Enough for now. I want to leave you with the comforting sounds of a truly sweet but at the same time not too-childish lullaby.

    It’s Ninna Nanna, the unexpectedly gentle conclusion of the rocking 1993 album X Forza e X Amore by Italian singer Gianna Nannini (see more about her in the footnotes below).

    This song (possibly inspired by Brahms) works great as a lullaby for several reasons, one of them being that it’s in Italian. Since most of us don’t understand Italian, this perfectly replicates how we as a baby heard our mother singing to us: hearing a voice, sounds, but not yet understanding any of the words. Though maybe you can guess that Gianna’s repeated “dormi, dormi” means “sleep, sleep”.

    Normally I’m not very fond of songs that fade out, but here that works great too: it suggests how the singing voice will fade away into the foggy onset of sleep. OK, here she is.

Gianna Nannini


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 some footnotes:
 
1. Isobella Beeton (1836-1865, often wrongly referred to as Isabella) was a well-known Victorian writer about “household management”. She was a great cook; her tragically short life left us with a lot of recipes.
    She certainly knew all about onions. But my diagram picture above, I admit, is a playful fake.

2. Gianna Nannini is an Italian singer and songwriter, active since 1976, who produced and still produces many many wonderful albums with many many superb songs, ranging from aggressively screaming rock to contemplative.
    I love her because she dares to be overtly melodramatic and melodious in an almost-but-not-quite kitschy way: an expressive kind of style that would be possible nowhere else than in Italy. It’s a shame that outside Europe, so few people know about her.
    Here is a link to her official Gianna Nannini website (in Italian, the English version is less complete).

3. If because of this post you want to pin me down as a neo-Freudian, so be it. I am not dogmatic at all, and I am also aware that Freud, constantly trying to assert himself, did write a lot of pompous unscientific nonsense. We live in different times now.
    But I will always keep loving him as a pioneer who pointed out a few essential truths that helped many people to get to understand themselves a little better.


Introducing 2014

Doodle

There are two big mistakes that we (I mean the depressed) tend to make on the threshold of a new year.

The first mistake: looking back and reflecting too much on the miseries, failures, bleak moments and near-suicidal moments of the past unhappy year. Thoughts like “Another Year I Wasted” are not really helpful. Right now, maybe it’s better to not weigh and evaluate what already belongs to the past. New Year’s Eve is just not the best moment to attempt a cruel, shattering self-analysis. It’s better if (for example) you try to step outside and look at the midnight fireworks, even if you don’t really like the bangs. Just concentrate on some thing in the Here and Now.

Fireworks(image by aeroart at abstractatus.com)

The second mistake: looking upon the new year as some huge steep dark mountain that threateningly and insuperably towers in front of us. Thoughts like “Oh my God, how will I ever get through another year of this” may be hard to avoid, but such thoughts really are not helpful either. Try to focus not on the whole massive year in front of you: focusing on what you are going to do the next couple of days will be much more productive.

    Of course there’s also a third New Year mistake: a fairly common one that we share with many healthy not-depressed people. It’s committing ourselves to Too-Good Intentions: resolutions that are too ambitious, too inflated, too difficult to actually keep. In the first weeks of January, there will always be people feeling miserable, even hating themselves, because they failed to live up to their own over-optimistic goals. Don’t be one of them. If you must start the year with some kind of self-improving resolution, great but do pick a modest one that is within reach.

Happy, um…

    Evidently we cannot ignore the fact that the beginning of a new year is some kind of symbolic milestone. Maybe, if people near us are throwing some kind of New Year party, it’s an idea to just for a few moments, you know? All I wanted to say with this post is, don’t make more fuss of the whole thing than you can bear.

    I’m not feeling particularly well at the moment; I fear I’ve already been making mistakes One and Two myself (I often stupidly ignore my own sensible warnings). So, enough of this now. You are entitled to the customary StayOnTop New Year Card. I hope you don’t mind that for once, I could do no better than this:

Let Me Wish You A Somewhat Less Unhappy New Year

You’re welcome. But maybe rather than my lame though I assure you very well-meant wishes, what you really need is a beautiful and at the same time not over-optimistic song. So here is the wonderful New York band Palomar with The Planeiac from their 2004 album Palomar III: The Revenge of Palomar.

Palomar


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Christmas Giveaway

Christmas is looming up close and personal again. It will be warmer than ever, but I bet thou art shivering nonetheless. Rejoice! I now can bestow a splendid, even splendidious gift onto thee all!

    Maybe you’re ridden by feelings of guilt because your nasty depression will be spoiling both other people’s fun and your own? Well, first listen for a moment to English antifolk singer Uke Stanza (better known as poet Colin Shaddick) expressing his feelings of Guilt! And as if that’s not enough, then hear him asking this very same philosophical question that is bothering us all, in his song The Very Thin Line – the line between sanity and madness.

    A few years ago, Uke (here’s a link to his inclusifolk website) made his hilariously moving double album Pheasants Will Cross The Road / The Very Thin Line. And best of all, he’s giving it to you for freeeeee! You can download the full album (or listen to all 20 songs) from the Free Music Archive!

    To quell your Christmas guilt and insanity, here he is: first with his unforgettable Guilty, and then crossing The Very Thin Line.

Uke Stanza


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For the rest, isn’t Christmas the same every year? So I can do no better for you now than to repeat the same poetic reflexions I came to write down a few years ago:

The Christmas Rant

    If for you Christmas is the highlight of the year, if this is the event that you have been looking forward to since January, if this is the one uplifting occasion that makes you spontaneously join in singing carolish carnival songs, if this is just the inducement you needed to finally decorate your entire home up to the cat’s litter in a bright, sparkling, highly tasteful manner, if you’ve waited all year for an excuse to put a high-grade ivy-green noninflammable Tannenbaum right in your living quarters and spray it with ingeniously realistic and heat-resistant artificial snow, if this is the one blessed gift-packed childhood re-enactment that never fails to bring tears of priceless pure emotion to your eyes, if you have been in your cuisine for days-on-end in order to prepare for the entire family clan including great great-aunt Gretel your unforgettable once-a-year boeuf-bourguignon on its once-a-year silver platter embellished with just a few carefully-chosen holly-leaves, if this to you is a wonderful heaven-sent opportunity to light your grandiosely set table for once not with harsh and cruel electroglare but with romantically-flickering real flames of almost-real-beeswax candles adorned with almost-real little golddust stars, if you love to crouch-on-couch side by side with your most loved loved ones to indulge for the sixtieth time in the compelling sweet technicolor sound of Sound of Music –  

    In short, if this is the unique shared festivity that by its genuine natural beauty and merriness for a few felicitous days makes you completely forget the nightmare of your life, then let me wish you nothing. You already have all that could ever be wished for. And you deserve it!

    If on the other hand you belong to that small, sad, sorry, depressingly depressed minority of miserable outcasts who by some incomprehensible mental defect are left insanely insanta, who due to some hereditary or infectious illness of the mind are rendered tragically incapable to join or even grasp this heart-felt happiness, if you belong to those who cannot even muster the basic human decency to value and respectfully enjoy this most essential, rich, harmonious and satisfying of mankind’s deeply-rooted edifying social and cultural traditions, if you not only shun this gratifying example of elementary social obligations but even have the chutzpah to claim publicly that the whole brilliant endearingly genial conceptual concept of Father Citschmas does bore or mystify or depress or frighten or repel you, if by openly confessing such near-terrorist views you dare to put yourself beyond the outer fringes of civilized humanity, yes outside the moral confines of our entire festively twinkling globe and galaxy and universe itself –  

    In short, if you are unable or unwilling to indulge in this annual party of peace, goodwill and esthetical satisfaction, then to our regret we can not wish or promise you happy holidays this time of the year. You are doomed, and you know it. As a fitting punishment, your disgustingly sick, distorted, negative, party-spoiling, lonely, asocial mind will be haunted for eternity by the same cruel, nightmarish, awful, garish, horrible, atrocious, tasteless images that already roam your pathetic woeful head anyway:

Christmas Card

Seriously now. If you happen to be one of the people who have a problem with Christmas, you are not the only one. You may feel alone, but in this respect you are not alone. If you find this particular time of the year extra depressing, your feelings are not unique. You really don’t have to feel guilty or inferior for not enjoying the party.


• tip: Don’t blame or pity yourself.


When Words Don’t Help

Doodle

(Yes a long read, meaning that at the
bottom, a winged reward awaits you)

Depression is not something we can cure with just a few cheerful words. People who think they can, are just as simplistic as someone who wants to cure a high fever by telling you to cool down.

Smilies

Smilies? In my book, smilies are all those people who really think they can help you with a little cheap pep talk. Each one of us has encountered them. To quote myself:

A SmilieThey are nice people: sometimes even good friends. They certainly have the best intentions. But when confronted with your serious state of depression, they simply do not know what to say or what to do. So they hide their uneasiness (or even panic) behind a wide encouraging smile, and they start saying supposedly-helpful things. “You’ll see, tomorrow you’ll feel better again” or “You’ll be alright, just believe me” or “It’s not all as bad as you think, really” and so on.
 
    The problem is that smilies don’t seem to understand the effect of their own vapid pep talk. Their smile and their words make things only worse. [...] To you, their smilie attitude shows that they don’t grasp your actual feelings, or worse, that they don’t take your feelings seriously. In your depressed perception, all they prove is that they are indeed some kind of aliens from Mars.

(quote from my 2010 Smilie post)

    For a collection of typical smilie platitudes, see this list at the Wing of Madness depression blog: The 99 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed. It’s a list that has been circulating online since 1995, but it might still be a good idea to hand this one out to some of our friends.

    One of the problems we (the depressed) keep running into is that so many well-meaning depression websites show the same naive approach and the same adverse effect. Those are the sites that mostly try to cheer you up with empty words, that keep throwing hollow “inspirational” phrases in your face, phrases that will only make you feel more lost and misunderstood.

    I’ve once seen a webpage about depression that gave as #1 advice, seriously, “Be Happy”. No wonder someone added the comment “Gee, what a good idea! How stupid of me I never thought of that!”

    With my own blog here I’ve always tried to give simple, unpretentious, rational tips and opinions: I certainly don’t want to become one of those lofty but unrealistic smilies myself.

    So you thought the doodle in StayOnTop’s blue top banner was meant to represent my mission here? Well to some extent it does, but just as often you can rather take it as a picture of my situation – one that we, the depressed, frequently find ourselves in:

The Doodle ExplainedAnd in fact the problem goes beyond words. My post three years ago had a tip for well-meaning smilies: I told them “one hug may be better than a thousand words”.

    I still think that basically this holds true. But I also fear that there can be situations (really bad depressions, that is) where even a warm cuddling hug may drop on cold barren earth and will not help – or even have the wrong effect. If only because you’re not yet ready for it. After all, when you’re still deeply depressed, you probably feel you don’t deserve that hug

The Communication Gap

Many people don’t fully realize how we, the depressed, sometimes are lost and locked in a frightening dark universe far away from all helpers, friends, comforters, smilies, therapists even. Their world is not always ours. Frequently, we live in different worlds.

    Psychotherapists of course do know this already. That’s why some of them will start a new therapy with a few sessions full of seemingly trivial idle talk, while you as a client sit impatiently waiting for them to get to the point.

    Such chitchat is not just meant to put you it ease. It is a kind of preliminary exploration, a reconnaissance mission from a safe distance. It can help therapists to decide where and how to make a bridge between their own analytic, sensible universe and the dark, cold universe that you are locked in.

    And even when therapists manage to build such a bridge (to get closer to you and to eventually draw you closer again towards the world of the living) this bridge remains shaky and frightening. At times it’s almost breaking but it must be crossed somehow. A bit like the frayed rope bridges that Indiana Jones always encounters when on the run.

Rope BridgeThe fragility of such a bridge between the two worlds is one of the main reasons why even successful psychotherapy so often will take a long, looooooooong time. For any single step on that wobbling bridge can feel like a breathtaking risk.

    Maybe this also explains why the exhortations by smilies often feel more infuriating than helpful? You, in the clutches of your depression, stand completely frozen in front of that rope bridge. And from the other side a smilie yells at you: “Come on now, what are you waiting for? Really, the ravine is not as deep as it looks!”

Would that help?

    When I think about this, I must conclude that the problem with smilies is not just their lack of empathy or experience. Yes, they don’t quite understand how depression is a different, terrible world. But there’s a secondary problem with them as well: often, they lack the patience we need to communicate from one world to another.

Solution?

Of course we cannot just blame others for the communication gap. Evidently, a major part of the problem lies with ourselves too. Our own part of the problem can be summarized in three words: “Leave me alone”. In a really deep depression, any form of contact with someone else (even a sensible, patient, loving one) can feel so exhausting and painful, that we’d rather avoid it.

    In such a situation we feel so alone that (paradoxically) being in touch with anyone else may make us feel even more alone. So out of fear and exhaustion, we can ask to be left alone because we’re so alone. But such a self-shielding attitude is in fact a depression-shielding attitude: it does not make things any better, to say the least.
Leave Me Alone!I promised to never give you cheap pep talk. So if we’re realistic, no, there is no easy solution for this communication problem, this perception gap. Which does not mean there are no solutions at all. But these all involve a long, arduous, breathtaking step-by-step journey across the wobbly rope bridge that spans the deep and dark Ravine of Hopelessness.

    Patience is an important requirement for those who want to help us. But for ourselves, from our own depression-locked perspective, the most important thing is to bravely (swallow, close your eyes, take a deep breath) take that First Little Step.

    In my own experience, when your depression is so bad that words don’t work – when it is so bad that you want to blurt out “Please leave me alone” – this first little step might be not saying something, but doing something. And I mean this literally: if you cannot talk, try to share some kind wordless activity. Try it regardless how totally futile, silly and pointless this may seem from your own depressed perspective.

    Any shared, wordless activity may help to re-establish some form of contact between your universe and the world of the others. Perhaps this would even help to build or repair that very rope bridge that you’ll need to cross eventually to the other side again.

    A few silly, futile, pointless examples? You could try taking a wordless walk together. Or you could try playing a wordless game together, no matter if it is Scrabble or chess. OK, maybe Scrabble is not the perfect example of a wordless game, but you get the point. If that’s asking too much, then you could even sit on the couch together to wordlessly watch some futile and silly TV cartoon: South Park? Family Guy? Whatever.

Family Guy: The Unexpected Death of Brian GriffinSeriously now. If words don’t work, find something you can join in together, wordlessly. Try it. Try. You never know: it might work. It might even work so well that it might bring the next step (exchanging a few meaningful words) comes within reach.

    Oh, and to prevent any misunderstandings: I did not want to suggest that some shared activity, or some meaningful words, will always work well or will always be what you need. For example, even your most talk-oriented analytic Freudian psychotherapist will admit that some people, sometimes, may initially be helped better by some pills than by words. Or helped best by both.

    Yes, I write this while still taking my daily prescribed tricyclic antidepressant. If I didn’t take them, maybe I could not write here at all.

Barbara’s Black Eagle

One thing we all need (I’m 100% sure of that) is music. With or without words. Music can help us. To demonstrate this, here is the amazing song l’Aigle Noir, The Black Eagle, by the great Jewish-French singer Barbara (Monique Serf).

    When Barbara first sang this chanson, in 1970, one of the reasons why it appealed to so many was the poetry of her words. If you listened to it, it was a kind of fairy tale, full of melodious mystery.

    To give you a too-brief summary, Barbara sings how one beautiful day (“or night”) when she lies asleep, a huge glittering black eagle bursts from the sky. It lands and begins touching her with its beak and wings. It has come to her with shiny jewels from the past, from the faraway land of childhood dreams, when you could pick the stars from the sky Finally the eagle takes flight again. Disappearing into the clouds, it leaves her shivering, cold and alone.

    But what did this song actually mean? And even more important, what did it mean to Barbara herself?

    It was not until 1998, a year after her death, that this became clear. In her unfinished memoirs, Barbara revealed that The Black Eagle had been inspired by a childhood trauma: the never-told trauma of how as a girl of ten, she had been sexually abused by her father. This was what she had actually been singing about. She had never been able to talk about it.

    But she could sing. So here is Barbara, with The Black Eagle. And the healing power of music. I’ve chosen not the 1970 studio version but a less polished recording from a later live concert.

Barbara


Click the player’s green “Play” arrow.      
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For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page.
      


 the concluding tip: If someone tries to talk you out of a deep depression, and the words don’t work at all, instead of talking try to do something together. Something simple, without words, anything: it doesn’t matter what.
    Often this works better than a bizarre (bizarre-feeling) conversation that only makes you feel more alone and depressed.

 the bonus tip: As for singing yourself, therapeutically speaking it might certainly work for any of us. For myself, trying to sing, or even hum along, can really work as an antidepressant.
    But do think twice before recording yourself. I did that once, and in my case, listening back was not a good idea.

• footnote: The rope bridge in the image above is the famous one to Carrick-a-Rede island, in Northern Ireland. Sometimes tourists who managed to cross this bridge are so traumatized by the experience that they don’t dare to cross it again: meaning they are stuck on the barren island and must be fetched by a boat.
    Isn’t that almost like how we sometimes can get stuck in depression and need help from others to get out of it?



What Happened Today in History?

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