Are You a Genius?

Doodle

First, a brief update because I’ve been silent here for the last six weeks. I’ve been, and still am, so thoroughly depressed that I’m not capable of writing any of my usual brilliant stuff. Sorry.

    My psychiatrist is going to put me on heavier antidepressants and if all goes well, the new pills should begin to have effect a few weeks from now. I intend to be back here as soon as I’m a little better again. Thanks for your patience, once again.

Reading Tip

Instead of trying to write something myself now, I’d like to give you a link to an interesting article that was published a few days ago in The Atlantic. It’s a long but pleasant read, written by a true professional, University of Iowa neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Coover Andreasen: Secrets of the Creative Brain.

    Her article is based (among other things) on personal analysis of well-known creative personalities from the realm of arts and science. She asks herself where true creativity comes from, whether it is true that there is a relation between creative genius and mental illness (brief answer: yes, statistics do indeed suggest this is the case) and why such a relation exists.

    This really is intriguing reading stuff, not just because it is refreshingly factual but also because every once in a while, you may be tempted to draw some personal parallels. For example, when Andreasen referred to the relatively very high frequency of mood disorders among poets, I suddenly had to think of my own sister who killed herself in her thirties: she also wrote poetry.

    This immediately calls for an obvious warning: sadly, the simple fact that you are suffering from depression does not automatically imply that you’re a creative genius yourself. If only that were true…

    Well, I hope you’ll take the time to enjoy Andreasen’s thoughts on the links between creativity and mental illness.

Music

For reasons I’d rather not explain, I am not going to offer you a depression-related song as background music today.

    Is it possible to be conventional and creative at the same time? And can we stick to ancient almost-rigid formulas, while at the same time kindling a few emotions?

    As an answer, here is the famous Portuguese fado singer Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) with her classic beach love song Barco Negro (“Black Boat”). With my best wishes to you all: take care.

Amalia Rodrigues 
Amália Rodrigues – Barco Negro


Teens and Depression, Worldwide

Doodle

Two days ago (May 14, 2014) the WHO, World Health Organization, released a report “Health for the world’s adolescents”. The report is based on comprehensive research on the health situation of adolescents all over the world, in over 100 countries.

Adolescents are defined as the 10-19 age group, in other words, teens. There are 1.2 billion adolescents on planet Earth (1 in every 6 persons).

I just want to show you some parts of the WHO report that I think will speak for themselves.

First, these two lists:
 

    Top Causes of Illness and Disability in Adolescents:

  1. Depression
  2. Road traffic injuries
  3. Anaemia
  4. HIV/AIDS
  5. Self-harm
  6. Back and neck pain
  7. Diarrhoea
  8. Anxiety disorders
  9. Asthma
  10. Lower respiratory infections
     

    

    Top Causes of Deaths in Adolescents:

  1. Road traffic injuries
  2. HIV/AIDS
  3. Suicide
  4. Lower respiratory infections
  5. Violence
  6. Diarrhoea
  7. Drowning
  8. Meningitis
  9. Epilepsy
  10. Endocrine, blood, immune disorders
     

    

And a few quotes:

“An estimated 1.3 million adolescents died in 2012, mostly from preventable or treatable causes.”

“Half of all mental health disorders in adulthood appear to start by age 14, but most cases are undetected and untreated.”

“Depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents and suicide is the third cause of death. Violence, poverty, humiliation and feeling devalued can increase the risk of developing mental health problems.
Building life skills in children and adolescents and providing them with psychosocial support in schools and other community settings can help promote good mental health. Programmes to help strengthen ties between adolescents and their families are also important. If problems arise, they should be detected and managed by competent and caring health workers.”
 

    

Not very surprisingly, the WHO notes that many later problems in adulthood (addictions, for example) may be prevented by tackling the same problems earlier in adolescence.

Therefore, they urge all countries to pay more attention to this particular age group in their governmental health policy.

To be honest, I’m left with the question: will this help, a well-meaning report like this? Will it really awaken politicians and other influential people? Will it have any effect?

Well, I guess these cynical questions indicate that right now I am feeling rather depressed myself. Yes, I am.

Some links for further reading, should you want to:


Rebuilding Your Life

doodle124

How long does it take people to recover from months or years of serious depression, if they do recover at all? And what extra problems should you be aware of when recovering from depression?

Recovery Chance

There is no general answer to the first question because individuals can differ widely when it comes to recovery. Jan Spijker, chronic depression expert at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, paints the following global image of depression recovery today:

    Many depression patients can indeed (often helped by medication) recover successfully, but not always in a way that can be said to be definitive. About 50% of all depression patients will recover in a non-definitive way: at some point in the future, they will suffer from a second depression episode. And about 10% to 20% of all depression patients will develop truly chronic depression, lasting longer than two years. According to Spijker, some patients “should accept that depression has become a part of their life”, in one way or another.

    Based on my own experience (I belong to those 10-20% myself, and have also have seen depression recurring in others) I think this is a fairly realistic assessment. In a way, serious depression will always remain a part of your life simply because it remains a part of your life history.

    Regardless of what group you belong to, for most of us comes a day when for the first time we are strong and lucid enough again to take a proper analytical look at our lives – at the smoldering ruin that remains of the life we had before depression struck us down.

    This is the moment when we notice not just that we are recovering, but also that we will have some rebuilding to do.

Additional Damage

Basically, speaking in general, recovering from serious depression also entails (1) acknowledging some losses, evaluating whether what you lost can be restored or not; and then (2) either fighting to rebuild whatever you lost, or accepting some losses and compensating for them in a different way.

    Your losses can range from physical ones to social ones, in all terrains of life. For example, you may have less energy because you sleep less well than you used to; you may have lost your former self-assurance or even self-respect; medication side effects may keep slowing down your reaction times; after a lengthy period of depression you may have lost many of your friends; as a consequence of depression you may have lost your job or even your partner in love.

Recovering...

For some parts of the smoldering ruin of our former life there may be no other option than to write them off, to replace them with something different. Other parts may and should be rebuilt. Let me give you a brief (and of course too-schematic) overview.

Routines Recovery

One basic loss that in most cases can and should be recovered, is the self-discipline and energy to pick up normal daily chores again. Shopping, cooking, eating (yes that can feel like a chore), cleaning, walking or exercising, showering, taking care of your cat, all things like that. Even if your depression didn’t involve hospitalization, chances are that for an extended period your illness did make you lose your proper routine.

    My tip for reclaiming it: in the early phase of your recovery process, write down a daily list of tasks on a piece of paper. All of them, including those that seem self-evident or those that still a little too daunting. Tick off each one you’re done with. Don’t feel guilty for what you didn’t do yet; feel relieved for what you already managed to do.

Condition Recovery

Both your depression and the depression therapy can have resulted in collateral damage, physically and mentally. Your physical condition may have deteriorated by lack of exercise, or by some depression-related addiction: drinking? smoking? As for therapy effects, your medication may have left you sexually near-impotent. Or (this happens to many) hospitalization may have eroded your subconscious mental image of yourself as an independent, goal-oriented person, making you too passive. Or (this is what happened to me) electroshock treatments may have permanently wiped out parts of your long-term memory.

    It’s hard to give some kind of general tip here because it can greatly differ, from to one person to another, exactly what damage is repairable and what is not. Try to discuss things with your doctor and your psychiatrist. For example, if your recovery process allows for experimenting with less strong antidepressant medication, this may (though not for everyone) help solve sexual problems.

    My basic tip here would be: above all, be realistic. Don’t try to achieve what you’re not up to yet, don’t force yourself. If trying to jog again somehow makes you feel like a sad failure, begin with simple walks instead. Try to accept irreparable losses and temporary setbacks. In such cases, it’s safer to go for compensation by some other activity than to end up with an inevitable defeat: because ongoing “failures” might result in a return of your depression.

Recovering...

Work Recovery

As a consequence of years of serious depression and the inability to work when ill, many of us have lost their jobs. This happened to me, too: I lost the university job I’d had for over twenty years. And along with your job you may have lost other things. A large chunk of your income. Your home. And quite possibly, some of your identity and self-respect. I know about all of that.

    Again, there is no easy one-size-fits-all solution here. Some of us may be capable of restoring the situation that existed before illness set in. But for many of us, that won’t be possible, or only in part. Meaning that you’ll have to look honestly at yourself and your options, and then to some extent redefine yourself. You may have to give up your former ambitions.

    The main thing here, I think, is to find a new and realistic balance between (a) what you need to do to survive, (b) what you can do best with your knowledge and skills from the past, and (c) what you would really like to do again. And then, accept the new balance. Ending up with a less stressful job might be much more important than being able to afford a seaside vacation every year, don’t you think?

Social Recovery

In many cases, when you emerge from years of deep depression, you’ll discover that you have lost many of your former friends. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that for a long time you as a depression patient had not much to offer to others. Another reason can be that during your depression, they changed – or that the depression period did change you. Personally I also think one huge problem is that some people, even good friends, can deep down be very afraid of depression – as if it’s some contagious kind of leprosy. Many other things can also play a role (like in my own case, my lack of memory caused by ECT proved a complicating factor: I didn’t even recognize some of my old friends).

    I think that often one or two meetings will be enough to judge if an old friendship is restorable or not. Sorry, but here you’ll have to be realistic again. Mourning what was in the past will not help you any further. If you end up with nearly no friends at all, then you’ll have to find some new ones, maybe in the context of your new job or new activities.

    My basic tip here: above all, be honest to others. Whether you like it or not, your having a psychiatric past is now one part of your identity. It really is best to be open about this to all potential new friends. This honesty will help you to easily separate the understanding ones from the ones with prejudices, right away. Say good riddance to the latter category.

Recovering...

Love Recovery

In some cases, the love relation with your partner may not have survived your years of depression. If this is the case, it’s the most sad and difficult complication that can happen to both of you. But you should not blame the other one for it, nor feel guilty about it yourself. Often, it is a very understandable consequence of years of unbalance, of relational disequilibrium: the other one had to care for you and carry an extra burden while your illness prevented you to give something back.

    It’s not unusual for the healthy partner to break down right at the point when finally, after years of illness, the depressed partner arrives at the brink of recovery. This is a sign that for the other one, the burden had in fact already become unbearable since quite some time. Let me say again that guilt and blame are completely irrelevant terms here. This can be a quite natural and understandable situation.

    In some cases like this, when you both are still motivated, it obviously is worth the trouble and energy and time (this can cost years) to restore the relationship and find some sound mutual balance again. In other cases (let me be blunt) it can be simply too late for that. Your partner can have become too worn out, or he/she can already have fallen in love with someone else: compensating for what amounted to his/her own loss over the past years.

    I have no easy solution here. Evidently, the intense sadness over a lost, ruined, not-restorable relationship can seriously hamper one’s recovery from depression itself. It can easily throw you back. Maybe you should seek extra psychotherapeutic support in a situation like this.

    At the same time, please remember that one of the essential elements of your own recovery is becoming an independent, self-supporting person again instead of a patient who is mostly dependent from the care of others. The better you manage your over-all recovery in this sense, the more chance there is that you and your former partner will at least repair part of the relationship, to remain warm and close friends.

Getting Better...

Closing Words

I wrote all the above for those among us who are taking their first steps on the long and difficult road towards full recovery from depression. I’m sorry if to you this reads like a daunting list of dangers and difficulties, or like a heap of too moralistic advice. I can understand if it does. Sorry.

But still I hope (that’s why I wrote it all down) that this overview may help you a little to view and tackle the problems of your recovery in a systematic and successful manner. I hope you will restore some parts of your smoldering ruin, and perhaps replace some other parts of the same ruin.

Things will never become exactly like they were before mental illness struck us down. For many of us, depression will never completely go away.

But may I say something here that (if you are still depressed) may sound stupid? In the end, years of battling depression and of recovering may leave you not just a as different person, with a different life, a different job. Unexpectedly, this whole long depression struggle can also have made you into a better, wiser, more human person – even if it didn’t make you more happy, rich or successful.


 footnote: This post was inspired by an article Recovery and Accepting in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (printed version, April 18, 2014) that centered on the example of Nathalie Kelderman.
    She once worked in the Dutch Foreign Office aspiring a diplomatic career. After seven years of depression and recovery (for the second time in her life) she now works as manager for the Dutch Depressievereniging, a national association of depression patients (website Dutch language only).
    Kelderman, by the way, succeeded with much effort in salvaging her marriage that after her years of depression was on the brink of falling apart: she herself calls it “a miracle” that she and her husband are still together.


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)

 
Soltero – Necromancer


 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
               

 
Gianna Nannini – Ninna Nanna

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page


 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.



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