The Marathon

I apologise to my little website in advance, but this is something which means a lot more to me than guitars and music.

I would like to take the recent passing of one of my favourite actors – Robin Williams – as an opportunity to talk about depression and anxiety from my perspective. I was diagnosed with clinical depression on the 8th February 2010 and have been dealing with it with the support of my friends, family and the NHS ever since.

It is a shame that it has taken the passing of a popular celebrity for the public as a whole to reconsider their views on depression and actually learn something about it. However now that people are listening, I think it is important to educate them as much as possible.

I would like to start by explaining what depression has been for me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but there will be some similarities as with any illness – which is what it is.

I have titled this post “The Marathon” partly because I didn’t want to put “DEPRESSION AND SADNESS” as a title and partly because I think it makes a good analogy for depression and its treatment.

For my example, a person is running in a marathon. They’re keeping pace, but certainly don’t have time to stop for a rest. However, this person has stepped on a pin. They could stop to remove it, but then they’ll have no chance to complete the marathon with everyone else. Besides, this particular pin is wedged into the shoe and cannot be removed. They could kick their trainers off, but that’s a long way to go barefoot. This pain, although relatively minor, will be with them for the rest of the marathon (life) unless they do something.

There are a couple of options:

Firstly there are beta blockers. I was advised against these as they are more like painkillers, providing relief, but not resolving the underlying problem.

Another option is antidepressants. They were pitched to me as an artificial way of returning my brain chemistry to normal (I’ll move on to that later) and therefore you would think this means removing the pin. Nope! The antidepressants, in my case paroxetine, don’t quite do that and do come with their own problems. Going back to my analogy, they’re like being given a nice thick pair of socks to wear while you run. You still feel the pin, but not so much – however the trainers don’t fit properly now and press on the runner’s feet. Their feet heat up with the thicker material and sweat. It’s preferable to the full on pain, but it’s still not great.

Eventually the depression fades – with the pin, the runner’s foot would eventually build up a resistance to the pain one way or another and they could wear progressively thinner socks, but the pin is still there and I’ll bet will hurt again.

All of this waffle is to say that depression is not being sad or gloomy, although that can come as well as anger and anxiety. It’s an annoying splinter that just won’t go away or that pin in your shoe. You can still make jokes and have a good time with your mates and that helps you to forget about it, but it’s just there winding you up.

But it’s not just an annoyance – over time, it can build up and build up until it becomes unbearable. People try to cope with it in different ways, but without the proper support or treatment, it will just keep coming back.

I think that is why some people who can’t cope turn to suicide (I’m not saying specifically in Robin Williams’ case – that’s not been confirmed). Suicide is not a selfish way out – shouting that at someone on the verge of killing themselves doesn’t make them feel a whole lot better, just so you know. For some people who have suffered this illness for a number of years, it seems to be the only option. Being told there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re attention seeking or making a fuss just adds to the feeling that nothing can help them and that it won’t go away.

A recent example of someone who didn’t appear to be “depressed” in the definition most people have in their heads is Robin Williams. He made everyone laugh and seemed to have a great time while he was at it, but he was still depressed (and being a famous film star didn’t make it better). He is one of a few comedians throughout history who suffered from depression.

I personally prefer to keep things light – avoiding the sadness in the news, skipping on deep conversations – I want to forget about this illness and get on with life.

Another example in history was Vincent van Gogh. Like many before and after him, he kept his demons away with alcohol, which in itself is a depressant. Visiting the Van Gogh museum in the Netherlands this year, I felt oddly close to this artist and what he was going through. The subjects he chose to paint and the way he painted them reminded me of the music I’ve written and the things I’ve produced for people outside to see. It’s hard to explain, but he doesn’t outwardly show his depression in his paintings. One of my favourites was the skeleton smoking a cigarette – showing a sense of humour that people don’t associate with depression.

Depression is caused by a lack of a chemical called serotonin. Wandering over to wikipedia, a brief description of serotonin is:

Serotonin/ˌsɛrəˈtnɨn/ or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter. Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), platelets, and the central nervous system (CNS) of animals, including humans. It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Anti-depressants are designed to boost the production of this chemical and bring you to the level everyone else is at.

One major side effect is that it leaves you feeling numb to emotion. You end up with a very large neutral area in your emotional spectrum, with only extreme emotions available, which I think is a contributor to breakdowns as you see the warning signs much later on in the process.

I would like to finish by saying that I very much doubt a recent statistic that one third of the population experience depression, anxiety or panic attacks in their lives is accurate.  I would say that the percentage is much higher, just dealt with in different ways (we also don’t usually put that we have depression in surveys).

I hope this has been educational for anyone who reads this. If I can help raise awareness of this illness and clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding it, that will be a great step forward.

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