I've been thinking a lot about depression recently, and how it plays into my personality, my psychological make up.
(Note: I am not talking about "sadness" here. Sadness has causes and resolves as those causes are healed or addressed.)
I have always thought of myself as a fairly "up" person, an optimist, someone with boundless reserves of energy. Others who know me would agree with this assessment.
And in some ways, that is true. It is a major factor in who I "am".
I like to measure my general "state of mind" on a scale from -10 to +10 - with zero being "neutral", and the negative numbers reflecting degrees of depression, or low periods, and the positive numbers a state of higher energy, resources, etc. I tend to express my "ground state", or normal perspective, as being around +2 or 3 or so. My "story" about me includes recurring periods of lows, perhaps every few months or so, that last for almost exactly three and a half days - I'd put those at around -2 or 3, I think.
What this does not take into account are periods where I am not actually conscious of being "down", and perhaps even "feel fine", but where in reality, I am actually depressed to some degree. I think this is because simply observing what seems to be my inner state is not an effective metric of what is really going on. What I should look to are more objective, externalizable factors that can be compared. One would be how well I am doing at keeping up with my work, especially if business is good (i.e., there is a fair amount to do). Another is an effect I have observed where I embark on a large project, something taking weeks or even months of sustained effort and energy. Well, not so much as when I embark on it, but when it is finished. I am realizing that at that point, I often describe myself as "burned out", and don't take on anything particularly difficult or trying for a while. Sometimes that "burnout" can last for months.
Broadly speaking, there are two clinical forms of depression - unipolar and bipolar. Unipolar depression consists of low periods of frequency and duration depending on the individual. The important thing to observe in it is that it is not caused by external factors, and neither can it be prevented or ended by them - or by internal efforts. In fact, they are typically characterized by the inability to generate internal effort. Bipolar depression is characterized by cyclic down periods which are quite similar to unipolar, alternating in some way with "manic" phases. These are not just "up" times - they are periods of almost useless energy and mental excitement, where the individual has so much going on in their brain that they are not capable of getting anything useful out of it.
Both of these can occur in the general population at perfectly manageable levels - for instance, I routinely (often daily) experience "manic" phases that are manageable, and useful - the torrent of thoughts pouring through my brain are capturable, I can generally put them to use one way or another. Or I can channel the energy physically as well, and accomplish a great deal, working day after day, even week after week, on some large endeavor.
My brief "spells" would be much more like unipolar depression, and the way I feel I experience them has never seemed like a problem. My brain recovers on its own after a short period of days, and I am often fine - or better - afterwards for what seems like months.
So, why am I writing this?
It is because I think my self-perception my not be as accurate as I had thought. I may be far more vulnerable to depression (and possibly to excessive manic phases) than I have always thought.
What makes this less clear is that I also have these huge reserves of energy, and seemingly boundless enthusiasm. But I wonder if these are just that my "camouflage" is very effective. I can mask the depression - even to myself - by the equivalent of "showing up with a smile". But when whatever is causing or allowing me to tap into these strengths is removed, absent, or over, I am left with a baseline that is a little emptier than I would have thought. Now, generally, when this happens, or even before, I tend to try to make sure I have something to take its place. (I'm not talking about, say, having a new lover waiting in the wings "just in case" - which some do commonly - I am just talking about always having a copious "to do list" that I can fall back on, something of which is bound to allow me to distract myself.)
But what happens when that firehose of energy runs a bit dry, and I have reached the end of something that has been distracting me, making me feel happy? This may be where the problem I am trying to pin down is located.
At that point, the mild tendency to unipolar depression leaves me with a somewhat subdued, if not just plain unproductive, lethargic baseline.
At that point, periods of "downs" can result in brief manic episodes that are not productive, that are not manageable.
Despite all this, and perhaps this is why it has taken me so long to look at these issues in this way, my thoughts themselves always seem to run on as if on a non-stop train. I can seemingly always still write about what is going on in my mind.
Take this exact piece I am writing as a clear example of this. Right now I am not working, and I should be. I am avoiding doing a simple process that needs to be done. I just completed one that took ten days longer than it should have - one that in total required about two hours of work.
What happened to that time?
I was writing. I was working on poetry, songs, and ideas like this one. I was seemingly productive and energetic, but it is mental energy and output only, and the "highs" that I seem to need, to crave so badly, are only fleeting and do not sustain a general, daily state of well-being. I mask it very well.
There is an element in me that is happy to say to others, but far more importantly, to myself, that "I am fine, really". When I probably am not.
Back to the "metric" of determining what my mood, my state of mind, really is. For simplicity's sake I will compare myself to a stereotypical example person I will invent. They have a regular 9-5 day job that is moderately satisfying. They are married with a child or two. They always make it to work. Some of time, they work, they play, they participate, they meet friends, they "live" to what might be called "the fullest". Their weekends involve activities that require planning to occur and energy to participate in. That is how part of their life works. Other times, managing to get to work, do their job, and get home is just about all they can handle. They have probably adopted any number of hobbies that do not require high energy levels or active physical strain - games, movies, writing, reading, etc.
For them, they can tell clearly when they are "up" and when they are "down" - in my cartoonish depiction of their lives, it is the former style of living versus the latter. In the latter they are able to manage to accomplish that which is required of them, but little more. And there is little or no desire to do more. The former stands as a benchmark for them - a way they can be at times that they prefer, and wish they always could be. But they can't, and they have to accept it, those around them learn to live with it and ameliorate it if possible, accomodate it as necessary.
My lifestyle has for so long included so little regularity that it is very, very hard to determine whether I have one hour of energy or seventeen in a given day. Surely if I write fourteen pages of anything I must be fine, right? Surely if there is food in the house and clean clothes lying around somewhere, if my car has gas and the lights are on, things must be "fine"?
Well, perhaps not. It might even be hard to measure by what "things" I seem to have accomplished lately. Smaller projects are often just a way to avoid mundane activities that I actually should be doing. Writing actually takes very little energy.
For any given period of a few days, or even a few weeks, I can accomplish very little without it creating any kind of crisis. Then I can, and do, often make up for it by getting a lot done in a short period of time. But some things end up just not being addressed. Some deadlines pass, some opportunities evaporate. Those less productive periods are completely invisible to others (this is a huge trademark of unipolar depressive states in general), and, perhaps not particularly visible to me, due to the projects and mental output that can be used to displace things I "should" be doing, and mask the distracted state I am actually in.
In short, one way I can try to take a snapshot of how I am doing is to observe whether I am getting my work done in a timely and effective fashion. I have not been "caught up" since last November. This is unusual - while I often have things that take a bit more time waiting to finish, those are usually all that I am behind on. Lately, normal, fairly routine work has been languishing for longer than it should (we're only talking days or a week or so, nothing catastrophic, but it is quantifiable).
So what am I to make of these observations, if, in fact, they are accurate? (They might not be. I might just be causally depressed right now, and taking it as if it has always been "normal" for me.)
To address that parenthetical, if that is the case then I largely need not worry - the causal depression will lift as time passes and the cause fades and heals.
But if this is really a better general overview of my internal makeup, it does need addressing at some level.
My entire lifestyle might be built around accomodating it. I may be living far less and experiencing less joy and happiness than I could be if this were not the case. And yet, to a person who suffers far more from depression, I really do seem like a pure source of energy, and not a pool of darkness waiting to be filled.
I think I will leave this here at this point to get back to work, and to mull it over some more. I will return and read it to see how much sense it makes.
This took ten minutes to conceive and write. Just before this, I wrote a poem/lyric that went from two lines and an idea, to a full page, to flooding over the back side of the sheet of paper. Maybe nothing is wrong at all...
PS (I do this a lot - once I start thinking about something, I just keep going) - Often when I contemplate "doing something" my decision to do it is based on whether I think it will make me "feel better" - for instance, by imagining the final outcome of a project, or whether I will probably enjoy some activity. If I do indeed embark on the "thing", I usually do gain this feeling, experience the pleasure, at least while I am doing it, and often for some time afterwards. On very rare occasions [link this when that January episode is transcribed...] I cannot imagine the possibility of something feeling good. I only clearly know of the one, but it is possible that this occurs a lot and I am not even particularly aware of it. Some of this has become especially true in this era of electronic interconnectedness, where it can seem like "doing something" to idly participate in conversations across time and space with friends and acquaintances - while accomplishing little of any true value, making no real human connection, developing no real love or shared energy, obligations, joys, gratitude, ... love.
How can I be depressed when I am so fucking wired all the time?
PPS - I started out to write about the topic of depression in general. This is what I ended up with. Before adding this second postscript, I forced myself to finish something that I could have put off until Monday. I also could have done it yesterday. It was almost physically painful to do so. But you would not have been able to tell by watching me.
At least it is snowing out.
© Huw Powell