What’s normal, anyway?

In the kinda longer than normal comments thread on my anti-depressants post a while ago, I referenced an article in the Grauniad about the ‘upside’ to depression. It struck a chord with me and also with Nick, and kicked off a train of thought. One that has taken a ridiculously long time to finish off, as my mind unspools in various different ways and the post gets rewritten.

First is something I missed when The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive was aired, which was that apparently Stephen Fry "was accused of ‘normalising’ what was a ‘severe mental illness’". Oh my GAWD! Somebody’s trying to point out that mental illness isn’t the stigmatising nightmare society deems it to be! Surely mental illness is something to be pushed away in an unlit cupboard, spoken of only in hushed tones, feared and misunderstood! How DARE someone take a couple of hours of national – publicly paid for – television and talk about such things? When around 25% of the population can be expected to experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, how can this possibly be considered NORMAL? Why, 10% of the population is left-handed – that must be even less normal! Quick, let’s get back to forcing the freaks to write right! And an even smaller proportion of the population is homosexual – holy CRAP let’s not talk about THEM!

Somewhat laboured point, but you see where I’m driving… ‘normalising’ depression? Oh, I think it’s already quite standard, thankyouverymuch. When the nice psychiatrist said "nope, there’s absolutely nothing else we can do for you – I think this is just how you are", to consider my natural state ‘abnormal’ would have been about as healthy as obsessing over the illness. It’s become clear that my "depression" (I use inverted commas because I have no diagnosis for this ongoing state of being, and "mental illness" feels like over-egging the pudding) is hard-wired in. So it’s just as well that I’m learning to live with it and embracing the things it gives me. Yes, you heard that right. The benefits, the joys, the insights.

I’ve mentioned before – prompted by Fry – the rather splendid ups that I get. I pity you poor people, toddling along on an even keel. Do you ever experience the glittering euphoria of simply walking along a street? I do. Does the sound of your own footsteps promise the key to life’s mysteries? HA! Mine does! Sometimes. When the chemistry is right.

But this article by Paul Keedwell talks about something more, something more tangible and more ‘acceptable’ than the crazy-highs. He suggests that depression is a normal part of life – I’m going lift parts of it here, but I do strongly suggest you read the whole thing for yourself and see what it was that made me nod sagely:

"Depression may bring about a ‘rebirth’ because it removes self-delusion. There is some evidence from scientific studies to show that depressed people are rather more realistic in their thinking than "healthy" individuals – the phenomenon of ‘depressive realism’. It prompted the scientific journalist Kyla Dunn to write: ‘One cognitive symptom of depression might be the loss of optimistic, self-enhancing biases that normally protect healthy people against assaults to their self-esteem. In many instances, depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people, and finding it not a pretty place.’"

Do those of us with depressive outlooks actually have a more realistic take on the world? I would argue: yes. I would also argue that, after experiencing a catastrophic failure in one’s ability to deal with the world, the resulting rebuild actually makes someone stronger, more self-aware. To then lose touch with the depression and declare yourself ‘cured’ is to lose everything depression had to teach.

Which is why I get annoyed at the attitude that depressive mental illnesses are horrifying taboo things that should be dealt with as quickly as possible and never mentioned again. Get cured! Sort yourself out! Go to therapy! (Ah, therapy; another "magic bullet". But’s it not for everyone.) Maybe a tangle with one bout of depression can be ‘sorted’ with a course of anti-depressants and a good therapist, leaving the sufferer with a deepened perspective on life; but what about those of us who are, apparently, "doomed" to live with it? Going back to Mr Keedwell:

"The assumption that depression is a disease has been reinforced and perpetuated by biologists, psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies, all of whom have a vested interest – consciously or unconsciously – in the clinical perspective… The disease model may also be engendering a sense of powerlessness in those with depression or ex-sufferers."

"A sense of powerlessness." The emphasis is always on getting cured, because that’s the modern view of illness. It’s generally a good thing – I wouldn’t particularly want to have to get used to living with leprosy, say – but we actually have no fucking clue what causes depression, or why there are so many forms of it, that if you can be ‘cured’ I think you’re bloody lucky. So what if you can’t be ‘cured’? You spend your time surrounded by people who want you to be ‘better’, but you can feel the thing in your head that’s always been there in one form or another. It’s part of you, but apparently it’s wrong. No wonder we can feel disenfranchised.

It’s time to reclaim depression! If you have to live with it then you might as well live comfortably with it. Get to know it, learn the coping strategies (that’s all CBT really is) and make it work for you rather than against you. (Incidentally, there’s a small, but significant, difference between an acceptance of long-term depressive illnesses and going "lalala I can’t hear you there’s nothing wrong with me it’s you who are all weird!".)

I’ve had it with being medicalised and marginalised. Stop trying to make me ‘better’, it negates everything positive I’ve experienced. I’m a damn sight more confident now than I was before my brain went into meltdown – is it a natural consequence of getting older, or were the two related? Personally I’m inclined to go with the latter. And yes, I will still think this the next time I spend two hours staring at the wall, tangling with the blackness (so, ooo, sometime the end of next week). Because I’ve learned that it passes. And it’s valuable. Honestly, you normal people don’t know what you’re missing…

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2 responses to “What’s normal, anyway?

  1. Nick March 17, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Here is a link to a post on an excellent blog written by a West Belfast girl, who has manic depression, on the idea of ‘Mad Pride’ http://thesecretlifeofamanicdepressive.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/mad-pride/#comments

  2. Rachel March 17, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    That’s fabulous. I love the terms “Mentally Interesting” and “Mentally Hilarious”!

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