Notes from the midst of a bi-polar slump

I normally write these things and either throw them away (when done with pen and paper) or archive them in a digital folder I never look in, but this time I’m going to experiment with broadcast

Every bit of advice – professional or otherwise – I’ve ever had about depression has revolved around the idea that talking about it is supposed to help, but there’s a deep paradox in that approach, at least for me; a large part of the problem is a feeling – no, not a feeling, a knowledge – that in almost every way imaginable, I have nothing to complain about. In every objective sense, my life is pretty good, and vastly more packed with privilege and good fortune than that of the majority of people on the face of the planet. As such, pity and sympathy – which, to be clear, is very easily obtained, as I also have an abundance of good friends and caring family to whom I could turn – feel unearned, undeserved. Depression is a software problem, as far as I’m concerned; I do not subscribe to the ‘dysfunctional brainmeat/causative chemical imbalance’ model of bi-polarity, because it is part of a diagnostic framework wherein there is a singular model for the ‘right’ brain and a plethora of models for the ‘wrong’ brain. This is a function of the deeply conformist-capitalist understructure of psychology, which has always been focussed on the correction of dysfunction (the Worker must be fixed!) rather than the uncovering of dysfunction’s causes (why is the Worker broken?); it’s all about making the symptoms go away, and little about understanding the actual vector(s) of the ‘disease’.

Rather like politics, come to think of it.

So let me be clear: this is not a cry for help, nor a plea for pity. Think of it instead as a form of the talking cure where I can feel confident that those to whom I am talking are listening voluntarily. With hindsight, I realise that this is why I started writing (and, with further hindsight, that I actually started writing a lot earlier than I used to believe I had); writing, for me, is like a therapist’s couch without the therapist. After all, therapy and counselling are – supposedly, at least – meant not to be didactic; the therapist is not supposed to give you the answers, but help you find them yourself. Which is all very good and noble, but sidesteps the issue that the therapist or counsellor is (quite unavoidably, if unintentionally) observing your narrative from within the framework of their own, which is formed at least in part by their indoctrination into their profession. Which isn’t to say I mistrust the motivations or world-views of therapists on principle – though I’d readily admit to a deep unease around the psychiatric and diagnostic end of the system, as mentioned above – so much as I’m vain enough to assume that my own familiarity with the history and circumstance of my own life is sufficient for me to cut out the middle-man, so to speak. By way of analogy: when I visit a new city, I shun the guided tours in favour of a map, a guidebook and a few days to myself in which to wander, wonder and look.

I probably shouldn’t speak with such scathing certainty about therapy, as I’ve never experienced it except second-hand through its portrayal in popular media. (Sudden thought: the Eighties in particular seemed replete with films and television wherein angsty white middle-class people with no real problems other than their own way of looking at their lives spent a lot of time whining at therapists; this may have influenced my outlook considerably.) Counselling, however, I’ve had quite a few times – and it was actually quite enjoyable for me, because I knew that the counsellor was being compensated for taking the time to listen, and so I could just chunter on without any shame at all. It’s the difference between getting your friends to help you move house and paying a removals firm to take care of it, in a way; it’s not that your friends are unwilling to help – far from it, in fact – or that you’re unwilling to repay the favour. It’s that it’s a job; it’s work. Maybe my rather warped inculcation of the Protestant work ethic is to blame: if there’s work to be done, one should either get on and do it oneself (assuming one is capable), or compensate someone fairly for doing it on one’s behalf. One doesn’t want to feel like a charity case or a freeloader, y’know?

(To return briefly to the influence of media, I spent two nights this week bingewatching To The Manor Born, which was a constant televisual companion to me while living out in Saudi Arabia with my family in the mid-Eighties; it was quite scary to see how many of my attitudes and arrogances echo those of Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. Who was, incidentally – or perhaps not so incidentally – my first childhood media crush of any significance. Selah.)

But anyway, the thing that pushed me away from counselling was the repeated use of a certain aphorism. Every time I explained that I didn’t like talking about being depressed because it felt like dialling all the nines and asking for the existential waaaaahmbulance, I’d be told:

“No one’s life is up for comparison.”

Well, um, yes it is? I mean, sure, I have this issue where my mind flip-flops into a state where I struggle to care about anything, and it can really get in the way of doing things that I want or need to do, and that sucks. But here’s the thing: I have the luxury of circumstance where I can take the time to wallow in that misery. I am, by dint of being born white, male and middle-class in Britain, able to indulge my depression, and counselling encourages that indulgence. But what of someone with a similar dysfunction who was born black in the poor parts of Atlanta, Georgia, or born brown to a low caste in Mumbai, or born in the backstreets of Jakarta, Mexico City, Tangier, Jo’burg? What of someone born female in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, born gay in Uganda, born with an untreatable disease or physical defect? What of someone just like me in all respects, but born to a council-house couple on the outskirts of Havant rather than to my more fortunate and upwardly mobile parents? What of someone, anyone, who didn’t have a Privilege Hat so capacious they could caulk it with tar and use it as a fucking battleship?

Every time I hear “no one’s life is up for comparison”, I see all those people and more in my mind, and imagine explaining to them how awful it is for me to be depressed, explaining what a barrier it is getting anything done, explaining how my life of comparative ease and privilege is marred by this terrible affliction.

Everyone‘s life is up for comparison, especially mine. And I am, by any even slightly objective assessment, far less in need of help and support than 99% of the population of the planet. If anything, I should be doing the helping and supporting.

Which is a very long and roundabout way of explaining to the world (and, by extension, to myself), why I don’t like to seek sympathy: it’s too scarce a commodity already. Save it for them as really needs and deserves it, instead of wasting it on someone who in every other respect has – and has always had – all the cards stacked in his favour.

So there’s my own personal version of the talking cure: a rejoinder to myself, a reminder of which side my bread is buttered. It is based on the belief that bipolarity and/or depression cannot be cured, only managed, coped with, come to terms with.

But the real kicker, of course, is the knowledge that it is only my privilege that enables me to be so blasé and self-sacrificial about being depressed; that other people with the same symptoms are at far greater risk of disruption, disaster or poverty as a result of them.

Which means that, rather than somehow shrugging off my privilege by writing this piece, I have in fact been indulging it.

And thus the loop begins again.



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6 responses to “Notes from the midst of a bi-polar slump”

  1. Farah avatar

    No idea if this will help, but I never found any success through counselling or therapy: each time I tried it, it seemed only to deepen the groove I was stuck in. The last time was 1994 and the Imploding Relationship. I’d go in, feeling I’d pulled my socks up and was holding it together, and would come out a wreck, while the therapist told me the catharsis was good for me. It may be good for some people, but overall, for all that I can be a drama queen, at bottom I am a stiff upper lip type who would rather push on through whatever and deal with it later. This is true of the depression months also.

  2. Chip Camden avatar

    Perhaps privilege is not as great as it’s cracked up to be. Weltschmerz is held in check by necessity. Not saying that I’d trade one for the other, mind you.

    Personally, I’ve found a lot of help through therapy, but you have to get the right therapist. If their motivation is to prove all their own theories, then you’re just fodder for that process. You have to find someone whose #1 goal is to help you get to where you want to go.

  3. Wollff avatar

    I facepalmed. Don’t worry. This is a facepalm with all the compassion of someone prone to getting stuck in similar places, while watching someone else go through the same debilitating repetitive motions.

    So let me tell you straight up what many a therapist might tell you: You are wrong. Your arguments are illogical. You you might want to consider some revision on your text. Because as of now it’s bad writing. Your depression is a software problem. And it is showing itself though buggy output.

    The central point of what makes you sound a tiny bit insane, is your attitude about professional help, especially toward the statement that: “Nobody’s life is up for comparison”

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t compare your life to the life of others. Obviously you can. Those comparisons just have no bearing on what you should do.

    Or do you do use the same argument in any other aspects of your life? Let’s take an ingrown toenail.

    A beggar in Mumbai might have to leave that untreated. It will get worse. It will become a hinderance and source of great suffering for him, when all he would need might be a simple medical proceture in reasonably clean surroundings.

    Thus you shouldn’t seek professional help for your ingrown toenail. You will have to admit that it is painful, uncomfortable, and makes you and people around you uneasy (What’s that smell? Oh God! Is that pus? *eewww*). But hey, that guy in Mumbai suffers so much more from it. You really are not worthy of the quick, easy, and cheap fix a doctor might be able to give you for your problem.

    Who knows, maybe the procedure wouldn’t even help. After all the the history of medicine is riddled with mistreatments, bad research, and bias. Even if that toe hurts, I am sure you are firm in the conviction that this condition can only be managed, not cured. No need to even try. You know how doctors are: They either promise a quick fix that wouldn’t only mask the symptoms, or saw off your leg and leave you permanently disfigured. History of medicine, and the protrayal in certain TV series has informed my opinion on that.

    But the real kicker is this: It’s your privilege that enables you to be so concerned and self sacrificial because of an ingrown toenail. Other people lose their feet because of something like that, and still go on with their lives. You have to look at the good things: After all you have a home, friends, and family, and live in a first world country. You should be happy. And you are quite the ninny to be bothered by a bit of pus and inflammation.

    That’s it about ingrown toenails. Do you consider this a healthy attitude in regard to a minor annoyance that causes you suffering? If you don’t consider those arguments quite logical, then you are giving your depression a very strange special treatment, that is pretty common, but by no means reasonable.

    A therapist might help you with those blind spots, if nothing else.

  4. Justin avatar

    I’m tempted to agree with Wollff, here. For those with any sense of perspective or self-reflexivity, privilege comes with a responsibility to kick ass. How can you fight the good fight (however defined) if you’re waist-deep in the treacle of the slough of despond?

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