I’ve been moithering about whether to write this post for some time – the reasons for such moitherment will, I hope you’ll see, become clear – but the case has become erumpent for reasons of campaigns such as this and, notwithstanding inasmuch as which, this. Until now I have as you’ll no doubt imagine always found some excuse for not writing this post, but as the man said, one can’t prevaricate around the bush for ever, so I shall come out and say it, and, well, the alea having been iacta, it can’t be put back into the bottle. So here goes.
Hi. My name is Henry Gee and I suffer from depression.
No, don’t run away. I am not about to have fervid conversations with vegetables or pretend to be a chicken. Most of the time I am entirely … well … normal.
A cartoon strip from the ‘It’s Time To Talk’ campaign, recently.
Me and depression go back a long way. We first met in my first year of graduate school, when, with almost nothing in the way of adequate supervision or pastoral care, and in a lab group of one (1), namely me, tout seul and, what’s more, all on my own, I became unhinged from my diurnal cycle, from most forms of normal personal interaction, and after an episode of self-harm, was advised (trans. ‘told’) by my college to write off my first year and come back when I felt better. I’d been an undergraduate at Leeds University, a place I loved and where people called a spade a fookin’ spade. I ended up, though, in the mannered atmosphere of Cambridge, without guide or phrase book, a place where nobody ever seemed to say what they meant, and which was girt round by innumerable rules and traditions of unfathomable purpose. My relationship with Cambridge has been, to this day, somewhat equivocal. Music became my anchor and I only survived by playing in rock bands of various sorts – almost all the friends I retain from Cambridge days I made through music.
Well, off I was packed to see a shrink who put me on a course of a drug called mianserin, which is, I am told, rarely used these days except perhaps to make those irritating polysterene peanuts they use to pack electrical items, or for tranquilizing rabid hippopotami. I then traveled, sowed a few oats, and joined a thoroughly
dope-fuelled disreputable rock band made of thoroughly dope-fuelled disreputable southern Scots, the singer being so trenchantly Glaswegian that I could only ever understand him when he was singing. Not that I inhaled, mind you – the drugs I was on were as psychedelic as anything one might obtain – how shall one put it – off piste. Eventually I came off the drugs and went back to Cambridge, where the first thing I did was join a band, after which I finished my Ph.D. without extravagant distress and in the prescribed three years (not counting my enforced rustication.)
Q: What’s the difference between
a Jewish mother depression and a rottweiler?
A: The rottweiler will let go of you eventually.
I should have known that once you have depression, it’s with you for life. Unaware of this fact, after many decades at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N,
I found that life had lost its usual bounce. To be blunt, everything – everything – was an effort, like playing squash with a dead rat for the ball. It wasn’t that I was miserable, or bursting in to tears, or even just tired. I just couldn’t be arsed. The world had lost its colour. The antics of my fellow humans beings were to be despised. Nothing seemed to have much point. I wasn’t so much living as going through the motions, similar to the apocryphal work-to-rule enforced by the sewage workers’ union.
It was then that the
Diplomatic Squad Mrs Crox reminded me gently of what an unpleasant person I was to be around, and it came to mind how many times I’d had run-ins with people to with whom polite interaction was inevitably the preferable course. In fact, I am sure I might have progressed further in my career had I not been – I admit it – a depressive.
So, two or three years ago I visited my GP, who put me on citalopram. As this is meant to be a science blog, I can tell you that citalopram is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that does things. Too much serotonin is presumably a Bad Thing, and the same is the case for not enough – I have the latter. Citalopram stops serotonin being reabsorbed too quickly, so there’s always some around to do whatever it does. It’s amazing to think that tiny variations in the concentration of this simple amino-acid derivative can have had such dramatic effects on the way I perceive the world. The doors of perception indeed. Anyway, I felt a lot better, but after a series of episodes when I’d forgotten to take my tablets for a week in which I became somewhat paranoid, I was put on a higher dose.
Only now the drugs don’t work.
I am starting to get some of the symptoms I associate with coming off citalopram – generalised tiredness, occasional anxiety but most of all amazingly vivid dreams. The dreams are not frightening or scary – just very, very busy and so photorealistic that I wake up disoriented, and often exhausted. The apotheosis of this particular zenith came the night before I visited my GP in which I was treated to a wide-screen whodunit set on an ocean liner in the 1930s. I have also had an action adventure set on yachts in the Scottish islands, and an emotionally charged episode of a popular TV soap opera set in a hospital in which the villainous protagonist was having plastic surgery to hide his identity.
My GP has given me a prescription for something called mirtazapine. This looks like mianserin juiced up for the 21st century, and, like mianserin, should help me get a decent night’s sleep.
But there’s a catch. I am now in a period of cold chicken, which is like cold turkey only not as severe. I have to halve my dose of citalopram for two weeks before starting the mirtazapine. I am nearly a week into this, and, as the man said as he plummeted past the eleventh floor window, it’s all right so far.
What irritates me the most is that there are some people, whom I won’t name, who don’t seem to take any of this seriously. ‘You look all right’, they say, as if by my not conspicuously assaulting policemen or walking around disguised as an aubergine or at least not dissolving into a gibbering wreck I am somehow making all of this up. The fact is that I have learned by main force to keep myself together, most of the time, with the support of my family – and because after several years of medication, my body is loaded with serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It’s just that they need a tune-up, that’s all. And once again, music is helping me to get through it.
I am still not sure whether it will be wise to post this. Will my colleagues and the world at large think less well of me because of this? Even though seven out of every four people suffer from some kind of mental illness in their lives, it’s still somewhat taboo.
Perhaps I should sleep on it.
If I can get a good night’s sleep, that is.
Update 12 Feb – I am now 9 days into the Cold Chicken process. It is ghastly. Truly, beyond words. I wouldn’t recommend it. I spent some hours earlier today curled up into a ball sobbing. After that I fell asleep. Now I am a bit better but feel completely wasted.