17 January 2006

Man, I'm So Depressed...

Yet more evidence that Australian politicians may be even more bonkers than their counterparts in other countries: less than a year after being resoundingly re-elected, Premier (for you Americans, that’s a bit like a governor) Geoff Gallop of Western Australia (for you Americans, that’s not just like a state, it is a state) has abruptly resigned his office, citing “depression.”

If it were merely Mr Gallop, a college friend of Tony Blair (and best man at his wedding), one might presume it an unfortunate anomaly, but only a few months ago, the leader of the New South Wales opposition similarly quit in conjunction with a suicide attempt after intemperately slagging off the NSW Premier who'd also just gone walkabout for no apparent reason. And then there was the federal Labor leader, Mark Latham, who, drummed out of office after being humiliated by Prime Minister John Howard in the 2004 national elections, wrote a vindictive and childish tell-all book revealing how he’d hated all the sanctimonious bastards anyway and bragging about smoking pot in the halls of Parliament.

(A word about Australian political parties, again mostly for the benefit of Americans: the country is run by something called the Coalition, which is an alliance between the Liberal and National Parties. The Nationals are red-meat conservatives, roughly equivalent to flag-waving Republicans, while the more numerous Liberals are actually left-leaning conservatives, something along the lines of American Democrats in the Lieberman to Clinton spectrum. The Australian Labor Party comprises your standard race-based identity politics warriors, trade unionists, old commies, and cultural leftovers from the 1960s and 70s. In other words, rather like the Berkeley City Council.

While the Coalition controls the national government, all of the state governments are under the control of the Labor Party, which means that no matter what branch of government you’re working in, there’s always someone to blame for the fact that very little actually gets done.)

But enough about that, since I suspect very few people are interested anyway, and back to the topic of mental illness in government. (Which reminds me, I understand by way of the BBC World Service that by being away from Britain these months, I’m missing flamboyant jabberjaw George Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.) Or just mental illness in general, since, in a democracy, we’re all theoretically part of the government.

I know we’re not supposed to make light of such things, but it’s such a tempting target, and besides, I feel like I’m entitled to an exception, since depression has played such a large part in my own life. In retrospect, I can safely say it was the major reason behind my own resignation from the most exalted public position I ever held, namely CEO of the Lookout Records punk rock record corporation. So I have some idea how depression is no respecter of material or social success, that even someone who appears to “have it all” can feel absolutely wretched inside.

At the same time, there’s an element of self-pity and self-indulgence that appears to go with depression that makes it difficult for others to sympathise or even to understand that there is a problem. Admit it: if you’ve just passed half a dozen homeless beggars on your way to work, just read a newspaper account of someone who’s lost her whole family in an accident, or someone you love is dying of cancer, it’s kind of hard to take seriously the complaints of some guy with more money and more opportunities than he knows what to do with, but can’t stop telling you, “Sometimes I just don’t see the point of going on with my life.”

That more or less describes my attitude during the 1990s, a time when the record company I’d co-founded was enjoying its greatest success and making me richer than I’d ever dreamed of being. My “job” consisted of flying around the country to hang out with bands, meet fascinating people, and participate in creating some of the best and most exciting music of our times. Sure, there were a few tedious aspects, as with any job, but it beat digging ditches and paid about a thousand times better.

Nonetheless, I was miserable, and couldn’t stop telling everybody about it, in person, in the articles and songs I wrote, or simply with the hangdog expression I constantly wore. “You don’t understand how hard my life is,” was the message I constantly put out, and most people, who had to work normal, boring jobs, often for little more than subsistence wages, said, “No, actually we don’t.”

In reality my state of mind had little to do with my job or its imagined pressures, and nearly everything to do with the fact that I’d been seriously depressed most of my life. When and how and why I started, I have no idea: I can only remember that by the age of three or four I already had a sour, cynical outlook on life. Everyone was out to get me, I’d decided, and I might as well have tattooed “Born To Lose” across my forehead and “Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Horribly Mangled Corpse” across my backside.

I channelled my anger (not to be too simplistic, but depression is largely anger directed inward) into various causes, being a rebel without a clue in my teens, then devoting my 20s and 30s to overthrowing the government and/or society, but by the time I’d got to my 40s, I’d begun to accept that my ability to change the world around me was limited, and what really needed to change was the world inside me.

And that I felt completely powerless to do. I was just too sensitive, I told myself; things affected me more strongly than they did other people. Beneath this reasoning lay the conceit that somehow I was this great but misunderstood artist doomed to die alone and unappreciated (the classic definition of a “tortured artist” who deserves every bit of torture he gets). Never mind that most of my “art” consisted of sitting around thinking of the things I could or should be doing rather than actually doing them. In my increasingly addled mind, “they” or “you” were always stopping me from achieving what was rightfully mine. Are you beginning to see why it’s so hard to feel sympathy for a depressive? At the moment, I almost want to hop in a time machine so I can go back and punch myself in the nose and say, “Grow up and quit your whining!”

During this same time I spent a great deal of money going to shrinks, much of which I correctly perceived even than as paying someone to be my friend and listen to me complain when everyone else who knew me was sick and tired of it. That’s not to say it didn’t do me some good, and my last shrink was perspicacious enough to regularly aski me, “Have you thought that your drinking might have something to do with your depression? After all, alcohol is a depressant…”

“No, you dolt,” I’d answer exasperatedly. “I drink because I’m depressed, not the other way around. And anyway, I was depressed even before I started drinking.” (If you count the years from say, age 5 to 15, this was true.) “Still,” the shrink would say, “it couldn’t hurt to stop pouring more depressants on top of it.”

I was never very good at taking advice, especially when I suspected it might be good for me, so it would be several more years before I finally did stop drinking. It was only then that I began to realise that pretty much everything I’d done in adolescent and adult life had been at least partially under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Not that I was drunk or high the entire time, nothing like that, in fact, but I was also never away from them long enough to experience life on its own terms, to make decisions and have feelings unaffected by one more chemicals coursing through my system.

Long story short: the past few years have been the first time in my life that has been largely free from depression. Sure, I’ve had a few bad days now and then, but I used to have bad years. Decades, even. My life at present is far less exciting and glamorous than it was back in the 90s, but far more satisfying and enjoyable. Can I put this all down to stopping drinking and drugging? I have no idea, but that’s the major variable. Would I be so presumptuous as to suggest than anyone else suffering from depression may also have a substance abuse problem? Of course not, and not least because there are people with severe depression who never touch drugs or alcohol at all.

So I'm not trying to make any large generalisations or mass diagnoses; I can only talk about my own experience, and in my case it made a huge difference. Perhaps people with physical or psychological tendencies toward depression react differently or more intensely to alcohol and drugs. Perhaps the opportunities for escapism furnished by alcohol and drugs encouraged me to avoid making the necessary changes in my life that would have improved my mood and outlook much sooner. I honestly don't know, and maybe I never will know how or why it worked. What I do know is that for the first time in my life I consistently enjoy being alive and look forward to being alive for a long time to come. To many of you, that will sound like nothing at all out of the ordinary. Count your blessings. To those of you who know exactly what I'm talking about, I can only suggest: take a careful look at what you're putting into your system before going all mental about what It's putting out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just get them Seratonin and Dopamine levels up, and then it is easy sailing. Depression, whether drug induced, existentialist angst born, or genetic, is a result of cocked-up chemical soup in our brains.