Whilst the subject of depression never really goes away, it has certainly bubbled to the surface lately with the recent quick-fire suicides of high-profile people such as TV superchef Anthony Bourdain and world famous designer Kate Spade.
What makes depression hard to understand for most of us is that these were successful people who seemed to have it all; they were brilliant, rich, famous, and who largely had creative control over everything they did. What possible hope is there for the rest of us if people like this can’t hack life?
In Spade’s case, her husband revealed that she had been seeking help and had been on medication for at least five years before she took her own life. So, despite the fact that she did all the right things according to the Suicide Prevention Handbook, Spade still ended up dead. Why?
Without knowing Spade personally or her particular situation in any detail, we can only ever speculate as to the reasons she acted as she did. But what we can surmise with confidence is that just taking drugs and talking endlessly about her problems to third parties didn’t work for her. At all.
So, if there’s anything we can learn from this seemingly needless tragedy, it’s that the current conventions for dealing with depression certainly aren’t foolproof. So maybe we need to challenge the accepted wisdom – even if it steps on a few toes to find some better solutions. I am no suicide expert, there are no medical letters after my name, I have not written nor studied extensive reports. However, despite my wishes, I am becoming one to some extent simply due to increased exposure to the issue within my life.
For example; my brother is on antidepressive medication and I have had to talk one friend’s head out of a noose over the phone. At least two members of my wider social group have hung themselves; one from a garage beam, the other from a bannister. A man I recently met at a party shot himself, an ex-girlfriend’s beau gassed himself in the garage cranking the Sisters of Mercy. Many of my friends down the years have OD-ed on heroin or suchlike and my uncle allegedly committed suicide at 18 by riding his motorbike straight into a brick wall.
Plus, as I write this, I have literally just had to inform a woman in my neighbourhood – whom I don’t even know! – that her sixteen-year-old son had just been a table tip away from hanging himself. Fortunately for him, my son was able to talk his head out of the noose via their shared gaming video call.
Get the picture?
What’s even more disturbing is that probably most of you are nodding along thinking; “huh, I could pretty much say the same too!”
Has it always been like this?
Unfortunately, I think so. Several of the examples mentioned above happened decades ago and undoubtedly many more before went largely unremarked on due to the taboo nature of the subject in those times. For example, a young MP killed himself on Makara Beach back in the 1930s yet there was no public discussion on the subject whatsoever aside from a euphemism-laden notice in the newspapers of the time. It was this lack of reporting in the past – and hazier examples like my uncle’s – that make it hard to quantify whether suicide rates have increased in modern times or whether it is just a universal problem irrespective of eras and social situations.
Today is different of course and, thanks to the efforts of luminaries such as Sir John Kirwan, there is much greater acceptability of talking about touchy subjects such as depression. Articles now appear in the media virtually weekly relating how some teenager with promise ended up dead by their own hand. The rationale behind this is; if we start talking about depression enough, we can normalize it. So, anyone who feels down won’t feel alone and hopefully that will enough to stay their hand.
Encouragingly, the new Health Minister Dr David Clark – theological doctor, not medical – in between point-scoring jabs at his National government predecessor, is promising a mental health inquiry. I welcome this – although I feel that the discussion should be robust, not the usual shoulder rub and sympathetic tongue cluck for the “poor dears”.
Depression – or just a bad day?
I say this because mental health resources, as with any medical category, are scarce and we can ill-afford wasting any on people who don’t need them. Plus, I am concerned that without robust debate on the subject, the concept of “depression” will merely become yet another bandwagon for everyone to jump on like the way we all instantly label any little kid who plays with just a bit too much spirit ‘ADD’. We will then become very much in danger of just meekly accepting any “depression” diagnosis – whether it be justified or not – and immediately duck responsibility for the hard things in our lives. Blaming everything on the latest Future Shock affliction unique to our complex, modern world. And worse, our impressionable young children will read all these articles on suicide and see them as some kind of cool call-to-action.
Well, screw that! I believe a lot of what is passed off as “depression” these days is selfinflicted and can be remedied at least partially by a vigorous self-examination of the causes – and more than a little “manning up”.
Cause meet Effect
When you kick a soccer ball, it flies through the air and lands = somewhere else. In Physics, they call it Newton’s First Law of Motion and it means that a body will remain motionless unless it is compelled to move by a force. The same laws apply to us as people, if we move away from our current state then we have to accept the laws of the new paradigm we’ve arrived at, not pine for the old days!
A classic example of this that really riles me up are public figures when they complain about having no privacy. If you choose to live your life in the spotlight, then the endless glare is what comes with the territory, throughout the good times – and the bad. It is the direct result of your choice, nothing more or less. Just as 350km per hour crashes are a very real issue for Formula One racing drivers and the bends are for deep sea divers. There’s no use just complaining or wishing away these problems, you have to have procedures in place in order to deal with them. Otherwise you increase your chances of suffering consequences.
It’s the same for us mere mortals too, if we choose to pursue a career in our job then we are sacrificing something somewhere whether that be time with our partners, family or interests. And vice versa. Choices made have to be lived with as you can’t go both left and right at the same time at any fork in the road. Too many of us try to be everything to everyone which simply cannot be done – and is also probably why nice guy Brendan Hartley is likely to get cut from Toro Rosso while Lewis Hamilton is oddson to win his fifth title.
Labels can be straightjackets
Many years ago, I was living in a hostel situation with both Uni students and members of the general public. I soon fell into a small group of like-minded out-going types and, to amuse ourselves, we proceeded to work our way around the hostel getting to know everybody – including all the non-students. One of these people was a thirtysomething man who had been diagnosed with “depression”.
Along with all of his medication, the doctor(s) had also – wisely in my opinion – prescribed that he live in a heavily populated domicile rather than off by himself. Upon learning this we naturally/ naively decided to try and cheer him up by inviting him along to share whatever ridiculous adventures we concocted and, to our surprise, it kind of worked. Especially whenever one of the – very pretty – girls in our group patted him or gave him cuddles. Whenever she did this the guy virtually purred like a cat! He then became “normal” like the rest of us.
This made me realise that, despite all the drugs and medical certificates, there wasn’t really that much wrong with him. To my untrained eye, he was merely chronically shy, lonely and just didn’t know how to make new friends. Yet he’d been tagged as “sick” and would’ve lived out his life under that label sitting unhappily and alone in his room unless clowns like us had stumbled in upon him.
It’s all in the mind
Years later, a girlfriend gave me a book she was reading for her psychology degree called Towards a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck, who was both a psychologist and a priest. I’ll readily admit this book had a profound effect on me – not due to any pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo about a faith-based concept like evil, but because it highlighted the power of the subconscious mind.
The most disturbing case highlighted in the book was a teenager who seemed to be constantly throwing himself into the path of trouble, whether that be via petty crime or just anti-social attitudes. Like most psychologists, Peck figured the problem wasn’t with the kid, but was merely a symptom of the parents’ issues.
He was right. After quite a bit of digging, Peck discovered that the parents had given the kid a gun for Christmas – and not just any old gun but the exact same gun his older brother had used to commit suicide with. The subliminal message to the kid was crystal clear: do the world a favour and get rid of yourself. The same heroic way your brother did.
The kid was actually heroic in a way as he picked up on their message and was trying to remove himself from society by getting himself put into an institution – and therefore saving his parents any trouble or embarrassment of scraping any more brains off the bedroom walls.
Peck argued that these parents didn’t want children at all as they messed up their nice, tidy lives, so they devised schemes to get rid of them. Not consciously of course, as they would probably even pass a liedetector test, but at a deeply subconscious level. So, both parents and child were sabotaging their lives at an unspoken – and even unknown – level.
A hypnotist friend of mine told me the same about an elite athlete he was training. The guy had come to him because his sprint times had plateaued and he’d heard that mind games can sometimes help performance. My friend immediately challenged his client and said that deep down he was afraid of winning so his body was sabotaging his performance. Outraged by this news, the athlete stormed out only to return three weeks later – with better times in his logbook.
NOT CONSCIOUSLY OF COURSE, AS THEY WOULD
PROBABLY EVEN PASS A LIE-DETECTOR TEST,
BUT AT A DEEPLY SUBCONSCIOUS LEVEL. SO,
BOTH PARENTS AND CHILD WERE SABOTAGING
THEIR LIVES AT AN UNSPOKEN AND EVEN
What is your mind telling you?
Scoff all you like that problems like this can never happen to you as you’re not a troubled teenager or elite athlete – but the truth is, we’re all susceptible to subconscious sabotage more than we think. My own father was similar in a way to the parents in Peck’s book, although he never gave us guns for presents!
Like a lot of blue collar guys, he didn’t earn a lot of money. So, he worked six days a week plus overtime which, on the surface, made him look like he was a good man as, without all that overtime on his manual worker’s wages, we would have had even less than we did.
But it was what he did on Sundays that was telling. Rather than play cricket with my brother and I in the backyard he just sat in the living room, drank beer and watched TV from dawn to dusk. At the time, we were told it was because he was “tired” from all that work. As I grew older I realized he really did it because he just couldn’t – or didn’t – want to deal with us kids. I doubt he ever made this decision consciously but the reality was I had no more father than the kids up the road whose dad had “shot through” years earlier. I see the same attitude all the time today, my neighbor even puts her kids in afterschool care on her days off!
Live in the Now
My father’s sabotage manifested in that mentally he never left the 1950s, a time of parties, girls, fun and music for him and, as any perusal of a site like OldFriends will reveal; he’s not alone. Dozens of ex-students from generations much closer to our own show a similar pining for the “good old days” when homework assignments and whether that cute boy or girl in Maths class liked you back, was all you had to worry about.
We do this because we are turning away from the strange and complex reality of today’s foreign, cold, digital, performance-measured world. Perfectly understandable perhaps but unfortunately, this attitude can only lead to depression as it is based only on the delusional Photoshopped past our mind lets us remember. Where no one beat you up at school, sneered at your jokes or rejected your advances.
Instead we have to push past our fears to enjoy what we can about the present and accept the rest because right now is one of the “good old days” of tomorrow. Waste time now gazing lovingly back through rose tinted spectacles at the past and you will have nothing but bitterness to look back on in the future.
Thank God for sanity
M. Scott Peck’s background as a priest has also given me pause to think about the role – or lack thereof – of faith in our lives too. I grew up Methodist but had so little involvement in my church I couldn’t tell you how it differed from any other Christian facility. Jesus was in there as some sort of saffron-robed hippie wandering around uttering legal-sounding parables – and so were summer camps where we went away to cook baked beans over open fires and swing off ropes to splash in the river.
The only other thing that made any impact on my impressionable young mind – aside from the hot older girls in their river-soaked T shirts – was the concept of prayer as practiced by Methodists. As far as I was concerned, it was the one thing in Christianity that did make sense – as I never could get my head around why I had to eat chocolate-coated marshmallow eggs delivered by Disney-esque rabbits on a date that moved every year with the Moon.
But thanking some form of “God” for giving me my mum and dad, brother and sisters, our pet cat, the roof over our head and the food on our table made perfect sense to me. And even though my family paid little heed to their religious obligations, I found myself occasionally kneeling by my bed in secret, giving thanks to whatever confusing vague creature there was up in the sky. Not as some sort of trade off for my sins, but because it made me feel good about what I did have – as opposed to what I didn’t.
This I feel is a crucial point in causing depression as, with an increasing focus on what we don’t have – reinforced every day by advertising, TV, movies and the internet – then it’s easy to feel like we’ve “failed”. To illustrate; my ten-year-old daughter was weeping the other day because we didn’t have what her schoolchums all described as a “bach”. The fact that we are lucky enough to have access to Grandma’s place with acres of bush, farm animals and a private beach access didn’t count in her eyes because we hadn’t taken out a second mortgage to actually buy one.
Disturbingly, this wholesale rejection of gratitude for what we do have is only likely to increase. The recent Wilberforce Foundation Faith and Belief in New Zealand report notes that belief in Christianity in our country is falling rapidly with only a third identifying with any church denomination today, down from nearly half a decade ago. Of course, there are many reasons for this including, increased immigration of people from other faiths; busier lives; and scandals within the churches themselves. But a fair portion of these ex-Christians have turned
their backs as they feel that any questioning of materialistic urges is irrelevant to their current lifestyles.
Which is fine, as we are a free country in that the state does not impose one religion or another upon its subjects. But, if we as individuals choose to reject our faith in order to keep up with the Joneses or spend more time on Snapchat then we must accept the consequences. Religion was devised to help us cope with what we don’t understand and if we choose to turn our back on it – then the onus is on us to find a substitute coping mechanism. I.e. if we can no longer see what our role in
the bigger picture is, then we must deal with that ourselves. Blaming everything on depression and reaching for the drug bottles won’t solve the issue.
So, what are you going to be when you finally grow up and stop stuffing around in life? President of the World? Or just happy with your lot? If your answer is something like the former then you should also ask yourself if it is a realistic challenge. Are you shooting for the stars or just setting yourself up for a fall?
Talk to any serious sportsperson and it won’t be long before they start rabbiting on about aiming high. Which is great – but it also comes with the potential issue of what happens if you don’t make it to the top.
A salient point, particularly given the interesting argument festering right now in New Zealand football about the current – at time of writing – Football Ferns coach (and National Director of Coaching) Andreas Heraf. Especially after he said he didn’t believe our players were good enough to beat major power Japan so ordered them to play in a damage limitation style.
Ex-All White Declan Edge of the Ole Football Academy in Porirua immediately countered that what Mr Heraf believes may turn out to be true – but if sportspeople accept that truth then there’s no point in playing at all. Because if you don’t try to win then – in the public’s eyes at least – you’re a loser.
Fair enough, but I’d argue that it all depends on where you are on the
expectation scale. For example; if the All Blacks play Brazil in rugby, we the public expect them to win by a score line of, say; 100-0. Anything less would be a spectacular failure. Yet, if the All Whites lose to Brazil in football, we the public expect them to lose by a score line of, say; 5-0. Anything less would be a legendary success.
Which is exactly Mr Heraf’s point. If a Football Ferns loss of 3-1 to Japan is worth more points on the FIFA ratings scale than a 5-0 loss then why wouldn’t you take the points? As a higher-ranked country the Ferns would be invited to more tournaments, get greater exposure and develop better skills against stronger opposition. Lose/Win!
The problem of course, is motivation – or lack thereof. As former Ferns captain Abby Erceg said after she quit in protest at Mr Heraf’s approach: “I don’t work my butt off to get to Olympics or World Cups to not get beat by too much.”
But if we are to chase the 5-0 wins in the boardrooms, kitchens and pick-up joints of our lives – we have to suck up the 8-0 losses too. There’s no use getting depressed about them – we failed. Spectacularly even. But, so what? We’re playing again next week…
If you can’t get over it – get by
At Uni one of my friends was a hardcore babe. You know the type who would make a priest kick a hole in a stained-glass window. Super intelligent, pretty, curvy and with a husky voice, she had it all. Yet there was also a certain sadness about her, even during the fun times. Discreet inquiries amongst her female mates advised me that she had been one of the third of all New Zealand women sexually abused before they turn 16 – an outrageous statistic that should surely be receiving at least as much attention as the depression issue! For this she was undergoing therapy for the incident – on a weekly basis. But one of her female flatmates also reported that the woman came back depressed every week after her session, then would take most of a week to recover. Then, it was time for another session…
Frankly, if even the woman’s friends were questioning the value of her “therapy”, you have to wonder if constantly raking over the coals was actually doing her any good? Or was it just wallowing in a bad place?
On the other side of the coin, a woman I worked for a couple of years with had been raped as a teenager and had had a child out of that unwanted union. Yet she kept the baby and raised him lovingly as her own – despite that fact that the child’s face reminded her every single day of her torment. For her trauma, she had no therapy, took no drugs – medicinal or recreational – and didn’t even drink. Sure, she had fits of wild temper every now and then but, considering her history and refusal to succumb to depression, all her co-workers were more than- willing to tolerate any outbursts. Why wouldn’t we? She was inspirational.
I recently came across an old photo from 1927 when the Duke of York (we know him as George VI, aka Queen Liz’s dad) visited New Zealand on a grand asset stock take tour. So, once the Royal Road Show hit Wellington some of the old WWI diggers were – literally – wheeled out to meet their future King and Queen.
The three chaps in the photo were what was known as “cot cases” which basically meant they were incapable of leaving their beds due to the afflictions they’d received during the Great War. Legs, internal organs,
genitals – you name it, they’d lost it.
So, not only had these men endured whatever horrendous bullshit Passchendaele, Verdun and the Somme could throw at them, they were rewarded with the loss of ability to walk, have sex, eat or go to the bathroom by themselves. And to cap it all off, they were then forced to suffer the indignity of being brought out in more-or-less wheelbarrows to be paraded in front of the pampered sons and daughters of the ruling class who had sent them to their ruin – and shot anyone who dared to argue reason with them.
I think this photo serves as a marvelous yardstick for measuring your depression. Seriously, if you ever feel down about things, find this pic and ask yourself the following questions:
• Am I as helpless as these poor men?
• Have I been dealt as much miserable injustice in life?
• Am I as forgiving?
If you can answer “yes” to all three questions above then please do seek help. Call Samaritans on 0800 726 666 or Youthline on 0800 376 633 and let them aid your recovery.
If you can’t answer “yes” to the above questions, then how about you try these suggestions:
• Cope. Shit happens to everybody – it’s your job to deal with it.
• Stand up – and man up! – as much as you can. Take solace in the undisputable fact that, no matter how bad your situation may seem right now, there is always someone worse off than you out there.
• Get your shit together – because if we don’t then there will be
no one left to make the world a better place for everyone else.
The Mourning After
My son is currently mourning the loss of rapper XXXTentacion who was recently gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Miami. So, I’ve given him the evening off studying for his NCEA mock exams as I remember the way I felt when Ian Curtis of Joy Division died keenly. A young talented life ended prematurely is always a downer. Despite appearances, the two were similar in many ways in that their lyrics dealt with depression, death and suicidal thoughts. Noted.