Riyadh: Sunday 16th September 2012
The blues are coming. They are inevitable. They are not here yet; the equilibrium has yet to tip over fully. But they are very close. I can hear them, smell them, feel them lurking in the cold damp tiredness of my body; stalking me. For now, I could pretend to ignore them, go about my day, whistling and pretending that it is all okay. But, this would be bravado. The blues are on their way and nothing can prevent their inexorable conquest of my soul. It will take a couple of days; but once they gain a bridgehead, their conquest will be rapid and total.
They never stay long, but like Vikings, their brief occupation is fraught and a path of destruction is often left in their wake. The week after the blues arrive is really a process of rebuilding. Family relationships need work as you have inevitably hurt or worried someone. You need to get back to the things you could not do while you were entertaining the blues. Ironing, washing, work. All have been neglected to some extent. All require renewed focus and catch up.
I am lucky, of course. The blues are relatively mild with me. Some people are much more dramatically affected, entering prolonged periods of deeply self-destructive behaviour. I have been friends with at least two people whose highs set the world alight, imbibing them with rich charisma and a steady stream of deeply attached admirers and acquaintances, each keen to be associated with them.
One of these friends has since passed away tragically young, the other, has progressively become less charming as he has aged and his narcissism has become more pronounced.
And yet, the blues, however powerfully they strike, can still wreak havoc. The blues hurt and rob you of the necessary energy and vitality to function as a person should, as you know you must. Most importantly the blues confuse and disorient those around you. They are the real victims of the blues, not the supposed sufferer. Invariably they grow to rely on, like, work with or love the person before the blues strike and fail to understand the sudden wave of negativity which occupies them periodically.
“What have I done wrong?” is a common response, as is, “What can I do to help?” Other people react to the blues with less sympathy, “Moody sod! Get over it?” Pull yourself together!” On the whole I prefer the latter response for the simple reason that I know the way the blues affect me and that there is nothing another person can really do to help.
Everyone is different of course, and as I have said, there are serious cases of medically diagnosed depression which are far beyond my experience. Yet, it seems to me that during a bout of the blues, the thing I most want is to be able to mediate the relationships around me on my terms. I lack the energy to deal with the problems which human interface routinely throws up. If someone detects that you are unhappy, they understandably ask what is wrong, and seek to offer support. Yet the mere act of explaining that you are depressed that there is no real reason for you being depressed beyond a series of lifestyle choices which have led to a shortfall in dopamine levels is tiring, most likely to lead to further questions, incomprehension, and offence. I can only speak for myself but when the blues visit I mostly just want to be left alone to deal with it in my own way.
There is an exception to this, of course. I like a rant. One of the blogs I like to read referred in a recent post, to how blogging helps when you are down. I could see the point instantly. For while I certainly do not want to engage in conversation, neither do I want to be misunderstood. On the contrary, I want you to understand implicitly and completely my current state and to understand that I mean you no harm at all. I just some time to get back to normal.
I am told that misunderstanding and education is one of the main thrusts of the mental health lobby and that people suffering from medically diagnosed depression are frequently misunderstood. I am unqualified to comment on this. I am occasionally visited by the blues, but never to the extent that I have sought or considered medical advice. Highs and lows happen and I suspect I am basically normal. Yet the misunderstanding is something I can relate to. Indeed, I suspect that I too, misunderstand when people are depressed. I want to help. I find that I behave in exactly the way I hate others behaving.
For the truth is, that we all spend most of our lives seeking ways to mediate our relationships on our own terms. The blues make this more important to us, but the struggle never stops. No one really wants to have to explain themselves twice. No one wants to be misunderstood.
Of course, I am not (as far as I am aware), mentally ill. I just suffer highs and lows. As such, I can track the advance of the blues from initial signals, through to conquest and then onto retreat. Moreover, after years of encountering them, I can track their causation, through trends leading to them. They are the result of the constant fluctuations in levels of your chemical makeup and can be regulated. Sudden binges of anything can swiftly affect your mental outlook positively or negatively. We are increasingly attuned to the idea that heavy consumers of Alcohol or Marijuana will suffer bouts of depression. Indeed, the connection between alcohol and mental wellbeing goes back over 150 years and can be seen in records of the Old West, where heavy drinking in a brutal, male dominated environment gave rise to the term Melancholia, to describe the alcohol related doldrums suffered by many a prospector or cowboy.
But in reality, the blues can arise from too little vitamin D (or too sudden a binge). It can arise from sudden reductions in your average vegetable intake or rises in your consumption of chocolate. We are obviously affected by the loss, ether temporary or permanent, of close friends and loved ones. Yet, no one thinks of this as a mental health issue because it is perfectly normal, an essential part of living and loving and being happy. Without understanding sorrow, can we really understand joy?
So why are the blues coming now?
Well, first and foremost, I returned to work yesterday after a wonderful holiday in a delightful place. I saw, both my partner and my mother enjoy a wonderful time, and felt the corresponding high of knowing that I was enjoying giving them happiness. The sudden return to normality is inevitably going to feel like a less vibrant or pleasant place to be, all the more so because I know that I have equally depressed my loved ones by returning them to their normal lives.
Then there is the myriad of holiday related uppers which suddenly get withdrawn. I drank alcohol, slept late, saw lots of sun, danced, felt the adrenalin and endorphins of rigorous and pleasant activity, felt the joy of swimming in clear crystal waters where you can see the sea bed and I had fresh fruit for breakfast every morning. I sat and talked late into the night, about the big subjects of love and the future, I made plans and felt the release of freedom. I spent money that I had saved for the purpose of spending and I met interesting and intelligent people.
Who, faced with all those positive stimuli and returned to sudden and lengthy normality would not feel sad? Is it really any wonder that I can feel the impending arrival of the blues? The wonder would be, if I felt anything other than blue after so wonderful a holiday.
So what can I do about it? When the Vikings attacked, one of their chief assets was surprise. Yet you could still spot the sail on the horizon and run to the safety of your fortifications. When you sense the impending arrival of a great storm you might still have time to hammer large bits of MDF over your windows, and move your valuables to upper floors. What can I do now with the knowledge that I will be depressed?
Well, as I stated before, there are many forms of depression and my own coping mechanisms will be of absolutely no use whatsoever, to someone who is genuinely and clinically depressed. I do not seek to cheapen the sufferers of mental health issues with my own quasi-empirical coping mechanisms. Nor do I recommend them. But I do share them, because sharing is cathartic and one of the first things to suffer when the blues come to stay with Crabbitat.
De-clutter: When the blues hit, for between two and five days, I will be unable to function as a normal person functions. I will be gripped by a mental, spiritual and physical lethargy which is truly all-encompassing. In the past, when such a depression has fallen over a weekend, I have spent a whole day in bed, unable to find something to get up for. There, dosing in a nether world, between sleep and fitfulness, I have wallowed, unable to find the words to be accommodating to loved ones or to find any solace in their well-meaning encouragement. I have been deeply self-absorbed and knowledge of this has merely made the condition more acute.
Yet, the blues do not merely visit on down time. They grip you during the week as well. When I need to get up and go to work, I am forced to make sacrifices in other areas. The first thing to go is politeness. I am not proud of this, but while I am generally an approachable colleague, on blue days I am appallingly direct. If you come to me with a work related problem, fine, but for social calls forget it. Jokey emails are deleted rather than read, invitations to fill out questionnaires as part of a colleagues university research or invitations to lunch will be declined without an excuse.
This is deliberate. I will know that I have a basic level of performance to meet and that it is an uncompromising struggle to perform even basic tasks. I will therefore not indulge in anything else.
Avoid admin (or prioritize it): We all have a basic level of admin to perform as part of our jobs. Some of us have rather a lot of it. Most of us, find that there is always enough of it that you are never truly 100% up-to-date. In my experience, most people will perform a small amount per day allowing non-essential admin to accumulate until this can no longer be tolerated. They will then devote an entire day to this.
On blue days, I will almost certainly do no admin at all. It can and will wait. Other things are more important. I will not have the energy to sit and concentrate on that report for next Tuesday.
There is one exception to this: Occasionally, there is enough accrued admin to justify a whole day devoted to its clearance. This is usually a mind numbing siege, involving typing, folding, binding, filing and ripping up and binning. Yet, if there is a whole day’s worth of admin, it could be a good time to consider doing it. Your mind is numb, you are not thinking of other things. Moreover, the physical clearance of paperwork can act as a sort of mental spring cleaning. Looking at that newly empty in tray can be cathartic in a way that chairing a successful meeting sometimes isn’t.
If it is not on the list it doesn’t get done: For some reason, people never come to me with non urgent items. I have never heard the expression, “Hi, I thought I would ask you do this thing for me, but take your time as it is not due until next week.” Yet, just because it seems urgent to your colleague doesn’t make it urgent. I routinely operate from a lengthy and constantly updated “to do list” and work to try to clear this, systematically prioritising items on the list accordingly.
Over time, you come to know the ebbs and flows of the working month and can anticipate in advance, when the boss in going to start panicking about his not having started the monthly report. I therefore, usually factor this into my list and begin to chase round deliverables well ahead of time. In this way, when he comes looking to transfer blame for some self-inflicted lack of efficiency, I can provide him with my sections and not have my other priorities disturbed by his panic.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this stops when I have the blues over. I concentrate as far as possible on the list. If you come to me with a problem it will go onto the list, it will be dealt with, but I will not seek to anticipate your problem ahead of time.
But when the blues hit, this list becomes essential. It becomes my single reference document, the thing which gets me through the day.
Escapism: I was never much of a TV watcher when I lived in the UK. I would watch the news or the occasional documentary if there was a TV on. But I never actively sought one out. I preferred the radio for company, particularly Radio 4, with its diet of News, analysis, magazine programmes, comedy and drama. It is famously high quality and impartial, demanding the very heist performance and never dumming down for the sake of the audience. But here in KSA I can seldom listen to this station as my housemates constant downloading of TV drama series appears to adversely affect the bandwidth. I am therefore left with a stark choice. I can read, or I can watch TV.
When the blues come to town, I cannot concentrate on reading, so I watch TV. In particular, I watch passively and without mental engagement, the steady diet of American TV sitcom s provided on one of the channels. I have watched season after season of comedies I cannot even remember the name of, and consumed wholesale their simple humour and moral messages.
American comedy is no widely consumed on British TV, but there was a time, when we Britons disdained American comedy. Yet, such disdain misses the point entirely. Sitcom is formulaic by nature. The characters are two-dimensional and will always be so. Their lives are moon cast shadows of our own; allowing us to see our own ridiculousness and that of others. Moreover, I like the simple morality of the American comedy. It is rare to find truly dark or unsympathetic characters in American comedy. The lessons derived are simple enough. A teenager learns a valuable lesson and the parent learns to respect the teenagers emerging adult a wee bit more. It is not rocket science, but when I have the blues, it is comforting, like a warm, undemanding blanket. The world seems a nicer place.
Sleep: This is a hard one. I do not advocate taking to bed for three days when the blues strike. But neither is it any use to mope around. Getting to bed at a decent time and getting up early is as good a coping mechanism as it is possibly to advocate. Both are hard when you are depressed. You want to sit awake until the small hours and not get up in the morning. But regulation of sleep is about control and taking control is have the battle in defeating the blues.
Exercise: This used to be my stock-in-trade coping mechanism for the blues. I would not want to get off the sofa and walk, so I would force myself to do it, and then I would walk for hours. If I had free time I would sometimes walk in the country. Mostly I would walk to town, seeking to make a steady stride and maintain it throughout the walk. It would give me room to work things out in my brain and it would stimulate endorphins which would get to work battling the blues.
I cannot do that in Saudi Arabia. For one thing, I would leave the house only to find myself walking around a small compound. For another thing, it is hot. There is a gym and a pool, but I have come to realise that these forms of exercise are basically unappealing because they appear pointless. Even with a circular walk, you are fooling yourself that you are actively going somewhere. But an exercise bike, a treadmill or a 15m pool do not allow you the impression of travel. They are therefore denied to me as coping mechanisms. But they might work for you.
Incremental progress: Reduce every task you set yourself to the tiniest component part you can. If you need to cook a dinner, start by setting yourself the task of picking up the potato bag, then set the task of pealing and washing them. Next set yourself the task of boiling the water and so on. Do not think about the next task until the first task is complete. It will all seem like too much. Just get on and do that one simple task, focusing, if you can on preparation work first. Then, by the time you need to focus on the complex task of blending ingredients into a pan, you have everything to hand and it is easy to imagine it being done.
One word of caution. Include washing dishes as you go. Otherwise you end up with a mountain of dirty crockery that will only depress you more.
Eat Pudding: There is a stereotype of the depressed woman who binge eats her way through several cakes to get over the collapse of her relationship. It is a stereotype because it is true and cathartic and worth doing. Sweetness makes you chemically feel better, chocolate is said to stimulate the same chemical production as love-making and a full stomach will make you a wee bit less unhappy than an empty one. You can exercise and diet again when you feel better. But remember, that this is a crutch, not a cure.
Wish me luck and see you on the other side!!!