Manic-depression and me.

The piece I posted, “Why write?” set me thinking.  The WordPress blogging system gives you a bunch of links to web content that it thinks relates to what you’re writing and it came up with a number of links concerning manic-depression.  I looked at a few of them and realized that there is still confusion about the disorder and that there must be a lot of people who do not understand it but want to.

Of course, it’s questionable whether anyone can understand manic-depression who isn’t manic-depressive.  I came to the conclusion, some years after he died, that my father was manic-depressive.   My mother was married to him for 32 years and she lived another 24 years after he died but it was only in the last couple of years of her life that she began to grasp that her son wasn’t simply miserable, that he had something wrong with him.  In truth, it’s questionable even whether another manic-depressive can truly understand another sufferer’s problem; every man’s hell is truly his alone.  Still, there is at least some common ground between fellow sufferers.

One thing to note is that MDD (confusingly, the term MDD is now used for simple depression) is known by a different name these days: bipolar disorder. There is a reason for this and it’s a good one — sort of.  The thing about manic-depression is that almost no one understands what the term actually means. The perfect illustration came to me a few years ago when my friend, Jane, asked me what the difference was between manic-depression and clinical depression. Of course, probably no one knows what bipolar disorder means, either, but I suppose it’s an improvement if people know they don’t understand things.

To answer Jane’s question, manic-depression is a disorder in which the sufferer experiences extreme mood swings, from bouts of clinical depression to bouts of mania — from down on the floor in tears to up on the ceiling.  At least, that’s the perceived wisdom and that’s how things have been for me.  Emily Schlatter (see below) tells us that her case is more complex than that.  I can certainly agree with her point that pure depression does not cause people to harm themselves.  When I have suffered deep bouts of depression, I have only ever wanted to crawl into (or under) the bed and die; making any effort would have been beyond me.

The next point is that manic-depression is a clinical disorder.  Depression is not unhappiness.  I’ve often heard women talk about “man-flu”, based on the cliché that men always claim they have the flu when they have only a heavy cold.  There seems to have been, in recent years, an epidemic of something for which I might coin the term “woman-depression”, except that it’s too unwieldy to ever catch on — that and the fact that I’d get lynched for sexism (curiously “man-flu” doesn’t seem to count as a sexist comment).   In the last few years, there seems to have been a rash of celebrity women complaining that some crisis or mishap in their lives left them feeling depressed.  This is not depression, any more than a heavy cold is ‘flu.  It’s important to understand; if you feel bad because your marriage has collapsed, or the house has collapsed or you’ve lost your job, that is not depression.  Mark the difference; unhappiness is a normal response to life going wrong.  Depression is an abnormal response to life in general.

To illustrate, I recall a morning, some weeks after my mother died.  I was sitting on the edge of the recreation ground, being early for an appointment.  It was a beautiful summer’s morning with a blue sky and I sat there feeling my inner self curling into a ball.  Granted that I was still mourning the loss of my mother but I should have felt some lift from the day and the fresh air.  My mind knew that it was a good day and that I should have felt some joy from it but no…   That is depression!

Depressives cannot “snap out of it”; depression robs you of the ability to “snap out of it”.  The part of the mind that can exercise some degree of conscious control over your emotions ceases to function.  Mania is the other side of the coin.  Mania is the upswing and it sounds as though it should be a good thing.  Many manic-depressives report that they are more creative when they are in their manic phase. That sounds like a good thing but it can be a problem.  I know that when I am in a highly-creative phase, I can find myself working on a book until the small hours, sometimes until nearly three or even four in the morning.  Needless to say, I amn’t much use next day.  A manic person has limited self-control, you see.  Extreme mania can be embarrassing, causing a loss of inhibitions similar to drunkenness.  In my case — a relatively mild variety, apparently — it usually leads to silliness, giggliness and a stream of jokes; not too embarrassing, most of the time.  Other sufferers, though, like drunks, can be rude, aggressive and even violent.

As I mentioned above, there are more complex manifestations of MDD, where elements of mania and of depression blend in a kind of composite mood but since I don’t suffer from them, I have nothing useful to contribute.

There is one other thing that I have noticed about MDD, which is that physical condition seems to have a real influence on its workings.

Firstly, sleep seems to be key.  Most authorities hold that insomnia is a symptom of depression, yet sleepless nights can also be a partial cause.  Many a time, I have found myself dog tired after a run of sleepless nights and have found that, with experience, I have learnt to recognize the signs of an impending bout of depression. In fact, I have often been able to avert, or at least delay, the bout if only I can get some sleep (usually easier said than done).

Secondly, diet has an effect.  A sweet tooth seems to be make a bad bedfellow for MDD.  We all know how sugar can give our systems a lift but, if you stop to think about it, if you have a problem with excessive mood swings, something that artificially changes your mood is hardly a good thing.  I have never really studied my reactions but I suspect that large doses of sugar used to bring on manic episodes.  I am quite sure, though, that withdrawal from sugar did trigger at least some of my bouts of depression.

Finally, I have an idea, no more, that manic-depression is at least somewhat aggravated by dietary imbalance.  It may be coincidence but, about fourteen years ago, I stumbled on the realization that the endless succession of minor infections with which I was afflicted were due to a below-par immune system. Concluding that some dietary shortfall (zinc was an obvious suspect) was to blame, I started taking a multi-mineral, multi-vitamin supplement.  The result has been marked, colds that once would have lasted all winter now clear up before I’ve had to changed my hankie. Some time during this period, though, I noticed that my manic-depression had become less severe; with one exception, I have not had such deep abyssal depressions as I once had.  As I say, it may be coincidence — I cannot even say for sure that the timing corresponds — but it is suggestive.

I want to conclude with one piece of advice to all depressives.  Remember one thing; however dark and long and hopeless the tunnel of depression is, there is always an end.  Hold on to that idea and it will help you carry on until you get there.

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