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Posts Tagged ‘The Atlantic’

The Atlantic“…depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.”  “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk / The Atlantic, June 2009 

 

Woody Allen opens the movie, “Annie Hall,” with an old joke:  “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’  And the other one says, ‘Yeah, I know.  And such small portions.’” 

That sort of sums up how I feel about the prospect of dying early from depression.  “Life really sucked.  Too bad it was so short.” 

In the late 1930’s researchers at Harvard began a longitudinal study of 268 college students that would go on for 72 years.  Through interviews and questionnaires they were hoping to find the formula for a/the “good life.”  In the June edition of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk shares with readers, for the first time, information contained in documents used to support this study. 

I have to admit, this wasn’t the first time I had heard about how depression can shorten a person’s life span.  The first time occurred while I was sitting in the small, grey cubicle of Caesar C., my Farmer’s Insurance agent, trying to purchase a whole life policy.  At the time, Caesar was unable to explain to me in a way that I could understand, why the rates were astronomical.  In fact, I still don’t understand.  Or maybe I just don’t want to.  Maybe I just can’t stomach the concept that my life will end before I’m rid of this damn disease.  That it will end before the day arrives when I can finally greet the alarm clock without suspicion and dread. 

The second time I realized what I might be up against was in the inappropriately tilted book by Peter D. Kramer, “Against Depression.”  While in theory, its title might be appropriate, anyone who suffers from depression is likely to feel even more depressed after reading it: 

Depression leads to poor health behaviors, through apathy.” 

Depression was (being) implicated as a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.” 

In old age, depression becomes a straightforward risk for shortened life, not through suicide but through ordinary ill health.” 

You see, my life has already been shortened by this disease.  This past week alone I spent the major portion of each morning in bed, sometimes not rising until noon or later, partially because I was depressed, and partially because of insomnia (brought on by hypomania) that hasn’t allowed me to sleep more than two hours at a time. And then there are all of those moments and days that I wasn’t really present because I was manic and out of control, shopping, gambling, fornicating, doing everything to excess, being extreme, being some alter-ego, but not myself. 

I’ve already lost a third of my life (a pretty safe estimate) to this disease.  Somehow I don’t think it’s fair that it’s a statistical reality that I might also have to forfeit another couple of decades to it on the back end. 

I for one have no intention of going down without a fight.  If my mental handicaps have taught me anything, it’s to be a fighter, to hang on, to hold out for that break in the blackness.  To be patient for that one spring day of walking barefoot in the sand watching the sun set on Stinson beach.  That (sometimes,) is worth all that I have to endure on those other days when my entire life seems buried in fog. 

But I was encouraged by a few things in the Atlantic article, most of them having to do with the mind’s ability to overcome all of the obstacles put in our way, if we can only learn how: 

What we do…affects how we feel just as much as how we feel affects what we do.” 

[The] central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. [The] main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.” 

Much of what is labeled mental illness…simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms.” 

AND: 

“…the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.” 

I have been off prescription medication (for depression/bipolar disorder) for several months now.  Not one day of it has been easy.  Not one day has been spent without some kind of spike, and usually several, up and then down.  But each day was better than a day spent with my moods chemically altered and the associated side effects.  And each day I get to observe my mind for what it is, for how it works.  And each day holds the promise that tomorrow will be better.  That I might live to celebrate my 83rd birthday sipping coffee in a Paris café.

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