The Muskrat – illustration by Tove Jansson from Finn Family Moomintroll
For the last few weeks, depression has had me in a gradually tightening grip. It started with the Brexit vote. Like many others, I spent too much time online, stayed up too late, and then couldn’t sleep. I caught a heavy cold, which worsened on a complicated trip abroad. Several challenging weeks at work ripened it into a severe chest infection; I worked on regardless until the schools I work at shut their doors for the summer holidays. Then I collapsed, and for the last few days even getting off the sofa has been a struggle.
I expect most people who know me will be unaware of all this, partly because socialising falls off in August anyway, and also because I’ve learned to hide it pretty well. If I told them I’d likely get sympathy, which I don’t particularly need or want, though I’d receive it graciously, I hope. Fact is, given the state the world is in, depression seems like a fairly rational state of mind to me right now. But also, the pattern I’ve just described tends to recur every summer. I finish work, I catch a cold, I go into my shell. Everything slows down.
I’ve started to regard this as a positive development. That’s not Pollyanna speaking; it’s based on my experience of previous slumps. If I’m going to go to ground, better to do it in August then in September, the most demanding time of year for anyone who works in an educational setting. It’s almost as if my mind and body have subconsciously co-operated to get it out of the way at the least harmful time. I could beat myself up staring at the overgrown garden or the list of unanswered emails. It wouldn’t make me feel any better or get well any faster. So what would help?
If you recognise this state of mind in yourself, I could advise that you get hold of Matt Haig’s wonderful little book Reasons to Stay Alive a model of compassion, common sense and realistic assumptions about the concentration span of anyone afflicted by depression. It should be available on what is left of the NHS. I’ve also learned to me very leery of any heroics regarding medication. If you need to boost the pills and your GP agrees, don’t just dismiss that and try to tough it out. I’ve always been very conservative about any kind of medication, to the point of almost collapsing with pneumonia before admitting that a course of antibiotics might be helpful. Antidepressants have had a very bad press in recent years and it’s fashionable to assume Big Pharma is out to get you. But they certainly beat being paralysed by suicidal misery.
That said, once basic functionality has been addressed (and that can be as basic as a daily shower and regular meals), there is a case for looking at the advantages of a period of withdrawal. What can I still do? I can read – maybe not the intellectually demanding stuff I think I should be reading, but I can revisit loved children’s books, discover new ones and absorb a few insights from that much-maligned genre, the self-help manual. I don’t mean the kind that promises to make you perfect in 7 days, I mean something from the popular science section that catches my eye concerning habit change, productivity, or self-control. If you pick up just one or two insights from each one and let them marinade in your apparently addled brain, you may be surprised by the way they come to your aid under stress at work in a few weeks’ time.
This year I’ve been working my way through the Moomins, a pretty good self-help manual in their own quirky way. I’ve read Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson which has deepened my love and respect for this wonderfully wise and insightful writer. I’ve realised that for a practising school librarian, I’ve fallen shamefully behind on actually reading contemporary children’s fiction – somehow it got lost between the cataloguing and the overdue letters, so I’m addressing that. And a lot of the time, I’m just thinking. It pays off. Last year, it was a very similar fallow patch that opened my mind to a possibility that seems obvious now – that I’m lactose intolerant – but it wasn’t nearly as clear when I was trying to figure out why I had such awful IBS. And it was a few weeks of downtime that helped me break the dairy habit that had been sustaining me, but at too great a cost.
So I’m depressed. It will pass. I will reach the point, quite soon I hope, when I can actually look forward to going out and doing things (or even finishing that DVD box set) with enthusiasm and pleasure. For now, I’ll go into my den and wait. See you in September. Hopefully.