On Depression

This last week has been a sad one. Sad because of the tragic death of Scott Hutchison, the creator and songwriter behind one of my favourite bands, Frightened Rabbit, who took his own life after what must have been a long battle with depression. I first saw he’d gone missing last week and immediately feared the worst. A few days later it was reported his body had been found near the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh.

I fell in love with Frightened Rabbit after I heard their album The Midnight Organ Fight several years back. That album is still one of my favourite and most listened to albums. I devoured everything they produced since and I went to see them a couple of times, and they also played 2000 Trees festival which I go to every year. One of the last songs on the album is called Floating in the Forth, and in the lyrics Scott imagines his own death and decides to save suicide for another day. It’s one of those uplifting songs they always played live and everyone sang along with, but I guess I never consciously thought about how real those lyrics were and how the day he spoke of might finally come.

We need to talk about it

Depression is a shitter. It’s now the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Just let that sink in for a moment – all the possible ways that a young guy could die, and it’s suicide that is the most common.

It’s a difficult subject for most people I think. A lot of men especially don’t want to admit they might have a problem for fear of how they might look to others. At work at the moment there is a counsellor available for drop in sessions. I’m not going to go. Why? Because I don’t want my colleagues to be talking about me, speculating or whatever. I don’t want my boss thinking I can’t cope with my workload and treating me differently. I don’t want anyone to think I have a mental health problem because I worry it might affect a future promotion opportunity.

My older brother is on medication for depression and I have sometimes wondered if I suffer from it too, like maybe it’s genetic or something. When I first moved to Northampton I felt pretty miserable and lethargic for no apparent reason. I saw my GP about it and he asked me to fill in a questionnaire on depression. I answered it pretty honestly I thought and he told me I was suffering from mild to moderate depression.

What does that even mean, mild to moderate depression? My GP offered me medication but I declined, partly because I don’t like tablets but partly because I thought rightly or wrongly I could figure out a better solution. In the end I saw a counsellor for a while and took part in some classes organised by the council. I did some art classes and some creative writing classes which directly led to me taking up creative writing as a hobby. I also began exercising more regularly which has helped I think. (Whenever I haven’t exercised for a couple of weeks I start to feel shit about myself so I’m pretty sure there’s a direct link there).

The counsellor brought things into perspective. I think sometimes when you are ambitious and things don’t quite go to plan, or you have friends who seem to be doing really well, getting promoted and buying houses and so on, or you look on Facebook and everyone is all smiles, it can sometimes be hard to compare that with your own mediocre existence. The counsellor encouraged me and told me that actually I was doing well even if it didn’t sometimes feel like it, completing a good degree, getting a decent job, keeping healthy and so on. She seemed especially impressed that I’d moved to Northampton and got myself set up, was making friends and so on. We talked about a lot of stuff, the expectations my parents had of me, relationships, all that bumph. I don’t remember there being any great revelations but I think just talking allowed me to reorder things in my head and see things a bit more clearly.

Generally speaking I think I’m okay. Despite what the GP said I don’t think I have depression, not really, definitely not to the same extent or seriousness that others have it. I’ve never really considered suicide. I went through a brief period last year where every time I came in drunk I’d watch this film It’s Kind of a Funny Story and have a little cry, but probably that was more the alcohol than anything else. Anyway it’s good to have a little catharsis from time to time.

funnystory
It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Why are mental health issues becoming more common?

I’m not an expert on this question and I’m not going to go into too much depth but I have two main hunches about why mental health issues are becoming more common.

Firstly, there’s the British economy. We’ve just been through the biggest recession since the Great Depression. We’ve seen productivity in the economy (ie output per person) languish for over a decade, something that hasn’t happened in over a century. Young people now are doing worse than their parents did. If you can’t find a job you’re considered lazy. If you’re unlucky you could end up with a zero hours contract, working stupid uncertain hours. Students come out of university with a tonne of debt hanging over them, and then can only find a job they could have done anyway without a degree (I worked in unskilled jobs for about 4 years before I embarked on my current career path and it wasn’t for lack of searching). Austerity means public sector workers are taking a pay cut each year as inflation renders their salaries less and less valuable.

Secondly, social media is having a growing impact on our lives. We are social animals and it’s natural to compare ourselves to others, but as I alluded to above, when I see my friends on Facebook doing some activity (it seems there are hundreds of different physical events these days, marathons, tough mudders, wolf runs and so on), or smiling and laughing on a night out, or getting promoted/married/etc, it’s hard to think about the drudgery of my day to day existence and not feel a bit rubbish or that I’m missing out. I’m aware that you only see people’s best sides on social media (Instagram especially is notorious for this) and I’m not saying people should keep all these things to themselves, but equally I don’t think it’s healthy for us to be digesting all of this so readily. And of course looking at your phone for most of the day and not interacting with other people is bad, and looking at your phone last thing before you go to sleep and thereby preventing yourself from having a good night’s sleep isn’t particularly helpful either.

It seems to me that one of the main causes or triggers of depression is pressure, a gradual build up of pressure that eventually overwhelms the sufferer. That chemical imbalance in a person’s brain that makes them more susceptible to these things is tipped over into a darker place from which it doesn’t seem there will be any relief.

Having goals helps

I don’t know if this would help anyone else, but for me one of the main reasons I’ve never considered suicide is because I’ve always had hope for a better life ahead because of the goals I have. One of my goals is to retire early, but also I’d like to get a novel published, do a PhD in political philosophy or in economics, set up some kind of animal sanctuary for factory farmed animals, and of course the usual stuff, have a happy marriage and family, live in a nice house with a nice garden. I presume most people feel the same way, that eventually they’ll reach some overarching goal in life and then they’ll finally be happy.

The problem is I’m also aware on an intellectual level that we’re kidding ourselves. Happiness is a stubborn thing. Even if you win the lottery, or write a bestselling novel, or achieve whatever it is you’ve dreamed of, the chances are after the initial high your happiness level will return to where it was before. And if you have a naturally low level of happiness, then your happiness will return there no matter what you do.

I guess it’s best not to overthink things. Just keep aiming for happiness and you’ll probably find small amounts of it along the way. Keep exercising, keep in touch with your friends, and keep talking.

I didn’t intend for this to be a long post so I’ll end it with a link to a Frightened Rabbit song:

Frightened Rabbit – Poke

Thanks for reading,

Wephway

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6 thoughts on “On Depression

  1. What a fantastic post. I think the closest ive ever felt to this is getting divorced 3 years ago. I felt completely numb, like i was watching my life through a screen

    For me it was exercise and doing new things. I had two years of crazy fun learned to ski, took up rock climbing went to hawaii etc.

    Ive also felt a milder form recently. Ive hit all my goals work wise and just feel like I’m coasting. Not good st 37. I also thought i wanted the big house nice car etc but now since finding fire i really just want to have enough to travel. Problem is I’m along way from where I need to be

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    1. Hey Fatbritabroad (is your username literal…? Ha!)

      That sounds awful, it must be tough to have not just the breakdown of a relationship but also all the legal complications of a divorce to deal with as well. Seeing your life through a screen does chime with me – I remember writing a short story along those lines because I wanted to remember the experience. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, when things are so bad we need to step outside ourselves somehow.

      Exercise has definitely helped me in the past, there’s probably some scientific explanation for it, endorphins and such. I love skiing, been skiing since I was 3 years old – recently I tried snowboarding and even though I fell over (a lot) I had so much fun I will definitely be doing it again.

      Yes often people suffer from depression after a build up in stress and pressure, but low mood can also be caused by the opposite if you get into a rut and start to feel a bit listless. At least with FIRE you can make those choices (whether to travel etc) but sometimes choice can make things tougher – as Sartre might say, we are ‘condemned to be free’.

      Cheers, W

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  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing Wephway. I particularly agree with your last two paragraphs:

    “The problem is I’m also aware on an intellectual level that we’re kidding ourselves. Happiness is a stubborn thing. Even if you win the lottery, or write a bestselling novel, or achieve whatever it is you’ve dreamed of, the chances are after the initial high your happiness level will return to where it was before. And if you have a naturally low level of happiness, then your happiness will return there no matter what you do.

    I guess it’s best not to overthink things. Just keep aiming for happiness and you’ll probably find small amounts of it along the way. Keep exercising, keep in touch with your friends, and keep talking.”

    I’m certainly a thinker. I imagine quite a lot of people in the FI community are also thinkers. We have a natural tendency to mull and reflect on things. That can be our worst enemy. As you say, even great successes dwindle away. If you’re naturally inclined to think deeply, it can be only a short time before you are in a funk.

    Finding those breadcrumbs of happiness is something I try to do. The little things to be grateful for in each day. I find it has helped me a lot in dealing with my depression. I think having a goal or purpose, an overarching philosophy to life also helps. For me, the FI journey fits in very well with my temperament and to put perspective on things when I get low.

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    1. Thanks YoungFIGuy,

      I saw your post recently where you’d mentioned depression and anxiety, I think maybe that’s partly what gave me the impetus to write this post. I too would call myself a thinker, but whether that’s a blessing or a curse I’m not sure. My girlfriend says I think too much sometimes, she can tell when I’m far away. I’m not sure I have a choice about it really. Though, sometimes I do like to just think, even if that thinking makes me feel bad.

      I agree completely about having a goal or purpose, an overarching philosophy. Recently I was telling my girlfriend about some of the things I’d like to do when I FIRE and she said she’d never seen me talk so passionately. It’s sad really that so many of us have to give the best years of our life to jobs that we’re ambivalent about.

      Cheers, W

      Like

  3. This is a lovely post – thank you for the reflective insight. I think you are onto something with much fo this – ISTR having goals or not was one of the diagnostic checklist items for depression.

    One of the downsides of the increased variety of choices we have for all sorts of things is that we are a bit more atomised. Never really thought of social media in the way you described, because I didn’t grow up with it. Where I occasionally use it I only ever post positive stuff, simply because you can’t retract anything, and I guess that sort of thing leads to sample bias.

    Work has become a harsher environment I think – and it is polarising. The successful are hyper-successful, in ways they couldn’t have been a genration ago, but that is at the cost of the many people who used ot be doing a decent but unspectacular job. Work used to be someing you do, but all too often it seems to become something you are, it’s harder to keep a balance i nthe aspects of life.

    One good thing is that it’s being talked about more – and your post is a good addition to getting the subject out there!

    Like

    1. Thanks Ermine,

      I rarely post on Facebook anymore, I think I’m just too concerned about what others might think, especially when family members, work colleagues and so on are on there. The last thing I posted was a link to a video of a young New Zealand pasta-farian wearing a colander on his head and talking about the religious persecution he faced at school. A gentle poke at religion is still ‘safe’ I guess. When Facebook started I was at uni and we posted pictures of our drunken antics – you can’t do that these days. Ironically, Facebook just isn’t very social anymore.

      I do worry what our kids must go through, all those social pressures increased dramatically by the easy spread of information, photos that can’t be erased, an online presence that sticks with you. Teenagers are already PR experts before they’ve left school.

      I did a few different jobs before I found mine and am appreciative of the work-life balance I have, but there is an unrelenting pressure to become more efficient. Even so I think I’m one of the lucky ones – there are so many jobs out there that are high pressure, many low paid, and it can’t be good for our mental health. I am able to resist the increasing demands and feel like I have some level of control over my future but most people don’t have that from what I can tell,

      Cheers, W

      Like

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