I was watching a TV programme the other evening about depression, and the people on the show described it as a mental illness. As a former sufferer of chronic depression, this shocked me because I had never thought about it in those terms. To me, depression was a rational and sane response to a grey and uncaring world; my depression was a metaphysical protest that life could be, and should be, better than this.
This is not exactly the conventional view, I know, which seems to classify depression as a chemical reaction in the brain, a theory that gave birth to the lucrative SSRI drug industry. Astonishingly, that theory has never been proven, and even the standard textbooks on psychiatry don’t even mention it—and it certainly didn’t feel right to me.
Another current view—that of the biosciences—has it that the sense of self is nothing more or less than complex firings in the brain, and ‘you’ will therefore die when the body dies.
If that is the case, then who is there to be depressed? And if depression isn’t a chemical reaction in the brain, what then is going on?
These questions troubled me for a long time. Along the way, two clues helped me: the death of my father and a strange book about ghosts. My father’s death was interesting. He was 90 or so when he died, although there was nothing physically wrong with him. He just was just tired of being alive, and it’s a common enough phenomenon: they call it ‘died of old age’.
Essentially, the past had worn him down, and I got the same sense from the ghost book, although in those stories the past was still trying to get resolution among the living.
One day it hit me. It started with a Biblical-like statement that suddenly came into my head: That to which you do not fully attend will weigh you down. From there, I suddenly realised that ‘I’ wasn’t depressed at all; instead, the past itself was creating a depressed me.
My past inhabited me, and prevented me from seeing the wonders of everything around me. That’s why the world seemed grey and mundane—because I was seeing it through ‘old’ eyes.
The past isn’t done or dead. It’s a living energetic force, and it’s a realisation that is starting to occur to neuroscience. As I show in my new book, The Untrue Story of You, people who suffered three or more ‘adverse events’ as children—and it could be anything from being shouted at or being blamed—were more likely to die prematurely.
Ultimately, that’s the challenge we face. Either we understand our past or it will make us ill, depressed or even kill us.