Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety run on both sides of my family but I got off lightly with only a few minor phobias.  I’m afraid of falling down; this one has some basis in anatomical fact, see “Respect the Feet.”   I don’t much like climbing up ladders.  I also have paruresis or bashful bladder which means I can’t produce a urine specimen on command.  I believe that the circumstances of a person’s birth can have a profound effect on their temperament and overall experience of life.  I was born immediately after World War II when my parents were probably happier than they ever were in their lives.  Perhaps it rubbed off on me.

Until I was five we lived in Gardner, a small town in northwestern Massachusetts where things were probably pretty quiet and my first brother was born.  Fine up to that point.  Then we moved to Meriden, Connecticut, a small city, a lot more stress, and another birth – twins this time.  Before I finished high school there were two more moves, to progressively smaller houses for our growing family and progressively more tension for all of us. 

My father, always an anxious person, became more rigid and more distant (even though he often worked at home); my mother tried harder to smooth things over.  We should probably all have been in family therapy but this was not workable for several reasons.  First, my parents’ Anglo values called for toughing it out during bad times, being strong and not acknowledging a need for help.  Secondly, my father was a clergyman and we were supposed to be the perfect family, at least in public.  Finally, resources for dealing with such problems were not nearly as plentiful in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as they are now.

Ten years ago when I was trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life I used to drive by myself to Indianapolis to see a therapist, a wonderful woman named Lee Verner, retired now, alas.  One of the memories that surfaced during those sessions was of how I spent my time as a child.  From the age of eight or nine I was constantly reading.  In our difficult family situation reading was my refuge and my drug of choice.  No problems here!

As the daughters of alcoholics often marry alcoholics so I, the daughter of a depressed, anxious family, have tended to have depressives as friends and romantic partners.  I spent six years in academia, a veritable hotbed of mental illness, especially depression.  I married an academic who also had depression on both sides of his family.  Finally, effective treatment arrived!  My husband and I began seeing a psychiatrist, sorting out the tangle of circumstances that were threatening to overwhelm our marriage.  We’ll never be perfect people but at least we know what we’re dealing with.

When a depressed person commits suicide it is a tragedy for the immediate family and close friends but a person walking around with depression and anxiety can do even more damage.  Anyone in his or her path is at risk: servers in restaurants, fellow drivers on the road, co-workers, not to mention friends and family, who often bear the brunt of the person’s negative emotions.  These days I try to be careful not to inflict my impatience or worry on innocent bystanders.  I make a particular effort to be cordial to the young people in Mumbai who help me with computer problems.  Imagine what their day is like!

In contrast to the 1950’s, today’s medical scene offers a wide array of options for dealing with depression and anxiety, from the minimally invasive ones like cognitive therapy to the medications for depression and anxiety that work very well for many people.  I’m not in favor of going out and medicating yourself every time you have a fight with your boss.  I also think that there are times in your life when it’s important to really feel your emotions, as painful as that may be.  On the other hand, I do take synthroid for my hypothyroidism and I think it makes sense to get treatment for depression if it is having a negative impact on your life.  Treating depression may also bring collateral benefits for the person’s health.  A long term study of twins showed that depression almost doubles the risk of heart disease. 

British actor Hugh Laurie, who portrays quintessential depressive Dr. Gregory House, has spoken of his own battles with depression.  This is a quote from his Wikipedia bio, “[Laurie} stated in an interview that he first concluded he had a problem while driving in a charity demolition derby in 1996, during which he realised that driving around explosive crashes caused him to be neither excited nor frightened, but instead bored.   "Boredom," he commented in an interview on Inside the Actors’ Studio, "is not an appropriate response to exploding cars.”  Bravo, Hugh!

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