The Inevitability of Depression: My Interpretation of 'Descent From Möbius Wood'.
Warning: If you would rather do the hard work yourself and come up with your own interpretation then please don't read this. Make a nice cup of tea instead.
In this week's post I'm going to give you my interpretation of my painting 'Descent From Möbius Wood' and look at how inevitable depression is for me. If you would rather watch it in video form then click below:
"People most vulnerable to depression are those who may have:
Already experienced one episode of depression." (O'Connell, 2009)
There are obviously more bullet points after this one, but this one is right up there at the top. This is the central idea behind 'Descent From Möbius Wood', that once someone has had depression he or she is more susceptible to having another episode. Seeing as though I've had at least one episode every year for the majority of my adult life, it's fair to say that I'll probably have another. It's pretty inevitable. That is unless I can guard against it.
So despite seeming a tad pessimistic - a common trait in people with depression - this painting actually has a strong optimistic meaning for me. If someone told you that you will probably have a nasty accident at some point if you go out for a one hour cycle ride every day, what would you do? I would keep going out on my bike, but I'd do what I could to minimise the risks: wear a helmet, make sure that I'm visible, change my route if necessary, etc. It's the same for me with depression. Yes, I'm more likely to have another episode, but there are things that I can do to help myself.
Depression is a constant lurking presence in my life but I'm not going to be down without a fight.
So what steps have I taken to protect myself? The biggest one has got to be leaving teaching. I didn't realise until I left, the impact it was having on my mental health. Everything could be going brilliantly and then one small thing would happen in my life and I'd plummet downwards. I think that the pressure of teaching was putting me near the limit of what I could cope with and any small problem would tip me over the edge.
For a perfectionist, teaching is a really bad job. I wanted to do my best for the children but to do all of the necessary work perfectly is a physical and mental impossibility. The workload is just too great. For those people who believe the mass media when they have a go at teachers because they work from 9 to 3, have massive holidays and generally have a laugh - and I was one of those people before I started teaching - this couldn't be further from the truth. I was once in a shop and three shop assistants were stood at the counter moaning about how little teachers do, for a good ten minutes. The irony wasn't lost on me. I won't get into a big rant but I'll point you to one of my earlier posts on leaving teaching. The worst thing about the huge workload was that a lot of it didn't have much impact on the children's education. We were made to do it "just in case" the inspectors wanted to see it. They never did. Another thing that didn't help was that I had periods of severe anxiety, which often accompanies depression, where I struggled to even get to work. So eventually, after 18 years I burnt out. I needed a break. What I didn't realise was the effect this break would have on my mental health.
Since leaving, I haven't had a major episode of depression. Which is pretty unbelievable for me. In removing a major source of pressure and stress from my life, I've given myself a fighting chance. Despite the massive financial impact, I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. No regrets. Now I know that this isn't something that everyone can necessarily do and that some stresses can't be removed that easily, if at all. But if you are in a vaguely similar situation it is something that is worth giving serious consideration.
So that's the biggest change that I've made, but it's not the only thing I've done to minimise the risks of repeat occurrences.
Despite the lack of any major episode, it hasn't all been plain sailing. I've still had to be on my guard. I've had the odd day or two where I've felt down but this is nothing compared to the year long episode I had once. Now, I am a lot better at spotting rogue thoughts and impulses and questioning them. These are the main ones I have to guard against to varying degrees:
A desire to isolate myself.
Destructive tendencies mainly relating to relationships.
An urge to go further down into depression.
Thoughts about death.
Oh, what a cheery list! And again it's all back to sounding a bit pessimistic. And again, I don't think it is. I've noticed potentially damaging thought patterns and I'm more able to deal with them. Let's say, for example, that I had a thought one weekend about how I couldn't be bothered to go out and that I'd rather just carry on working. I would now question that thought. Why don't I want to go out? Am I somehow isolating myself or is there some work that I've really got to get done and I will go out next weekend? If it feels like I'm just doing it to start on a slippery downward descent then I can force myself to go out. Which I will no doubt enjoy. Which is positive.
Spotting these thoughts is the focus of the next six paintings in The Seven Gates series.
Some other tactics that I've got for fending off depression are to eat healthily, exercise often, make time for relaxation, sleep well, spend time doing my hobbies, talk about how I'm feeling, and get involved in social situations (which completely goes against my introverted nature, but I force myself). Not surprisingly a lot of the above also helps with physical health too.
'Descent From Möbius Wood' is about however well things are going, there will eventually be a trigger that could start an episode of depression. The narrative I attach to the painting is this: I wander around lost in the fog trying to avoid nasty life events but whichever way I go, I am always inexplicably being drawn towards something that is waiting to drag me down. The forest in the painting is composed to draw the viewer into the central tree. My view of what happens next is that the tree drags me into the hole and I appear in another misty forest, but this one is slightly darker. And again I will eventually reach another tree waiting to pull me into the ground. This process repeats until I am lost in a completely dark forest, unable to see a way out. Then where would the last tree take me?
The goal, for me, is to stay in the first forest and repeatedly dodge the sinister tree by guarding against those thoughts detailed above.
For a visual explanation of the 'Möbius' part, watch this short video:
The painting is a warning against complacency. I know that as soon as I become complacent that the illness will return. Depression is quite willing to bide its time.
This painting is very personal to me, as is the list of thoughts above. So why should you be interested in these paintings? What makes me special?
Absolutely nothing. I'm a relatively normal (okay, some people may disagree with this) person who you would walk past in the street without a second thought. I'm one human being in amongst many other human beings. I'm not a famous celebrity and I haven't won any awards. It's fair to say that if I, as a fairly standard issue fellow, can get depression then surely other people can too. And yes, it is true. Paraphrasing Dr Melvyn Lurie, 2007, I'm just an infinitesimal fraction of the estimated 15 per cent of people who will develop a major depression some time in their lives. From reading around, that number seems like a conservative estimate. But let's work with that figure.
15%. That's a lot of people. A lot of normal people who you have walked past today will suffer with depression at some point. If you identify with anything in this post, you're probably not the only one. And I'm guessing that if every person with depression wrote a post about their experiences, there would be a lot of commonality between them.
Depression is a mental illness that approximately one billion people alive on our planet now will suffer from at some point. It's not a weakness of the mind. It's a pretty normal part of life, like catching a cold or breaking a leg. There is no need to be ashamed or alone.
For me, the thoughts that can lead to depression are inevitable, but depression doesn't have to be.
If you feel that you are currently suffering from depression please, please seek medical help. I have only got to the point where I can question my thoughts because I have received the aforementioned support. You wouldn't try to heal a broken arm by yourself, it's the same with depression. It's not the easiest thing to do but if you've felt low for a period of two weeks or more... see a doctor!
For another post about the effects of depression, including my interpretation of my painting 'Welcome', click on the image below:
If you would like to receive an email once every two months to keep you up to date on what's happening on my blog and website, just click on the image below:
Glenys O'Connell (2009). Depression The Essential Guide. Peterborough: Need2Know.
Dr Melvyn Lurie (2007). Depression Your Questions Answered. London: Dorling Kindersley