Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More discoveries

4. I don't entirely understand it, but it seems as if getting cancer is a good cure for depression.

There's something funny going on, I'm sure, but I had a conversation with a friend last night who also suffers from depression (the formal, capital D, found-in-the-diagnostic-manuals kind) and she has been feeling much better lately too, so we were comparing notes. We discussed how having something real to do is a great cure for creeping depression.

She fell, quite understandably, into a depression after graduating from university and, as is the usual thing these days, was unable to find a job. She had done her studies the hard way, over a much longer than usual period by working part time and paying for it all herself. During this period, one of her closest friends (me) moved away (really, really far away, and it was before Facebook or iGoogle video calls or Skype), her mother's business that she was helping with went kablooey and she spent some years caring for an elderly relative all the while holding down jobs and doing her homework. (You can tell she's kind of a hero of mine; I wish I had half her courage and fortitude.) After years of all this, she finally got the parchment, and then found she was more or less adrift without something to focus on. I'd say that depression was a nearly inevitable outcome.

But recently, she's turning back to her first and most abiding interest and is taking hands-on film making and is already getting gigs working as a production assistant at small shoots around town. All this is happening in Vancouver where LOTS of films, TV shows and commercials are made, so it's a pretty good chance, coupled with what we have all known for years are her prodigious natural talents, of really going somewhere.

All kinds of things have been happening to me over the last few years (which, don't worry, I won't talk about here) that shrinks usually refer to blandly as "stressors". And I have been somewhat at sea since I have a preexisting condition that makes me contraindicated for almost all the usual anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. And I don't trust headshrinkers anyway (Voodoo witchdoctors have more reliable peer review processes than the psychiatric profession). So there isn't a hope in hell of me going to any of those brain-butchers with my intimate secrets. So I figured I was stuck with will power, friendship support system, green vegetables and exercise. (And Italy, of course, where it takes extra effort to get and remain clinically depressed.) It wasn't working very well though.

But right in the middle of a fairly bad down-loop, I go to the doctor and eventually come out with a diagnosis of cervical cancer, and poof! Depression symptoms evaporate.

Being neurotic, I naturally have elevated levels of anxiety about cancer and am more than capable of recklessly diving right down head first into a spiral of freakoutishness over it if I don't do the things I need to do to avoid it. (Things like getting out of my pajamas before noon, going to the beach, going into the City to work in the office instead of the apartment...the usual.) But the actual symptoms of actual, clinical depression - night waking and other sleep disturbances, unpredictable crying bursts, nonspecific anxiety etc...- have almost completely vanished.

My theory, shared by my friend, is that depression is like Fantasy (we've talked about Fantasy a lot here, for those who are new), it's a kind of mental alternate reality created by your brain to avoid real life. Your brain gets into the habit of creating a completely different set of things to deal with in life, a totally different set of motivations, that have nothing to do with reality but are nearly completely believable. Cognitive therapy techniques (so far the only Brain-Butcher thing that makes a dent in depression) focus on re-teaching your brain to think in terms of The Real, and consciously rejecting as false and bad the constructed Evil Reality.

But I think that sometimes, for some people, a powerful dose of The Real can shock the brain into dropping the Evil Reality all at once. In my friend's case it is the concrete necessity of getting out of bed and going to a school to learn to do something concrete and real, something that she has known all her life she would be good at and would like. (Plus strong friend and family support, improved diet and fresh air and exercise.)

In my case, cancer has somehow made the false Evil Reality drop dramatically away. It has been like smoke clearing from my vision. The smoke has been there, on and off, for a long time, so a part of this interesting process is re-learning what The Real looks like. An analogy would be the man cured by Jesus of blindness. He had been blind all his life, so when he got his sight back, he had to go about feeling things and learning what these things looked like.

This process of re-learning and accepting The Real, let me tell you, is greatly facilitated by the pressing necessities of a medical crisis. You have to learn how to deal with The Real in a double-time hurry if you suddenly realise you have to go to the hospital at four in the morning.

It's an adjustment, but a good one, overall.



Steve said...

I'm glad to hear that there is a silver lining in all of this.

I feel the need to offer a cautionary note - I recently had a smoke-clearing intrusion of the Real that knocked some really old, really bad bits of Evil Reality right out of me. And while for the most part that change seems irrevocable, I feel Evil Reality creeping back after only about 6 months.

Be on guard. Evil Reality doesn't go quietly, and can be very tough to kill.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Yes, I certainly am conscious of how devious and evil my Evil Brain can be. Especially when it thinks it is losing its grip on me.

I once described my Evil Brain to a friend who said, "Your Evil Brain sounds like the Devil!"