alexandtheweb / blog

Hurricanes and Brains

News of Hurricane Harvey ought to have been traumatic. I lived in Houston for many years, still have friends and acquaintances there. In 2005 my family evacuated from Hurricane Rita, a disastrous event that cost the city 100 lives. Afterwards, I had panic attacks and obsessive thoughts about death. With time and medication, I recovered.

So it’s perhaps surprising (and terrible) that I found Harvey a welcome distraction. Following news of the floods and checking in on various friends allowed me brief respite from what’s been going on in my brain. Namely: very bad mental things.

In Autumn 2012, during a time of high stress — I was juggling work and a part-time masters degree, plus a personal rejection that affected me badly — I had a bad bout of depression. The NHS failed me (waiting lists for therapy were months long), I refused to go on anti-depressants, the private therapists I saw for an initial consultation didn’t connect. So I read a few books about CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), went a lot easier on myself and got better. Many of the petty things I used to angst about I simply stopped giving a hoot about. By mid-late 2013 things were okay. I had the odd bad week here and there, but nothing paralysing, as 2012 had been. Life went on, things were okay.

In early 2015 my childhood best friend nearly died following a liver transplant. Later that same year, my grandma died. I had a bad week, cried and mourned and eventually moved on. We also struggled with a difficult house purchase (it all worked out in the end). 2016 brought endless celebrity deaths and Brexit and Trump. I was sad, frustrated, had the odd bad few days, cried once in a while – that was okay. Life went on, things were okay. I diffused stress by writing silly short stories, keeping a Tumblr blog of assorted crap, going to the theatre, volunteering, seeing friends. Perhaps I was a bit more withdrawn than I had been during the first few manic years of my 30’s, but I was content.

By the end of 2016 and through most of 2017 things were the same. By June 2017 I was thinking to myself, delightedly, just how decent my mental health had been.

And then came July. I had a panic attack. My first one since 2005. Two weeks later, another one. A few smaller ones followed. I threw everything I had at them. I stopped drinking alcohol and cut out all caffeine, I did lots of walking, I meditated, I told people earnestly about what was going on. My symptoms eased down to the occasional bout of anxiety. By early August I thought I’d won. It was just a blip.

Until two weeks ago.

The last two weeks have been horrific. The anxiety stopped and depression set in. Imagine spending every single day dwelling, obsessively, on the death of everyone you love. Waking up thinking about it. To the point where writing or speaking to people you love is painful because you see nothing of the joy you will still experience with them, but the profound burden of their loss. Whatever contentment I had about life vanished into a profound, dark void. It’s as if my brain went: “So you’ve managed to think your way out of panic attacks? Here’s something you can do absolutely nothing about.”

At this moment, I don’t see a way out. It’s as if I’ve been handed a hopeless case and the hopeless case is my life, all of life. All I can say is that I have some calmer moments, like right now. The rest of the time I’m in bed, crying for hours.

And in other calm moments I read studies about depression. And what I’ve hung my hope on is partly based on emerging research and partly on my own experience with the illness.

Of the latter I can say this: every time depression strikes, it feels biological. Like I’m being colonised by something.

Of the former: the worst part about depression is that it likes to make you believe it is the only RIGHT and NATURAL and REAL response to the rather shitty circumstances of being a human being. That by being existentially depressed, you’ve discovered some big terrible secret about the nature of life. The second worst thing about depression is that, like the common cold, it has no cure. It can be treated, with talking therapy and anti-depressants, but the difference between depression treatment and cure is that between lemsip and antibiotics. Yet something close to 80% of people will never experience depression. This seems astonishing to me, miraculous. There is something at work in those people that lets them just get on with life. Studies are emerging about the link between depression and anxiety and gut bacteria . Other recent research points to low-grade inflammation in the body as the cause. Something is keeping those 80% well.

I’m fortunate. I have friends who will listen, a non-addictive personality and, despite being in the overweight bracket, an excellent, largely plant-based, home-cooked diet. I walk, I take supplements, I’m still not drinking. For the most part, I still sleep.

But right now my biggest hope, as I crawl through this godawful time, is that there’s something to the latest research, and to the Miraculous Eighty Percent. That this IS a biological illness with a cure.

Come on, science. Prove me right.