Happy Birthday in Every Moment

My body was already sixty years old when I began to see with some clarity that I don’t exist as I’d always imagined.  I’ll try to explain what I experienced.

What I noticed first is there had been at different times a different person in my body.  I’ve given them Nordic patronymics.  Leon Leonardsson came first.

Leon came to life in England during WW2 in an isolated farm-worker’s cottage with no utilities.  He was the only child of Leonard and Florence Sidwell, a happy kid fascinated by farm machinery.  Because his parents had no friends, Leon’s social skills were weak but he was highly intelligent.  Florence made him study every day and he got the best results of all students in the exam that determined which school he would go to when he was eleven.

Leonard’s work since WW2 driving an excavator to maintain waterways paid very little but Florence found him a better paying job at this time selling insurance door to door.  They were now able to buy a house with a tiny garden in the neighboring town.  But Leonard hated his new job and that he now had so little room to grow vegetables.  And Leon had nowhere to play and nobody to play with.  As Leonard’s passivity evolved into depression, Leon fell prey to the same disease.

Leon’s new school, a bus-ride away in the county town, was an undistinguished private establishment founded in 1608 that had been recast as a State school ten years before Leon arrived.  Life continued there almost as if the British Empire remained triumphant.  Leon studied and remained top of his class but he was disoriented in this new world.  Told after a couple of years to take the exam for a scholarship to Eton College, he passed but then read about life there and, horrified by the prospect of the even more foreign culture of the aristocracy, he failed the oral interview.

During that first year or two as Leon floundered in his new environment, a less passive new person, Sid Leonsson, began taking over.  He told himself he was justifiably alienated from an antiquated culture, started building the personality of an intellectual and began reading philosophy.  He labeled himself an existentialist.

The secondary school curriculum in England in those days channeled students into either the sciences or the arts but Sid insisted on continuing to study both Physics and English literature.  Then, impatient with a curriculum that still felt too narrow, he drifted ever further from both subjects, roaming far afield into theories about the human condition.

He was delivered a great shock by “Three Faces of Eve”, a psychologist’s account of a patient whose body hosted three entirely different people vying for control.  What if he was not the only one in his body?  His current identity felt inauthentic.  Maybe other personalities would spring forth, and none would be authentic?  A friend whose psychologist father specialized in schizophrenia introduced him to much unsettling literature on this topic.

Sid was also deeply moved by Wilfred Owen and other WW1 poets who expressed the horror and insanity of war.  His grandfather, Whalley Sidwell, had faced execution for treason by refusing to join that war and was jailed for two and a half years.  Whalley’s five younger brothers also refused .  One explained: “What if I kill a German boy then I meet his mother and she asks me why I did that?”

Whalley was a powerful presence.  His son, Leonard, drove a van with a film projector all over England during the 1930s for the Peace Pledge Movement.  Their idea was to make war impossible because everyone would have pledged not to participate.  When WW2 broke out, Leonard did refuse to participate and he was jailed.  On his release he was assigned to agricultural work.  Sid did not yet notice that Whalley was occupying his body, too.

Further study felt useless to Sid by the time college was due to start and he decided he must get a job. Having no other idea how to get one, he went to the government office where jobs are posted and was given one picking apples.  When all the apples were picked, someone told him jobs are also listed in newspapers and showed him one as an inventory clerk.  A couple of years later someone told him the computer department would be better so he went there as a computer operator.

A year later, married and living in London, Sid for the first time searched for a job.  He found one as a programmer at a Dickensian insurance company.  A year or two later someone encouraged him to apply to IBM where for three years he for the first time worked alongside thinking people.  He liked that but disliked the culture.  Asked “What is the purpose of business?” he realized he didn’t know.  The answer was: “To make a profit”.  That can’t be right, he thought.  It’s like saying the purpose of life is to breathe.

So, when Sid saw a small American company’s advertisement about opening for business in England, he joined them.  A couple of weeks later they decided not to enter England but gave him a job in America.  It was 1970, and that was when Martin Sidsson, the third person to do so, took the reins of what was by now a 26 year old body.

Sidsson made a determined effort to fit into the entrepreneurial technology startup and the local culture.  It was not hard because everyone he worked with was smart and interesting.  He also made a determined effort to take the initiative and he was soon assigned to manage development of a precursor to the Internet.  Over the next few years he eagerly took on additional responsibilities and made a determined effort to manage according to his belief that the chief purposes of business are to delight customers and provide opportunity for employees.

He eventually remedied his utter ignorance of business operations, established a management consultancy and learned how to market and sell.  That led him to study why businesses fail and how to set effective strategies.  His last decade of work was in leadership positions in a long established global business followed by an Internet-based startup.

Sidsson’s career was not entirely a smooth progression, however.  In the same way that Whalley and Leonard Sidwell had played an important role in Leonardsson’s life, Leonardsson resurfaced a few years into Sidsson’s.  Sidsson always started out ignorant about new responsibilities he took on and he enjoyed the necessarily fast learning, but because his responsibilities grew rapidly, it was stressful.  Also, everything took extra effort because of the depression he had inherited from Leon, Sid, Leonard and Whalley.

As Sidsson’s stress built up, Leonardsson saw an opportunity to regain control.  Believing farming to be the only truly satisfying occupation and unhampered by understanding the unending work required or why small scale farming was no longer viable where Sidsson lived, he got Sidsson to establish a sheep farm.

Some years later, Sidsson recognized another presence in “himself”.  His mother, Florence Sidwell,  had believed there was no problem she could not fix and no challenge she could not overcome.  Without her presence Sidsson could never even have attempted what he had achieved.

By the time he retired, Sidsson was aware not only of his immediate predecessors, Leon and Sid, who were still vying for control of his body, he also saw his parents, Leonard and Florence, taking action with his body.  He no longer had a strong sense of self and was not surprised when a new person, Martin Martinsson, emerged and took control.

Martinsson went trekking in the Himalayas and experienced there a culture that attracted him greatly.  People were cheerful, as if that was their policy, and they were respectful of each other.  What was the cause?  It seemed to be their Buddhist practice.  A few years later, after many more long treks, much reading, and closer study of the reality, he realized the truth is much more complicated.  The people he thought were Buddhist were mostly animist, Nepal’s traditions come to a great extent from its Hindu aristocracy, and it is a caste society with much domestic violence.

But by the time Martinsson saw that more complex picture, he was acting on what he had first sensed.  He was practicing Tibetan Buddhism.  He had received teachings from Anam Thubten whose book, “No Self, No Problem”, makes clear that we do not have an intrinsic self and whose magnetizing presence shows that one really can he happy in all circumstances and can always be spontaneously kind.

He then met a second teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche, who insists his students follow a disciplined program to reach the state Anam Thubten and others exemplify.  We can’t think our way to that state, he insists, we must slowly, slowly retrain our mind by observing how it works, studying teachings, and reflecting.  Now Martinsson had something to work at, which felt good because it exercised the discipline his first incarnation, Leonardsson, had inherited from his parents, Leonard and Florence.

“What is Buddhism?” Rinpoche asked.  The answer: “Selflessness!”  When you experience not having a self that is intrinsically separate from others, your behavior naturally is selfless.  But gaining and sustaining that experience takes practice.  Having “no self” is not how we ordinarily feel.  Instead, we feel we are in a body that actually is separate from others.

Struggling to understand this, Martinsson returned to physics.  The butterfly effect and more in James Gleick’s “Chaos” got him reflecting on the weather, which manifests in different ways in different places, calm, windy, hot, cold, clear, foggy, sunny, raining, snowing, and always changing.  He came to see that what we call weather is the product of a giant energy field of swirling currents which constantly interact with and change each other, that have no fixed boundaries, and that are always different from moment to moment but which recur in broad form from season to season.

Martinsson recognized that just as weather manifests in the Earth’s environment, what we think of as selves manifest in the environment of bodies.

He continued deeper into quantum physics.  Einstein recognized decades before even Leonardsson was born that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.  Sid had not felt that truth in High School physics classes but Martinsson now began to feel the reality that atoms are not solid things, and nor are solar systems.  Studying Lee Smolin’s explanations of theoretical physics in “The Trouble with Physics”, he began to see that what we experience as things like the Earth, our own body, atoms and everything else do not in fact have fixed boundaries or any intrinsic nature.

Matter is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter.  It only appears to us sentient beings that matter and space are different.  The boundary between them is simply a product of our mind.

The configuration of energy that manifests as a human body is sentient, but with limitations.  Every human body is uniquely configured — the high intelligence of Leon, Sid, and the Martins results from the configuration of the body they share, for example – and every body is constantly changing.

Martinsson began to see not just that everything is in flux, but everything is a manifestation of an energy field whose flows constantly interact producing results that propagate endlessly.

There is no real beginning or end of anything, only of appearances in our minds that manifest from flowing energy.

Catching up on quantum physics made the Tibetan Buddhist teachings real.  Martinsson could now to a growing extent feel the two levels of reality, an underlying energy field and what manifests from that energy to our senses and concept generators as, for example, things and personalities.  Leon Leonardsson, Sid Leonsson, Martin Sidsson and Martin Martinsson all exist on both levels, manifestations of an ever-changing energy field that has also manifested Leonard Sidwell, Florence Sidwell, Anam Thubten, Phakchok Rinpoche and so many more who we think of as “others”.

Well now, am I saying that Leonardsson, Leonsson and Sidsson were real people?  Yes and no.  The more I told you about them, the more real they would seem, but that’s also true of Martinsson.  All of them manifested as real in a situation which made that possible.  They were real in the same way as a rainbow when sunlight is separated by raindrops into colors that we usually perceive as one.   We think of a person as having an intrinsic nature in the same way we think of a rainbow as a thing.

Is a rainbow made of matter?  Is it energy in the form of light?  We don’t ordinarily ask such questions.  We do speculate about people and their nature, but with the wrong perspective.  We think of behaviors that manifest as a person as something with an intrinsic nature although those behaviors are in fact manifestations of an ever changing interaction of energy flows with no fixed boundaries and which, although ever changing, never end.

What does all this imply?  The body labelled Martin Sidwell was conceived at a specific time, was born at a specific later one, and will die at a specific future moment, but the sentient being who manifests in that body had no fixed beginning, it has no fixed nature, and it will have no definite end.

Our every act takes place within and is part of an unimaginably complex energy field.  Our every act changes that flowing energy, just as the tiny force of the butterfly’s flapping wing interacts with the results of other acts and eventually manifests a tornado.

Buddhists refer to how the system operates as karma.  To a great extent our actions are shaped by our concepts and emotional habits.  We rarely respond directly to what we see because what appears in our mind is something that fits an existing pattern there.  We see what we expect to see.  We don’t experience each new moment as unique.  We don’t experience it as it really is.   Karma means we keep reacting as we always do until we shed our fixed ideas and emotional habits.

So everything we do matters, and everything we do out of habit instead of what is actually present is flawed.

Pattern recognition and autopilot enable us to navigate what appears — we must, after all, stop automatically for red lights.  Feeling the energy behind what appears — that results in compassion and brings happiness.

Depression: Bodily Illness

This is the final post built on Facebook comments when I came Out of the Closet to admit that I have lived through debilitating episodes of mental illness.

Sara wrote: “We speak as though mental illness is one thing, not many; not even depression is a single entity – and the same treatment certainly doesn’t work equally for even those with very similar symptoms.

“Also, mental illness is a full-body phenomenon and experience.  We know this, but we don’t really think or talk about it this way.”

The Age of Enlightenment left us believing our intellect to be in some sense separate from our body.  We have only recently had tools to examine how our brains work and we have barely begun to question our belief that the brain operates in isolation from other parts of our bodily system.

Liz pointed to an excellent article about how Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut.  Another friend who recommended The Emperor’s New Drugs convinced me that the antidepressant medication I credit with removing my symptoms did not do so in the way we imagine.

How could it not be true that our brains and guts are part of an overall system that governs our physical/mental health?  We just don’t yet know much yet about how it works.

Susan wrote: “I experienced severe depression after/as a result of cancer and its treatment 5 years ago.

“Anti-depressants for 9 months and encouragement from my insurer (!) to see a therapist, talking with him over the following three years, have helped enormously.  

“Every day is still a challenge, but I am also so very grateful for every day.”

We need to know more than that cancer makes us miserable.  We need to understand the mechanism.  Diagnosing and treating mental illness is still quite haphazard, especially because, as Sara points out, depression is not a single entity.

And even the existence of mental illness is often unrecognized.

Kelly wrote:  “Depression is very common among people with chronic illnesses, and often goes untreated.  I’ve always just assumed it was part of being ill, and tried to deal with it on my own.  

“Thank you for this post, Martin.  Along with the many comments, it has inspired me to talk to my doctor about treatment.”

Physical pain is almost certainly not the only thing someone with chronic or long-lasting illness is suffering.  They are most likely also depressed.  And the tragedy is, even if they recognize their depression, they will probably not seek treatment.

When we’re in a depressive episode we do not seek treatment because we feel it is the appropriate response to our situation.

When we get a respite from the physical pain, we don’t recognize that we should seek treatment for next time because we’re so relieved to be feeling better.

My depressive episodes were triggered by other situations, not physical pain, but the same dynamic applied.  I know from the same fundamental experience how unlikely it is that Kelly will in fact talk with her doctor about treatment for depression.

There are many stories of Buddhist masters who are impervious to pain.  One of my teachers whose serenity is truly amazing suffered an extremely painful illness last year.  “I thought I should be able to ignore the pain” he said, “but I soon discovered it was impossible, so I accepted the doctor’s recommendation and took the pain medicine.”

Pain is a call to action.  We must not ignore that call.

Both the source of pain and pain itself can be treated.  We don’t have to work on only one aspect of our illness.  It may take experimentation to find an effective treatment, and the same one may not continue to be effective.  We don’t consider that a reason not to seek treatment for physical illness.

So, if you know someone with chronic or long-lasting pain, please help them overcome their reluctance to seek treatment for every part of their suffering.

Depression: Suicide

I mentioned my own close approach to it in Out of the Closet, and how I reacted to my friend’s suicide in this comment.

Eric shared more details of his heart-wrenching story.  

I too was severely depressed and was saved from killing myself by Beethoven.

“I had decided to do it and stayed out very late thinking about ways.  I got home and decided to listen to The Emperor concerto for the last time.  I lay on the floor with my ear to the speaker with the volume very low so as not to wake my mother.  

“When the second movement started, the notes were so lovely that I could feel the combination of Beethoven’s depression combined with great hope and that hope spread through me and changed my mind.  

“Life became even more difficult and I dropped out of high school and took up lots of very dangerous behavior.  But I was a fighter at that point, and just kept on digging myself out.  

“I am still undergoing that process today.”

I’ve pointed out before what courage it takes to reveal such a story, especially when the battle still has to be fought every day.  Now I have something to add.

Eric and I were lucky.  I was weakened by pacing back and forth along the river bank, unable at last to decide if I had the courage to drown myself.  Eric’s strength was restored by Beethoven.  We were saved by something unintentional.

We had hidden our decision from those who loved us most.  Only something unintended could have stopped us.

Our parents would have been devastated if we had not been stopped.  They would have felt such guilt because they had not noticed our suffering, or had under-reacted.

We fear for our loved ones, our children most of all, and we rightly try hard to keep those fears to ourselves.  But while banishing fears of imaginary harm, we must remain alert to what can be very subtle signs of another’s pain.

We must learn how to ask, gently and with enough insistence when we sense a loved one’s pain so that we will get the chance, if they are lost in misery, to try to help while help is still possible.

Depression: Addiction

Many who have felt the utter desolation of depressive episodes are compelled to help their fellow-sufferers.  Mike and Michael’s stories in Depression: The Willpower Delusion and other stories in previous posts illustrate the compassion that arises from what they learned.

Those who have experienced depression know that willpower alone is not a cure, and they know what makes treatment even more elusive.

As Katie wrote in Depression: Help for Young People:  “Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves … something we should feel ashamed of.”

By stigmatizing it, our culture amplifies the pain that comes directly from depression.  And there’s something even darker.

A friend who lost a family member to drug addiction, which stems from and is a form of mental illness, points out that addiction is far worse stigmatized.

I said little in Out of the Closet about my self-medication with alcohol, not because I want to keep it secret any more but because I did not become addicted.  Enormous numbers of us are not so lucky.

Overcoming addiction takes both enormous courage and the right kind of support.

My friend wrote: “Drug addiction is condemned by our society and abused by the insurance industry.  This person was sent home after 5 days of detox to an outpatient program that met three times a week for 3 hours.  The insurer said they would pay for an inpatient program if the person failed the outpatient treatment.

“He failed.  The insurer did not have to pay.”

That’s heart-rending…

Systems that result from our culture can be bewilderingly cruel.   We don’t usually reflect much on culture.  When we examine its results, it can be startling sometimes to see how very far things have gotten from being OK.

We don’t choose to become depressed, or become addicted, or get cancer.  We might act in ways that put us at higher risk, or it might just happen.  What is best for society in either case is that we get cured.

But recovery, or at least mitigation of the symptoms, is something we must choose.  That can be an agonizing truth when a loved one is addicted.

Addiction can only be overcome by someone who has arrived where every other alternative, even suicide, feels worse.  We may be able to help them arrive, but feeling cannot be commanded.

And there is a second agonizing truth.  They may reach that feeling but be unable to get treatment.

We must end addiction’s stigma.  That will make it less difficult to seek treatment, and it will make it no longer “acceptable” for insurers to deny coverage.

Depression: The Willpower Delusion

Nancy’s story in Depression: Parents and Children shows how she came to accept joy in what at first she did not want, and tells about her work to help suffering children.

Many of those who suffer depressive episodes help fellow-sufferers.  It is a natural response and we know better than anyone that willpower alone is not a cure.

Mike wrote: I see so many struggling as I do, but support is not available.  We are often left to cope on our own or get support for a very limited period.  Suicide rates are increasing in young men in the UK.  

“Society still doesn’t understand and I often find that people just don’t know how to respond when you are open.  I once stood up in a meeting at work and explained why I was doing reduced hours because I was struggling with my mental health.  Everyone looked very uncomfortable.  

“Afterwards the only responses I got were from members of staff who were suffering from depression.  They turned to me for support because I had been open about it.  

“What happens then is I support them and ignore myself, until it all gets too much and I crumble.  

“It is seen as a weakness, but we are all so strong because we battle through this every day.”  

Mike’s story illustrates how ignorance about mental illness prevents us from helping and even increases suffering, and that imagining depression to be weakness is utterly incorrect.

Mike also shows us the very sad truth that his form of depression is like some physical illnesses–the symptoms can be mitigated but there is no cure.

And we see another very sad truth.  Because he is a exceptionally kind as well as courageous, Mike tries, despite the additional suffering he knows it will cause himself, to help others who cannot get society’s help.

Michael is less unfortunate because he is often in remission.  He  helps fellow-sufferers via an established channel.  He wrote:  I have struggled myself on several occasions.  Now I provide CBT-based therapy through the UK National Health Service to those who suffer anxiety and depression.  

“Once a week I facilitate a workshop to approximately 25 people.  One of the best aspects of this is that the clients can see that depression is very common and does not discriminate.  

“I am keen on public health initiatives that help to ‘normalize’ depression, while acknowledging the debilitating effects that it can have on those who suffer.  In the UK one in every five visits to a doctor is for anxiety or depression.

I replied:  We are trained by society to imagine we can overcome depression with will power. The implication is, if we can’t do that we are weak.  Will power is essential just to keep going but battling depression is exhausting.  It can become impossible to carry on.  

“We must eradicate that delusion.  We don’t expect anyone to overcome diabetes with will power.  We understand for so many other maladies the need for treatment.”

Michael responded:  “If people could ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ they would have done so. Depression is exhausting and it can take massive will power to just get out of bed. This is a characteristic of depression, not evidence of weakness or laziness – though unfortunately those who are depressed are often all too quick to flog themselves with such thoughts.”

Doug added:  More generally, no mental illness of whatever type is amenable to a willpower cure.   It can lie undisturbed under the surface for arbitrarily long periods and then emerge to endanger any or all aspects of one’s life.   I’m a board member of NAMI New Hampshire which lobbies for treatment options, produces training materials, and provides support for family members.   Along with other readers of Martin’s piece, we do not believe in the miraculous self-help model.”

So, fellow-sufferers from depressive episodes, when opportunities arise and you have the strength, please help others recognize that depression is illness, nothing more and nothing less, and that even those with chronic illness can suffer less and be more productive with treatment.

And everyone, perhaps you can help change society in a systematic way as Doug and others do.

We must eliminate the idea that willpower is a cure for illness.

Depression: Parents and Children

In Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing Connie tells how she tried and failed and at last found a successful treatment for her panic attacks.

Now Nancy’s story points to two great truths–when we can accept what we have been given we can find the joy in what we did not want, and we must change what in our society creates suffering.

Nancy wrote: Like many parents of special needs children, I experienced debilitating depression for several years.

“I tried all sorts of natural treatments, including two years of no alcohol.  Ultimately, only meds helped, and as I started to deal with recovery in more positive ways, i.e. changing to a special education career, I gradually began to accept and appreciate the cards I was dealt, and no longer needed the meds.  

“Our son brings Chris and me so much joy (and laughter) that today we cannot imagine a life without him.”

The practical short term truth this illustrates is that depression, like other illnesses, may require medication.  The longer term truth lies in what Nancy says about the result of treatment, that she became able to accept what she was given and in that acceptance find joy.

First treatment, then recovery into joy.

Then Nancy wrote:  I now am working with a local mental health hospital, overseeing education services for their adolescent program.

“This experience has been enlightening in many ways, from first hand exposure to the trauma and suicide ideation/attempts these patients exhibit to the horrific insurance hassles parents face.  

“Our special education system, though broken, is at least mandated for all.  Our mental health system discriminates against people of little or moderate means.

“The only way patients who are not wealthy can participate in this program is through scholarships, which are few and far between. Insurance companies masterfully block coverage in ways that seem unbelievable, though true from my experience. 

“This segment from 60 Minutes is an excellent treatise on the problems parents face.”

It had never occurred to me!  How odd it is that our society provides education for every child, including those with special needs, but does not provide treatment for illness to every child.

That’s startling enough but early one morning a few years ago I was staggered by these words of fundamental truth: “If you really want to end suffering, it’s very simple.  Just stop creating it.”

We can end suffering created by our society’s systems and beliefs–we can change them.  We can end our own suffering by accepting what we’ve been given–which may first require treatment.


Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing

Depression: Help for Young People is a story about a treatment that worked.  Here is another courageous story that I hope will help those who suffer.

Connie courageously revealed what she experienced and pointed to the healing path she discovered.

“I had debilitating panic attacks since age six and depression as certain situations would make my personality disappear in a self-protection beyond my control.

“I had saved for years to take Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy when they opened a center in NYC but it didn’t reach the problem.

“One day at age 27, I decided I had enough and took the body sense that was so strong and presented possible scenarios and the second day, a cameo of a hateful face of my mother presented itself to me that connected to the body sense.  It was a pre-verbal memory.  When they connected, it released about 90% of the panic attacks.

“I was curious about what occurred and one day read in the NY Times book section a description of Eugene Gendlin’s book “Focusing”.  It turned out that was the process I had stumbled on.

“Years later, I learned Focusing and became certified to teach it.  It is a powerful bodily awareness to consciousness technique that can be used by itself or with other modalities.  So powerful, I have even had body healings from some of the connections – one being a now normal back after 14 years of debilitating back pain.

“Focusing can be done by ones self or more easily with a partner, who “holds” the space as you go within, and can be done via partnering on the phone – it does not need to be done with your partner in person.  It is a little known process, sadly.

“There is a Focusing community.  Gene Gendlin was a contemporary of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago.  He discovered Focusing by listening to successful sessions of therapists to try to understand what they were doing in their session, but discovered instead it was a process the patient was doing!

“Focusing saved my life.  I, too, did not see myself continuing my life if I had to go on with those panic attacks and depression from the inability to “be” in the presence of others.

“One can learn how to do Focusing from a certified trainer over the phone as one option.”

Focusing looks valuable for everyone, even those who have no depressive episodes at all!

The www.focusing.org website says: “Focusing shows how to … create a space for new possibilities … your body picks up more about another person than you consciously know.  With a little training, you can get a bodily feel for the ‘more’ …  From that bodily feel come small steps that lead toward resolution.”

Thank you so much, Connie, for your bravery and recommendation.

Depression: Help for Young People

I was inspired by Professor Railton’s courage to join him in coming Out of the Closet” to admit that I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.  

Railton says: “We must call [depression] mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind.”

The Facebook link to my “confession” prompted an outpouring of moving stories, mutual support and help that I hope to make more accessible with this and other posts.  

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to depression and are among the least well equipped to get help.  Liz wrote:  “The black dog” of depression and other mental illnesses are part of our common human experience.  We need to be able to openly discuss our mental health, just like we do our physical health: there should be no shame in being in pain.  I was recently gratified to read an article my high-school age daughter wrote for our local paper on this subject; I didn’t know she was that brave!  Maybe it means things are actually changing? 

Liz’ daughter, Katie, is indeed brave and her article “Teen Talk: YouTube can be a valuable resource” offers very practical help.

Katie begins by telling us: “Studies show that the number of teenagers who report feeling regularly anxious and/or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years or so, that children today have anxiety levels similar to those of the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.”

When Katie experienced “a perfect storm of stress and unhappiness” she, like every teenager, needed more help than her parents could provide:  “I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who could sympathize with what I was experiencing, but sometimes sympathy wasn’t enough.  I wanted to feel understood; I wanted a sense of camaraderie with other people my age who were going through similar things.”

What she found is: “on YouTube of all places … a handful of younger people — younger women especially — who made videos on their experiences with anxiety, depression, body image and mental illnesses in general, to spread awareness and encourage recovery …  People … offered authentic and beneficial suggestions on how to manage living with anxiety or depression on a day-to-day basis.”

This is so important because:  “Teenagers who don’t feel comfortable telling anyone that they are dealing with mental illness now have somewhere they are able to get information.”

“That’s not to say,” Katie writes, “that informational YouTube videos are a replacement for cognitive behavioral therapy or any other form of treatment, but they are certainly a step in the right direction — a step that many people would not normally be able to take.”

I hope we can change what Katie points out:  “There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves, something that is too personal to share or discuss, something we should feel ashamed of.”

But people need help now.  So, everyone who knows a teenager, here’s a way they or a friend can get help when they feel alone, too vulnerable to talk.

Thank you so much, Liz and Katie!


Out of the Closet

I was never a good follower.  But sometimes there’s no choice.  Today, I must follow Professor Peter Railton who studies ethics and the philosophy of science.

I highly recommend the transcript of his entire Dewey Lecture but it is 16 pages long so I will be much more brief.  Asked to weave his own life story and developments in neuroscience into a call for action, he spoke of three times of transformation in his life.  I will mention only one, and here is the only bit of neuroscience:  “Memory turns out to be tightly linked to our capacity to imagine alternatives to the ways things are and to meet new challenges—to face the future, where it is still possible to make a difference.  For these purposes, it is better to have a living memory system capable of recombining, relating, correcting, and enriching stored information.”

Railton recreated in his speech “a series of moments from my remembered life,” each of them “a moment of making a transition.”  His hope was “if I can make the experience of these moments real enough to you, even briefly, they might speak to you in ways that go beyond the little stories.”

He followed those three seminal memories with what he hoped would be a new one right there in the lecture hall.  He introduced it this way:  “The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about [because] enough gay individuals courageously … came out publicly.  Within two decades the rest of the population had learned … that among their friends, neighbors, coworkers, children, parents, teachers, students, and favorite movie stars were many gay individuals.  Were these people to be denied the rights of life and love the rest of us enjoy?”

What those courageous gay individuals did was “insisted that privacy should be a choice … made visible … so that heterosexuals could see their gay brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what their incomprehension and apprehensions had made of them.”

Being gay is not a choice.  What must be a choice for everyone who is gay is whether or not to keep it private.

We are still living in another “don’t ask, don’t tell” world, Railton continues So there’s nothing for it.  Those who have dwelt in the depths of depression need to come out as well.”

Our society sees depression as an inner weakness.  We must learn to call it what it is, Railton tells us “We must call it mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind, not shame and withdrawal.”

So I, too, must come out because I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.

The first, when I was 16, is very luckily the only one where I wanted to kill myself.  I walked along the river bank for so long, afraid to continue living, equally afraid of drowning.  Finally I was tired out and continued to live by default.  I went to the doctor the next day and explained my symptoms.  “You’ll just have to get used to it,” he told me.  “Learn to hide it as best you can.”

So I did.  Alcohol was a mixed blessing in some especially severe episodes but I was luckier than my very close High School friend who killed himself.  My experience manifested most often in second-guessing that slowed me down but left me enough strength to keep forcing myself onward.

Shortly before I retired from business, where I accomplished a lot but could have done more, Felicity got me to a doctor again.  There are now plenty of antidepressants and although their effect is poorly understood and/or misunderstood, I have been symptom-free since that time.

If I had been open about my depressive episodes, the business challenges I enjoyed would not have been open to me.  But if more of us reveal our mental illness along with what we accomplished despite it, I hope others will have the choice of openness that Professor Railton, I and so many others did not.  And I hope they will promptly get treatment!