Like many people I suspect, the death of Gary Speed on Sunday stopped me in my tracks. Or at least it did when I was told it was likely he had taken his own life. Like everybody else I suspect my first response was ‘why?’ But my second was much more chilling.
A few years ago I read Dr Tim Cantopher’s book ‘depressive illness – the curse of the strong’. As early as pages 6-7 Cantopher argues that clinical depression ‘nearly always’ happens to one type of person. A person who is strong, reliable, diligent, responsible and always there for others. Its strikes you precisely because you are too strong. Because you cant say no – you keep delivering, you keep going until the fuse blows. ‘This person’ he argues ‘ is the sort to whom you would turn if you had a problem…s/he is a safe pair of hands…indeed this person is usually admired, though often somewhat taken for granted..the last person you would expect to have a breakdown’ ‘You have got it (he argues) because you are too strong…this is the afflication of the good and the great ‘ Great people like Cromwell, Lincoln, Newton, Allen Poel, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Churchill, Waugh, Hemmingway, Hancock and Milligan.
As I write this I’m listening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album (which concludes with a haunting Philip Glass extract) . In the song Train in the Distance he sings
‘The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains’
The truth immediately dawns on me – that lyric is for sufferers of chronic depression no longer true – and whatever our perception – their own view – that there is no hope – that the ‘black dog’ (Churchill) has descended – is their reality, their horror. Cries of ‘Pull your socks up’ & ‘s/he’ll get over it’ appear like empty platitudes. Silence is potentially worse. (It’s why I believe that organisations like Action for Happiness are so important right now. The arts – the business I work in – are key here too. We need to fundamentally change our societies drivers) Later in Cantopher’s book comes a sentence the gist of which I’ve never forgotten:- ‘A sad fact is that the commonest time for a person to take his/her life is not when in the pitts of depression, but at the point when he/she is beginning to get better. One reason for this is that, when you have a really good day, the bad that follows is thrown into sharp relief..the other is that if you happen to be someone for whom energy and violation come back before mood improves, there is a risk of you carrying through self destructive thoughts that you have had for some time, but not had the energy to act upon’
I have no idea what led to Gary Speed’s death but right now my thoughts go out to his family, friends and colleagues – but at the same time to everyone who is suffering from chronic depression (and those that are close to them)- possibly the most mis understood, most ignored disease. And I raise a glass to a society which is driven more by happiness and a concern for others than by individual success. And if nothing else a greater understanding of a killer disease.
For what its worth heres a list of books I’ve found useful:-
Depressive Illness – the curse of the strong – Dr Tim Cantopher
Depression and how to survive it – Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare
Marcus Trescothick – Coming Back to Me
Michael Rosen (with Quentin Blake) – Sad Book
Sally Brampton – Shoot the Damm Dog
Paul Gilbert – Overcoming Depression
Gwyneth Lewis – Sunbathing in the Rain (I’ve not read this one yet – but it comes recommended)
(Tony Ramsay added ‘Malignant Sadness’ – Lewis Wolpert to the list)