A little book on depression

A few years ago, the sex therapist and clinical psychologist Dr. Margie

Holmes, my colleague at the University of the Philippines, told me she was researching a book on depression.  She asked if I knew anyone who had had an experience with depression and was introspective and open enough to talk about it. I’m not sure now if it was her subtle way of inquiring if I had had one myself.  But, I suggested one or two people, none of whom, as I expected, was willing to be interviewed.

Even among educated Filipinos, depression is shunned as a topic.  I didn’t think Margie would be able to write her book.

But, to my surprise, she launched it last month. Curiously titled “Down to 1,” this little book on depression, published by Anvil, offers an exploration of “this common cold” of mental conditions in the zaniest possible way.  This is certainly not an academic monograph, and Professor Holmes will not likely get any publication credit from the university for this slim volume.  But it will help a lot of people.

The book opens with a quick 20-item depression test.  If you answer truthfully, you may get a pretty good idea of where you stand on the depression scale.  You may be skeptical, as I am, about the value of self-administered measurements, especially of something as elusive as one’s mental state.  But a test like this tells you more or less what kinds of questions a professional therapist or psychiatrist would be asking in order to gauge the gravity of your problem.  It’s a fascinating test.  But, without proper guidance, you could misread the results.

The book’s purpose is to alert the reader to a vulnerability that is present in all of us in varying degrees.  It enables us to put a name to the experience, to track its movement, to understand and come to terms with it, and, most importantly, to manage it.  Yet the book is far from didactic: it offers no do-it-yourself recipes for dealing with depression.  What it does is to let ten informants, formerly and/or currently depressed (“FCD10”), share their encounter with the “beast.”

One of the informants is Margie’s British husband, Jeremy Baer, from whose account the book draws its intriguing title, a reference to a vital side-effect of some anti-depressants.  Jeremy, who clearly adores

Margie, is so much like her – candid and breezy. The stories are, as one might expect, quite uneven in what they disclose.  The most courageous stories are also the best written.  These are narratives of unshared pain, of humbling struggles against a crippling sense of worthlessness, of recurrent thoughts of suicide, and of willful emergence from the dark hole of depression.

No one else perhaps could have woven these disparate accounts into a coherent whole except Margie Holmes, herself a veteran of multiple depressive episodes.  Behind the popular media figure who diagnoses sexual dysfunctions with irrepressible humor and candor is a person who deeply cares for those trapped in psychic hell-holes they cannot talk about. Only a few people know she is also a professor and holder of a doctor of philosophy degree in clinical psychology.

It’s pretty difficult to be taken seriously in academe if you regularly appear in the popular media, but even more so if your expertise entails giving out sex advice to the masses. But, compared to professors who make money by moonlighting as advisers to corrupt politicians, Marge Holmes can proudly and honestly say she’s doing public service.

Like sex, depression remains a big taboo in our culture. If it is a source of problems, you are advised to deal with it quietly and not let people outside the family know about it.  The stigma attached to any form of mental illness prevents us from seeking professional help.  With depression, we tend to be even more dismissive.  “You will understand, most profoundly,” says writer Alya Honasan in one of the book’s most poignant stories, “how unbelievably cruel it can be to tell a clinically depressed person to ‘snap out of it’.”

Like the common cold, depression spares no one. Some may be more susceptible than others by reason of genetic inheritance or family history, but on the whole, it can attack anyone – wealthy or poor, achiever or failure, celebrity or unknown.  It can be mild or severe, gradual or sudden, brief or prolonged.  The important thing is to be able to recognize the onset of its typical symptoms, to know that one is not alone in this situation, that help is available, and that one can reasonably manage it or fully recover from it.

The stories are from real people some of us may know.  They are not composite portraits.  That the informants have agreed to be identified is part of what makes the book a compelling read. But its true value lies in the honesty, humility, and humor in which it is told.  If I were its author, I would title it, with due respect to Milan Kundera, “The unbearable lightness of dysthymia.”  Dysthymia is the technical term for mild depression.

Why write about depression in a season of celebration? Answer: Because that is when the difference is sharpest.  More depressed people probably attempt suicide during holidays, when the joyous sounds of merriment can find no resonance in their souls.  Who knows, a book like this might help them.

Merry Christmas to one and all!