Monthly Archives: March 2014

Dances with neurotransmitters

Hello again…after a rather long hiatus. The Magpie apologises for her absence over the past couple of months, but there was a genuinely good reason.

I’ve been taking my Black Dog for walkies again.

Depression, as many of us who’ve suffered from it know, can be the gift that keeps on giving. You think you have a handle on your moods, but every now and again it springs back at you, and you’re back in that place where you can’t even remember what it’s like to feel anything, let alone happy. Some people describe it as being like a fog, or wading through treacle or quicksand; when I’ve been at my worst, it’s felt like I was chewing my way through an endless mass of soggy tissue paper. While this time round it wasn’t quite that bad, it was still pretty dire. Waking at 4am and lying in bed fretting on everything under the sun is not fun.

This is perhaps my sixth bout or so since my teens, and my fourth since my diagnosis, ten years ago. You get through it, eventually. But you need to recognise it and take steps towards healing.

What heals? It’s different for everyone, and I can only talk about my own experience, but here’s what worked for me.

Meds. People wax lyrical about Big Pharma and psych meds being doled out like sweeties, but truth is, for a lot of us, they’re essential. Yes, they’re a crutch – and just as important to a broken mind as actual crutches would be to a broken leg. I’ve been relatively lucky in that the first drug I tried – sertraline (more familiarly known as Zoloft, a close cousin of Prozac) – works for me, and that it’s done no worse than given me a rather dry mouth for the first few weeks; some people’s prescriptions take a lot of tweaking and produce horrible side-effects.

(On St John’s Wort: I have tried this for maintenance purposes, but when things get really bad, it doesn’t seem to tip the balance of my brain chemistry the way prescription meds do. Bach remedies, however – which, unlike SJW, can safely be taken alongside conventional antidepressants – do seem to help take the edge off the particular flavour of emotional gunk clogging up my synapses. Your mileage may vary.)

Good self-care. That means stuff like making sure I get to bed, and out of it, at a reasonable hour (the first effect of the meds is to start getting my sleep pattern back to normal, thank Goddess), attending to basic hygiene, at least trying to eat (and preferably not entirely food that comes in microwaveable trays, although those can be lifesavers when proper cooking feels like scaling the Andes), and making a balance between rest and activity. Especially getting outside for part of the day. My sort of depression isn’t, I think, your actual SAD, but sunlight, such as it is here in the UK in winter, does seem to improve how I feel.

Talking to someone. I have a husband who, bless his cotton socks, will listen to my verbal ruminations and not judge me for them. (Well, not all the time. He’s human.) When I feel like I’m bending his ear too much, there is always The Samaritans. Don’t worry; the Magpie isn’t plotting to leave this earthly plane anytime soon! While these selfless volunteers do listen to people who are suicidal, they’re also there for anyone who’s struggling. And thankfully for people like me, for whom phone conversations are trying even when I’m compos mentis, they’ll also read your emails or good old-fashioned snail mail. If you have funds looking for a good cause, please consider contributing to them; they do a sterling job.

Sleight of mind. A term coined by the Chaos magician, Peter Carroll. If you’re familiar with the redoubtable Granny Weatherwax of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, you know it better as headology. What I mean by both is the knack of working out how the familiar patterns of my brain are sabotaging me and, hopefully (once the glitchy chemistry has been tweaked – see Meds, above), replacing them with more helpful thoughts. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the official version of this, is widely touted by the NHS those days, and it has some value in cases like mine, where the problem is a tendency, by nature or nurture, to always assume the worst and be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

(It’s less useful in other instances. If you’re, say, a redundant 55-year-old factory worker, or a single mother struggling with three kids in a damp council flat, changing your thinking isn’t going to be as useful as some practical help. But the UK government has too many other urgent needs, like bailing out its rich mates, to provide for its more vulnerable citizens. Sarcasm aside, brain chemistry it may be, but good studies have proven that depression tends to affect people who feel powerless, so we do need to spend more resources on helping people take back power over their own lives – which shouldn’t be confused, as it seems to be these days, with kicking them when they’re down.)

Making art. It’s hard. When everyday mundane stuff takes every ounce of your energy, making the effort to be creative seems that much harder. But even doing tiny things – gessoing a page of a journal, writing a few notes for future ideas – helps me start to get my mojo back. When my creativity is really at a low ebb, I find doing ‘ready-made’ arts and crafts – stuff like those pre-printed needlepoint kits, or colouring books – is still possible. It’s not great art, but it keeps your mind occupied. Getting back to journaling, when I can, is almost as useful as having someone to talk to.


Keeping up some kind of contact with Spirit. Christian mystics talk about the Dark Night of the Soul, a stage of spiritual development when prayer seems meaningless and you start to suspect there’s nobody there after all. Their advice is to carry on regardless and trust that Something is listening. You may recall the cheesy old ‘Footprints’ story – well, I used to think it was cheesy. But (leaving aside the overtly Christian terms in which it’s couched) I’ve found it to be very true. Something does carry you through those times when you feel as if you’re alone in the universe – but you can only realise it in hindsight.

An even better description, for me, is in one of my favourite poems by Denise Levertov, ‘Settling’. Describing her adopted home, Seattle, she talks about the change in the fall weather from pleasant to characteristically gloomy, and the city’s backdrop, Mt Rainier – like her (Catholic) vision of the Divine, sometimes gloriously visible, sometimes obscured – and concludes that:

Grey is the price
of neighbouring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen

You take the cloud with the brightness. You carry on – meditate, journal, do small rituals, talk to the emptiness – and eventually, find it’s not so empty after all.

Recovery is a journey. I’m still on mine, and will be for the rest of this incarnation, probably. It’s something you have to keep dealing with. The important thing is that right at this moment, I’m feeling better than I was. So here’s hoping the rest of 2014 will be brighter.