Depression is in the news this week, as Jerry West releases a book that features his experience with it. I’m sure that many people will react with surprise: what does Jerry West have to be depressed about? Others of us will understand.
We all view the world through filters, depending on our individual make-ups. The filters color our experience in every particular. Some of these filters are fact based, filters such as physical appearance, and Whiteness/Blackness (etc). Some are chemical, such as the filter of the emotions. Some are hard-wired, such as temperament, personality and intelligence. Depression is a hybrid filter. I would characterize it as an emotional filter, but one made up of chemical and hard-wired components.
Note that I am not talking herein about mere situational, short term depression, such as when a beloved pet, or parent, dies. No, I’m talking about the clinical, permanent, stuck-with-it-forever kind. That's what Jerry's talking about too.
These days we understand depression better than we used to and it is no longer a taboo subject. Jerry West is the latest in a long line of celebrities to come out and admit to it. We are, however, still a long way from understanding how to deal with it. Many ways have been proposed, such as:
Psychoanalysis: this approach is now disfavored, but it was the hot set-up for most of the 20th Century. “Talk therapy,” and re-living childhood trauma were seen as a way to help us to understand why we felt this way, to bring it all up into the conscious mind and, it was to be hoped, put the bad feelings behind us. It only went so far, and usually not far enough.
Cognitive Therapy: here the therapist takes a practical approach, trying to help the clients to understand their behaviors and identify their triggers. This practical approach often achieve good results, but the sufferer is still left to live with the problem.
Medication: the new generations of anti-depressants that came up in the 80’s and 90’s are not without beneficial effect, but even where they are most efficacious they offer only partial and temporary relief. Again the sufferer is expected to try to master the depression and find a way to live with it.
Just Get Over It!: this is the approach chosen by most sufferers, and, by far, the one most often suggested by non-sufferers.
Non-sufferers add to the problems of the depressed, because they just don’t get it. Those who stand outside depression looking in, from the bubble of their relative peace and happiness, cannot understand what is going on in the mind of the depressed loved one. They are very likely to believe that the loved one is over-reacting to things, or being lazy, maybe even believing that the depressed loved one is attempting to manipulate the feelings of those around them. Many times the non-sufferers run out of patience, compassion fatigue sets in.
If one is particularly unlucky, the significant others may become angry and accuse the poor depressive of ruining their lives.
Jerry West traces his depression to the parenting behavior of his father. Serious beatings were involved, and serious belittlings, and his father was extremely unpredictable, mercurial even, you never knew what would set him off. Been there, Jerry, done that. In my case it was my mom. I don’t know about Jerry, but I had abandonment issues too.
When this happens, the child lives in almost constant fear. This fear releases chemicals into the brain, including, but not limited to, the chemicals associated with the “fight or flight” reaction. In my own case, the fear was not limited to time spent at home. My town was a pretty scary place too, there was always a lot of fighting going on, including some real curb-stomping, and we got hit at school by the teachers too.
This constant, negative chemical bath soaking the child’s brain in its formative years causes permanent changes in brain geometry and produces structural physical changes that persist for a lifetime, leading to negative consequences on general health. Plus, of course, inappropriate chemical and cognitive reactions to any life situation that you can think of, stressful or not. That’s in addition to the negative patterns in thinking in general, and in the emotions. Taken as a whole, this is what is known as “depression.”
Some people function well in spite of it, however badly they might feel. Jerry West was ultra-successful, by any yardstick. He was one of the all-time great basketball players, at the top of the game really, and he also succeeded as a coach. But it never seemed that way to Mr. West, he tended to dwell on the odd missed free-throw, or all of those play-off loses to Boston. When Jerry West talks about having “low self-esteem,” it’s hard for most people to imagine how someone so immensely talented and successful could even say such a thing. But I get it. President Abe Lincoln was depressed too, complete with the panic attacks and the crying jags, but he was quite a success himself, saving the country and all.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Yes, my own experience provides the sub-text for this post. But I share with Mr. West the general feeling that I am a very lucky person overall. At this point, I wouldn’t change my make-up retrospectively. I'm sure that Jerry wouldn't either. Change one thing, and you change everything. I had a good marriage, and I have two wonderful adult children that I love very much, and who love me. I love the way my sons have turned out and I am very proud of them. But my children are my only success, I have never made much money, very little actually. If I had to choose between the family and the money, I’d have chosen the family anyway, so I’m happy about that. I do wish I could have been a better husband though, and a better friend to some wonderful people that I have known.
At this point I have a job that I like very much, and I think that my employers are happy with my performance of my duties. I have a nice place to live, and I eat good food, and I am not without friends. I hope that my luck holds out, but real optimism is denied me.