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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Light at the end of the tunnel?

So, it's the new year. Everyone's taking stock, and I'm again in the position of confronting a long absence from my blog- more than 3 weeks this time, and for the same reason: I'm down. So again I face the prospect of doing something I've been putting off for so long that embarrassment at how long I've been putting it off is now as big a reason for putting it off as any other. I'm sure many readers of this will be familiar with that neurotic experience. Perhaps though, you won't be quite so familiar with the way in which it can become catastrophically paralysing for depressives and other mentally ill people.

I mean: I can write that I'm down, blue, depressed, and people can think oh yes, I know what you mean. This happens all the time. And it's true: most people get down, depressed at some time or another. But that's not the point, really. I say this because the everyday blues that the trials and tribulations of life inflicts upon all but the most fortunate really aren't in the same league as clinical depression.

Now please don't get me wrong. This is not some sob story. Far from it. This is something I have to say in order to cope with the act of keeping my blog alive after another long lag, an act which still means something to me. These words are a coping mechanism in other words. If you want to get an idea of where I'm coming from on this, I would recommend you read Philip K. Dick's 'Introduction' to The Golden Man, a fabulous essay reprinted in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (Vintage Books, 1995).

Philip K. Dick has been my literary hero for more than 20 years. I like to regard him as one of the greatest unsung humanist writers of the 20th century, and I can still remember the fortunate happenstance whereby I picked up my first 3 Dick books (yes, it's an old, old joke for us fans!). As a young man I was struck by the humane depths of his writing- expressed through his characters- which I knew were virtually unique. At the same time my callow youth rendered these depths opaque to me. It was as if I was only seeing the tip of an iceberg floating in a sea of time I would need years and years the depths of which to plumb. That's what it's felt like returning to Dick's books down the years.

Funnily enough though, however much I have lived with my memories of Dick's fiction, it is the impression of his 'Introduction' to The Golden Man that has been the most intense, and to which I have returned most often. The Golden Man was a short story anthology published in 1980, at just about the time when Dick was really beginning to enjoy the reputation he deserved, and a tragic 2 years before his untimely death. I can still remember where I was living when I first read this essay; who I discussed it with; and how we were overwhelmed by the power of its honesty, of the simplicity of its account of endurance in the face of suffering.

And Philip K. Dick was certainly a man who knew about suffering in the affluent society of the postwar western world: dire poverty; druggie friends dying all around him; and a history of mental illness all of his own. Dick's words were those of a survivor, not those of a well-meaning observer. Which is why they became a touchstone for me down the years, a memory I would bring out and cherish, after the fashion of a primitive huddled around a fire for warmth in the darkness. Nobody else has ever written anything that has done quite that much for me.

It was the absence of piteous bleating above all that I remember from that essay, which is why it came to mind when I was trying to explain the difference between the blues and clinical depression. Because it's hard to explain that difference, all the more so since bleating piteously strikes me as a pretty succint defintion of the state of mind of the clinically depressed. So look at it like this: imagine spraining your wrist or twisting your ankle- that's the blues. Breaking your arm or your leg? That's clinical depression. But losing the use of your arm and/or your leg? That's manic depression.The difference is that between a more or less passing inconvenience and an enduring handicap.

Meanwhile, again in search of a lighter note on this topic, here's an interesting fact about mania. Did you know that hair and fingernails grow more rapidly when you're manic (well, mine do at least). I imagine it's got something to do with the increase in metabolic rate that is part of the condition. I also like to imagine that this phenomenon might have something to do with the werewolf myth, don't you think?

Well that's that for today. More soon I hope. In the meantime: a happy new year to everyone! ;)
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