Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Psychedelics have a remarkable capacity to violate our ideas about ourselves. Is that why they make people better?
Psychedelic drugs are making a psychiatric comeback. After a lull of half a century, researchers are once again investigating the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’) and LSD. It turns out that the hippies were on to something. There’s mounting evidence that psychedelic experiences can be genuinely transformative, especially for people suffering from intractable anxiety, depression and addiction. ‘It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of a medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results,’ Stephen Ross, the clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, told Scientific American in 2016.
Just what do these drugs do? Psychedelics reliably induce an altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’. The term was invented, well before the tools of contemporary neuroscience became available, to describe sensations of self-transcendence: a feeling in which the mind is put in touch more directly and intensely with the world, producing a profound sense of connection and boundlessness….
Depression remains the last serious taboo in the West.
Some think it’s an illness, some think it’s less than it actually is and others deny its existence. Society is so keen to show that it is understanding of a medical condition, so keen to throw pills at it and to provide sufferers with legislative protection that it’s forgotten that depression is a very personal battle.
There remains a social undercurrent that refuses to see depression as more or less than a series of personal shortcomings or artistic affectations. Depression is a private question about how to handle the darkness when it pays you a visit. No amount of public discourse or sympathy will ever change that basic fact. It makes no difference what other people think, which is a simultaneously lonely and reassuring fact.
Happiness is contingent on being brave. It’s about conscientiously choosing to see the darkness as an illness and a series of landmines which can be contoured and identified. It’s about seeing patterns, and triggers and removing those things from your life that trigger episodes. It’s a brutal choice, a night of the long knives that has self-preservation at its heart.
Debates about whether or not depression is environmental or genetic hold no water for those who have and endure depression. The key to understanding the illness is to first recognise you have it. Treatment first begins with understanding what you have because like any illness, it can be triggered or the likelihood of getting it increases with certain decisions and behaviours.
Pills and antidepressants are not the first stop. Winston Churchill and Lord Byron are widely noted for their industrious creativity and are also the most oft-cited men who dealt with what Churchill dubbed his ‘black dog’. Both offer insight into how someone with depression views the world.
Churchill’s melancholia is often remembered as a side effect of his greatness, but whether or not his greatness would have existed without his ‘black dog’ is another matter. Such is his legendary association with the illness that the book Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, imagined it as a literal walking, talking black dog that whispered convincing lies and downers that only Churchill could see and hear. For the poetic licence of the book, it was an apt analogy for how Churchill explained his condition:
“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
If there is any positive in this whatsoever, Churchill’s misery allowed him to accomplish wonders because he was driven by an impossible drive to never fall into his own thoughts for worse he fell onto the train tracks.
Byron likewise suffered from depression, but with all the charm of a dead poet. His life was much the model and source for his creation of the romantic hero, sullen and brooding. The Byronic hero made an appearance in much of Byron’s work, but he best articulated the traits in his description of Conrad, the pirate hero of his The Corsair (1814):
That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)
For all Churchill’s creatively, ego and verboseness he never embellished his illness with more than a moniker. Byron’s darkness was less so because his principal disposition was toward a spiritual melancholy that translated itself into a pantheon of literature. Churchill’s creative outlet was driving himself onward with activity and never, ever giving up.
What unites both men is that they made themselves more than the sum of the parts that encouraged their darkness. They utilised it as a goading reminder that prodigiousness was the only way to get over the part of themselves that whispered the worst and encouraged them to stop.
And this is the key: people with depression seldom know they have it. The voices in their head whispering negative things have the same normal voice of yourself but it’s been hijacked by a critical downer trying to guide the ship onto the rocks. The only way beyond this is to carry on, no matter the cost or the time involved because the darkness does eventually give way. Going on, and on, and on and never being cruel or cowardly is the only way to ensure that when you feel better destruction isn’t what remains.
Depression is like a violent blackout, you can wreck relationships or yourself during it but eventually you sober up to see what has been left behind. It’s a narrative of how you see your own story. When it becomes clouded then you have a problem because you lose an innate ability for self-assessment. It’s precisely why alcohol is both a depressive and an extremely dangerous consumption for someone who is in the throes of an episode.
Like Byron or Churchill, if there’s a heroic quality it comes from within. If a voice guided you in, you need to hold onto something to remind you to keep going through it. No one can help you except yourself. You have to hold on. Dizzying highs and devastating lows can make for a creative output of genius for some, but for most holding on means getting through a storm in such a way that when the lights do go back on, you see the world anew.
There’s a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where the eponymous hero is stuck in a maze of a castle that keeps resetting over, and over and over again. Each time he dies, he comes back; he runs the rat race again with no memory of the last time before being confronted with the truth that all the millions of skulls around him are versions of himself who lived and died.
All each version can do, before he dies and resets, is to hit an implacable wall a hundred metres thick of pure diamond. Every version makes a tiny dent before the cycle repeats.
Over and over and over again, for four billion years, each version makes a chink that eventually breaks the wall.
Depression is much the same. Whatever is being said, whatever is happening around you, stop for nothing, put the mind on autopilot and keep going because depression takes control of the head first, but it can never conquer the heart.
As someone once said ‘if you’re going through Hell, keep going’.
~ James Spencer attended the University of Edinburgh and graduated with a 2.1 in Politics. His interests include human rights, constitutional politics and cultural commentary. (Bio credit: Darrow)