Blame the Neanderthals

Hold Onto The Light

I made a promise and I’m late fulfilling it.

Hold on to the Light is a set of posts discussing depression, especially among the arts community. I’d promised I’d give a few thoughts on this . . . several months ago!

Before you read this; If you suffer from depression, and if your feelings are easily offended or hurt, do yourself a favor. Stop reading now. I’ve been told my attitude toward this is harsh and unhelpful. Maybe it is. This is what works for me. But if you even suspect it might hurt your feelings, turn back now.

Okay, that was your fair warning.  No angry emails, okay?

So, my thoughts are this.

Let’s blame the Neanderthals.

No, seriously.  I’m now giving the blame for depression and my tendencies to self-medicate with caffeine and sugar (I don’t touch alcohol or nicotine) on our Neanderthal bloodlines.

Neanderthals were the first artists, right, painting on their cave walls?  It only makes sense that they were the first to suffer from the so-called Artistic Temperament that has long been the province of melancholy painters dwelling in attics, cutting off their ears, suicidal writers, and musicians merrily overdosing themselves into oblivion.

Is it fair to blame depression on our ancestry?  Well, one of my favorite books on that topic seems to bear it out.  Touched by Fire, Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison   delineates the familial nature of this tendency, tracing it through the family trees of such luminaries as Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf.  It’s fascinating to look at those lineages and see which people toughed it out to become great artists (at least for a time) and which family members succumbed early to addictions and suicide.

So. Depression. It’s like diabetes. There isn’t a cure. With diabetes, some folk have to monitor their blood and get insulin injections, or wear an insulin pump.  Others find that if they lose weight and change diets and are very careful, they can get by without insulin.

So. Some people with depression medicate. Some don’t.

I don’t. If meds work for you, I’m fine with that. For some of us, they just make things worse. And the side effects for some people just give them a host of other reasons to be sad.

For some teens, medication lifts the paralysis of depression just enough that they have the get up and go to off themselves.   Not the best solution; certainly not a cure.

I started out by blaming the Neanderthals. If the current scientific thinking on that is right, if  our depression wiring comes down to us from then, or even if we can, as Dr. Jamison did, trace it through family trees, then we must admit to a genetic component.  Darwin tells us that nature selects for survival. The giraffes born with the longer necks get more to eat.  They breed, and their longer necked offspring get more food, grow stronger and make more babies. With longer necks.  That’s natural selection.

So, I ponder, what makes manic depression a survival trait? Given that so many of its carriers commit suicide or become horrible choices for mates, why does this trait persist in a breeding population?  I ponder and wonder.  I don’t know.

But, here are my tips for dealing with it, as a writer, parent and survivor.

  1. You wake up in the morning. Nothing has changed in your life but you are depressed. Sit up, say, “It’s going to be a bad brain chemistry day.” Accept that as you would accept arthritis pain or needing a shot of insulin.  It’s going to be an intellect over emotion day. Engage that part of your brain. For a writer, I can compare this to the rough draft stage of writing. I put words on the page, and they are stupid and ugly and the story is not moving. I reach back and adjust the squelch on my internal editor until I can barely hear it.  Then I write the story. When I stall out, I say, “I can’t fix this story until I’ve written it really badly.”  All my writing starts with a really ugly first draft. Some of my mornings start with extreme discouragement and self loathing. I have to get through that day in order to get to the possibly better tomorrow.
  2. Take care of the animal you live in. If depression means you don’t feed your cat or leave your dog in a kennel all day, it’s time for you to be taken to the next level of care. Treat your body as kindly as you do your cat. Put it on a schedule. Shower, brush teeth, eat balanced meal, go for a walk. Mens sana in corpore sano.  A sound mind in a sound body. Those Romans had this rule down pat. When the body is cared for, the mind works better.
  3. Fake it. Go to work, answer the phone, pack the lunches, get the kids to school on time. Do not compromise. Routine is your friend. So you have to operate on auto-pilot. Do it. Super-glue your happy face on and get on with life. DO NOT whine to your friends, or use it as an excuse. It may be the reason why you are having a terrible time getting things done, but in my opinion, you keep that to yourself, and soldier on.
  4. Be kind to yourself but not indulgent. You know you are depressed. It is not a time to make decisions. Do not go shopping or have an affair or buy a new car. For regular folks, events trigger sadness.  As in, “My cat died.  I am sad.”  That is a normal and healthy response. Feel that grief. Don’t try to medicate that away.  But for people like me, sadness can trigger events. “I’m depressed. It’s probably because my car is hard to start and my clothes are ugly. I will go mire myself in debt today and wake up tomorrow in an even worse place.”  No. Not a good time for decision. It is not a good time to go on Facebook and Twitter and read mean things or blast out horrible thoughts. It’s a good time to hold your cat by the fire.  (Unless it’s a dead cat. No. You need to take care of that.)
  5. Create. Yes. Don’t tell me you can’t. What you mean is that you don’t like what you create. Of course not. Create anyway. Two months from now, you will find that gem of dialogue, that one sentence from the dark time that now fits perfectly in your current work. Or write the sad, angry, hurtful book or short story.  Keep it under your bed for your kids to find after you are dead.


That’s it. This is too long. Final advice.  You have to live with it. Find a way.




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