Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions – Johann Hari.

“Even when the tears didn’t come, I had an almost constant anxious monologue thrumming through my mind. Then I would chide myself: It’s all in your head. Get over it. Stop being so weak.”

As she was speaking, I started to experience something strange. Her voice seemed to be coming from very far away, and the room appeared to be moving around me uncontrollably. Then, quite unexpectedly, I started to explode, all over her hut, like a bomb of vomit and faeces. When, some time later, I became aware of my surroundings again, the old woman was looking at me with what seemed to be sad eyes. “This boy needs to go to a hospital,” she said. “He is very sick.

Although I couldn’t understand why, all through the time I was working on this book, I kept thinking of something that doctor said to me that day, during my unglamorous hour of poisoning.

“You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.”

It only became clear to me why in a very different place, thousands of miles away, at the end of my journey into what really causes depression and anxiety, and how we can find our way back.
.
In every book about depression or severe anxiety by someone who has been through it, there is a long stretch of pain-porn in which the author describes, in ever more heightened language, the depth of the distress they felt. We needed that once, when other people didn’t know what depression or severe anxiety felt like. Thanks to the people who have been breaking this taboo for decades now, I don’t have to write that book all over again. That is not what I am going to write about here. Take it from me, though: it hurts.

Prologue: The Apple

One evening in the spring of 2014, I was walking down a small side street in central Hanoi when, on a stall by the side of the road, I saw an apple. It was freakishly large and red and inviting. I’m terrible at haggling, so I paid three dollars for this single piece of fruit, and carried it into my room in the Very Charming Hanoi Hotel. Like any good foreigner who’s read his health warnings, I washed the apple diligently with bottled water, but as I bit into it, I felt a bitter, chemical taste fill my mouth. It was the flavor I imagined, back when I was a kid, that all food was going to have after a nuclear war. I knew I should stop, but I was too tired to go out for any other food, so I ate half, and then set it aside, repelled.

Two hours later, the stomach pains began. For two days, I sat in my room as it began to spin around me faster and faster, but I wasn’t worried: I had been through food poisoning before. I knew the script. You just have to drink water and let it pass through you.

On the third day, I realized my time in Vietnam was slipping away in this sickness-blur. I was there to track down some survivors of the war for another book project I’m working on, so I called my translator, Dang Hoang Linh, and told him we should drive deep into the countryside in the south as we had planned all along. As we traveled around, a trashed hamlet here, an Agent Orange victim there, I was starting to feel steadier on my feet.

The next morning, he took me to the hut of a tiny eighty-seven-year-old woman. Her lips were dyed bright red from the herb she was chewing, and she pulled herself toward me across the floor on a wooden plank that somebody had managed to attach some wheels to. Throughout the war, she explained, she had spent nine years wandering from bomb to bomb, trying to keep her kids alive. They were the only survivors from her village.

As she was speaking, I started to experience something strange. Her voice seemed to be coming from very far away, and the room appeared to be moving around me uncontrollably. Then-quite unexpectedly, I started to explode, all over her hut, like a bomb of vomit and faeces. When, some time later, I became aware of my surroundings again, the old woman was looking at me with what seemed to be sad eyes. “This boy needs to go to a hospital,” she said. “He is very sick.”

No, no, I insisted. I had lived in East London on a staple diet of fried chicken for years, so this wasn’t my first time at the E.coli rodeo. I told Dang to drive me back to Hanoi so I could recover in my hotel room in front of CNN and the contents of my own stomach for a few more days.

“No,” the old woman said firmly. “The hospital.”

“Look, Johann,” Dang said to me, “this is the only person, with her kids, who survived nine years of American bombs in her village. I am going to listen to her health advice over yours.” He dragged me into his car, and I heaved and convulsed all the way to a sparse building that I learned later had been built by the Soviets decades before. I was the first foreigner ever to be treated there. From inside, a group of nurses, half excited, half baffled, rushed to me and carried me to a table, where they immediately started shouting. Dang was yelling back at the nurses, and they were shrieking now, in a language that had no words I could recognize. I noticed then that they had put something tight around my arm.

I also noticed that in the corner, there was a little girl with her nose in plaster, alone. She looked at me. I looked back. We were the only patients in the room.

As soon as they got the results of my blood pressure, dangerously low, the nurse said, as Dang translated, they started jabbing needles into me. Later, Dang told me that he had falsely said that I was a Very Important Person from the West, and that if I died there, it would be a source of shame for the people of Vietnam. This went on for ten minutes, as my arm got heavy with tubes and track marks. Then they started to shout questions at me about my symptoms through Dang. It was a seemingly endless list about the nature of my pain.

As all this was unfolding, I felt strangely split. Part of me was consumed with nausea, everything was spinning so fast, and I kept thinking: stop moving, stop moving, stop moving. But another part of me, below or beneath or beyond this, was conducting a quite rational little monologue. Oh. You are close to death. Felled by a poisoned apple. You are like Eve, or Snow White, or Alan Turing.

Then I thought, is your last thought really going to be that pretentious?

Then I thought, if eating half an apple did this to you, what do these chemicals do to the farmers who work in the fields with them day in, day out, for years? That’d be a good story, some day.

Then I thought, you shouldn’t be thinking like this if you are on the brink of death. You should be thinking of profound moments in your life. You should be having flashbacks. When have you been truly happy? I pictured myself as a small boy, lying on the bed in our old house with my grandmother, cuddling up to her and watching the British soap opera Coronation Street. I pictured myself years later when I was looking after my little nephew, and he woke me up at seven in the morning and lay next to me on the bed and asked me long and serious questions about life. I pictured myself lying on another bed, when I was seventeen, with the first person I ever fell in love with. It wasn’t a sexual memory, just lying there, being held.

Wait, I thought. Have you only ever been happy lying in bed? What does this reveal about you? Then this internal monologue was eclipsed by a heave. I begged the doctors to give me something that would switch off this extreme nausea. Dang talked animatedly with the doctors. Then he told me finally: “The doctor says you need your nausea. It is a message, and we must listen to the message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.”

And with that, I began to vomit again.

Many hours later, a doctor, a man in his forties came into my field of vision and said: “We have learned that your kidneys have stopped working. You are extremely dehydrated. Because of the vomiting and diarrhea, you have not absorbed any water for a very long time, so you are like a man who has been wandering in the desert for days.” Dang interjected: “He says if we had driven you back to Hanoi, you would have died on the journey.”

The doctor told me to list everything I had eaten for three days. It was a short list. An apple. He looked at me quizzically. “Was it a clean apple?” Yes, I said, I washed it in bottled water. Everybody burst out laughing, as if I had served up a killer Chris Rock punch line. it turns out that you can’t just wash an apple in Vietnam. They are covered in pesticides so they can stand for months without rotting. You need to cut off the peel entirely, or this can happen to you.

Although I couldn’t understand why, all through the time I was working on this book, I kept thinking of something that doctor said to me that day, during my unglamorous hour of poisoning.

“You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.”

It only became clear to me why in a very different place, thousands of miles away, at the end of my journey into what really causes depression and anxiety, and how we can find our way back.

“When I flushed away my final packs of Paxil, I found these mysteries waiting for me, like children on a train platform, waiting to be collected, trying to catch my eye. Why was I still depressed? Why were there so many people like me?”

Introduction: A Mystery

I was eighteen years old when I swallowed my first antidepressant. I was standing in the weak English sunshine, outside a pharmacy in a shopping center in London. The tablet was white and small, and as I swallowed, it felt like a chemical kiss.

That morning I had gone to see my doctor. I struggled, I explained to him, to remember a day when I hadn’t felt a long crying jag judder its way out of me. Ever since I was a small child, at school, at college, at home, with friends, I would often have to absent myself, shut myself away, and cry. They were not a few tears. They were proper sobs. And even when the tears didn’t come, I had an almost constant anxious monologue thrumming through my mind. Then I would chide myself: It’s all in your head. Get over it. Stop being so weak.

I was embarrassed to say it then; I am embarrassed to type it now.

In every book about depression or severe anxiety by someone who has been through it, there is a long stretch of pain-porn in which the author describes, in ever more heightened language, the depth of the distress they felt. We needed that once, when other people didn’t know what depression or severe anxiety felt like. Thanks to the people who have been breaking this taboo for decades now, I don’t have to write that book all over again. That is not what I am going to write about here. Take it from me, though: it hurts.

A month before I walked into that doctor’s office, I found myself on a beach in Barcelona, crying as the waves washed into me, when, quite suddenly, the explanation, for why this was happening, and how to find my way back, came to me. I was in the middle of traveling across Europe with a friend, in the summer before I became the first person in my family to go to a fancy university. We had bought cheap student rail passes, which meant for a month we could travel on any train in Europe for free, staying in youth hostels along the way. I had visions of yellow beaches and high culture, the Louvre, a spliff, hot Italians. But just before we left, I had been rejected by the first person I had ever really been in love with, and I felt emotion leaking out of me, even more than usual, like an embarrassing smell.

The trip did not go as I planned. I burst into tears on a gondola in Venice. I howled on the Matterhorn. I started to shake in Kafka’s house in Prague.

For me, it was unusual, but not that unusual. I’d had periods in my life like this before, when pain seemed unmanageable and I wanted to excuse myself from the world. But then in Barcelona, when I couldn’t stop crying, my friend said to me, “You realize most people don’t do this, don’t you?”

And then I experienced one of the very few epiphanies of my life. I turned to her and said: “I am depressed! It’s not all in my head! I’m not unhappy, I’m not weak, I’m depressed!”

This will sound odd, but what I experienced at that moment was a happy jolt, like unexpectedly finding a pile of money down the back of your sofa.

There is a term for feeling like this! It is a medical condition, like diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome! I had been hearing this, as a message bouncing through the culture, for years, of course, but now it clicked into place. They meant me! And there is, I suddenly recalled in that moment, a solution to depression: antidepressants. So that’s what I need! As soon as I get home, I will get these tablets, and I will be normal, and all the parts of me that are not depressed will be unshackled. I had always had drives that have nothing to do with depression, to meet people, to learn, to understand the world. They will be set free, I said, and soon.

The next day, we went to the Parc Güell, in the center of Barcelona. It’s a park designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi to be profoundly strange, everything is out of perspective, as if you have stepped into a funhouse mirror. At one point you walk through a tunnel in which everything is at a rippling angle, as though it has been hit by a wave. At another point, dragons rise close to buildings made of ripped iron that almost appears to be in motion. Nothing looks like the world should. As I stumbled around it, I thought, this is what my head is like: misshapen, wrong. And soon it’s going to be fixed.

Like all epiphanies, it seemed to come in a flash, but it had in fact been a long time coming. I knew what depression was. I had seen it play out in soap operas, and had read about it in books. I had heard my own mother talking about depression and anxiety, and seen her swallowing pills for it. And I knew about the cure, because it had been announced by the global media just a few years before. My teenage years coincided with the Age of Prozac the dawn of new drugs that promised, for the first time, to be able to cure depression without crippling side effects. One of the bestselling books of the decade explained that these drugs actually make you “better than well”, they make you stronger and healthier than ordinary people.

I had soaked all this up, without ever really stopping to think about it. There was a lot of talk like that in the late 1990s; it was everywhere. And now I saw, at last that it applied to me.

My doctor, it was clear on the afternoon when I went to see him, had absorbed all this, too. In his little office, he explained patiently to me why I felt this way. There are some people who naturally have depleted levels of a chemical named serotonin in their brains, he said, and this is what causes depression, that weird, persistent, misfiring unhappiness that won’t go away. Fortunately, just in time for my adulthood, there was a new generation of drugs, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), that restore your serotonin to the level of a normal person’s. Depression is a brain disease, he said, and this is the cure. He took out a picture of a brain and talked to me about it.

He was saying that depression was indeed all in my head, but in a very different way. It’s not imaginary. It’s very real, and it’s a brain malfunction.

He didn’t have to push. It was a story I was already sold on. I left within ten minutes with my script for Seroxat (or Paxil, as it’s known in the United States).

It was only years later, in the course of writing this book, that somebody pointed out to me all the questions my doctor didn’t ask that day. Like: Is there any reason you might feel so distressed? What’s been happening in your life? Is there anything hurting you that we might want to change? Even if he had asked, I don’t think I would have been able to answer him. I suspect I would have looked at him blankly. My life, I would have said, was good. Sure, I’d had some problems; but I had no reason to be unhappy, certainly not this unhappy.

In any case, he didn’t ask, and I didn’t wonder why. Over the next thirteen years, doctors kept writing me prescriptions for this drug, and none of them asked either. If they had, I suspect I would have been indignant, and said, If you have a broken brain that can’t generate the right happiness, producing chemicals, what’s the point of asking such questions?

Isn’t it cruel? You don’t ask a dementia patient why they can’t remember where they left their keys. What a stupid thing to ask me. Haven’t you been to medical school?

The doctor had told me it would take two weeks for me to feel the effect of the drugs, but that night, after collecting my prescription, I felt a warm surge running through me, a light thrumming that I was sure consisted of my brain synapses groaning and creaking into the correct configuration. I lay on my bed listening to a worn-out mix tape, and I knew I wasn’t going to be crying again for a long time.

I left for the university a few weeks later. With my new chemical armor, I wasn’t afraid. There, I became an evangelist for antidepressants. Whenever a friend was sad, I would offer them some of my pills to try, and I’d tell them to get some from the doctor. I became convinced that I was not merely nondepressed, but in some better state, I thought of it as “antidepression.” I was, I told myself, unusually resilient and energetic. I could feel some physical side effects from the drug, it was true, I was putting on a lot of weight, and I would find myself sweating unexpectedly. But that was a small price to pay to stop hemorrhaging sadness on the people around me. And-look! I could do anything now.

Within a few months, I started to notice that there were moments of welling sadness that would come back to me unexpectedly. They seemed inexplicable, and manifestly irrational. I returned to my doctor, and we agreed that I needed a higher dose. So my 20 milligrams a day was upped to 30 milligrams a day; my white pills became blue pills.

And so it continued, all through my late teens, and all through my twenties. I would preach the benefits of these drugs; after a while, the sadness would return; so I would be given a higher dose; 30 milligrams became 40; 40 became 50; until finally I was taking two big blue pills a day, at 60 milligrams. Every time, I got fatter; every time, I sweated more; every time, I knew it was a price worth paying.

I explained to anyone who asked that depression is a disease of the brain, and SSRis are the cure. When I became a journalist, I wrote articles in newspapers explaining this patiently to the public. I described the sadness returning to me as a medical process, clearly there was a running down of chemicals in my brain, beyond my control or comprehension. Thank God these drugs are remarkably powerful, I explained, and they work. Look at me. I’m the proof. Every now and then, I would hear a doubt in my head, but I would swiftly dismiss it by swallowing an extra pill or two that day.

I had my story. In fact, I realize now, it came in two parts. The first was about what causes depression: it’s a malfunction in the brain, caused by serotonin deficiency or some other glitch in your mental hardware. The second was about what solves depression: drugs, which repair your brain chemistry.

I liked this story. It made sense to me. It guided me through life.

I only ever heard one other possible explanation for why I might feel this way. It didn’t come from my doctor, but I read it in books and saw it discussed on TV. It said depression and anxiety were carried in your genes. I knew my mother had been depressed and highly anxious before I was born (and after), and that we had these problems in my family running further back than that. They seemed to me to be parallel stories. They both said, it’s something innate, in your flesh.

I started work on this book three years ago because I was puzzled by some mysteries, weird things that I couldn’t explain with the stories I had preached for so long, and that I wanted to find answers to.

Here’s the first mystery. One day, years after I started taking these drugs, I was sitting in my therapist’s office talking about how grateful I was that antidepressants exist and were making me better. “That’s strange,” he said. “Because to me, it seems you are still really quite depressed.” I was perplexed. What could he possibly mean? “Well,” he said, “you are emotionally distressed a lot of the time. And it doesn’t sound very different, to me, from how you describe being before you took the drugs.”

I explained to him, patiently, that he didn’t understand: depression is caused by low levels of serotonin, and I was having my serotonin levels boosted. What sort of training do these therapists get, I wondered?

Every now and then, as the years passed, he would gently make this point again. He would point out that my belief that an increased dose of the drugs was solving my problem didn’t seem to match the facts, since I remained down and depressed and anxious a lot of the time. I would recoil, with a mixture of anger and prissy superiority.

“No matter how high a dose I jacked up my antidepressants to, the sadness would always outrun it.”

It was years before I finally heard what he was saying. By the time I was in my early thirties, I had a kind of negative epiphany, the opposite of the one I had that day on a beach in Barcelona so many years before. No matter how high a dose I jacked up my antidepressants to, the sadness would always outrun it. There would be a bubble of apparently chemical relief, and then that sense of prickling unhappiness would return. I would start once again to have strong recurring thoughts that said: life is pointless; everything you’re doing is pointless; this whole thing is a fucking waste of time. It would be a thrum of unending anxiety.

So the first mystery I wanted to understand was: How could I still be depressed when I was taking antidepressants? I was doing everything right, and yet something was still wrong. Why?

“Addictions to legal and illegal drugs are now so widespread that the life expectancy of white men is declining for the first time in the entire peacetime history of the United States.”

A curious thing has happened to my family over the past few decades.

From when I was a little kid, I have memories of bottles of pills laid out on the kitchen table, waiting, with inscrutable white medical labels on them. I’ve written before about the drug addiction in my family, and how one of my earliest memories was of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. But when I was very young, it wasn’t the banned drugs that were dominant in our lives, it was the ones handed out by doctors: old-style antidepressants and tranquilizers like Valium, the chemical tweaks and alterations that got us through the day.

That’s not the curious thing that happened to us. The curious thing is that as I grew up, Western civilization caught up with my family. When I was small and I stayed with friends, I noticed that nobody in their families swallowed pills with their breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Nobody was sedated or amped up or antidepressed. My family was, I realized, unusual.

And then gradually, as the years passed, I noticed the pills appearing in more and more people’s lives, prescribed, approved, recommended. Today they are all around us. Some one in five US. adults is taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem; nearly one in four middle-aged women in the United States is taking antidepressants at any given time; around one in ten boys at American high schools is being given a powerful stimulant to make them focus; and addictions to legal and illegal drugs are now so widespread that the life expectancy of white men is declining for the first time in the entire peacetime history of the United States.

These effects have radiated out across the Western world: for example, as you read this, one in three French people is taking a legal psychotropic drug such as an antidepressant, while the UK has almost the highest use in all of Europe. You can’t escape it: when scientists test the water supply of Western countries, they always find it is laced with antidepressants, because so many of us are taking them and excreting them that they simply can’t be filtered out of the water we drink every day. We are literally awash in these drugs.

What once seemed startling has become normal. Without talking about it much, we’ve accepted that a huge number of the people around us are so distressed that they feel they need to take a powerful chemical every day to keep themselves together.

So the second mystery that puzzled me was: Why were so many more people apparently feeling depressed and severely anxious? What changed?

“We’ve accepted that a huge number of the people around us are so distressed that they feel they need to take a powerful chemical every day to keep themselves together.”

Then, when I was thirty-one years old, I found myself chemically naked for the first time in my adult life. For almost a decade, I had been ignoring my therapist’s gentle reminders that I was still depressed despite my drugs. It was only after a crisis in my life, when I felt unequivocally terrible and couldn’t shake it off, that I decided to listen to him. What I had been trying for so long wasn’t, it seemed, working. And so, when I flushed away my final packs of Paxil, I found these mysteries waiting for me, like children on a train platform, waiting to be collected, trying to catch my eye. Why was I still depressed? Why were there so many people like me?

And I realized there was a third mystery, hanging over all of it. Could something other than bad brain chemistry have been causing depression and anxiety in me, and in so many people all around me? If so-what could it be?

Still, I put off looking into it. Once you settle into a story about your pain, you are extremely reluctant to challenge it. It was like a leash I had put on my distress to keep it under some control. I feared that if I messed with the story I had lived with for so long, the pain would be like an unchained animal, and would savage me.

Over a period of several years, I fell into a pattern. I would begin to research these mysteries, by reading scientific papers, and talking to some of the scientists who wrote them, but I always backed away, because what they said made me feel disoriented, and more anxious than I had been at the start. I focused on the work for another book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, instead. It sounds ridiculous to say I found it easier to interview hit men for the Mexican drug cartels than to look into what causes depression and anxiety, but messing with my story about my emotions, what I felt, and why I felt it, seemed more dangerous, to me, than that.

And then, finally, I decided I couldn’t ignore it any longer. So, over a period of three years, I went on a journey of over forty thousand miles. I conducted more than two hundred interviews across the world, with some of the most important social scientists in the world, with people who had been through the depths of depression and anxiety, and with people who had recovered. I ended up in all sorts of places I couldn’t have guessed at in the beginning, an Amish village in Indiana, a Berlin housing project rising up in rebellion, a Brazilian city that had banned advertising, a Baltimore laboratory taking people back through their traumas in a totally unexpected way. What I learned forced me to radically revise my story, about myself, and about the distress spreading like tar over our culture.

“Everything that causes an increase in depression also causes an increase in anxiety, and the other way around. They rise and fall together.”

I want to flag up, right at the start, two things that shape the language I am going to use all through the book. Both were surprising to me.

I was told by my doctor that I was suffering from both depression and acute anxiety. I had believed that those were separate problems, and that is how they were discussed for the thirteen years I received medical care for them. But I noticed something odd as I did my research. Everything that causes an increase in depression also causes an increase in anxiety, and the other way around. They rise and fall together.

It seemed curious, and I began to understand it only when, in Canada, I sat down with Robert Kohlenberg, a professor of psychology. He, too, once thought that depression and anxiety were different things. But as he studied it, for over twenty years now, he discovered, he says, that “the data are indicating they’re not that distinct.” In practice, “the diagnoses, particularly depression and anxiety, overlap.” Sometimes one part is more pronounced than the other, you might have panic attacks this month and be crying a lot the next month. But the idea that they are separate in the way that (say) having pneumonia and having a broken leg are separate isn’t borne out by the evidence. It’s “messy,” he has proved.

Robert’s side of the argument has been prevailing in the scientific debate. In the past few years, the National Institutes of Health, the main body funding medical research in the United States, has stopped funding studies that present depression and anxiety as different diagnoses. “They want something more realistic that corresponds to the way people are in actual clinical practice,” he explains.

I started to see depression and anxiety as like cover versions of the same song by different bands. Depression is a cover version by a downbeat emo band, and anxiety is a cover version by a screaming heavy metal group, but the underlying sheet music is the same. They’re not identical, but they are twinned.

*

from

Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s