Posts on working with mental illness

The academic life and mental illness (April 2019)

The academic life for staff and students defies common perceptions and is one of the most stressful jobs around. It contains many triggers for depression and anxiety.

My mother thought that being an academic was one of the cushiest jobs she could imagine – a couple of lectures a week and holidays for six months of the year. She thought students had it even easier having to go to those few lectures, take an exam or two a year, and spend the rest of the time travelling the world. She also thought they were out partying every night, finishing drinking at 3 a.m. and then trashing the town. I suspect she was not alone in her prejudices. How wrong these common perceptions are. I think being an academic, and being a student, is one of the worst careers for aggravating, even causing, mental illness. The job has the following triggers.

1 The work is open ended. How I used to envy people with 9-5 jobs. Academics and students are never finished because there is always just one more job to do, whether it’s another paper to read or write or a textbook to go through again. When I was Dean it amused me that HR had a workload model for academics of 40 hours a week. I don’t know anyone who worked less than 50, and many did much more. What is there to stop us? We don’t leave the building and down keypads just because the clock moves on to 5, or because it’s the weekend. And if you should finish one job, there’s always another to do. There’s nothing to stop us doing more. Few things are more stressful than knowing you have an uncompleted task to do, and that you could be doing it, and that you have the time to dot it.

2 What is work anyway? The same analysis is true of holidays as is true of the working week. I know of several academics who have booked annual leave in order to carry out research. When I go on “holiday” I read psychology articles and books, as do most people I know. When I was a student I would spend the vacation working in a factory in order to earn money as well as studying while travelling and in the evenings and weekends. Those maths worksheets seemed never ending. Christmas will find us reading and writing. For us there’s no such thing as a proper holiday.

3 The work contains contradictory elements. We’re expected to carry out world-leading research as well as teach to the highest standard, and you get evaluated on both. I know there is some carryover between teaching and research, but time you spend teaching is time you can’t spend doing research, and vice versa. Contradiction is stressful.

4 Giving a lecture or presentation or tutorial is stressful. Fear of public talking is one of the most common fears, being strong enough to count as a phobia for many people. Yet we have to do it all the time. Training is often inadequate. Some students find they’re not really prepared and although they might be taught how to organise their material and how to use Powerpoint I don’t know of anywhere that teaches them about the fear of speaking and how to overcome it. I’ve known of several students being physically sick before having to give a seminar. Speaking feeds fears.

5 Deadlines. The life of the teacher and student are very similar in they they’re both full of deadlines. You have to give that lecture tomorrow or hand in that essay by 4 p.m. You can’t decide you’re going to take the day off instead. You need to be really, really sick before you call in. Deadlines are often too close together or even on the same day. Deadlines are exceptionally stressful.

6 You have to organise your own time. One day you think you’re settling down to finish writing your 4 p.m. lecture, or finish your essay, when something happens. Your manager or supervisor wants to see you urgently (and it’s nearly always urgently). Your car won’t start. Your child or dog is unwell. There are suddenly 15 new pressing emails. Someone wants to see you and just won’t stop talking about their problem. And worse than deadlines are jobs with no deadlines because unless you’re very careful they never get done. You live from one deadline to another, one essay or lab report handed in to the next. So just when do you do that background reading, or write that important paper that could help you get promoted? When there’s no deadline and you’re tired and fed up it’s easy just to stop. And many deadlines aren’t real, anyway: do a a journal review by the end of the month? Sure, I’ll agree tot hat. Get to the 31st, and no problem, because everyone knows that if you send the review on the 1st it won’t matter, and what’s the difference between the 2nd and the 1st? When I was Dean I was always giving deadlines for jobs that I needed to follow up on, and less than half the staff would do the job before my deadline. What was I to do? Fire someone for being two days late with a document? In any case they were probably just busy with the last thing I asked them to do. The problem is that delays cascade. No-deadlines are often worse than deadlines.

7 There is far much more rejection than praise. Journal acceptance rates are very low and grant rejection rates are very high. I’ve known people to send off an excellent grant proposal ten times before it gets accepted, and much outstanding research never gets funded. How demoralising it that? Feedback for students is mainly a long list of things you’ve done wrong. Of course that’s good in a way because you want to learn and improve, but persistent negative feedback gets to you. After a while people develop learned helplessness. Continual negative feedback is stressful and causes depression.

8 It’s an exceptionally competitive environment for staff and students. Not everyone can get promoted every year. Not everyone can get a grant. The top journal can’t publish everything. Not every student can get an A every time. Perpetual competition is stressful.

9 Some people are stars (but you’re not). But if you don’t succeed you sure will be aware of someone who has. You have to congratulate them through gritted teeth. Although you are struggling just to manage, you will know at least one person who seems to sail though. In every field or every department or ever class there is at least one Einstein. We admire them, we have to praise them, but really they just make us feel worse. Comparison makes us feel sick.

10 EMAIL is evil. When I was Dean for every email I had to send I would get at least three back. It would be easy to spend all day doing nothing other than email. I am not alone: everyone I know is dreaming in a sea of email. And then there’s social media which some find compulsive. Often when lecturing you suspect every student is checking their messages or Facebook status. How demoralising is that? How do we cope when we’re striving in a sea of email that gets deeper every day? Smash up every computer or phone you see.

These triggers are more numerous than in many jobs. You might say other careers are bad too, but often they are better paid, and students aren’t paid at all – in fact they have to pay to have all this fun. And staff and students are often the sort of people who are least able to cope, having been brought up learning to expect to succeed.

I have no solutions. If you decide you’re going to take a real holiday for a month, you know that the departmental Einstein won’t, and they’ll have a stronger case for promotion than you at the end of the year. Off sick for a week and dare not to do that marking? When you come back that marking will still be there, but with another pile to join it, now with the same deadline. Oh, and whatever you do there will be two hundred emails in your inbox.

One thing we can do is face our weakness and admit we’re struggling, that we’re feeling anxious, that our agoraphobia has been triggered and we’re scared to go out, that we’re too depressed to talk, that our OCD has come back and is making us check every mark ten times (actually for me it has to be a multiple of three). To return to where I started, my mother thought mental illness, unlike physical illness, was a weakness. She was very, very wrong. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and talking about it is better than getting so bad that all you can think about is suicide.

(Note written in 2022: I am not saying that other careers don't have their own problems. I just know about academic life better than anything else. You might recognise something of yourself in the above.)



Getting things done when you can't do anything at all (January 2019)

The world is awash with books and articles by people out who are depressed and yet who have done so much. I wonder if they are so depressed, how can they do so much? Yet they hold down careers, raise children, write books and talk on radio and TV about their experience of depression, and maintain an amazing social media profile.

You might think I get by OK, being a professor of psychology and having written a few books, so I assume most of these people do the same as me: periods of miserable inactivity punctuated by spells of being able to get something done. And of course there is always the possibility that these people are now no longer ill.

When I look back over my life I’m amazed I’ve ever achieved anything. I have always felt a fraud, fearing that I’m soon likely to be caught out. Reading about academic impostor syndrome over Christmas I realised I am not alone: many academics seem to feel that they’ve cheated their way to the top (or at least somewhere near the top). I can never decide if I have overachieved or underachieved: I think on balance I have failed to deliver my schoolboy potential. I was at my best when I was 17, when I was anxious and obsessional but not too depressed. I wonder what things would have been like if I had had a full life, rather than half or even a quarter of a life, the rest stolen by depression. I envy people who can get up every morning knowing they have a clear mind and will be able to work for as long as they like. If you’re one of these fortunate people, cherish it: you don’t know how lucky you are.

It’s been some time since I’ve written, and it hasn’t been because I’ve been very depressed. First writing about psychology and the weather, and then about the science of consciousness, has taken priority, with other book projects have been piling up behind it. Being owned by Beau, a poodle, has taken up a lot of slack in my life. Perhaps more on how being with a dog changes your life later. So perhaps I have answered my own question: most of us scrape by.

Depressed people who get anything done deserved to be lauded. But I think if you’re ill and don’t feel successful, the last thing you should do is feel worried about it. You have enough problems already. Hopefully one day you will feel better enough to find some peace.



I don't have the time to work (February 2018)

There’s a meme going round academics at the moment about the professor (the American sort, where all lecturers are called professor; not the real sort, the rarified breed we find in Britain) who has told his students that surveys show that the average academic works 60 hours a week. The implication is that if students want to be successful, they need to work 60 hours a week too. By coincidence I had just read a description of the massively successful Harvard Business School which said that they expected their students to work 55.1 hours a week (a curiously precise figure). I am reminded that I always told my students who invariably demanded to be told a simple answer to “how hard should I work” that they should consider being a student like having a job, so that they should work 40 hours a week – although now I would revise that down to 35-36 hours. And don’t forget that Elon Musk famously once said that the secret of his success is that he works 100 hours a week.

Students were often surprised, frightened, shocked, and disbelieving when I told them that just 36 hours a week for four courses a term meant that they should be devoting 9 hours every week to each course. Take away 2 hours for a lecture, say, and that leaves 7 hours a course a week when they should be working on that course, reading, thinking, preparing for exams, and writing essays. Seven hours is a scary amount of time. Try it – and that’s just one out of four.

There is though some hope though. A few decades ago we were having the same argument about how hard you should work (this time without the means of the internet), and people were saying everyone should be doing 70 hours a week. So some reason has evidently set in as the expectation has dropped from 70 to only 60 hours a week.

What is a 60 hour work week like? Assuming you take Sundays off, that’s 10 hours a day. Say, from 8.30 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. if you allow yourself half an hour a day for lunch and other stuff.

I am sceptical. Can anyone really work 10 hours a day? I have spent three hours this morning writing, and I am knackered. And still I have had to get up a few times, make a cup of tea, go to the loo, and yet I am almost done for the day in terms of energy. Now I know I am depressed and depression saps energy and concentration, but I am doubtful that I am that lazy and pathetic. I suspect that people who say they work 10 hours a day really don’t work anywhere near that amount. They might be at work, but they’re not always doing work. They might get in, arrange their desk, check their email, glance at The Guardian (after all, it’s Education Tuesday, and that’s work isn’t it?), make a cup of coffee, go to the loo, chat to the person next door, go to the water cooler, go to the loo again, check the news, book their holiday online, check their email again triaging spam, move emails around folders, make more coffee, go to the loo again, chat to a couple of people they meet along the way, and suddenly it’s 7 pm. Of course people do have to and do do some work through the day, but I am very sceptical they really work all that time.

So I don’t believe that most people who say that they do, do really work 60 hours a week. These peopl don’t define work, and they don’t record what they do, and psychology tells us that most people tend to view their own activities through rose-tinted glasses.

I have often thought of carrying out a survey of academics, or even anyone who says they work hard, and writing a book about it. I have pared my life down to an essential minimum and I really struggle to write, read, and think anywhere near as much as I would like to. I outsource, I shop online, I do the minimum in everything non-academic, and yet … I’m time poor. Don’t other people have to brush their teeth (two minutes three times a day plus flossing), do washing, do some kind of exercise, sleep, have the occasional shower, install new software only to find nothing works any more, eat, stay hydrated, deal with burst pipes and lost keys, and so on?

I end up feeling most sorry for students, because they have these expectations laden upon them by people who don’t know what they themselves do, and often have to fit in a part-time job and take advantage of having a social life at what will later prove to be the best time of their lives. Their friends often do not help; some of them boasting, exaggerating, lying, or just deceiving themselves about how hard they work. Have you noticed that there are only two types of people – those who put a lot of work into the essay that they started three months ago, and those who left it to the last minute and spent hardly any time on it at all.

I am not advocating a culture of laziness. Psychology has taught us that if we want to become successful at something, we have to work very hard. Genius is indeed nearly all perspiration, and above a certain minimum level, how you succeed depends mainly on your attitude and how much effort you put in. There is no shortcut to success, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean you have to put in 60 hours nonstop work a week. And instead of panicking, being insecure, and deceiving ourselves and others about how hard we work, let’s be honest and realistic, because overwork and stress lead to disaster. I know.



Mental illness at work (October 2017)

"Mental health sees 300,000 people leave their jobs each year" - And I was one.

I should immediately qualify this statement by making clear that I was in no way forced to leave. I was one of the lucky ones: I just didn’t feel strong enough to do that job properly any more, and I had many other things I wanted to do instead. Like writing this blog, and producing the best book ever on consciousness. I was tired and worn out and lucky enough to have alternatives. But if I had been mentally stronger I might have carried on for longer.

The news that people with mental health problems suffer at work will not come as a surprise to anyone with those problems. In my experience it isn’t down to malice on any one’s part, but clearly something isn’t right if so much talent and money is wasted. Remember that people with mental health problems include some of the most creative people around.

One major problem at work is that mental illness is often not considered to be a “real” illness or disability. I know of many people with problems (including myself) who have never been asked what reasonable adjustments could be made to their work environment, and indeed whose requests for relatively minor changes have been met with something between pained resignation and aggressive exasperation. This aspect of things could be improved by better training of managers.

But the power of institutions and employers is limited: institutions and businesses are made up out of people. Generally instititions in the UK at least now have very good rules, and often there’s not much more they can do apart from making sure that they implement those rules, and to help change the attitudes of their employees.

It’s that final bit that’s difficult. How do you change centuries of stigma and ignorance? On the bright side things have changed for the better very quickly, but there is still a long way to go.

We can learn by looking at three areas where there have been enormous strides over the last fifty years: women’s rights, LGBT issues, and race. Again, I am not saying that everything is now perfect – clearly it isn’t, and there are still massive changes in attitudes to be made. They have all though made progress because those discriminated against have formed strong movements and taken direct action. We lunatics are hardly among the strongest people in society, but perhaps we have a duty to stand up and say we are ill, we are disabled, we need help at work. You wouldn’t treat someone with cancer or in a wheelchair this way, so don’t treat me like it.

I’ve lost track of how many mental health support groups and societies there are; there are too many. We need to unite, and we also need to mobilise. It’s difficult when you’re too depressed to move, and difficult when you’re worried everyone is going to mock you, but if you have the strength, it’s time to come out and be counted, and not let yourself be pushed around. Sing if you’re proud to be mad.



Student depression (September 2017)

University terms are starting all over the country. When I was an undergraduate, the Cambridge term started late, in early October, and our terms were only eight weeks long. That first one was seven weeks six days too long for me.

I have had several responses from students to my blog on dysthymia – low-level persistent depression, or what is now called persistent depressive disorder. The people who contacted me are just the tip of the iceberg. In your class of a hundred fellow students it could be that as many as nearly twenty of them are mentally ill, to some degree, right now. That’s a lot of sick people; imagine a class where twenty people were sneezing and coughing non-stop. Who are these people? Can you tell? Are you perhaps one of them? And a couple of lecturers are probably depressed right now, too.

What’s the leading cause of death for young people aged 20-35 in the UK? Those risky boys speeding round blind bends in their sporty cars? Drugs? Falling under a bus blind drunk? Being mugged and murdered? No, by some way, it’s suicide. Suicide is also the leading cause of death for men under 50. And most people kill themselves because they can’t take the hopelessness and pain of depression any longer. And if suicide doesn’t kill you, depression is associated with a host of disorders, such as heart disease, cancer,  and dementia, which might get you later.

Depression and anxiety are closely related, and usually go together. Epidemiological studies show that anxiety and mood disorders are remarkably common: it’s estimated that one in three people will suffer in their lifetime, and between one in six and one in ten are ill now. The reporting of mental illness has increased, but whether that’s because of better understanding of the disease, better diagnosis, reduced stigmatisation of the ill, increased pressure of contemporary life, or, most likely, all of these, is unclear.

When I was young (under twenty, say), I didn’t know what depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder were, although in retrospect I suffered from all of them. I was aware of something my relatives talked about in rather hushed tones called “a nervous breakdown”. I’m still not entirely sure what one of these was, but I think it was a sudden mental illness requiring some kind of treatment, and even incarceration in an “asylum”. Treatments were very limited back in the 70s; remember that chlorpromazine wasn’t released to the market until 1953, the first benzodiazepine, Librium, in 1960; and the first antidepressants in 1957 (iproniazid, a MAO inhibitor) and 1958 (imipramine, a tricyclic), although these drugs have many serious side-effects. The relatively more benign Prozac (fluoxetine) wasn’t available until 1987. I don’t think I knew about these drugs until I switched as a student from Natural Sciences Physical to Psychology. Indeed when I was a teenager, I thought of treatment as shock treatment; that’s about all there was.

Attitudes started to change when Prozac became widely available; perhaps that’s generally true – diseases only begin to lose their stigma when there is some hope. When I was young “cancer” was another dirty word, sometimes just called the “c word”. Don’t ask my younger self about swearing though; when I was ten, I thought the filthiest word in English was “pub” (where my father went Sunday lunchtime).

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I had no idea what was involved, no idea really what a degree was (although I knew students “read” for it on University Challenge), no idea how to manage money (fortunately credit cards weren’t available then), no idea how to manage my time, no idea how to study independently, no idea how to live, no idea how to make use of what was available, no idea what a girl was, and no idea of how to cope when I was a raving loony without realising it. I was extraordinarily shy, which didn’t help. I wasn’t lazy; I tried my best, but I had no idea how to organise my time. I expected university to be like school, which of course it isn’t.

I stuck out the first year, mostly because I drift through things and staying was the easiest thing to do, and I was just clever enough to get by in spite of my deficits. The turning point was joining a society where I met other people. I still can’t say that I felt at home, and at the end of the first year I got a summer job where I did. I was earning good money, I had friends of sorts, I seemed to have some purpose, I felt like I was part of a community, and I wondered why go back to Cambridge. At that point I nearly gave up.

I don’t really know why I didn’t; it was easier to stay than not. And when I went back to Cambridge I discovered psychology, and things started to look up.

If I knew then what I know now I would have got professional help. I would have started with meta learning rather than learning. I would have been bolder about asking questions. Mostly I would have realised that I was ill, I wasn’t alone, and that I should talk to people.



Getting the words out (February 2017)

{}I’ve been silent because I’ve been busy. I have found that writing my “great work”, The Science of Consciousness, is good for my mental health – although whether I’d be able to write at all without a certain level of mental health is a moot point. Writing gives my life direction and purpose, and structures my day. The amount of work involved makes a mockery of any notion of being “retired”; writing is fulltime job. Consciousness is the most difficult subject I’ve ever written about: to paraphrase the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland “an awful lot has been written on consciousness, mot of it rubbish”; why do I think what I’m writing isn’t rubbish too? I suppose you can only do your best and then just hope. I’m not going to fall into the trap that many psychologists fall into, of equating consciousness with attention, or even just visual attention. I recognise it’s a big, difficult topic.

I have been reflecting about why I have found this writing so enjoyable and so therapeutic. Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s because I really want to do it. I would probably write it even if I didn’t have a publisher and a contract. The only downside of a contract is often a fairly tough deadline – but if I didn’t have a deadline I almost certainly would work more casually, so it’s an advantage as well as a curse. (And usually the deadline wouldn’t be so bad if only I had started earlier.)

In the odd spare moment that I have, I wonder if my mood would be as good without this purpose. As ever there is circularity: doing stuff makes your mood better, but you have to be well enough to be able to do any stuff in the first place.

Of course in the end I will die (unless I decide to have my head frozen, and even then I expect eventually to die regardless) and eventually my books will go out of print, and I will be forgotten. At this point I envy people with children; they will live on through their genes. As others have observed, our lives are like stones thrown into a pool, causing ripples to spread out. Eventually the ripples fade and it is, for most of us, as though our stone was never thrown into the pool.

When writing a book I try not to think about it too much. I have 150,000 words to deliver before the summer. If I think of it in that way, the task is an enormous one. So I break the task down into 1000 words a day (number of words left divided by number of days left, allowing Sunday off – or rather do those jobs that have accumulated in the week) come what may. I think deciding to miss one day is a slippery slope; of course choosing to miss one day wouldn’t make much difference, but it’s easy for that one day to become two, and before I knew it, a month would have gone, and a 1000 words a day has become 1250. And then there’s reading, researching, and checking. You have to treat it like a job, or any other job I suppose, and just get on with it. I know there’s no point putting off starting to write every day because I know that it has to be done regardless, and starting at 5 pm is much more miserable and difficult than starting at 9 am. I still procrastinate a bit first thing, but I gather many writers do. I think it was Derren Brown who said something like “all self-help books just boil down to – just do it”. If you’re writing a book, writing an essay, or just have to mow the lawn – get on with it now.

Also on the positive side, I have had three outputs this week, and nothing lifts my heart more than seeing my name somewhere.

First, the second edition of my book, Talking the talk: Language, psychology, and science has just been published by Psychology Press. See:

Second, I had a letter in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday about futurology, robots, AI, and the implications for the economy. I’m a pessimist about these things:

Rather to my surprise, it generated a great deal of interest. There were letters in reply (none of which really addressed the problem, I thought) and offers to write about the subject elsewhere. I think the future is a pretty scary place, and although I would have loved a laptop with fast internet connection when growing up, it could be that I have lived in the best of times – a rather optimistic conclusion for someone as usually as negative as me.

And third, finally, I gave a talk at Durham University on How to be successful in academia, particularly if you’re suffering from mental illness. I’m told it was very successful.

So a good few weeks. Success and achievements lift the spirits – just as you would expect. If you can, do something. But there will be times when you are too depressed to do anything. My advice, based on my experience, is to sit it out. Things will get better eventually, because they always have in the past. I promise.



Retiring and getting old (June 2016)

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”

I realise that at least part of my recent mental malaise is to do with “retiring” and getting old. There’s been a lot of personal stuff too, which is also related to ageing, being alone, contemplating death childless and alone. There has been an unfortunate conjunction of traumas coinciding with nearing the end of the day job. Heavy shit has been going down, as they say.

As of writing this sentence, today I have 40 days left in the wilderness as an employee. Unfortunately many people are insisting on calling it my retirement. It’s only a word, but it gets to you, after a while. Many people don’t want to retire; many do and then regret it; a few look forward to it and really enjoy it. I must admit to having doubts. Suppose I can’t cut the mustard on my own? Suppose instead of writing I drift and each day follows the preceding one in a (hopefully) long line before the grave? Suppose I write and it’s no good? Suppose I have only a life of grinding poverty to which to look forward? Suppose (particularly living in the country) I become socially isolated? Suppose I never find love? Suppose I become more and more inward looking? Suppose I starve? Suppose I trip over my teddy bear and break a leg; how long would I lie there before anyone notices? And because I’ve been so unwell recently I’ve written very little, and that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel more depressed …

I’m pretty sure I’m doing the right thing but doubts about major transitions are perhaps only natural. I’m not enjoying my job any more, and so much of it seems pointless. I’ve recently been so mentally ill I don’t think I’ll be able to do the job properly much longer. I don’t think it’s fair on my colleagues to have to carry me. Already I feel like I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to carry out really good novel research any more; I was out of it as a manager for too long. I tootled along with research for a while. but am now out of tootling. It’s time to let someone younger have a go. There are things I want to do and can do; I believe I can still make a contribution through writing. So my plan is to maximise time for how I think I can make a difference. But I am doubting the plan. I am doubting whether I can execute the plan.

Why do people not rage more about getting old? It’s horrible. Why do so many go against Dylan Thomas and go gentle into that good night? Most other people I know either accept the prospect of getting old and infirm and then dying, or don’t even see that there’s an issue. Why am I cursed to be so different? Why can’t I just accept getting it like everyone else?

Perhaps we all rage against the dark, but most people keep do so quietly. The highest suicide rate of all is among elderly men. Am I an elderly man yet? We’re lonely, we feel useless, we feel that we’re a burden, we look at young people around us enjoying themselves and feel envy and regret. Our bodies afflict us with increasing troubles and increasing pain. People expect us to be depressed in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in other demographic groups. Those of us alone and without children are even worse off. Although as far as I can tell everyone who is severely depressed feels very alone, even if they surrounded by friends and family, so perhaps really being alone doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. I don’t know.

Leaving a job is one of the great transitions in life – particularly for academics, who tend to stay in the same career all their lives, and often at the same institution for decades. I know many people who have only worked at the same place from the beginning of their careers. We lose our focus, our purpose, our social setting, all one day. Overnight any meaning in our life has gone. It is sad to define meaning and purpose in terms of work, but for many work does much more than pay the bills.

On another note, I consider it possible that the relapse has been exacerbated by cutting back on my medication – particularly the quetiapine. I was boasting about this success only two blogs ago, but it could be that as the drugs fell beneath a critical level the depression and anxiety kicked in when life events conspired. My resilience has gone. So my healthcare professionals have urged me to increase the dose again, at least in the short term. I hate it. I hate the sedated feeling, the necessity to sleep so much, and I live in fear of starting to put on weight again after I’ve fought so hard to lose a little. And I particularly hate the fact I can’t concentrate on anything. No wonder I can’t write. I can’t even read much, and that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel even more depressed …

Last year I experimented with reducing the dose of my anti-depressant, Duloxetine (Cymbalta), and that experiment was a disaster for my mood. Within five days of increasing the dose again I started to feel better. It could be that I will need this dose of both drugs for ever. And that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel more depressed …

Once I have left the job perhaps my life will be defined by having to empty the dishwasher every day, or periodically buy a new tube of toothpaste. It’s these things that I find to be overwhelming, and that make me think most of that savage god, suicide. (I have been reading Andrew Solomon’s The noonday demon, and am relieved to find that he thinks exactly the same way.) I do the dishes today and fuck it, they need doing again tomorrow. It overwhelms me. What is the bloody point?



True grit (May 2016)

It is easy to get out of the habit of writing. In spite of my blog a few weeks ago (Nulla dies sine linea – not a day without a line, first said by the painter Apelles of Kos, but which applies just as much to writing as painting), quite a few of my recent days have sadly passed without a line.

I can attribute this failure in part to what remains of the day job (especially marking, a task that I particularly detest but which is one of the most important things that academics do, and which requires time and concentration), but I know thats a feeble excuse. I should have had plenty of time. I have just found it difficult to find an independent working routine that suits me.

All the data shows that we work best when we follow a routine. Depressed people function better when they follow a routine that imposes some structure on our lives. Finding a good routine is good. In fact to be creative you might need one. If you look at the lives of highly creative people they all have very highly structured periods when they’re working – routines bordering on rituals (hence the title of one my favourite books on the subject, Mason Currey’s Daily rituals, a book I’ve talked about before in this blog). One of the most popular rituals is to get up early and start writing, stopping around lunchtime, and then taking the rest of the day “easy” (including do those low-value, distracting tasks such as email). I can see the advantages of such a schedule: you get your words under your belt first thing. I always feel better about the day after I’ve written at least a thousand words. But life is not so simple for a depressed writer: my medication (even though I’ve really cut back) really interferes with my morning. I feel tired on waking around 7.30, and it takes me a few hours to get going properly. Maybe one day I’ll be able to cut out that final Quetiapine, but I still can’t really imagine waking at 5 am, because I can’t imagine going to bed at 9 pm. I love midnight too much. And in any case I’ve talked to a few depressed people who say they can’t really get going until 10.30 or 11.00 am.

Let me take yesterday as an example. I woke at 7.15, and rushed to get out before my preferred two hours easing in time, leaving before 9 for gym at 9.30. At least exercise makes me feel better overall, and has the advantage of waking me up. Then I had a few errands to run, and back for coffee at 10.45. I did some useful reading while drinking coffee. Then as rain was forecast for later in the day, I did a few garden jobs I’d been putting off. Then I had my Primal living lunch (yet another type of diet, or rather lifestyle, I’m trying out). After that there were some “real work”-related things I had to do, and particularly several pressing emails to answer. That left me pretty tired, so I had a short nap. Then it was 4.45. I had a few work things to do again, and some washing to sort out, which took me to 6. That left me two hours of creative time, by which time I felt horribly guilty about not doing enough earlier.

Sound familiar? That’s how my life often goes. I can’t point to anything and say I shouldn’t have done it, so what else could I have done? Now you unlucky souls in a 9-5 job are probably thinking “lazy f*cker, he should have my job to see what can be done in a day”. But I “work” after 5, and all weekend, and most holidays too. And as I’ve talked about before in this blog, if you look at how much real work can be done in an hour, it’s surprisingly little. My own measurements suggest I cant do more than 35 minutes an hour over 8 hours without hitting the wall. This figure of 3-5 hours of real work – deep work – a day is consistent with what Cal Newport says in Deep work, with how highly creative people schedule their time in Daily Rituals, and how much deep practice can be sustained in one day (a discussion of which can be found in Duckworth’s superb book Grit, which I’ve just finished reading). Passion and perseverance are tiring.

So I am still searching for the perfect routine, the perfect ritual, the perfect day. And of course every day is different: some days I don’t go to the gym, some days there are other things to deal with, and some days it’s Christmas. Nulla dies sine linea says nothing about stopping writing just because it’s Christmas (but I have).

So one reason why we don’t we stick at what we want to do is finding the time to do real work. It’s difficult enough for the best of people with the best of intentions. Those of us with mental health problems suffer additional burdens that eat into our time in addition to the time-killing side-effects of medication.

Being mad really does steal your life.



Nulla dies sine linea (May 2016)

I have to finish the first draft of my book on consciousness by the start of November. I want to leave about two months for rewriting, clarifying, and improving the style. That means. 1339 words a day every day before 1 September to reach my target 160,000 words. (My writing software of choice, Scrivener, will automatically calculate the daily target based on your deadline and target length, and keep track of your daily writing total against the daily target.) There are probably going to be some days when something goes wrong and I can’t write, so I should be aiming for about 1500 words a day. I don’t know whether that sounds a lot or little to you; most days I have to read and think to be able to write those words, and I have to keep track of citations (not included in the total) as I go.

It would be easier if I didn’t have a day job too. Fitting writing in spare moments is difficult and stressful. Whoever thought that a writer has an easy life? At the very least it requires great discipline and great dedication.

When writing like this it is difficult to fit much else in to life. The mundane tasks are piling up. I really should wash the car, clear the vegetable patch, and change my energy suppliers, but such things always come last.

But the end is in sight. I finish the day job on 31 July. As of today that’s exactly 100 days.

Hopefully then things will be easier. But then there are these things called “holidays”. No wonder holidays can be among the most stressful of life events! Holidays for the writer and depressed person are interesting things. Words don’t get written unless you’re at the computer (or typewriter, or even with a notepad and pencil), and totals don’t wait for holidays. I suppose all self-employed people have the same problem – can we afford to take a break? It is though I think more challenging for writers facing a deadline. My current plan is never to stop writing, and write even in holidays and on Christmas day.

I suppose there is with every task a point at which it sometime becomes a chore, no matter how important the job and no matter how enjoyable it usually is. We just have to push on through.

A long time ago, Apelles the painter said:

Nulla dies sine linea.

Not a day without a line. The same applies to writers too. Even depressed writers. And setting some task for the day ahead, however small, and if possible doing it is of great help to depressed people in general.


The daily schedule of a depressed writer (April 2016)

It’s not easy being depressed, and it’s not easy being a writer. Being a depressed writer is worse than the sum of the parts. I often wonder why I bother; why not just go for the easy life of staying in bed all day long, which is often what I most often most want to do? Instead I struggle to make time for my writing.

It does mean that for depressed writers there is the question of how can we best arrange our time to facilitate writing? Of course it’s a problem all writers and creative people share. One of the best books I have read recently is Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey (2013). Unusual creativity comes from unusual people living unusual lives. It is quite difficult to discern a pattern in the most creative lives. Have a look at this nice graphical representation of the daily routines of a sample of creative people (including creative scientists):

https://podio.com/site/creative-routines

With all sorts of caveats, and with many exceptions, the pattern seems to be get started early, exercise, relax. I’m not being prescriptive: until I cut down my quetiapine medication I was incapable of getting started early. And when I was Dean I had countless 8.30 and 9.00 am meetings, which really got in the way of getting deep work done (see my earlier blog on “Deep work”). There is robust evidence that some people are morning types and some evening, and if I were going to be prescriptive about anything, it would be to work out when you have most energy and feel best, and do your most creative work then. So of course there are many exceptions to this general pattern of writing first thing: some writers can only really get going at night after a few martinis. (Amazingly though Ernest Hemingway always started writing at six in the morning, even if he had been up late the night before with hard drinking, and worked until about noon.)

For me it ‘s good though to get the writing out of the way. I can never relax until I’ve completed my writing goal for the day. Another problem with starting late is that I never know how a writing task is going to take until I’ve done it. I’m writing a book on consciousness at the moment and I’ve set myself the target of a thousand words a day. It preys on my mind until the target bar in Scrivener (my currently preferred book writing software) reaches 100% for the day.

It is worth spending time on working out what is the perfect day for living the perfect life, in the sense of maximising quality time to get what we want to get done, done. It’s obvious that routine is important; routine crystallised to the point of ritual in many cases, as the title of Currey’s book suggests. Routine does bring its own problems for living – routine is the enemy of spontaneity, unless we schedule some hours in which to be spontaneous, which almost defies the purpose. But when on a creative burst, writing a book with a deadline, I need routine. A rigid routine or else I will not get it done. This routine means being tough on myself as well as other people. No exceptions.

I do wonder how some people manage to get so much more than me. I struggle at the moment with work, let alone writing. I try and free up as much quality time (for reading, writing, and thinking) as possible by outsourcing things like cleaning and mowing the lawn. I’m lucky that I can. How do people with children manage? But there are some days when I am so depressed that I just want to sit and cry and stare into space. Fortunately these days are much rarer when I’m writing; perhaps the sense of purpose writing provides helps us lift my mood. But one of the most depressing things about being depressed is how much time is lost to being ill. It is tragic.


Taking the leap (March 2016)

Last week I took the plunge and decided to “retire” from my full-time job as an academic and go free-lance as a writer from 1 August.

Some call me brave, some lucky, and I worry I’m being stupid. I’ve been fortunate in life so far in being able to do the two things I wanted to do when I was young: be a professor and to write. After spending most of my time doing the first and only a little of the second, I now want to devote my life to writing, reading, and thinking. (And going to the gym building the perfect male body.) I realise I’m lucky to be able to pursue my dreams, but it is something I have been working towards; it’s just a bit earlier than I originally planned.

I’ve had twenty wonderful years at the University of Dundee. I love the place, and I’m proud of the Psychology group I managed and built up there. I love teaching, particularly those huge first-year lectures with an appreciative audience. But the times they are a-changing, and I’m starting to feel just a bit out of touch with academic life and the young of today. So it’s time for a change and a new challenge. Mainly I want to be free and I want to write. It remains to see what sort of living I can make.

I’ve never taken well to following orders – I remember I particularly hated PE at school not because I disliked sport or exercise, but because I hated the regimentation that went with it. And the cadet force at school was also most unpleasant: what was the point of shiny buckles and marching up and down just for the sake of it? In any job, however good, where you’re not the boss, you have to do what others tell you, to some extent at least – it’s hardly unreasonable if you’re getting paid, and particularly if you’re getting paid by the tax payer. But I have found that having to do things seems to make me anxious. My psychopathology again. So, non serviam.

I have several projects on the go that aren’t too far away from being completed. There’s the second edition of my beginner’s guide to the psychology of language, Talking the talk. I’m proud of that because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. There’s a student guide to the philosophy of science and psychology on the way. And then there’s a book on consciousness. That should take me to the end of this year. And there’s my book on depression, anxiety, and me, for which my agent is currently trying to find an editor. Publishers and editors interested in the definitive book on the experience and science of depression, contact us (trevor.harley@mac.com).

And the effect of making the decision and signing the deal has been enormously beneficial to my mood and anxiety levels. I feel HAPPY (I do want to shout here) and my anxiety has virtually disappeared. So I’ve decided to reduce my medication.

So I am taking big steps to taking control of my life and trying to cure myself of depression and anxiety: in the last few months I’ve started working out with a personal trainer, and changed the job. And so far it seems to be working. But I know many battles lie ahead.