This post is in the Autoethnography category

"Hands" Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre - Zeitgeist. © Richard Dyson 2009

Depression seems to be one of the great perils of autoethnography. As has been noted by many autoethnographers before me, when one sets out to explore the self, one inevitably finds things one does not like (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). When one’s prior understanding of self has been undermined, the things one does not like can quickly become the focus of attention, revelation becomes revile-ation. Depression is also a common occurrence in individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorders and is one of the primary targets for symptomatic treatment (Cederlund & Gillberg, 2004; Ghaziuddin, 2005; Hedley & Young, 2006; Sterling, Dawson, Estes & Greenson, 2008; Stewart, Barnard, Pearson, Hasan & O’ Brien, 2006; Tsakanikos, Sturmey, Costello, Holt & Bouras, 2007). I was not unfamiliar with depression pre-diagnosis and pre-thesis, and have become rather more familiar with it in recent years. Jago writes about depression heightening one’s reflexive awareness (2002), and it is also well understood that a primary driver of depression is the tendency to amplify negative thinking. The dam is not only half empty, but getting lower with every passing moment, there’s no sign of rain, the climate change scientists say it’s just going to get worse and there’s nothing I can do about it, because the damage of the past is irreversible. Apparently autoethnography also heightens reflexive awareness. That’s the point of it, observing what you are doing and how you are doing it, constantly evaluating, critiquing, comparing to others, so there can be a tendency for the two processes to feed off each other. Something of a vicious circle.

Delamont, in her article Arguments against Autoethnography (2007) suggests that the method suffers in terms of its validity through its inability to escape familiarity. But without that familiarity, there is no validity at all. Surely one cannot “situate” without intimate self-knowledge. One cannot analyse ethnographic material, auto or not, if the “subject” is unfamiliar or unconnected with their own experience. Ethnography of any name is about situating the individual experience within culture. Comparison is inevitable and necessary.

In my own case, comparisons have highlighted “difference” and it has not been particularly comfortable. I was always aware of some differences to my peers, but that was because they were a bit odd sometimes. I put that down to intra-species variation – we are all individuals according to Brian (Life of Brian, 1979) – everybody struggles to understand each other sometimes and that fact goes a long way towards explaining wars, Chinese food and modern art. It turns out though, that I am more different than I ever imagined. This revelation is partly from the process of self-learning, and partly from a parallel process of other-learning. Not being blessed with good Theory of Mind (ToM)– another of those measurable deficits – I am finding myself constantly surprised at how other people actually function and the things they understand, apparently without being “taught”. Sometimes, that’s depressing.

Clinical depression manifests as an over-riding negativity that a person needs help with, a deep black abyss of nothingness with sides too steep to climb without a lifeline. Imagine a state of euphoric excitement, or a fit of laughter when everything seems funny. Turn that upside down into deep sadness, where everything is a negative, and make it have no end. That’s depression.

While depression is manifest as a state of mind, it has significant chemical components. Seratonin is one of the main culprits and there are medicinal means to keeping the body’s seratonin levels a bit more even and they do work for most people, but it is an on-going battle in the mind, requiring conscious modification of “thought behaviours” – as if I wasn’t doing enough of that already! So in short, depression is pretty common among PhD students, very common among autistics and may be accentuated by the processes of autoethnography. Great! On the other hand, how many happy people write good music?

As I near the end of the writing process for this thesis I want to make a further comment about depression. I was diagnosed by my GP with “acute major depression” in mid 2008. Part of my Asperger manifestation is very high and persistent anxiety. Together these are not fun. Treatment with quite high doses of Selective Seratonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) medication helps keep the lows from bottoming out, but not without side-effects. So does regular “offloading”, but the main area of treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to change the patterns of thought. It’s all just extra mental work on top of the extra work I’m already doing just to get by.

Leave a Reply