Thursday, September 26, 2013

Does the brain forget how to be happy?

How does someone go from that smiling kid in Hawaii or the young man with the brilliant smile on the right side of this blog to the tortured soul in this November 2007 picture Leif took of himself with his computer camera? How does one go from someone who may have been moody at times and learned quite young to put a lid on is anger but still had hope, enthusiasm and confidence, and surely hours and days of happiness to someone so lonely, miserable and in debt that he decides to put a bullet in his brain instead of going to work that day?

I puzzle over this nearly every day. It still hurts deeply to think of Leif being so desperately unhappy that he would take his own life, would not reach out to us, felt it was useless and painful to go on. The email he sent to me about the same time he took this photo, in which he said that life held far more misery and pain than any kind of happiness was heartbreaking.

Today, as I thought about it, I considered the research I've read about the biochemical basis of emotions and the hereditary characteristics of deep clinical depression. It came to me because I was thinking about times I'd been particularly happy, and remembering what that was like. I wondered if Leif forgot how to be happy. Can we do that?

But it has to be beyond "forgetting," at least in a memory sense. Maybe the brain forgets how to make the chemicals that go with happiness. Maybe the depressed brain is terribly starved for them.

If it is true that some clinical depression can be caused by a gene that can be "switched on" by trauma and then can't be switched off, and true depression has a biochemical basis, a lack of the right "happiness" chemicals in the brain, then this insidious disease robs us of a profound part of our humanity.

Can someone with that depression find a way back to happiness? Would enough changes in the external environment . . . .for instance, in Leif's case, love, a mate, a sense of purpose, someone to care for, a job that was meaningful to him, getting out of debt . . . would these have ever ended in happiness, or would the chemical changes in his brain have continue to make him depressed no matter what?

And why did he deny that he was depressed? It was obvious to me that he was. Was it that male sense of pride that won't allow them to admit that they can't handle anything and everything? Particularly after he had told me the previous summer that nothing phased him, that he was the rock?

Did he really believe that he wasn't depressed? How could he have believed that, given what he wrote to me? And yet he denied it.

In fairness, I think it's hard for most people to admit they are depressed. They feel a sense of shame about it, though they shouldn't. I think they also fear they will be admonished about how much they have and they shouldn't be depressed or should snap out of it, and they know all too well they can't. They've tried.

I read something about depression a couple of days ago that was very profound. People try to talk people out of depression by counting their blessings, by essentially telling them they don't have a "right" or a "reason" to be unhappy because of all the good things in their lives, and that a lot of people have it worse than they do. I understand the motivation, and the logic, but what I read said, in effect, that telling a depressed person that they should be happy because someone else has it worse than they do is like telling a happy person they can't or shouldn't be happy because someone else has it better than they do. The emotions of depression and sadness are not in relation to what someone else has. They are have physical, emotional, and situational causes.

It's still very hard and sad for me to think of Leif coming home alone to his apartment, depressed and lonely, to eat by himself, watch movies by himself, sit at the computer alone, have no money pay his bills let alone to go out, and few friends to go out with, such that he stayed in social contact with someone who had hurt him very badly.

It still hurts to think of all the Leif could have been that he never had a chance to be.

It still hurts that he is not here. 

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