Lost Connections

A personal commentary to “Lost Connections”

by the British journalist, writer, columnist and podcaster, Johann Hari.

Separated from people

I’ve been separated from my family in England for a long time. I have never been more aware of that than I am now. I would like to have conversations, look them in the eye and put my arms around them instead of just writing. The short time I had whenever I was in England did not go beyond scratching the surface. The conversations could be described as warming up, but no more. This means that conversations now are strained by the knowledge that I have depression.

But there are also friends and acquaintances from my past here in Germany whom I basically just left behind as I went on. I did not keep in touch and was so absorbed in what was in front of me that it is not surprising that people also distanced themselves from me. Every now and then I have email contact to former employees with whom I got along well, but it is only superficial. These people too, given the fact that they know I struggle with depression, would find it difficult to be at ease with me.

The people who are around me every day are very considerate and really concerned about me. The problem is that it is also marked by a separation. I am no longer the one who was entertaining in conversations, but now the one who is shown understanding. It is of course no use to long for past. Rather, I have to look forward. I can try to connect with the contacts I had, but I have to accept that things are not the way they were.

Johann Hari gave an example of how the community spirit, especially when rallied around a worthy cause, can overcome depression and bring about conditions that no-one could foresee. His second example was a nurse on a psychiatric ward who suddenly realised that she couldn’t go on. She disconnected for seven years. Reconnection proved difficult, but the group task of building a garden on a scrubby patch of ground, usually used for dogs, against all odds and despite all difficulties, helped. Reconnection to nature opened her eyes and inspired her. It’s call social-prescribing, therapy through horticulture.

It is up to me to find a way of re-entering the community in which I live and find a role to play. I find that my anxiety is my biggest problem, a worrying anticipation that I could overstretch myself. It will be a struggle, but perhaps worth it.

Separated from childhood trauma

Since I have always described my childhood as ideal, it is strange when I speak of a childhood trauma. However, because I was the introverted child who absorbed everything, especially emotions, I experienced many things as minor traumas that followed me into the night. I had basically grown up safe and sound, and apart from much upheaval caused by my fathers posting, I had no idea of the world before I stepped out into the world. The night brought many horrors, nightmares, fantasies, fears resulting from a multitude of experiences that were probably not perceived in the same way by my environment.

When I had met people, I was interested above all in why they did what they did. I have always been curious about people in this way, as long as I can remember. To begin with it was the teachers who hurt us children, or the destructive bully at school, but it was also the scout leader, who made the children sexual advances, and later at work the young women who give themselves up for pornography or prostitution and many others. I tried to understand – which obviously didn’t work. Above all, I did not understand myself, which was probably the real reason for my attempts to understand others. I was such a mystery to myself that I often despaired, which has been compounded by depression. The break with naivety was perhaps the greatest traumatic event of all.

Johann Hari found it helpful to acknowledge the trauma and work to overcome it. For a long time I tried to just forget the bad side of being an introverted child with an over-active imagination and concentrated on the good side of my childhood. There were dark sides, however, and I must confront them so that they stop occupying my dreams.

Separated from meaningful values

The subject of lost values is one that I can identify with. I noticed that the stress I was feeling ultimately obscured my view of values. I had become a machine that had to be well oiled, a show that had to go on. The values, which I had previously tried to uphold in training courses and lectures were no longer in focus. My old values, especially at work, were a thing of the past, although I stayed identified with them. I needed to believe in what I was doing. It had to be meaningful.

The church unreasonably became a spectre of horror after I had my crisis there. Not only my depressive episode contributed to this mental representation, but the strife that was going on in the parish, and, of course, the reports in the media contributed to make the church a rather dubious part of my life. However, the way I shrugged it off wasn’t appropriate. The people there were not to blame, and if at all, they were also trapped in the structures that I saw as harmful. I also justified my separation that way. I was not angry about the people, but about the structures.

I then oriented myself to values that were supposed to replace the lost values. The new conceptual model at work was one such example. But also the „noble truths“ of Buddhism gave me direction. But really, the values I found were not much different to Christian values. They were acceptable with the general population, so it couldn’t be very different. However, when I noticed that these new values were not taken so seriously by my employers, and a „see to it“ culture developed, I had renewed problems with identifying with what I was doing.

Separated from status and respect

To become depressed, especially when one is striving for efficiency, prestige and respect as a leader, is a falling into insignificance. Of course, I blamed myself the most, calling myself a failure, I struggled with the symptoms, and didn’t want it to be true. I only saw it as a temporary stress reaction that I would overcome in three weeks. But that wasn’t the case. What my head didn’t want to admit, my body forced on me. I had always thought that depression is a mind problem, but now I know that the mind has only a slight influence on the condition.

When people have compassion with you, it is beneficial for a while. If it lasts, however, it becomes embarrassing. To be treated like a raw egg, especially if you notice it, is not tolerable. You notice how you have become a poor drip that everyone feels sorry for. You fight against it but your body resists your efforts. You say to your body, don’t do that! Get up! Do something! You react, have small moments of success, but efficiency is something else. I had become the kind of person I don’t like. I had no respect for myself, and still fight with it. I answer the question as to how I’m feeling with hollow phrases, because it would take too long, even if I could explain how I feel. If you have no respect for yourself, it changes your reaction to others. Many of the things you set out to do you cannot do. Sometimes you don’t start at all. You get on your own nerves and talk yourself into believing that you get on other people’s nerves as well.

Away from the natural world

If you crash in depression, the world you’ve been in has been in some way toxic. I have found that returning to nature is a tremendous help. We moved flat in the first weeks of my depression and the view from our living room is priceless. The trees were starting to sprout, as was the whole scene and watching the progress of nature in spring was a great resource. Previously we had another house blocking our view, now we could look out into a landscape the reminded one of a park.

Before the depression, nature was just what flows past your car. You don’t smell anything, you don’t hear or feel anything, you are a machine. Although you notice how a short walk can help, there was usually no time for it. It is often dark when you come to work, and often dark when you go home. You move into an artificial world with computers, numbers, data, and paper. Time is scarce. When people are stood at the door, it is a disturbance that you want to get rid of as quickly as possible. You even stay away from children. They could demand feelings, which could cause the whole house of cards to collapse. You move where you have control. You’d rather take 10,000 paces on a treadmill than in nature because you have nothing under control in nature.
But nature is what you need, where you can give up control, where everything is „perfect“ in a different way and time is not a feasible measure.

Separated from the hope of a secure future

I had hoped that all the effort and the uncertainty would pay off in the future. I just had to hold out for so long until I retired, another year or two, then everything would be fine. Of the many factors that contributed to the crash, the bursting of this bubble was perhaps the biggest. Suddenly realizing that the number of years that determine when and with how much money you can retire may depend on Brexit did something to me that I cannot explain adequately. I had paid contributions for seven years in Britain. However, since 2010, you are only entitled if you’ve contributed for ten years. In my thoughts I saw myself forced to work at least four years longer, but I knew I couldn’t keep up the stress I was feeling for another four years.

Without the prospect of having a situation from the age of 65 that would allow me to choose what I did after that, it was like pulling the floor away. Then, facing the stress that was rushing at me every day, a chain reaction was triggered in me that made it impossible for me to go on. Only I didn’t know it then. The crisis had been triggered in the subconscious and caused more stress than I could bear. It also prevented me from recovering as fast as I wished I could. The ongoing insecurity has been something that still causes problems.

Separation from meaningful work

My career choice had more to do with meaningful work than many people suspect. I also felt that choosing a career was a calling but was warned that too much idealism often has problems when it comes to practical, daily work. Nevertheless, many of us thought that nursing care for the elderly should be reformed – by us. We had found bad conditions that we wanted to change. I have had some success, but it has been very exhausting and the preconditions have worsened.

According to everything I heard from my colleagues at the time, many failed to live up to these ideals and many soon stopped working in inpatient or outpatient care. One of them, the best in the class, did a work placement with the social support team in my home when I was already in charge of nursing. He wasn’t able to work in nursing any more. The way I heard it, I lasted the longest. Probably because I, despite crashes, found a way through the chaos, until I finally couldn’t go on any more. That was after 22 years.

At 64 I was drained and avoided contact with large groups, which caused me considerable unrest. The day-time therapy slowed me down and began helping with my anxiety disorder, and it became clear that I should seek an early pension. I still think that I can contribute in the field of geriatric care, but more in one-on-one contact, or at best with small groups. I have noticed how I had gradually worked myself into a corner and couldn’t find the support I needed. The problem was and is, that there is no work for someone who has turned 64 and is depressed.

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