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Is Writing A Cure For Depression?


Mustafa Jamal ponders on the possible therapeutic benefit of writing…

Laptop is where it is named for – on a cushioned plank balanced on my lap – for medical reasons, so I was advised, and tapping the keys, punching out random recollections to rid me of my mild “black dog.”

“Black dog,” as Winston Churchill so aptly described it, was the code name for a severe form of depression he suffered all through his life, especially during his laidback years, after the war with Hitler, after his years at 10, Downing Street, in between his decades-long public engagement and speeches. For a man who relished work or action, or both, his depressive moods recurred when he was mostly inactive.

Aware of his unusual medical condition, Queen Elizabeth’s most favourite PM till date took to writing and painting. But fate punished him with longevity, and so he experienced bouts of depression to his dying day. Sir Winston was 90 when he died.

Churchill’s “black dog” didn’t come out of the blues. It came encoded in his DNA via his family tree. His grandfather, John Spencer-Churchill, suffered severe bouts of depression just as his own son, Randolph, Churchill’s father.

I have never being depressive nor is there any sign of it in my lineage – maternal and paternal – I am not gloating, please. In that sense, I suspect that what I am basically suffering from now isn’t medical type depression but the difficult times on account of being an unemployed idler.

Let’s face it your spirit cannot soar when you don’t have a credible employment to speak of. Worse still, it becomes ironic when colleagues and others acknowledge your work and worth yet you live on the dole. It is unbearable to live in perpetual inertia, self-induced or not. It makes your future uncertain and almost bleak when you don’t even know what future there is.

Nothing seems to be happening. The economy is in recession, which is bad news for all but particularly so for the jobless. Companies are laying-off workers by the thousands. In journalism, my area of comparative advantage, offers are as few as my keenness to work is huge.

But not many media houses break even today let alone hire more staff. One potential employer groused about my age recently. “But didn’t writing get better with age?” He pretended not to hear me, looking over and above my head, whistling a soft tune.

The other day, a friend took me along to the publisher of a specialized all-gloss magazine pitching to resuscitate a once popular monthly. On invitation to his office, the publisher spoke without let about his visions for the publication, spinning ideas upon ideas like an energetic performer with more rabbits to pull from his hat. “Send your CV to so and so,” he declared imperiously after the meeting. I was elated.

I sent him a carefully-worded reminder through sms after personally dropping the CV at the appointed place and time. No response. I called as follow up. No response. In the end, his performance turned out to be, as George Orwell once quipped, “lending an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Well, I put it all that down to the economy, stupid!

There have been several such put-downs that can, bit by bit, erode the confidence of even the stoutest of heart, from friends, former colleagues and supposedly friendly neighbours, those who, unwittingly but assiduously, gauge your gradual ascendancy or otherwise on the social ladder.

How is he doing? Does he have a job? Is he married? Where does he live? Does he drive a Sports Utility Vehicle and so on? It’s as if those are the only values that count: work, family, social status around here.

I once chanced on a piece about the austere but accomplished life of a Hungarian professor of mathematics, Paul Erdos. Distinguished in every academic sense, Prof. Erdos denied himself all worldly acquisition, going about Europe and America burdened with a half-empty suitcase: no property, no children, nothing.

Arriving at the numerous scientific conferences where he was almost always a sure presence, he would declare: “My brain is in town.” Nobody disputed that, and so equally distinguished professors of mathematics and applied science accorded him due respect. But that is Europe, or, as we say here, “na oyinbo land be dat, no be Africa.”

Around here, any jobless, ageing bachelor would surely be looked at, and treated, differently – and not in flattering terms. “Dat man? E no well,” you often hear; when the subject is safely out of earshot, though. “Something de worry am. I even hear say na im be first pikin.”

“If you don’t have a base, where you work or earn income, you are nobody,” a radio presenter said one night last week. It was the bitterest pill to swallow that night. Sleep flew through the window, leaving me sweating and confused, as if my destiny had already been sealed by unseen hands.

I remembered a touching letter a Jewish woman wrote to her sons before she was gassed in Auschwitz. Crushed by her suffering and others and the incredulity of it all, she lamented: “I live with such a sense of unreality as if I were standing like a spectator beside my own fate.”

The difference for me today as I sit in a poky room, laptop where it should be, fingers lightly skimming the keyboard, I feel a certain release, a certain euphoria