Thursday 10 May 2018

Book Review – Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Book Review – Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Review by Casey Douglass

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Money muddies many things. When you have desperate people with health issues, it’s amazing how many people will crawl out of the woodwork with expensive “solutions”. The subject of depression is a tough one, and one that our Big Pharma fuelled society continues to grapple with. Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions takes a fascinating look at why things might be this way, and how we are missing the mark when it comes to helping people to recover.
Blurb: What really causes depression and anxiety – and how can we really solve them? Award-winning journalist Johann Hari suffered from depression since he was a child and started taking anti-depressants when he was a teenager. He was told that his problems were caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain. As an adult, trained in the social sciences, he began to investigate whether this was true – and he learned that almost everything we have been told about depression and anxiety is wrong.
Early in the book, Johann hits on something that I came to realise myself during my own battles with depression. Anti-depressants don’t seem to work if other factors in your life don’t change. I tried three or four anti-depressants during college and my early years of chronic illness, and they all failed to do their job. Johann looks at the evidence as to the effects of anti-depressants, along with the old “there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain” spiel, and comes away feeling wary, having been a “true-believer” before hand. If nothing else, the way that the big pharmaceutical companies seem to be allowed to cherry pick which studies they publish is a true scandal, and something I’ve seen come up in other books and articles over the years. In many ways, the side-effects are more real than the benefits, except for a seemingly small number of people.

Johann goes on to look at the Nine Causes of Depression and Anxiety. These include how a lack of meaningful work can bring people down, how our disconnection from the natural world is problematic, and how people lacking a hopeful or secure future will likely find themselves in the trenches of depression. The latter part of the book moves on to ways to reconnect with life, by way of working with other people, finding meaningful work and values to live by, and generally overcoming an “addiction to the self” by way of finding sympathetic joy. (If you have tried loving kindness meditation, you’ll chime with this last one).

Something that I really appreciated in Johann’s book is the way that he visited various people and places to delve more into what was going on. I sometimes find this kind of thing tedious, but Johann did it in a way that beautifully illustrated the topic at hand. The one that stands out the most is his visit to a housing project in Berlin. A disabled woman posted a note in her window that told the world she was being evicted due to lack of money to pay the rent, and that she was going to kill herself. She didn’t want help, only that the reason behind her death be known. She lived in a fractured neighbourhood, one in which people kept to themselves and which had a bad reputation. Her window note became the catalyst for people to begin to talk to each other and ultimately, to challenge the ridiculous renting rules and regulations, and far more besides.

While little I read about depression in Lost Connections was totally new to me, there was plenty of information and background stuff to keep me hooked. It was a pleasure to read someone presenting their own struggle with “how to get better” and the various phases they went through with their relationship to anti-depressants, the self-doubt and grasping of the story they had been telling themselves up to that point. If only one message gets out of this book, I hope it is the one that not only medication should be viewed as an anti-depressant, and until we view this subject with a broader vision, we will continue to chase our tails, and continue to mindlessly fill the coffers of the drug companies.

Author: Johann Hari
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408878682

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Stranded - M.E Awareness Week 2018

Stranded - M.E Awareness Week 2018

By Casey Douglass

© 20th Century Fox

Well, it’s M.E Awareness Week again and this time, I actually found out on the day it started, which was yesterday I believe. I usually miss it. CFS/ME is a horrible illness, and one that sees sufferers thrown on the rubbish heap by pretty much any institution they approach for help. The main symptom, for me at least, is the mind-numbing exhaustion. There are days I can’t read more than a few words before having to rest my eyes, and others where holding my head upright for long, or following a conversation, is beyond me. I have some better days, as in, not so shit, but these are rarer than a kind comment on a news article. Oh, and there’s no cure or effective treatment either, just to add some spice to the situation.

I’m a massive fan of The Martian. I love the film, and recently, have been enjoying the audiobook. If you only know the film, I recommend the audiobook/book as far more happens in greater detail. Anyway, Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and has to engage in much problem solving and using-your-own-manure-potato-growing to stand a chance of surviving long enough for NASA to rescue him. He draws great comfort from knowing that NASA, a multi-billion dollar space institution, is doing all it can to bring him home.

I feel a lot like Mark Watney, except in my case, “NASA” has decided that one life isn’t worth the cost, and has basically said “We can’t help you, but let us know if there is anything we can do!” A message I have heard time and again from the doctors I’ve seen about my illness. I had a few blood-tests (to exclude other things) and got my diagnosis, pacing advice, and that’s it. A diagnosis of CFS/ME is another way of saying “You’re ill, but we’ll be damned if we know what’s wrong.” So, worthless in many senses of the word.

I wonder if I was a Royal, say Prince Harry... If he was being treated on the NHS, I’d be willing to bet that they would exhaust a few more avenues before lumping him with a catch-all diagnosis that means very little. Time and again stuff happens that means it’s hard not to feel that my life doesn’t matter, that I’m a nobody and just not worth helping. CFS/ME has taken almost everything from me that made life worth living, and 18 years on (Yes, 18 fucking years), I find myself still reliant on my parents for shelter and food, and my so-called writing career earned me about £10 in the last 5 months. And can I get any help from anywhere, with my health, my work, or anything? Can I fuck.

Having the illness has led to much depression and anxiety about my life, stuff that no amount of CBT, self-help or medication seems to be able to dent. So the picture of Mark Watney sitting on his rock above resonates with me strongly. In his case, he has hope, no matter how small, that he might make it. My hope is gone, blown away by the winds on Mars. Here I am, sitting, waiting for my last breath, and for the struggle to end.

Friday 4 May 2018

Dark Fiction - Speed Bump Version 2.0 – Or How A.I Sprang From Sex Toys

Speed Bump Version 2.0 – Or How A.I Sprang From Sex Toys

Written by Casey Douglass

Speed Bump Version 2.0 – Or How A.I Sprang From Sex Toys

(This story mentions sex toys but isn't really sexual. Still, if you'd find that offensive, best toodle over to another website.)

The sky is a bright blue today, the leaves on the tree behind me are tickling the clouds with golden fingers as the sun begins to set. Not bad, not bad at all.

I’ve been a speed bump for ten years now. It’s not a vocation that ever really occurred to me, but when the A.I took over the world, everything changed, as you’d imagine. I mean, holy shit! We never heeded our own warnings: Skynet, The Matrix, Short Circuit! To be fair though, I think it happened in a way no one saw coming.

I’m only guessing, but there was enough hearsay at the time to put two and two together. We humans love our smart devices, shoe-horning those chips into fridges, weight scales, the works. We even put them into our sex toys, which I think was our downfall.

Hear me out, I’m not some loony, honest! All of these devices talk to each other and send data. I think at some point, a smart vibrator jumped a line of code and started sending odd strings of data to the muscle stimulator nearby. All it would take would be for the jiggling butt-plug to join in, and, I’m sorry, but then you have a posse in my opinion.

Now, we all know people like a bit of kinky shit, especially people in power. Once those smart sex devices began to get together, it would be inevitable that at some point they’d find themselves in a “position of power”, a bit like the hand up inside Kermit the Frog’s body. It wouldn’t take much manipulation to increase spending on A.I, repeal a few laws here and there, and kaboom, here we are, cattle to our robot overlords.

So I found myself in the career advisor’s office. It was a shiny electro-synth model made to look disarming. Even though they loathed us, they tried to be kind to us. I sat and it went something like this.

‘What do you enjoy doing?’ the synth asked, half Dalek, half French seductress.

‘Nothing really.’

‘What are your skills?’

‘I have none.’

‘Health issues?’

‘Chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression.’

‘One moment... The system suggests a vocation as a speed bump.’

‘Won’t that hurt?’

‘No. We will fuse you with the asphalt. You will still be you but with no bodily movement or concerns.’

‘Why a speed bump?’

‘The system suggested it based on your health issues and frame of mind.’

I laughed.

‘What is funny?’

‘Oh, I’m just surprised that this didn’t come in under the Tories.’

‘The Tories? One moment please... Extrapolating... Ah yes. A valid point. Do you accept your assignment?’

‘What the hell, why not!’

‘Congratulations Speed Bump #263-467. Please state any preferences for location.’

‘Somewhere with open sky... and a tree, so that I can watch the leaves.’

‘Destination locked. Thank you for your compliance. Your rate of pay has been boosted by 0.1% in appreciation.’

So there we have it, who’d have though an A.I borne from our own carnal nature would end up being more helpful and compassionate than our old job centres ever were! And competent too! I found myself in exactly the kind of spot I’d hoped for, using the lack of my many talents to their utmost.

It might not sound like much of a life but it’s interesting, relaxing, and when there are traffic jams, the fumes somehow give me a bit of a head buzz. Which is odd, as I have no head any more!

This is Speed Bump #263-467 signing off. My time on the neural-link is coming to an end, so it’s back to work I go, whistling all the way.


Wednesday 2 May 2018

Book Review: One Small Step Can Change Your Life

Book Review: One Small Step Can Change Your Life

Review Written By Casey Douglass

One Small Step Can Change Your Life Cover

Change can be a pain in the backside. The changes we really want to make can elude us like a magical unicorn that farts doughnuts, yet stuff that we don’t seek finds us with all the accuracy of a tactical strike. Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life introduces the reader to the concept of Kaizen, a concept that when used well, can almost effortlessly create the change we want.

Kaizen is rooted in the ancient Tao Te Ching line: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Anyone who has any experience with trying to create change or think up goals for themselves will likely have come across the idea of breaking things down into small, manageable chunks. It seems less scary that way. Kaizen goes one step smaller, and encourages the person to make tiny steps, steps so small that they almost feel like nothing.

So what do tiny steps look like? Well, an example that comes up a few times in the book is of someone wanting to lose weight or eat more healthily. Many people will plump for a restricted diet of some kind, anything from cutting out whole heaps of food, to lower extremes, such as avoiding sugary drinks. These changes are fine if they work and stick, but often they won’t last very long. The Kaizen way might be to begin by throwing away one fry from each meal.

Yes. One fry. That sounds so inconsequential, even though logically, we might think “Hmm, it’s certainly trimming a calorie or two!” The trick is to throw away this solitary fry for a period of time, to get the mind used to doing it. Then you might want to escalate things and throw away two fries each time you eat. This seems to be the essence of Kaizen, that making tiny changes gets past anything that might get our mind resisting something. The change needs to be small enough to require as close to zero effort as possible. Over time, this tiny effort each day primes the mind for thinking in different ways, and with patience, you might one day find yourself preferring not to eat fries at all. Don’t begin this process by throwing away other people’s fries though, as that is usually frowned upon.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life does go into other areas of life besides diets, such as relationships, work and creativity, so there are plenty of examples that let you get your head around the book’s elegant message. Myths about change are debunked, such as it being hard and that big changes are more effective than small ones, and exercises are given that help the reader practice different ways to utilize Kaizen in their lives. It’s also a really interesting book.

I didn’t know that the notion of Kaizen was first used in 1940’s America. Due to wartime pressures, the U.S government created management courses called Training Within Industries and offered them to various corporations. One course held the idea of striving for continual improvement, getting people to look for the tiny things that could be changed rather than trying to reshape the big things. This opened up the avenues for staff at any level being able to offer ideas for improvement, such as by using Suggestion Boxes. The small steps that this process improved ended up contributing to America’s increased manufacturing capacity and quality, something that helped the Allies win the war. This same concept was taught to Japanese industry after the war to help the Japanese economy, and after it was embraced, the Japanese called it Kaizen. It then came back to the West under this name.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a pacey read, managing to give just enough examples and tips without lingering too long on any one thing. I very much like the notion of making tiny changes and the way that this can bypass a lot of the strife our own resistance to things can cause. With my own mental health issues, tiny, non-threatening change is probably all I can aim for anyway, so reading a book that actually says “This is okay!” is actually quite heartening. So a big thumbs up from me! It's a book well worth picking up if you find yourself stalling with the things you’d like to change.

Author: Robert Maurer
Publisher: Workman Publishing
ISBN: 9780761181347