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TX: 21.05.08 - Gwyneth Lewis - What disability means to me


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What disability means to me, is the topic we've been asking a number of public figures to ponder all through this week and today it's the turn of writer Gwyneth Lewis. Appointed Wales' first national poet in 2005 she has lived with depression for most of her life. Gwyneth's so used to it in fact she doesn't really consider it disabling.

Before You and Yours asked me the question I'd never considered that my suffering from depression means that I have a disability. On the surface though the label seems to fit - clinical depression is a serious physical illness. The symptoms can be severe - the persistent despair, sleep disruption, waking early in the morning, worrying about everything or conversely being unable to wake up properly at all. The loss of any joy in life, it's like living in a black and white film when you know that the rest of the world is seeing in Technicolor. Even though you have no rash or broken limbs to show the despair of depression is far from painless. It's an ongoing agony that makes every hour last for days and which robs you of the prospect of a future. You become convinced that you're always going to be a ghost, unable to participate fully in life. It's this utter blackness which brings depression's most dangerous thought - that it's not worth living in this semi-human condition.

So yes I suppose I am disabled, if you look at depression in this purely symptomatic way. Even though I'm well at the moment I still have to watch myself like a hawk for signs of an incoming depression. I do have periods which are painful and unproductive. Overwork has serious results for me and if I refuse to listen to the internal signals my constitution sends me - saying slow down or else - then I'm in for a deterioration in mood and ability to function, which can take months to clear with rest, exercise and medication. However, I'm still reluctant to accept the idea of depression as a disability. This isn't because I don't want the label of being disabled, I know I'd be in very good company, but because the whole concept goes against everything I know about how depression functions in my life as a whole. This is not to say that I have positive feelings about the illness itself. Every time I feel a bout of depression approaching I feel frightened and appalled. But even with my dread of the disease and the horror I always feel at its approach I believe that depression has been a profound enabler in my life. It's prompted me to find a way of being and working which doesn't just listen to my workaholic head but which allows my whole system to live happily.

There appear to be three main causes of depression. Some people are genetically predisposed to it. Life events and long term stress can make us prone to an episode. And thirdly, our interior store of emotional habits can be more or less faulty or helpful. Depression takes you out of the action of everyday life for a while and asks you what you're going to do about your circumstances. Some may be negotiable - working in the wrong job, being with the wrong person. Others are not. The main reason why I don't see depression as a disability is because the condition is so intimately concerned with change. If you noticed just now I said that it's a refuge for a time, it can be tempting to retreat into depressive behaviour and stay there because it absolves you from responsibility for the world and for your own well being. This is largely its point but only for a while.

Rather than labelling it a disability why not just broaden our definition of health to include it? I only began to recover from a serious episode of depression when I altered my idea of being well. I remembered suddenly that the gym where I'd failed to go for exercise had an outdoor pool. I took myself off to sit outside in a swimming costume. On the day in question the weather was far from promising. Everybody else went in but I couldn't be bothered, not even when I felt spots of rain falling on my back. I was so miserable that I stayed there, accepting fully, for the first time, how awful I felt. I immediately began to enjoy the experience and realised that sitting outside sunbathing in the rain, as it were, was exactly what I felt like doing. My point is who says that you need blazing light to sunbathe, try the luxury of rain, I can recommend it.

This incident at the swimming pool taught me that I could live well and richly even though I was without any of the positives we're taught to strive for socially. This is an important corrective when we're all expected to be high earning, athletic looking, brand wearing consumers. In this situation we need to see depression as an important corrective mechanism, a way of keeping us sane in an insane world.

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