Depression and anxiety on the parliamentary estate

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 30 April 2012 in Diary
If you work in politics, the personal is always political. As someone with depression who works in politics, Sadie Smith explains how difficult it is to stay balanced

“I heard a joke once. Man goes to doctor, says he's depressed. Life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says "Treatment is simple. The great clown, Pagliacci, is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. "But doctor", he says, "I am Pagliacci." Good joke.”

A quote from the 2009 film, Watchmen. Politics is a strange business, inhabited by strange people. This is not always their fault: the job requires them to wear many masks. They are at once social workers, party representatives, participants in the legislative process, as well as the first port of call when anyone wants a summer fete opened. They have families who never see them as they are either in Westminster or racing around their constituency attending public meetings and holding surgeries, faces aching from smiling all the time, and fielding calls from national papers determined to get their name in a headline alongside the word “SHAME”.

It’s no wonder that so many political marriages end in divorce. The separation, the stress, the constant grind of doing a thankless task for which they rarely get thanked. And, in my experience, the kids of politicians don’t get much of an easier time – I’ve forgotten how many horrific stories I’ve heard of the playground bullying of Parliamentary offspring on the basis that their mother or father is an MP.

The daily bleakness of it all – the complicated personal life, the fact that you are never off-duty, the constant and often cruel criticism – is something that would break stronger people. Many seek solace in the alcoholic embrace of the Strangers’ Bar, while others take more drastic action. Depression in politics is underreported. In this macho world, it is seen as a sign of weakness, but also the phrase “mad” has come to inhabit a special place in our political dialectic.   

In politics as opposed to other professions, the personal is the political. There’ll always be some amateur Dr Freud who reckons that a crack about somebody’s mental state is an appropriate contribution to political discourse and declare, pompously, that such intellectually vacuous speculation (because it can’t be, by its nature, diagnosis in any meaningful sense) is in the public interest. The rot was exacerbated at the time of the Iraq war when somebody from Bognor Regis Agricultural College (or similar) was wheeled out on national television to inform us all, with the wisdom of a rent-a-quote Solomon, that Tony Blair was, like, definitely insane. Had a God complex. Mad. Mad I tells ye!

It is for this reason, amongst others, that I have a great deal of respect for many politicians even if they behave like chumps every so often.

You see, I have depression too.

I don’t say that I am depressed. I am not defined by this illness, and I fully intend to shake it. I am on medication, I have very stiff-upper-lip conversations with my doctor every two weeks or so when she unsuccessfully tries to get me to talk about my “feelings” (props to her, she is excellent, I’m just a bit too British for therapy), and some days are better than others. It is certainly generally better, I think, by and large than it was last summer when it all started. At the time, I believed was a natural reaction to something I was going through. It started with mild paranoia; I believed that people were whispering about me. This, obviously, was highly unlikely as I’m not a household name even in my own household and I knew, I was certain, that it was irrational. But I couldn’t shake the confusion at how my brain no longer bent to my will, it felt like it was being controlled by somebody else.

I could feel “it” getting worse, and then I started to be able to sense when it was about to come on. “It” wasn’t consistent in its severity or even its presence. Sometimes, I felt absolutely fine – better than fine – and sometimes, after feeling an elation that was as misplaced and illogical as the dark that inevitably came after, I felt ... well. I wasn’t exactly composing farewell speeches as I crossed Lambeth Bridge, but I wasn’t far off. Looking back, I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have done anything stupid, it was simply a manifestation of things not firing correctly in my brain. Almost the worst thing was feeling “it” start, and seeming unable to understand or control it.

“It” would start in my underarms, spreading through to my fingers and then down my spine. I would grit my teeth, apparently unable to stop. I could feel it – literally feel it – working its infected tendrils into my mind which would start spinning, working through words, associations, and situations in a manner it had stubbornly refused to when required to engage in academic pursuits at college. The best way to describe how it felt when it hit my brain was that All Saints song (showing my age here, kids) “Never Ever”. The lyric goes, “Sometimes vocabulary runs through my head, the alphabet runs right from A-Z, conversations, hesitations into my mind.” Imagine that. On crack. Always with a side order of anorexia (I’ve lost two stone), and possibly with a pleasurable desert of vomiting, and – apologies for the TMI – diarrhoea.

It was my best friend, a university lecturer from America, who forced me to go to the doctor. I told her that what I was doing was a normal response. The Yanks are better at this mental health stuff than we are. She said that I was being disproportionate. After one particularly dark day at work when I was attempting to write something reasonably complex for The Boss, I literally had no words. This frightened me more than anything. I thought I had, literally, lost my mind. So I headed to the quack who diagnosed me immediately with an anxiety disorder and, for immediate relief, put me on valium. This was later replaced with a more stable form of medication that, for the most part, keeps me on the straight and narrow. That is not to say that it is easy, or that I don’t have days where I just want to run away. But I can get up in the morning, paint my face, go to work, do a good day, and come home. And if you can do that, if you can have just a little bit of control, it lifts you to be able to deal with things just a little bit better than you would have done had you stayed – as is always the temptation – in the safe confine of isolation.

A complicating factor is that I too am in politics, although a lowly bag-carrier rather than an MP or special adviser. When I first turned up at the sawbones, borderline “manic”, she asked me whether my place of work was supportive. “No!” I bawled. “I am in politics, so I’m surrounded by douchebags!” She laughed in spite of herself, and I felt momentarily cheered by this. Like the clown Pagliacci, I see my best reflection in the mirror of other’s laughter, but the sentiment I expressed was unfair.

The problem is that we’ve all got the ol’ glass jaw in Parliament – we take the blows and pretend they don’t shatter us because we exist, largely, only so far as those around reflect us back at ourselves like the doctor’s laughter did with me. How they praise us, what our “status” is on the parliamentary estate. How many hits on the blog, who you work for or what job you hold in government. I’m only a bag-carrier. God knows what MPs who suffer from this go through.

The life of a Member of Parliament is best suited, truth be told, to those with some sort of multiple personality disorder. You’re a local MP who has to raise your constituents’ concerns with your party and the government, and you will be criticised for being inadequate in that regard. You are a member of a political party that represents, broadly, the spectrum of views that you agree with but you won’t agree with everything and will often find yourself doing things you loathe because you have a commitment to bringing into being the things you love. You are part of a family that has become public property, and the hours are long so you’ll rarely see them anyway. You have a good number of people who are your friends and rivals at the same time, and you will suffer from the peculiar uncertainty that exists in everybody who feel that they only exist in the smoke and mirrors of others’ perception: one minute you are “up” and surrounded by acolytes, the next you are “down” and sinking a pint alone in the Strangers’ Bar. Are you more than the sum of newspaper gossip and the rumour-mongering of inconstant friends, who can be Horatio one moment and Brutus the next? I’d find it hard to tell.  

I’m lucky that I’m not an MP, and my immediate office environment is highly supportive in its own way. My young colleague, in his first week of work last summer, learned to talk me down from an anxiety attack which is either evidence of a great friend or masochistic tendencies. The Boss has been unrelentingly on my side, entirely non-judgmental, and always gamely prepared to engage in Man Counselling (where one begins an analogous anecdote before thinking about where it ends) in a manner that has been over and above the call of duty, and for which I will be eternally and genuinely grateful.

And friends I never thought I still had came out of the woodwork, including the one who tells me when I’m feeling down, to not get “maudlin”. Instead he’ll lend me Watchmen and through a contradiction, against unfathomable odds, I’ll hear the “joke” about a “joker” like me and laugh.

There’s no shame in suffering from mental health issues, in Parliament or anywhere else, except for those who use it as an excuse to try to shame the one in four of us who will fall victim to them in the course of a single year.

As The Beatles nearly said, you get by with a little help from your friends and, possibly, Sertraline. And, as The Boss is absolutely right about, you just have to keep buggering on. 

Follow Sadie on Twitter as @smithsky1979. Read more contributions to TP's mental health week here

Tags: Anxiety, Depression, Pagliacci, Strangers Bar, Tony Blair, TP mental health week, Watchmen

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