The United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England – is obsessed, nay possessed, by the Royal Family. It is astonishing that the story of a tortured couple posting their angst on Instagram has gripped these islands to such an extent that, for example, anti-government protests taking place in Iranian cities warrant but a paragraph in our newspapers. I'm aware of the irony in writing this.
Scotland is not immune to royal fervour. In April 2011, as a patient in one of those large Victorian wards in a Glasgow hospital, my stay happened to coincide with the wedding of William and Kate. On the morning of the wedding, nurses on the day shift arrived with little union jack flags, and one nurse baked a huge tray of union jack muffins. The excitement was palpable. Patients, nurses and doctors talked of little else. A bunting had been constructed of surgery socks between two drip stands. Genius.
TV coverage began early and the entire ward was cleared into the TV room. When they came for me, I politely refused. A steadfast disinterest in wedding dresses and flying penises called fascinators, I wanted to read my book in the quiet of a normally noisy ward. I also wanted relief from nurses bawling at elderly patients with dementia or hearing loss. (If they had both, as poor 'Agnes' did, a deafening cacophony ensued.) Eventually, having hitherto resisted all requests to join the party, a nurse told me the truth: if you stay in the ward, you cannot be left without supervision, which meant two nurses would miss the wedding. Unwilling to ruin their day (and probably mine), I gave in. Perhaps naïvely, I was genuinely gobsmacked by the level of adoration – right here in Glasgow – among 'commoners'.
On the other hand, the most vehement criticism of the Royal Family comes not from republicans, but from the aristocracy itself. The Windsors are generally despised by most of the 'genuine' British aristocracy as beneath them. I first got a sense of this disdain years ago at one of those weekend parties in a large country pile. During the day before the main event – the dinner party – aristocratic and landed gentry folk sat around drinking sherry after a hearty hike, doing what we all do I suppose – gossip. Listening to talk of 'thick', 'ugly horse-faced' folk, I was stunned to realise they were talking of the 'German' Windsors. Some of the tales are frankly unrepeatable.
More recently, during the much greater scandal of Prince Andrew, I asked again about their scorn for the royals and if it was indeed widespread. Yes, it is. Only Elizabeth, Diana and Harry get a pass. In fact, such is the disdain that these aristocrats think the Windsors give them a bad name, and they would not be at all dismayed if those 'turnip toffs' were mashed once the Queen dies. It's a funny old world.
Last week, I wrote a few sentences on depression and a couple of readers have been in touch with me. 'Tis the season of low mood, sadness, emotional turbulence and inactivity. I'm an expert – but only on my own condition. Depression, it seems to me, is a complex illness. No two depressions are the same. Each individual sufferer has their own unique set of characteristics and combination of symptoms. These differences, which can be great or subtle, are caused by mental characteristics, life experiences, genetics and so forth.
There are as many treatments as there are variants of the illness: antidepressants of many varieties and strengths, including talking therapies, counselling, CBT, ACT, mindfulness, sun lamps, self-help books... It's difficult for a non-medical person to make specific recommendations in anything other than general terms. One bit of indisputable advice is absolutely what not to do: do not self-medicate with alcohol. Visit a doctor instead, pronto.
Recently I've come to the conclusion that my life-long depression is incurable. To be clear, this prognosis is for me alone and is not generally applicable. And as luck would have it, just last week a paper dropped serendipitously into my inbox from the excellent online magazine Aeon,
which publishes in-depth essays and articles. It was an essay on 'Depressive Realism' by Julie Reshe, a philosopher and psychoanalyst from Siberia (the Siberians must know a thing or two about life's difficulties).
Reshe describes her own depression as a frightening state of mind: 'The very idea of waking up was riddled with dread. A state of internal turbulence, apprehension and negativity about the future propelled the total collapse of a positive and optimistic attitude. I felt like my mind suddenly became sick and twisted'. She goes on to describe the attitudes of (not all) others. Depression is not particularly tolerated in society, she said, and she was often shunned 'like a leper'. But she now understands this reaction: 'after all, I had become cynical, agnostic and pessimistic, and I hadn't bothered to be polite'. Add anger to that and I'm with you sister. Why should anyone put up with us?
On the upside, Reshe developed a deeper understanding of the suffering of others and learned about the dark side of existence and its delusions which opened 'a new window on reality' for her. In the wake of her experience, she began to doubt the equation of positive moods with good mental health, and negative moods with distortion. The tendency to seek and promote a state of happiness goes hand in hand with the stigmatisation of its opposite – emotional suffering, depression, anxiety, grief or disappointment – a pathology in need of treatment. 'The voice of sadness is censored as sick.'
But what if 'reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us not to realise this?' Reshe asks. After an extensive literature review – including Freud (whose goal was helping patients to accept and reflect on the hell that life is), Heidegger, Schopenhauer and contemporary thinkers, she comes to the liberating conclusion that 'depressive rumination is a problem-solving mechanism that promotes analysis'. Our very own Scottish psychiatrist, R D Laing, would have undoubtedly agreed.
Not yet liberated from suffering or illusions, I'm trying hard. In the meantime, to end with a bit of black humour, a miserable git had this to say: 'It is bad today, and it will be worse tomorrow…'. Cheers, Schopenhauer.