Category Archives: The World Around

tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.

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Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.

22 Days of Musing: 21

21. It’s okay to not be okay.

Hoookay, folks; tonight’s reflection is going to be a relatively short one, I fear, as I’ve come down with a rather nasty case of cellulitis on and around my left elbow and resting it on the arm of the chair to type is causing it to ache rather unpleasantly. I’ve already been prescribed a good heavy dose of erythromycin, though, so don’t worry about me (at least, not until my arm turns black and falls off entirely – let’s try and avoid that, shall we?). Nonetheless, I’ve just found out that this week, from the 9th to the 15th of October, is National Mental Health Week, and focused upon the now-passed World Mental Health Day on the 10th. This is a week in which to reflect on mental health as a phenomenon, as an experience, as a burden, and try to ask ourselves what we can do or improve on to help both ourselves and others to move closer to a state of mental wellness, and I think it’s apposite, then, that I reflect on that. This kind of awareness campaign is incalculably valuable, I believe, because such a powerful stigma still exists even now against talking honestly about one’s less-than-ideal state of mental health in a public arena. People are in varying degrees content to ask a friend how their treatment for cancer is going, how their broken arm is mending, whether their cold has cleared off; but when it comes to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia and PTSD, we really lack the cultural ability and social framework within which to engage with those kinds of conversations. There’s a feeling pervading almost every niche of society, even now in 2016, that feeling mentally ill is still something that it’s proper manners to keep the fuck to yourself, as tightly wrapped as a pharaonic mummy – to the point where I even found myself apologising to my psychiatrist when I burst into tears during my last session with her. Prima facie, this should be completely ridiculous, the idea of apologising to the very person I should be opening my feelings to for the very act of opening my feelings to her in what felt to a part of my brain like it was an excessive, if not outright shameful, manner. I fight this feeling every day, battling hard to maintain a matter-of-fact attitude towards my own mental illness (while not being cavalier, of course) when I discuss my health issues with others. Awareness campaigns of the sort we’re seeing in the National Mental Health Week give me great heart for this reason. It’s one thing for me to model the kind of approaches I’d like to see when it comes to engaging with mental illness more generally (and even here I’ve been told at times that I share too much, that it’ll hurt my future career prospects, that it’ll scare people away from me, et cetera – ironically, mostly by an ex-partner who herself was at the time suffering from rather serious mental health issues that were at the time going undiagnosed and untreated), but having the backup of organisational-level efforts like National Mental Health Week, the It’s Okay To Say (If You Don’t Feel Okay), and the R U OK? campaigns to normalise the discussion of mental illness in public is truly cheering for me. It’s a big public display of support for the mentally ill in general, and for me in particular it helps to reinforce the small, serene voice in my head that tries so very hard to convince me that I’m allowed to speak up while being constantly drowned out by the other voice in my head, the shouty Don Rickles-impersonating motherfucker on the megaphone. So if I can make a request of you, dear reader, I’d ask that you please do something this National Mental Health Week to show your support for those with mental illness, even if all that is is to ask a suffering friend if they’re okay, and listen without prejudice. And if it’s you that’s suffering, please look to those around you to try and start building a support network. There’s a wonderful quote I like from, of all places, Tumblr; some time ago, a user going by the alias tahtahtahtia posted this to their Tumblr blog, which I reproduce here verbatim.

today my anthro professor said something kindof really beautiful:
“you all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you,

that’s why you’re here, in college.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person,
and it’s okay if that person is you”
– tahtahtahtia

22 Days of Musing: 19

19. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Actually, because I mentioned it in last night’s reflection as well as the nominee I chose – a friend who happens to be a spectacular artist herself – I find myself thinking more about painting, a pastime that I mentioned I’d engaged in on occasion. This might seem to be well and truly off point, but I promise that I have a reason for talking about this. I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic; although music’s always had a role in my life (or at least, it did up until depression set in in earnest) and I enjoyed playing and listening to music of a wide range of types, I’ve always thought of myself as having little to no skill at all in the visual arts. Many years ago (and we’re talking many years, as in, back when I was in high school) I did ponder taking up the art of cartooning and took a workshop to that end, and in all fairness it’s true that I do appreciate the beauty of a unique piece of visual artwork. There was great wonder and excitement in visiting the art and archaeology museums I’ve experienced around the world – the National Gallery in Melbourne, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Getty in Los Angeles – that contain spectacular examples of art both ancient and modern. At the Met, I fell in love with the work of Johannes Vermeer; at Olympia, the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos of Praxiteles. But largely, my experience of these artworks has been with the understanding that I could neither imagine nor execute works of such beauty and vividness, and with this knowledge I was, and remain, largely content. But in late 2012, about eighteen months after starting on my first antidepressant medication, I experienced another period of darkness mainly focused upon the time around Christmas (a holiday that in recent years has come to give me less and less joy, to the point where I no longer look forward to it at all; but that’s a story for another time, I think). Each time I’ve fallen deeply into the pit of depression, I’ve noticed something that has deserted me; in this instance, it was my ability to maintain focus for any length of time. Even when I wished to write an email to a friend, I’d write perhaps one sentence, then have my focus begin inexorably drifting in a manner that I found I was unable to control – such that it would take me weeks to write and send an email to someone I wanted to stay in touch with. And so it was in early January of 2013 that I found myself scrabbling for ways to claw back some of the focus that had by that point entirely deserted me. What I decided at that time was that I needed to find something that I had a solid theoretical knowledge about, but that I was entirely unskilled at: something that wasn’t time-sensitive but demanded periods of specific focus, something that, because I wasn’t naturally skilled at it, would occupy many parts of my mind all at once in order to execute successfully. And what I decided upon was painting. At the time I’d only recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a story and fictional universe I’ve always taken much enjoyment from, and so it was from here that I drew inspiration. And I was successful, in the main; after three weeks of this self-administered focus treatment, this was the result, which now hangs above my door in a place where it looks over me every time I go into my room. (Forgive the curvature at the top and bottom; to get a sufficiently detailed shot, I had to take the photo from close enough to cause this distortion as well.)

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Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

Unlike some of my subsequent paintings, which have been done largely just to keep my hands and my mind busy, with virtually every aspect of this painting I spent much time developing the theme and filling the piece with rich symbolism; it quickly moved past being simply a picture to paint, and has come to take on a more deeply therapeutic role. The role of this specific piece of work in my self-treatment for depression has been significant, and I think I’ll explain exactly how in tomorrow’s reflection, as it’s a little convoluted.

22 Days of Musing: 16

16. A brain of many parts.

A question I’ve been asked more than once since having transitioned earlier on this year is whether or not the process has given me any relief from my mental health issues – whether the transition has enabled me to feel freer, more open with my life in a way that’s allowed my depression and anxiety to be ameliorated even in part. This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer, but I think in tonight’s reflection I might well try. Difficult though the question is to answer, it’s an entirely fair one: the fact that even under the law, QUILTBAG people in our society still don’t enjoy the kinds of freedom afforded to the privileged, the cishet upper-class male white Anglo-Saxon Christian (the recent and puke-inducingly-named Budgie Nine being classic examples), factors heavily into the appalling statistics for the state of their mental health. The stigma from society, both real and perceived, contributes to the oppression of QUILTBAG people and the deterioration of their psychological well-being. (Most of the stats I’m about to cite come from this link, in case you’re wondering.) In Australia, the rates of depression and anxiety in straight people are about one in seventeen and one in seven, respectively. In lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, these rates increase approximately to one in five for depression, and one in three for anxiety. Thirty-six percent of trans Australians currently suffer from depression. One in eight lesbian, gay or bi people have attempted suicide in their lives. Australian statistics on transgender suicidality aren’t available, but comparable surveys in the US indicate that two in five trans people have attempted suicide at least once in their life. Two in five. Sobering indeed; if the same rate applies to transgender Australians, it comprises a 14-fold increase in risk on a background rate of around 3%. All this is largely the result of stigmatisation that’s present everywhere and still seeps even from much of society that thinks itself progressive; for this reason, it does make sense that friends and others would ask whether being out of the closet – being able to be open and actively performative about my gender, rather than keeping it firmly under wraps and detesting myself anew every time the shame touched me – would assist my mental health. And there are certainly ways in which it has done so. I’m more likely to be frank and honest with people now than I was before; it’s something I still am learning how to do effectively, but I’d like to think I’ve gained certain aspects of confidence that I lacked previously. I’m less likely to tolerate people’s bullshit, more likely to call them out on it. (I’m just waiting for the day someone calls me a transphobic slur overtly and to my face. To hark back to that Pixar film Inside Out for a moment, the little fire-headed Lewis Black inside my mind has a seriously fucking itchy trigger finger and is just waiting to go verbally R. Lee Ermey on some arrogant bigot, with all the energy pent up from having to tolerate reading articles about institutional anti-QUILTBAG perspectives while not being able to reach into the Internet and smack Cory Bernardi and Miranda Devine and Lyle Shelton and Tony Abbott right upside their stupid fat heads.) And on a more genteel side but also related to that previous point, my ability to express my feelings to those closest to me has also improved beyond what I’d expected. I’ve always craved physical contact, and consider it one of the most direct and unmistakable signs of genuine affection of all sorts, but for decades I’ve felt immensely awkward about initiating it and paranoid about overstepping the bounds of social convention, most especially the social conventions that limit those who identify as male. Not so much any more, and that brings me a more reliable sensation of closeness to those I care about. Verbally, too, I’m less worried about being effusive with praise or compliment or affection. Telling someone how much I care, or that I love them, is easier now after opening myself up, and that’s been inexpressibly wonderful. And I think that’s a nice note on which to leave tonight’s reflection, so I’ll save the rest of that thought for tomorrow; there are a couple of tangents (hopefully interesting also to the rest of you) that I’d like to explore while I continue to talk about the relationship between my transition and my mental illness.

22 Days of Musing: 7

Day 7. Depression’s evolutionary self-interest.

I’d like to continue on a little from my mention yesterday of the listlessness and lethargy that depression brings, and draw an analogy: one that I think helps to explain why depression can be so intractable, and why it’s so difficult to just “snap out of it” or “get on with things” or “keep a stiff upper lip” or any of a thousand other pseudomotivational bullshit speechlets that one gets from well-meaning but largely deluded people who have never experienced or understood the havoc that depression truly wreaks on the psyche. I’ve said to a few friends that I’ve often thought of depression in some ways as the psychological equivalent of the human immunodeficiency virus. The analogy with HIV isn’t a complete one, mind; it’s largely predicated on one unusual property that both diseases share. Let me explain this thought a little further. Many viruses cause horrific illnesses that kill painfully and rapidly. Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever often causes death in less than two weeks after the initial infection, Ebola in as little as eight days. But from an evolutionary perspective, such viruses in humans are actually rather inefficient, because the disease progresses so rapidly and causes such substantial damage that the victim dies before they can effectively pass the virus on to others. (And despite how devastating the Ebola virus disease is in humans – the Zaïre outbreak in 1976 had an 88.1% fatality rate, higher than untreated typhoid, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague combined – it’s actually incredibly hard to catch, requiring direct contact with blood, faeces, or urine from an infected person.) HIV, on the other hand, is evolutionarily a close to perfect virus: though it also spreads via relatively narrow means, upon entering the body it wreaks its broad devastation by integrating itself directly into the host’s genome, such that it can become recognised as belonging to the body. Thenceforth, it begins to attack the immune system, that very system of the body that might otherwise be able to engage with and destroy the infection. As a consequence, HIV may persist and continue to reproduce for several years even without treatment (and in fact rarely even kills directly; death usually arises from other opportunistic infections or cancers that the ravaged immune system can no longer fight off). Again, I want to emphasise that there’s much that I don’t intend this analogy to include. But I think this targeting of the immune system in HIV is a good analogy for why depression, once it sets in in earnest, is a hard mental illness to treat effectively. Because of the way depression so effectively saps your motivation, your will, your drive to seek out things that bring you pleasure, and your ability to even feel that pleasure even when you do those things (a psychological state the professionals call anhedonia, from the same Greek root as the word hedonism, the devotion to the pursuit of pleasure), depression – like HIV attacking the immune system that would otherwise allow the body to successfully fight it off – affects and disables exactly that part of your mind that would allow you to go forth to seek help. It can just seem too problematic, or too daunting, or too much effort to seek assistance from those who specialise in mental health issues. Making appointments, meeting new doctors, visiting Medicare offices, negotiating the complexities of the healthcare system, all serve as hurdles to the one whose fundamental medical problem is a loss of drive to act in the first place. And as one with just that problem, that’s more than a little frustrating.

A constellation of worlds

I’m reposting this from Facebook, largely so that there’s at least something positive at the beginning phase of this blog! This was the post that brought a couple of my friends to suggest I should blog in the first place, and I hope you enjoy it too. I’ve added a couple of minor edits, but nothing more.

Every once in a while, you get to perceive your world in a different light. One of the rare moments of pleasure I’ve felt lately was about two weeks ago, when the moon was full and I was walking home from the nearby train station. Where I live is generally westwards from the station, and because it’s winter, the stars are out at this time of year when I’m walking home, usually just after 6pm. It’s a time when there are not many other people walking on the roads, and I can experience the world in a clean and uninterrupted way. As a short journey between one place and the next, it’s a liminal zone of sorts for me, where I tend not to be too focused on any one thing, and so my attention tends to wander as it will during those times, without turning inwards and sneaking into the undesirable thought patterns that characterise much of the rest of my conscious day.

What struck me on this particular night was that, as I was gazing into the evening sky, all five of the eye-visible planets, as well as the full moon, were above the horizon and stunning in their luminosity. Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury were low in the west, an elongated golden triad pointing downwards to the point where the sun had disappeared not long before; Mars and Saturn stood brightly alongside Antares, carnelian and topaz adorning the heart of Scorpius as it straddled the zenith. Suddenly it struck me out of the blue (well, out of the black, really) that if I were to describe this sky to someone else, nothing more than a slight shift of phrasing, and therefore perspective, could transform that night from a standard Earth night sky into the kind of fantastic and spectacular sky that one reads about in the introductory chapters of science fiction novels. As I realised that I was being bathed in the reflected light of a half-dozen different worlds, it gave me a feeling simultaneously of being unimaginably small – tiny, insignificant, and unimportant within the scope of the universe’s vastness – and of being an integral part, despite my infinitesimality, of that same incomprehensibly gigantic cosmos: a sensation of belonging to something, of comprising a part of that vastness, in a way that allowed me to partake of it and feel a fleeting but genuine importance as a component in the grand scheme of existence.

The thought is much easier to hold onto than is the feeling, of course. But it brought me pleasure, and a feeling of relevance, if only for a moment.