Dark secrets of the miserable male

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The Independent Culture
DOES EVERYONE get depressed in Jan-uary, or is it just the people I know? My husband sinks into gloom for a fortnight, without fail, on the morning after New Year's Day. He wakes up and says, "I feel a bit low," and I say, "In what way, exactly, d o you feel low?" And he says, "My glands are swollen." And I think, uh oh, swollen glands, that means two weeks of existential angst. We always have exactly the same conversation about it, which goes like this.

"Are you feeling depressed?" I say, trying to look sympathetic (and failing).

"Everyone gets depressed at this time of year," he says. "You start the New Year feeling hopeful, thinking this year is going to be different. And it doesn't take long before you realise it's just the same as last year, except you're getting older."

"But last year was a good year," I say. "On New Year's Eve, you told me it had been one of your best years ever." Then I remind him of all the nice things that happened to him in the past 12 months.

"Nothing like that will happen this year," he says glumly.

You see what I mean? But at least it doesn't last long, unlike my father's depression. His habitual melancholy always used to turn into misery a few weeks before Christmas. It was because he was Jewish, he said, and Christmas reminded him of all the anti-Semitism in the world. Then he'd get even more despondent about what a mistake it had been for him to marry a Christian, and after a spot of ranting, he'd retire to bed for several weeks suffering from nausea. On good days, he might get up for a few hours and listen to a recording of Ted Hughes's "Crow" (one of his grimmer poems). My father would play it at full volume, so you'd walk into the house and hear Ted echoing around every room. "Crow. . . Black. . . Death. . . Black. . . D eath. . . Crow. . ." (or something along those lines).

It is, of course, hardly surprising that so many people become dejected in these bleak months. (As my five-year-old son said to me, "It's cold, it's dark, and the beaches are closed.") But at least women can talk about it to their friends. If we don't want to attribute our unhappiness to the weather, we can usually blame it on pre-menstrual tension or a touch of post-natal depression - hormones are less scarey than confronting a void of meaningless despair. And if all else fails, you can say, "It's because I'm feeling fat after Christmas," and your friend will probably reply, "Oh God, I feel fat too, really really fat," and you know that you're not alone in the world.

But men don't have any of those small comforts. They might be able to identify the cause of their misery as a male mid-life crisis, if they're lucky, but they can only have one of those, and the rest of the time there's nothing to fall back on but swollen glands. Men don't say to each other, "I feel fat." If they're really pushing the boat out, they might say, "Things aren't too good at the moment, Manchester United just lost," and that's it. Unless, of course, they go for the big one: cosmic despair.

I was talking to a friend of mine last week, and I asked how he was, and he said, "Oh, the usual, depressed about the state of the Universe." And I told him, in a bossy sort of way, that the reason he was feeling depressed was not the Universe's fault, it was because he worked too hard and never got out of the office.

"But even if I did leave the office, the rest of the Universe would still be terrible," he said.

Would a woman say this? I think not. And before anyone writes in to say that this is a gross generalisation, yes, I know it is, and I'm sure some men worry out loud about the state of their stomachs instead of the state of the Universe. But in general, they lack a convenient, personal hook upon which to hang their depression.

This is where Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) comes in handy. At last, a unisex acronym! We can all be afflicted by SAD, men, women and children. According to the Daily Mail, "one in 20 people suffer its curse." Apparently, SAD is caused by the pineal gland in the brain, a problematic little organ which secretes more of a hormone called melatonin when deprived of sunlight in the dark depths of winter. "That triggers depression, sleepiness and lack of energy," says the Mail. "Sufferers put on weight and become weepy and emotional." So you see, it's not Christmas that makes you fat, it's SAD.

The really good thing about SAD is that you don't have to go to the gym or to a therapist to get better. You just sit in front of a lightbox for several hours at a time, and if anyone disturbs you, you can say, "Go away, I am receiving treatment for a severe medical condition."

My father, who in many respects is a man ahead of his time (he started taking Prozac years ago), probably had SAD long before the Daily Mail discovered it. He's now gone to live in South Africa, where the sun always shines, thus solving that pesky pinealgland problem. The trouble is, he's still depressed. He can't blame it on the weather any more, or my mother (they're divorced), or Christmas, because he's glum in the summer too. So now he's moved beyond existential nausea, to something new altogether."How are you feeling, Dad?" I say.

"Not so good," he replies.

"What's the matter?" I say.

"I've got a headache," he says, with a deep sigh. "And South Africa is full of cultural philistines."

After this sort of conversation, I sometimes wonder whether his depression might prove to be hereditary, which is in itself a depressing thought. But then I think no: there are so many reasons to be cheerful, not least the fact that I will never have to listen to Ted Hughes reading his miserable poem ever again.

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