Depression, Chemistry and Circumstance

A Tricky Intersection

Posted Feb 28, 2014

Melody Moezzi is a powerhouse, for many reasons. She’s a writer, activist, attorney and award-winning author. She regularly gives lectures and seminars on issues related to mental health and disability rights, Islam, Iran, and women's rights. So I invited my friend and colleague to write a guest post for my blog. Read on and enjoy.

Depression, Chemistry and Circumstance: A Tricky Intersection

It's not always easy to distinguish between deep unhappiness and the early stages of clinical depression. One might argue that the former is purely the result of circumstance, while the latter is purely the result of chemistry. But as with most quick and easy explanations, this one falls short, failing to convey the whole—decidedly more complex—story.

 Relatively recent scientific discoveries have demonstrated that—contrary to what many of us learned in schoolthe brain is not some static, inflexible organ. Rather, it responds to external stimuli in ways that can alter its very structure. Likewise—as anyone who has flown halfway across the world on a whim in the throes of mania can tell you—changes in our brain chemistry can lead us to alter our surroundings.

In effect, circumstance and chemistry do not exist in a vacuum. They can and do influence one another in profound ways.

While the implications here cannot be understated, the fact remains that when we’re talking about major depression, whether unipolar or bipolar, a change in scenery is rarely the solution. In most cases, successfully treating severe clinical depression requires medical intervention.

Nevertheless, given the potential for sadness to morph into major depression in those of us blessed and cursed with a certain genetic disposition, it’s critical to distinguish between the two in order to prevent the former emotional state from progressing into the latter medical disorder.

Unlike clinical depression, a great deal of sadness can be alleviated through changes in lifestyle and/or environment. And if those of us who struggle with major depressive episodes can change our circumstances early enough in the game, then we may even be able to prevent the onset of clinical depression. Certainly, this isn’t always the case, but it happens often enough that it’s worth considering.

Take your standard disenchanted lawyer, for example—a member of a sizeable species with which I have extensive experience on account of having been one not long ago.

Lawyers exhibit remarkably high rates of depression and suicide, making us an ideal sample cohort when considering the roles of circumstance and chemistry here.

One might argue that these statistics have to do with the annoyingly prevalent public perception that all lawyers are slimeballs who belong at the bottom of the ocean. But even conceding that some of us may well deserve permanent communion with the crustaceans, others among us manage to do a great deal of good defending civil rights, protecting the public, fighting for the underdogs, the oppressed and the overlooked, and in the process, driving meaningful social progress.

 But if it’s not on account of some alleged sliminess, what is it that makes attorneys especially prone to clinical depression? In my experience, it seems to have a lot more to do with environment than brain chemistry. There is a painfully common culture in the legal profession that celebrates stress—encouraging extreme hours, oppressive hierarchies and sleep deprivation. Certainly this is a problem that exists within many professions. Nonetheless, it’s exceptionally pervasive in the law.

I worked as an estate lawyer for roughly a year before I gave up practicing, quitting my job by way of a phone call from a hospital bed. My body had given out on me.

The stress of the job exacerbated a preexisting gastrointestinal condition, but in doing so, it gave me an opportunity that far too many attorneys—far too many people—miss. My time in the hospital opened my eyes to the fact that I was miserable at my job. And by acknowledging my unhappiness I was not only able to do something about it, but I was also able to prevent it from morphing into a full-blown depressive episode.

Sometimes it seems as though our circumstances are completely outside of our control, and in some cases, they are. In many other cases, however, we have the power to change them and in doing so, to reorient ourselves in ways that lead to more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Admittedly, change is scary, but then again, so is the severe clinical depression and potentially unfulfilled life that may well result from sustained stress and unhappiness. While quitting my job from that hospital bed was scary at the time, it was also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—not just because it averted what promised to be a wicked clinical depression, but because it led me to a better life.

Melody Moezzi is a writer, attorney, activist and award-winning author. Her latest book, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life (Penguin/Avery), will be out in paperback in July. Info:

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Photo: Rana Ossama