Last Monday afternoon Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE, FRSL and I sat in his chaotic study in the Anatomy department at University College, London, quietly regarding each other. Professor Wolpert seemed to me to be superior to myself in every way possible. He was better-looking, better-dressed, more self-assured, miles more intelligent, and probably richer. It was a great comfort, therefore, to know that, like me, he has thrown the wrong number and tumbled down the longest snake on the board. Nine years ago, aged 65, Professor Wolpert suffered a devastating depressive breakdown. But even here I imagine he made a better fist of it than I did, that he was depressed with more aplomb. After recovering from his breakdown, Professor Wolpert, a distinguished embryologist, capitalised expansively on his experience by writing a crisp, well-received users’ manual for depressives, Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression, and by making a television series about depression for the BBC. All that I, a hack, could manage was a paragraph in a slim anthology, which was savagely mutilated by the panel of editors.
While Professor Wolpert had the disadvantage of knowing nothing at all about depression when it struck, as an ex-psychiatric nurse I thought I knew everything that was known with any certainty about the condition — which admittedly isn’t a lot. For about three years, on an admissions ward, while training to be a registered mental nurse, I played cards and board games with people suffering from acute depression, chronic depression, mild depression, bipolar depression, post-natal depression, you name it, some of them complete loonies. I consistently beat a man at draughts, for example, who was so depressed he was deluded that he didn’t have a digestive system. If we hadn’t laid him on a trolley twice a week and passed 150 volts through his brain, he’d have starved to death.