Inability to Focus and Self

In the post on Depressed ISN’T Sad, I wrote that the two most critical symptoms about Depression were the Inability to Focus and the Inability to Get Things Done.

On a practical level, the Inability to Get Things Done is the more pressing of these two symptoms. It’s kind of obvious why – the more we get done for ourselves, the better we feel about ourselves.

However, the Inability to Focus brings with it a damaging effect, especially when in tandem with that other symptom of depression, forgetfulness.

We don’t usually think about our consciousness – we just are who we are. In fact, we pretty much never question who we are. But our self – the who we are – can be thought of as a combination of our memories / feelings about the past and our plans for our future based on those memories and feelings.

That sounds very simplistic, but if you think about it, that’s what we are. Who we are.

Depression throws a huge wrench into our sense of self. The obvious problem is our forgetfulness – we lose our memories about the past. It’s a bad problem, but it’s not a terrible one because generally we lose snippets of time, not whole days or weeks. So we can reconstruct most of our past. Not everything, but a past that has enough detail and contains enough of our experience that we can use it to make plans for the future.

Unless of course, when you can’t Focus properly and so you can’t actually make plans for the future.

My posts generally talk about trying to Focus to do specific and usually small or well defined tasks, and so I’ve inadvertently made it appear as if that’s all the Inability to Focus affects.

But the Inability to Focus affects the really big picture as well, and we have trouble making plans for the near or medium or far future or deciding where our lives should be heading. We might realise that this is happening, but we don’t really pay it much attention because dealing with immediate specific problems usually take priority.

We also don’t pay attention because, like all people, we tend to take it for granted that we will be able to plan our future or that our future will take care of itself.

Except that we often can’t properly plan for the future when we don’t have the Ability to Focus. We walk around in a haze, maybe just patching the most critical problem of the moment, but not heading in any particular direction. If we have low to medium level Depression, we can walk around in this haze for months.

And then suddenly, our Ability to Focus snaps back into action and we wonder what the hell we’ve been doing for the last few months. And we try to get our lives back onto the track that we want.

At best it’s frustrating. I sigh, think to myself  “Here we go again”, and try to put things in order. At worst, the whole episode is absolutely terrifying. I can feel the gaps in my memory, knowing there is stuff missing but not what. And I can feel my inability to plan or chart a course into the future, but know I’m unable to do anything about that.

It’s like being in a twilight zone. My past has holes and I can’t plan for my future. So what is my self then? Who am I?  I start feeling that I am losing who I am, losing my self. And the best I can do is flail around, pretend to know what I’m doing, and hope that everything comes back into Focus soon so that the ‘real me’ comes back into existence.

Yes, it does feel like that.

There are a few oddities that accompany this process. When I’m coming out of Depression and I get back my ability to Focus, the things that I continue doing are never quite what they used to be. My interests change slightly. I may pick up new interests completely or I may change the way I did the old ones. My day to day habits get adjusted – not necessarily better or worse, but different. I may drop interests and topics that I was interested and into before the Depression episode. The changes are usually small, but they DO happen. And it happens consistently after each Depression episode.

So my sense of self changes slightly. My personality changes slightly. When I think about it, it’s pretty disconcerting – my personality changes for no other reason than I’ve had a Depression episode. 

Oh. There are one other set of changes that happen when I’m coming out of Depression and I get back my ability to Focus. Relationships can get odd. Because my interests change slightly and my personality changes slightly, I may no longer be quite the same person in a relationship. And I may no longer feel quite the same way about my partner in the relationship. Again, the changes aren’t major, but they do happen.

For the people around us, I gather we act a bit strangely. Well, let’s go with ‘bit’. After a Depression episode, we seem unable to settle down to do the things we usually do and we seem to adjust our minds frequently. I gather this constant adjusting can be quite annoying – what is it that we really like? – what is it that we really want to do? – can’t we just stick to one thing?

For those of us who are coming out of Depression, we can’t really change what this subtle change of self that is happening. But we can set up coping mechanisms that mitigate the headaches they cause.

One mechanism is Setting Goals. If we write down the things we want to get done, both now and the future, we’ll be able to fix them in place. And we can post these goals on the fridge where our parents, friends, partners, etc. can see, so they can help us keep on track as we drift.

The second one is about Relationships. We do drift, so on one of those occasions when we are mostly stable, we need to sit with our partner and explain what can happen and how the both of us can develop strategies to mitigate the problems that will occur. I’ve written one set of mitigating mechanisms in Relationship Falling Apart: Do Not Give Your Partner Space.  [I have others to write still]

And we need to be aware of the drifting of our sense of self and our personality after Depression episodes. By being aware, we can take action to not have our personality / sense of self drift too much. In that way we can remain close to the person we dream to be.


Panadol (acetaminophen)

I’ve recently realised that one of the symptoms of Depression can be pain – usually in the form of headaches, but also in the form of generalised aching or tiredness.

You might think I’d have realised this before, like sometime over the last twenty years. But we aren’t always that observant, especially for things that we take for granted or which are so normal and everyday that we don’t really pay attention to them.

Anyway, it seems like pain accompanies Depression, and significantly, if we reduce or remove the pain, it can help with the Depression. I don’t think painkillers makes the Depression go away, but they help us feel better. And feeling better is a good thing.

In addition, if we reduce the pain of the headaches or general tiredness, we can focus better, which helps us organise to get more things done than we would otherwise do. And that’s also a good thing.


Well, actually, I have somewhat known about the pain – Depression connection. For many years I knew that if I started back to exercise after a period of doing nothing, or if I have a hard workout, then the tiredness or the aching could trigger a depression episode. And that if I took painkillers for the next day or so, I could avoid the depression episode.

While I have anecdotal evidence, I don’t have much hard evidence about whether the painkillers do anything, and I would suspect that even if they do, the amount of help would vary from person to person. But over the counter painkillers like Panadol are relatively safe and can be taken for a few days – that’s what we do when we have the flu.

If you are Depressed and still functional, but you are nevertheless finding it hard to get through the day because of tiredness or headaches, it may be worth trying a painkiller to see if it helps out.


The usual cautions apply. Take any drug only as directed, and check first to make sure it doesn’t interact with any other meds you might be taking, and that it doesn’t interact with any medical issues you have.

Note that I’m not using any complicated painkillers – I’m using Panadol (acetaminophen) and I won’t recommend any stronger painkillers, and I won’t recommend doses higher than that recommended on the box.