If somebody invited you to something you weren’t going to be around for, it would make sense to decline the invitation. A bit foolish to make plans you wouldn’t be there to partake in. A good definition of depression is the idea of there being no future. I believe this, because depression has been a topic of the last twelve years of my life, and I suppose aggressively the topic of the last 29 days of it.
It had been on the agenda to write something about depression for a while, but I didn’t think I’d be in its grips when I did. Irony or hiding behind humour hold no sway here. This is less a collection of memories of a mood, more a real time description of an experience. Writing this now it seems clear this is the only state in which I could do what I’m feeling justice, but the horse’s mouth also pulls hard on the reigns of the pointlessness of the whole thing.
It has made me stop short in my tracks five times in the last three days. Quacks call it a depressive episode. For me, it’s like pressing mute on joy.
I’m not sure what being suicidal really means. If it means not wanting to be alive then sign me up. If it means fantasising about ways in which to die, or making no plans because you have a strong conviction you’re not going to be around for any of them, or wishing the people who love you didn’t exist because you checking out would cleave their world in two, sign me up. But I don’t think it does.
I think there’s a chasm between not wanting to live and wanting to die. The absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. When you’re depressed, the idea of not existing for a while is a comfy place, to get the popcorn out and distract yourself from the pain of living. Same as drowning yourself in booze or fucking yourself up on drugs. But it’s a fantasy, a distraction.
The trouble with humans is that impulse can bridge that chasm very quickly. Not wanting to live can become dying in no time at all. Practically speaking, it’s not difficult. The tragedy of suicide is that nothing is more final and irreversible, you don’t get a take-back. If leaving the pain for a while was the objective, not existing forever is what you’re left with. What the people who love you are left with. Camus said it is braver to live than it is to kill yourself, but I’m not so sure.
My depression began proper in my early twenties. But I think it had been there in some form all along. My father recalls a sadness in my eyes as a child, I lived a lot inside my head, kept everything cooped up, I was melancholic on my birthdays. Things got quite bad at university, but it was aged 22 I remember the blinds came down hard. One February morning I got into bed and didn’t get out again until early summer. A doctor prescribed me anti-depressants, which seemed to help, and which I’ve been on some form of ever since.
From then on going forward, on average a couple of times a year, I seem to go under. A friend of mine came up with a name for it. He called it the quagmire. It’s a disappearing act. Until the worst of it is over, Domingo goes awol on the world. Those who don’t know me that well might be surprised, since I only really show my face when I’m feeling good. But the idea of going to the pub in the middle of an episode is as appealing as running naked down Oxford Street in mid December screaming out who wants a reload.
Depression is complex.
It’s an each to his own thing. Mine is different to yours is different to hers. But it’s important to point out to those who might not be aware, there can be little logic to it. From my experience it is not a causal thing. It isn’t tripping over and stubbing your toe. It’s your toe beginning to throb for no reason while you’re sat on the sofa. It’s not an unhappiness provoked by hard luck or a string of unfortunate events. It’s a land mine that goes off under your foot on a beautiful summer’s day.
To accept I’m not responsible for my depression is something I find pretty hard. People with a healthy degree of self-loathing don’t need to search far and wide for who to pin the blame on. Personally, it takes those closest to me to remind me the quagmire is not my fault. The first person I’d spoken to in a week was my brother, when he called me three days ago. When I told him how I was feeling he listened, paused, and seeming distinctly unfazed said to me mate that’s okay, that’s what happens to you sometimes. It’s been happening to you for ages.
Depression can get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Not unlike a tumour, it can grow if left unchecked. Because the outside world becomes so scary, isolationism is a coping mechanism. But the less you check in, the more stilted your truth becomes. You tumble further and further down the rabbit hole, further and further away from the light.
Like a domino effect, things you wouldn’t think twice about become progressively more difficult. Day to day things become terrifying. That terror you felt in the hush of the examination hall at school, walking down the rows between the desks scanning for your name, is the same terror I felt yesterday walking along the milk aisle at Tesco.
As reality drifts out of focus, tiny little actions take on a crazed importance. Little rituals are flotation devices in 50 year storms. Making myself a coffee in my favourite espresso cup is one of these. As stupid as that sounds, this action is often a last ditch attempt to save myself. Last week I could not for the life of me rationalise any point in the act of making a coffee to then drink it. Since I’ve been writing this, over the last two days, the coffee machine’s gone on again. It’s like a symbol of fighting back up towards the light.
There is no self-pity in depression. There is confusion, anxiety, inertia, self-loathing, panic, hopelessness, flat-lining, hours of staring into the middle-distance, but there is no self-pity. Self-pity in depression is like volunteering to down a pint of water while drowning.
You know that nervous excitement you get before a first date. The feeling you used to get before Sports Day at primary school. A kind of strangulating adrenaline in your gut, almost a nausea. Imagine you couldn’t switch that off. For some reason these are the physical symptoms of my quagmire. It’s what I feel right now, what I’ve felt day in and day out for 29 days. When I close my eyes at night, and in the morning, and when half asleep I grope through the dark to take a pee. People think a mental illness is only felt in the mind. This isn’t true. It’s also physical.
The misunderstanding of mental illness arises from the strength of its disguise. People find it difficult to believe what they can’t see. There is no leg in a cast. No loss of hair from chemotherapy. Just someone to the untrained eye doing an on-point impression of a wet blanket. Sitting here right now, hand on heart I can say I don’t think anyone would choose to feel like this. Last week I remember thinking this was never going to end. This was not a perception. It was my reality. The idea it might not be, is as difficult to get my head around as convincing the man in the street his entire reality and everything he knows to be true, is itself make-believe.
I read a parable once about a man who envisions a glittering future for himself. He works his way inch by inch towards this glittering future, and one day it presents itself to him at last at the top of a long staircase. He packs up the contents of his old life, puts on his best threads, and starts climbing. As he reaches the top of the staircase, he sees his path blocked by a huge security guard, who holding his massive arm out, point blank refuses to let him pass.
Despite lengthy protestations the guard stands firm. He tries again the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and the security guard is always there, blocking the top of the staircase, the only path to the man’s idealised future, pinning him to the shackles of his old life.
The point of the parable is this.
There is only one character in this story. The security guard and the man are the same person. The security guard is the glitch, the fog inside the man’s own head that is barring his own path and stopping him moving forwards. It is something within him that is getting in the way of his glittering future. The reason I mention the parable is because I want to make it clear that this thing stopping the man in his tracks, whatever it is, it’s not depression. Depression is not the security guard.
Depression can make the staircase five times longer, or make the man especially heavy-legged on the climb. It can serve to stall or delay the glittering future, but is does not bar you entry from it. One of the most important and difficult things to remember is that the depressive still has the power to affect their life, even in the deepest darkest grips of it.
Russian people don’t believe in the idea of being too cold. They believe you’re not wearing enough clothes. The Russians can’t change their sub-zero winters, and I’ve learnt I can’t halt the onset of my quagmire. But we can both do things that protect us against the full force of the gale. I can keep active. I can distract my mind with work. I can choose not to self-medicate with shit that in the long run will only make me feel worse. I can try to eat healthily and do my best to take exercise. When I’m at my worst the futility of these things seem insurmountable, and to lead myself almost blindly into them is all I can do.
And yet fail repeatedly.
Columbo would be into this next bit.
There is… one more thing.
Over the past few weeks I’ve realised the most important thing we can do, is talk about it. To share the weight of whatever is going on inside our heads, with others. We can get together and lend each other our ears, and just listen. Actually listen. Much of the time people don’t want advice. All they want is an ear. If you do get the opportunity to chew someone’s ear off, make sure you offer yours in return. If writing this is anything, it’s an encouragement to communicate. To look into the eyes of the person next to you and ask them how they are. Tell me how you’re doing. And once they’ve muffled a reply, slowly repeat the question again.
I think you’ll get a different answer the second time you ask.
There isn’t a person on this planet that doesn’t have something worrying them. We all got beef. Everyone has a humungous sirloin steak slapping them across the face always. And it makes us feel very alone. But the antidote to loneliness is meaningful connection. Asking for help is an action of self-respect. It means you mean something to yourself. Admitting you’re ill means you think you’re worth saving.
It’s the pretending we’re okay that really fucks us.
This last month has been horrible. As I said it’s been like pressing mute on joy. Happiness doesn’t reign here. Neither have I felt incredibly sad. Just one long unmoving flat-line. An interior voice shitting on all my plans. Bulldozing my future and pouring cement over the rubble. Pushing away the people I love and the people who love me. In the end, depression is like some inconsistent stick of 90s chewing gum. Horrible to chew alone on, day after day. But for some reason much more bearable when shared.
The reason it has taken me three days to write this, is because I keep telling myself it isn’t worth it. It feels like one long overshare that I’ve talked myself out of continually. But this is the reason I need to write it. Depression is twice as common in women as it is in men, and yet men are three times more likely to kill themselves because of it. I wonder why that is.
What I’ve just written is the most I’ve told anyone about my depression. Which makes me feel a little bit sick. I don’t know if people will look at me differently if they read this. I don’t know if writing this in retrospect will feel like I’ve lost something. That I’ve let something out of the bag. I’ll no longer be able to go awol and pretend I’m fine. But then again, most of the people who know me already know about my quagmire. Just perhaps not the extent of it. One thing I know is I’ll have got closer to running out of things to hide. Which is a good thing, I think.
No secret is as bad as the hell you construct inside your own head.
A guy called Matt Haig wrote a book on depression called Reasons to Stay Alive. This guy suffered from depression for most of his adult life, and came very close to throwing himself off a cliff when he was 24. Below he writes his suicidal-self at the time a list of ten reasons not to jump, ten reasons to keep on trucking. This is the tenth.
He also wrote the words:
Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.
For me that was one of the best things I could’ve read. To remember that this thing inside my head can often be found speaking out of its arse. W H Auden once said if you take away my demons, you’ll take away my angels too. This might sound hypocritical, but I don’t hate my depression. And I wouldn’t necessarily live my life over without it, given the choice. We are the product of all the moments of our lives. If you took away my depression I wonder how much of the good stuff would be deleted along with it.
Depression isn’t all bad. The flip-side of it can be pretty incredible. The benefit of seeing through a glass darkly is that when finally the light comes in, shit gets colourful very quickly. Speak to anyone who suffers from it and ask them about the extent to which they can make themselves happy.
As bad as things have gotten in the last few weeks, maybe the storm clouds are parting. I don’t think I could have written this two weeks ago. I would’ve sat in front of my computer for two hours without even realising it was out of battery. To go back to where I started, on the question of not wanting to be alive. As helpful as this reverie might’ve been when things were very bad, what I’ve realised in the last month is that I’m really not going to kill myself. Don’t worry mummy. Not this minute. You might not want to be here very much right now, but let’s not go overboard.
It is passing, it seems. There’s an out. Somewhere up there is the crack of light inside the snow drift. The house fly knocking all morning against the window is moving ever closer to the open latch. And out into the spring air. Life is waiting for you. Camus was right after all. It is braver to live. But it’s also a lot better. I said before that the absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. But in some cases the absence of one thing can only ever mean the other. When you remove death from the equation, the only thing you’re left with is…
I can feel now there’s some living to be done.
Why not get busy doing that.