Making Rainbows Out of Something Painful

A six week slide off the edge of the earth

Hello again.

It’s been a while. What do you want from me. What will you take from me, this time. I know something I didn’t know before. You aren’t me. You are only happening to me. I will twiddle my thumbs and you will pass. This is what I’ve learnt. You are happening to me. But you aren’t me.

I am more than you.

*

I looked down at my cactus, once green and plump, now purple and shrivelled. Was this some sort of winter hibernation mechanism, I wondered. It looked more like it was dying. All the life sucked out of it. It looked like I felt, purple and dry and far from life.

I mustered the energy to hit the plant shop, wondering if they’d refund me, I didn’t do much wrong, I told myself. Holding the cactus up to show the girl at the counter, she looked at me aghast, like I was some sort of plant molester. What did you do to it? I stared back blankly. Your cactus is dying, she said flatly. I walked back from the shop under the cloud of my own mood, thinking how on top of my life being a total dead-end no-show, I was a murderer.

For close to two months I’ve felt like this. Unlike my cactus, I don’t quite have the energy to die. I just feel inanimate, unplugged from the wall. But I must be coming out of it, I haven’t been able to write for weeks, and now here I am, tapping something out, thinking maybe my only option is to write my way out of this.

How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.

David Foster Wallace

My friend Alfie gave me a little picture book once, I Had A Black Dog it was called. About a man and his depression. It showed the depressed person being accompanied by the symbol of his mood, a black dog. It was very moving and accurate.

Inside he’d written ‘I’m always here brother’ and then below ‘… watching.’ I went to the window and looked out anxiously, I was taking no chances. My isolation was real. Isolation, I have come to know, is a prerequisite when you feel depressed. Seeing nobody is something you gradually slip into, that then becomes the portcullis to your fortress.

I flicked through the pages of the book and understood something. If I covered over the dog with my hand, all that was left was the man looking miserable. This is what it feels like, I thought. Just somebody alone, under the weight of a force pushing down on them, without reason, day after day after day.

The episodes I have suffered on and off from since I was 22, never had specific reasons for them. No-one had died, no bad breakup, just a feeling that would come out of leftfield and smother me for a couple of months, until like a cloud it would pass on. My therapist thought it was endogenous, that it came from within me, my mother disagreed, if you were busy and charged with responsibilities this wouldn’t happen, her eyes would burn across the table.

Both parties have a point.

Over time, my understanding of depression is more or less this. Highly sensitive people have pores that are always open, to information coming into them from all angles. Sensitive people, a poet once said, are constantly being beaten up by things insensitive people can’t see. It means the world is always informing you. Which when you are on top of things is unbelievably wonderful. But when your shield is down, it’s too much. And it doesn’t stop.

Perhaps, I wondered, depression is a way of shutting you down until you can recover. Like what the ground does in winter. A state of relief until the business of regrowth begins. Like what my cactus was doing. Oh no wait, my cactus was dying.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.

Emily Dickinson

I’d felt a mood shift in January, thought it was just a classic January blip. I stopped myself falling a number of times before I did. But it was persistent and it kept on at me, tap tap tapping at my temple. At some point I must’ve laid down my arms, and it hit me like a truck.

There is a downward slope to depression before you hit the bottom. Things begin to lose their meaning, their point. You almost relish the first stages, a tired middle finger up to the world. I stopped writing. Stopped exercising. When your things to do list comprises of ‘WRITE BOOK’, and you read the stuff you’ve written and your addled brain proclaims it’s garbage, things begin to snowball.

Time started to flow strangely. My short-term memory went. Dreams got freaky. Anxiety ramped up. I wanted to sleep, a lot. Waking hours were mean and unforgiving. Depression strips you of the ability to give or receive joy. I stopped making plans. What use would I be in company. I stopped listening to music. What right did I have to feel the joy music might elicit. This is how a depressed brain talks to you.

Instead, I listened to information. More aptly put, I blanketed myself in background noise.

Is there no way out of the mind?

Sylvia Plath

Years ago I would pass a man on Euston Rd who spent all day lying on a bench listening to a tiny transistor radio blaring out at full volume, talking to himself manically. My mother would leave the radio on all night sometimes to keep her company during bouts of insomnia. These were worrying signs, I had joined the party. I’d listen to the radio long into the night. It is clear to me why. I couldn’t be in my head. It was one of two things, raging or on mute, a cocktail of unfeeling and too much feeling. Certain of one thing. No good would ever come.

I got aggressively into football, tactics, fixture lists, I’d do intense calculations with the league table. I got into Rodeo. Learnt the names of the rankest bulls, the top bull-riders. Anything to deflect my brain from talking to me, reminding me how dead-end things were. Somewhere I had read the word enthusiasm meant ‘to be filled with God’s spirit’. In the silence between the radio’s pauses came the news God’s spirit had left the building.

From time to time I would self-medicate, get drunk and the rest, and for some hours it would bring me out of my stupor and I would message people and that involvement once again in the world was positive. But even if I felt back to normal for an afternoon, it wouldn’t last, the feelings weren’t coming from inside the mainframe.

Once in the throes of a depression, my experience has been I must wait for it to subside, however long that may be. Getting drunk or high was an artifice, the shift back to life was far deeper and more fundamental and would take much longer, and when it came there would be no going back. I was wary of false dawns, they seemed like news too good to be believed.

*

It doesn’t thrill me to write all this.

It brings it out from inside me. It makes it real. It is uncomfortable. When I was feeling rubbish I would gravitate towards accounts of other people feeling the same. A tennis player admitting to darkness and drug abuse, a 19th century Russian author hunting without a gun for fear of what he might do alone in the woods, Fleabag staring into the middle-distance saying she just wanted to cry all the time.

These people existing was a balm, their stories were company.

There was another thing. Meditation had taught me there is a place that exists beyond thought, outside the mind, where we are more than just the whirring of our brains. Thinking maps the contours of the world around us, by way of thoughts that appear like magic tricks inside our heads, but they really are just stories we tell ourselves. With daily practice I could access a place outside my ‘thinking brain’, a place of calm, of un-thought. Where I noticed the separation of perception and reality. Depression being an illness of thought, this was useful information.

Over the course of last year something else happened. A newly formed relationship with myself that was kind and accepting and didn’t, as past episodes had, make me the obvious culprit for my low mood, had brought me to a place of peace, and so even when I was bad, I was dimly aware, as never before, of a glittering place I might have access to once this thing ran out of steam.

When I could tap into the un-thinking control panel, it reminded me my brain was doing its best to trick me, it was sick, it fibbed, and lied, turned down the contrast and desaturated the colour on everything. But it was just thought. Thoughts that were happening to me.

They say the real work of depression exists outside of it. In doing the things that stop you from falling so hard. In learning how to contain low mood states before they become two month-long leering monsters.

My mother was right. If there is a place one absolutely must be at 8am every morning, contractually, to take your mind off the inevitable discomfort of being alive, perhaps one wouldn’t fall as far. A lifestyle of casual freelancing and mustering the courage to write a book did not provide this type of flotation device.

But knocking, it had come.

And there was another type of thinking too. One which asked: what are these states setting into motion? Depression is a lady dressed in black, wrote Jung. Invite her in, tell her to sit a while, ask her what she has to say. I wondered what this process might be stirring in me, whether this was a seasonal thing (in the literal manner of seasons), a sort of great breathing in, before a breathing out. It is not so far-fetched. Apocalypse is the Ancient Greek word for revelation.

Five years ago was the first time I wrote about depression, a cat out of the bag moment. It felt scary, but people responded to it in a way I had not anticipated. In it I stuck Matt Haig’s 10th ‘reason to stay alive’, a list he wrote to his suicidal younger self to stop him from jumping off a cliff.

You forgot number 11, said Jules. It’s not what the world has to give to you, it’s what you have to give to the world. He went on to list some things the world would not have, should Domingo choose to not be in it.

He was right. Although we might deny it, we are more involved in life than we think, more connected. When you remove yourself from things, in your isolation you tell yourself at least you’re doing no harm, that the world goes on the same. But it doesn’t. It is stripped of your energy. Your life force. The question you might ask, the joke you might send, the shoulder you offer, the ear you lend, the smile, the nod, the thank you, the tiny little sparks of energy you put out into the world that change it.

When I am down I am a non-existent family member, a shit friend, a ghostly neighbour, and whatever this process might be regenerating in me, the world loses access to me, the enormous humming organism loses a tiny microscopic thing. Which is not nothing. And that is sad. You could argue it is my obligation to try and stay undepressed. Not for my wellbeing, for all you fools, for the world around me. Worst of all, while one is there, alone, taking time out from life, depression is taking time out of you.

Money in tha bank, sneakers on ma feet.

Asaviour ft Jehst

One day, a week or so into March, staring out of the window a feeling something like a sadness flooded through me, and I got my jacket and went out, even though the world was scary and all eyes felt on me and the thought of bumping into my neighbour was terrifying. I surprised myself.

Walking back from the shops I realised I was done with it. I was sick of the sickness. A month ago that emotion would’ve floored me, but I was over that part. I was on the way back, even if faintly, even if I felt shit and my skin felt like tracing paper, I couldn’t go back to inanimateness. And this feeling I was feeling, at least I could feel that I felt it, which meant there must be someone living inside there.

The sunlight poured through the flat, exposing the dirt and dust I had not been able to see. When you’re ready for the light, you take stock of the work that has to be done. I heard a rustle, God’s spirit re-entering the building.

*

For four days straight spring has graced us with twelve degree sunshine. The magnolia is hitching up her skirt, the sky is a piercing blue the colour of a Davidoff Cool Water ad. I’m listening to tunes again, walking to the shops. I look at the mural under the overground bridge and smile. For me? Guys you shouldn’t have.

On a Saturday after rain we go shoot hoops, Ab gets 3 in a row and proclaims through the morning air THASS WHAT AM TALKIN BOUT. We cross town and catch Encanto at the Picturehouse. I well up three times and am close to breaking point once. I do my best to hold it in, thinking I’ll scare him. But it is back in the building, the life force is flooding in, I can feel it, I haven’t cried in months.

One morning I return to the plant shop, the poor cactus I murdered needs replacing. I walk back down Dalston Lane with a little bonsai pine. I like it a lot, makes me want to tend to it, channel my inner Mr Miyagi.

In a mood a few years back, I’d mustered the energy to go see a friend. Making our way down the hill I said to him, I suppose even people who have their lives most together think their shit is a mess. Mate, he said, seriously, nobody thinks you have your life together. We cracked up hard, in the depths of that pain something could still get in. Guy said something else I still remember. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s just dumb to feel sad about feeling sad.

Being the depression guy doesn’t sit very well with me, I want to be more than that. Some of history’s coolest cats are lifelong depressives, and we know about them because they did great things, in spite of their malaise. In the end I decided to write this because it would’ve helped me to read it. And also I’ve discovered, writing has this strange way of saving me. It reminds me to not forget what I have learned, to hold onto it, to keep it safe.

You are happening to me. You are not me.

I am more than you.

Thanks fam. I needed that.