While having coffee with a long-term friend and playing catch-up, I told her that I had been battling with severe depression. To her credit, she did not respond the way most people respond when faced with a depressive: like a slug that has been sprinkled with salt. She actually wanted to talk about it.
Which was refreshing – and unusual.
Most people recoil at the thought of talking about depression. Mention in a gathering that you are clinically depressed, and the space widens perceptibly around you, like germs in a petrie dish when you introduce a dot of penicillin.
So most of our conversation was taken up my revelations about what depression actually is. Until I got it myself, I had no idea.
It is not, as most people believe, simple misery. When you have clinical depression, you are not just a wet sponge that drips all over people, bewailing your fate. You are not going to corner people at parties, clinging to their extremities so that they can’t get away, and list your anguishes in exquisite detail while their eyes glaze over and they consider chewing off a limb in order to escape.
And you are not – repeat not – the undead: prowling corridors, carrying a miasma of infectious gloom that spreads like ink dropped in water and turns those around you into lumbering zombies.
Instead, depression is an actual condition with a biological cause (such as a chemical or hormonal imbalance, perhaps triggered by some event)* and it is debilitating. While it does different things to different people to different extents, it is mainly about despair and fear.
In my case, I spent two years paralysed by fear.
A simple thing – like the phone ringing, the doorbell chiming, a new e-mail in my inbox, the idea of stepping outside, an invitation to a party, the prospect of a person arriving at my door – these things filled me with sick terror. All I wanted to do is climb under the duvet and pull it over my head.
And in between the enlivening episodes of sheer dread, there was a wasteland of despair. Everything was a massive effort – getting up, brushing teeth, putting on clothes, making coffee, trying to work, taking a walk in the garden, having a conversation. Doing anything apart from sheer daily survival was out of the question.
Strangely enough, it took almost a year before I realised I was depressed. For months, I had been slowly sinking into quicksand without any clear idea of what was happening. I felt nauseous at the thought of answering the phone or reading an e-mail, but at first I thought it was indigestion and the remedy would be to eat something (I got quite fat).
I actively avoided any form of personal contact, but I work from home anyway so it took a while before I noticed that I was going out less and less – a self-imposed lockdown. Any attempt to involve me in any social activity was quickly rebuffed and – to my relief – the invitations stopped.
The work dried up. I did not go looking for more. Eventually my days consisted of watching movies online (I do not remember what I watched), reading books (no recollection of what I read) doing puzzles and Sodoku and crosswords. They were safe, they did not threaten.
I had decided, in an offhand kind of way, that I should commit suicide. Not so much out of sadness, but more in the line of thinking that the oxygen I was breathing could be better used by someone else. I was just taking up space at the expense of someone more deserving.
It is perhaps ironic that planning to kill myself was the one thing that gave me a sense of purpose: it kept me entertained for hours. Two things prevented me in the end: the question of who would feed my cats when I was gone, and the thought that any of these actions required some kind of effort. And any effort was just too much.**
The biggest problem with a depressive is that they behave in a manner that is completely counter-intuitive. They crave help and support but just as vehemently reject any efforts to help. The best remedy is human contact, but they actively avoid it. Most people give up and walk away from a depressive, because they are almost impossible to approach.
I cannot remember what woke me up out of my black stupor. Perhaps it was that I needed a haircut, but the thought of making an appointment – actually talking to someone! – and actually – even worse, horror! – going out! Something in my lizard brain must have stirred at this point, and raised a hand to indicate that something was wrong.
In my case, the first step was to realise that I was, actually, depressed.
Once I had made the connection, I began researching depression on the Internet. And was immeasurably cheered by the realisation that I had a sickness, just like flu. It was not my fault. It was treatable. It was common.
By sheer effort of will, I made an appointment with a psychologist. I devoted an entire day to getting ready for that appointment – shower, get dressed, eat something, plan the route, make my way down the path to the car, drive to the office.
To be honest, I don’t think the psychologist said or did anything that really helped. This is not to diss the profession, but I doubt that she could have done or said anything – the point was not the consultation but making the effort, taking that first step to break the downward spiral of isolation and despair. And realising that depression is not a personality defect or a genetic abberation, it is an ailment. There are people in professions – like psychology – that have studied these things, and have come up with treatments. In other words, it is a thing.
And when you suffer from depression, you become part of a very big club (it is estimated that 20% of all adults worldwide suffer from depression. Take that, COVID-19!)
From that turning point, there was no-where to go but up. I got myself onto a mild herbal anti-depressant. I began forcing myself to talk to people, actually going out. I discovered, to my surprise, that there were some nice people out there, they were not all from an alien reptilian race. I found, even more surprisingly, that I was still able to work.
A peculiarity of depression is that it seems to communicate itself to the universe, which promptly responds by throwing bad news at you all the time: pets get run over, a storm damages your roof, your car hits a huge pothole, appliances break down, loved ones pass on, you seem to attract bad luck. When I began to emerge from the black hole, this luck changed. I started getting tentative offers of work, the invitations resumed, people I had not spoken to in years suddenly made contact. And the best of all, was on one Spring morning when I went out into the garden, saw a blossom opening on the gardenia, and felt … it was the strangest thing… a feeling of joy.
I am fine now, thanks for asking. It has been four long years. I am still on mild anti-depressants, I still have to force myself sometimes to go out, and I still have a lurking fear that a tentacle will come out of the telephone speaker, or a stranger in the supermarket will rip off their face and lunge for my vitals, but I manage to keep those fears at bay.
The worst thing about this whole episode is the feeling that you cannot talk about it. You don’t want to risk the look of alarmed concern, the ‘back off slowly’ response.
We need to talk about it. Depressives are not mad, they are not threatening, they are simply lost.
While I was talking to my friend, she concluded our conversation with the comment: “You’re the writer. Tell your story. But make it funny.”
It is difficult to make depression funny. You do not tell jokes about depression, you do not try to jolly depressives along, you cannot laugh it off.
But I have tried to lighten it up. Maybe it is time we laughed about it: not at depressives, but with the survivors.
Some very famous people suffer from depression. Read about them here.
* In my case, I strongly believe that my depression was triggered by emissions from an illegal cell mast that was built right outside my house and in line with my bedroom window. Extensive scientific research shows that depression is one of the by-products of microwave poisoning (along with other horrors for those who are sensitive to radiation), because it interferes with your body’s production of serotonin and melatonin. Unfortunately it is cumulative and irreversible.
** My experience had overtones of the story in the wonderful book A Man Called Ove. Read it.