An audio version of this post is available here.
You can’t write about anyone else’s experience of depression, only your own. I got off twitter as soon as the S-word started being bandied about, in connection with Robin Williams. I don’t like being around it. It gives me the heebies. Not in the “I’m a well person and it makes me feel a bit OMG-AWKS” way, but in the “I’ve lost too many friends to this, and lived with it” way. Depression is fluff on the needle. It is the needle bouncing back into the same half-bar of the same song again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. It is a thought virus your immune system cannot shake. It is the ultimate TSR programme, idling away, idling away your hours, days, weeks, months, years, relationships, life. It is a stain that bleeds through everything you lay over it. It is the black hole into which everything is dragged, it sucks the reassuring words from the mouths of people saying them to you, sucks them and crushes them before you ever hear what they were, while you cling desperately to the ever drawing edge, literally fighting for your life.
“Get help,” they say. Have you tried it? I tried everything. There isn’t help, not on the NHS. Maybe there is for your depression. There wasn’t for mine. Well meaning people say well meaning words. You don’t hear them. You can’t feel people’s proximity. There is no connection. “Oh reach out”, they say. And you do. And it doesn’t help (it made things worse, perversely, for me. Underlined my inability to connect with people, underlined my failure to be, generally speaking, a human).
I was depressed by the time I was 6, and then it just carried on. Since I didn’t know anything else, depressed was normal. Sometimes it was worse than others. But it was always there. It was there when I slept. It was there, waiting for me like the world’s worst lover when I woke.
And then, last year – at the end of last summer – it stopped. The shouty voice stopped. You know the fellow: wakes you up with his list of criticisms. The things you did wrong or did not do. How ugly you are. What a failure you are. The lists of catastrophes that are hanging, Damoclean, above you. The merest breath of air will bring them down and they are of your making, and why didn’t you do better? Why are you so afraid of everything, so pathetic? Other people manage all this. HERE IS YOUR TO DO LIST. WHY AREN’T YOU DOING IT YET/BETTER? Shouty voice was a palimpsest of noise, criticisms written over criticisms. One voice screaming many different things, all simultaneously. Shouty voice was overwhelming, unquietable, as much a part of my sensory tapestry as the unnoticed rattle of the trains, the trains. The trains.
He just stopped. I can remember waking up to silence. Silence. I still marvel at it every day, especially in the mornings, and at night.
This left a strange thing in my head: like a set of rail tracks. The train wasn’t running on them any more. But they were still there, gleaming like … scars. And I would run my thoughts down them, down those shouty rails, because that was all I knew. But it was like going back to a cafe you’ve sat in with your best ever abusive love, except he’s not there any more, you’re only imagining his voice. It was no comfort, it felt like a bad habit. It was definitely a choice I was making, now, to be there on those deserted lines, hunting for a familiar beating, and so I decided to make other choices. I stood back. Weeds grew across the tracks. They’re still there. You can’t see them now. But don’t walk there because you can trip over them.
So that realisation (AFTER the shouty voice had gone) that walking those tracks was a choice, was the first wave.
The second was the realisation (months later – it took months for the grass to grow over those tracks), that I was choosing bad company in order to prop up the terrible opinion shouty voice had had of me. And since shouty voice had now gone: that was another choice I could make differently. I did. Immediately.
That felt good. Again, it took some time to get used to that new choice: the existence of it, the execution, the consequences, internal and external.
Most recently I realised something quite unnerving. Until I was nearly 44 I knew how I would die. And now I don’t. I haven’t quite resolved myself to this new thing yet. Weirdly, this new thing is terrifying. The idea of being dead was my solace. The knowledge I could make that choice, that that was MY CHOICE, was my only real refuge from some terrible times. Now I wonder how I will die: heart, cancer? Any of the million things that carry people off. They all seem so much more painful and brutal than what I had planned. And yet now I have let my own end out of the box I had it trapped in, and watched it scamper back into the wild (to visit me at its leisure, in whatever form it chooses), I find that that difficult resolution of the self to the idea of uncontrollable death, is about life. It is about the moment that exists now: not what you are doing in it, but your presence in it, how that feels, how you fill it with self and not-self.
These changes come like waves up a beach (as with all internal narratives), and there are many more to come. Some I have an inkling about, but many are invisible to me right now. Sometimes, when I am tired or hungry, I hear shouty voice, as if he is calling to me from outside the house. But I do not choose to invest that observation with any emotion. He remains without… without me.
I do not know why nearly 40 years of depression stopped, stopped dead in the course of a couple of weeks. I do not know whether it will come back. It might. I hope it does not. But I am not afraid of it. I am just enjoying the silence NOW.
I don’t have a magic wand to hand you. But here is a handful of slightly enchanted acorns I’ve found. Take what you want:
- I had been practising mindfulness for about 6 months before it happened. I still do. I recommend it. Did it cure me? I don’t know. Try it.
- The Samaritans are good, when you’re sliding down the lip of the black hole. Call them. They are kind. And they will call you back in the morning to check you are still alive. Which is a nice touch. Sometimes knowing someone will do that makes a colossal difference. And you can’t ask your loved ones to do it. It’s too heavy a burden.
- Try everything the NHS offers, but don’t get disheartened. They don’t have a magic wand either.
And if you need to think about ending it because having that option is sometimes the only way you can get through your day, think about it. But don’t do it.
Don’t do it.