Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I often write about depression and mental health, whether through non-fiction, confessional pieces (rare), or fictional stories highlighting the absurdity of life and the fragility of mind (common); I feel it is important to discuss such issues, and in doing so, I hope to make sense of them some day, and in turn understand my life — this is one of the rarer confessional pieces.
Depression sucks. It really fucking sucks. It slams you to the floor and kicks you around until you plead for more. Twenty years ago, I spent a few months in hospital recovering after it pushed me over the brink — I have been struggling with it ever since. I was startled to see so many people in a similar condition — some worse. Figures suggest that one in four people have experienced mental illness. In a normal, fully occupied family saloon, that means one person has had mental health difficulties. I’m not saying every family unit has a member who has experienced difficulties, but it gives you a startling picture of how common it can be.
Depression makes everything difficult. Everything. It arrives seemingly without reason, and its effects are devastating. I felt it last night. It is still here this morning. Depression is sneaky, it engages in guerrilla tactics, it crawls through the undergrowth and lunges. I remember looking at a small stain on the floor last night thinking I should wipe it, but the thought became the most difficult thing. And everything else soon fell on top, every thought and feeling like great boulders from the sky. The thought of eating, drinking, rising, pissing, sleeping, waking, thinking, everything became difficult. I don’t know why it happened. It just did. And now I’m suffering.
Imagine a bottle filled with the most glorious, colourful, magical concoction, it sparkles and fizzes, it has a light of its own, when you drink it you are in love — let’s call it ‘joy’; now imagine a great selfish, hulking beast comes out of nowhere, it stamps and shakes the ground, roars, snatches the bottle with terrifying hands, and tips out all the joy, because if it can’t drink it nobody can. Depression turns you into that bottle, empty, held in the shadow of a beast; strewn on the shore, wishing for the tide to wash you away.
I can’t cope currently. I want to quit. I desire release. There I’ve said it. I feel like a failure. In everything. Depression chains you up, it binds and gags you with fears, voices oscillate inside, telling you how pathetic you are, reminding you how you will never be any good. Even a lifting of a finger can seem heavy, filled with dread, and imbued with thousand unpleasant consequences. So you do nothing. Depression paralyses like that. It keeps you locked in a state of inaction, where you can do nothing but watch time tick and mock. It is absurd. But this is what it does. Writing this is difficult, I am forcing myself, but I feel I need to communicate this right now. That maybe someone, somewhere may gleam a little understanding, and feel a little less alone. And for having shared it, I will be less lonely in this condition also.
I am the worst father, son, lover, husband, friend, person, creature in the world right now. I am brimming with self-loathing because I am weak for letting it get to me. I should have fought it. I should be better than this, I should know better by now etc. etc. I am emptied of joy and purpose. Suddenly my novel tastes insipid, my dream of writing a rotting albatross, my studies meaningless — life also. I should have felt its creep, I should have killed it in its sleep before it had a chance to kill me. I only have myself to blame.
I have considered going to the doctor and getting anti-depressants, but I would rather not. I have a love-hate relationship with those drugs. I lost ten years of my life to them. In my experience, the side-effects were often more terrible and absurd than the condition itself — insomnia, loss of appetite, over-eating, over-sleeping, night terrors, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, memory loss — the side effects were like a whole new, fog-filled condition. For many, such drugs can be a wonderful way out. But I am not one of them. My condition is too ingrained now — it already was by the time I first sought treatment. I am it. We are one. Depression has altered my brain’s chemistry.
But all is not lost. Something can reverse it. It is called mindfulness. It has been scientifically proven to reverse and ‘reprogramme’ the detrimental effects of depression. But we can only do it by losing control; by stopping the fight, and let it wash away.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation and has been the only way I’ve been able to cope with my pain over the past decade — that and the love of my wife. I regret not discovering it sooner. I often wonder how different my life could have been if I did. Mindfulness teaches us many things. Primarily, it reminds us to remain in the present, and not get swept away into the painful past, or fearful future. Worrying is a symptom of depression, before we know it we’ve been swept from the shore, drowning in the sea — the only thing guaranteed is the here and now. It also teaches self-kindness and forgiveness. Chasing our emotions for instance, and trying to grab something abstract like sadness or fear and squeeze the life out of it, in an attempt to obliterate, and therefore quell the pain is counter-productive. We just tire ourselves for little benefit — like chasing the wind.
I always forget this because it feels natural to fight and chase something that threatens us. We are overcome by that millenia old ‘fight or flight’ instinct, which helped our Neanderthal ancestors kill those sabre toothed predators. It seems right to take revenge, to chase it down, grab it by the gnarly neck, kill it, and shout: ‘leave me the fuck alone you fucker!’ It’s your life after all. But we are not Neanderthals, and fighting and flying doesn’t work with this beast. We just get ourselves more angry for no reason.
So what do I do when I can no longer cope and want to give up? Nothing. I let go and stop wishing for things to be different. Mindfulness teaches us to let the storm pass — because it will — and to allow the grey clouds to reveal again the sky. It is not our fault, we are not our emotions; we are bigger, more complicated than just a few dark, scary clouds that consume the light; we are the sea and the sky, the mud and the flowers, the rain and the sun of our lives.
With this in mind, what are we fighting then but ourselves? I have a confession to make. I lied. Depression is not the great hulking beast I made it out to be, it is more akin to a child that kicks and screams because it feels scared and lonely because it doesn’t know how to cope. It then follows that we should treat it with kindness, not brutality; we embrace it with benevolent arms, not beat it with angry fists. Sadness is as much a valid part of us as happiness is, without accepting its uncomfortable presence, we will struggle to accept ourselves.
Yes, unhappiness is dark and terrifying, it’s unpleasant and unpredictable, it makes you want to run and hide, it makes you want to cry and die. But by becoming mindful of it, you can start to accept it as something that comes and goes like the tides of the sea. Stop the fight, breathe it all in, open your arms, surrender to be complete. And remember that if you want a beautiful garden, shit helps roses grow.