Irrelevant as it may seem, depression is a topic that has floated around the video game circles I lurk in for a while now, but never broken the surface for long. I don’t have anything half as beautiful as Jenn Frank’s piece on death, but there is a lot I could say about my own experiences. So:
I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
And remember it fondly.—Fujiwara No Kiyosuke, I May Live On
Translated by Kenneth Rexroth
I was 19 the first time someone said “I love you”. I didn’t ask “what about your husband?”; I asked “why?”.
It wasn’t some vain attempt to fish for compliments. I honestly couldn’t get my head around the concept. She’d spent weeks being nice to me, even in front of other people, and until we kissed I had honestly assumed she was taking the piss.
It was that bad once.
Depression isn’t simple. It has many manifestations, and the efficacy of any given treatment can vary from person to person. It’s also poorly understood, woefully misrepresented in society at large, presents a wide range of common symptoms, and is often discovered far too late. I can’t tell you everything about depression, nor give you a definition that will either speak to all sufferers or explain it to those who’ve no experience of it, but speaking broadly, I can say this with confidence:
You insult us when you suggest otherwise. The whole problem with depression is that the part of you that pulls yourself together isn’t working. If you think you were depressed and you just pulled yourself together, hey, good for you, but that’s not a cure. I’m glad you got over whatever got you down, but if you wouldn’t take a post-remission dance around an oncology ward telling the other patients to just stop mitosing like you did because you’re so amazing, then don’t be that same arsehole to people with depression, alright?
People are different, physiologically and mentally. That’s about all I can tell you about other people’s depression. Beyond that all I can talk about is mine.
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames.-David Foster Wallace
Mine started with fear. I was raised to be afraid. There was anger and mood swings and that dim spectre of violence, and then there was no violence anymore, but endless years of doubt, mindfucking, and guilt.
At an early age, I missed the week of school when we started learning decimals. I came back and sat the test thinking it was for fractions. I, the leading boffin of the year, got 1 correct answer out of 43. But it was fine, funny even. The teacher said not to worry about it, so I went home and explained the whole thing to Mum as a funny story about an inconsequential misunderstanding (I may have put it like that, too; cf. “boffin”).
Her response was to panic, and start fretting over whether I needed extra tuition, did I need help at school? Is something wrong? Are you ill? WHAT IS IT THERE MUST BE THINGS WRONG BAD THINGS PROBLEMS ALWAYS BAD THINGS STOP. It was no use explaining (again) that the whole thing was a harmless, amusing mix-up.
And it applied to everything. Standing up to a bully (“You’ll get in trouble!”). My choice of secondary school (“It’s too big! They won’t care, you’ll be just a number!”). Buying a teacher a leaving card (“They’ll think you fancy her!”). Moving to Canterbury (“I saw on the news they were having riots down there, it’s not safe!”). In Canterbury. Canterbury. Jesus, to think that I actually listened to it. I didn’t even realise how pervasive that was until a few years ago. It’s become inextricable from my thought processes; I can talk myself out of just about anything.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.-Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse
You can’t out-reason it, because it’s not reasonable. You can be fully aware that what’s happening is irrational, and can tell yourself that all you like, but when your rational mind is saying one thing, and everything else is saying another, it’s not Professor Frink who gets the veto. Try telling yourself during those night terrors that the very notion that there’s someone in your room trying to kill you with an axe is ridiculous, when every other fibre of your being is screaming to get the fuck out it’s coming it’s coming get a fucking weapon hide run DO SOMETHING. Night terrors are great fun, by the way.
Try telling your lurching stomach that it’s not going to vomit because you really don’t want to vomit, and see how far that gets you. I know I’m depressed. I know I need to stop being depressed. And yes, after a lifetime of depression I can assure you that I have most certainly tried whatever half-baked bullshit you read off a newspaper before. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t still be depressed. Christ, half my problem right now is that I’ve avoided doing anything about my depression for years precisely because I don’t want to admit it.
And this is the crucial thing. I don’t want to be be depressed. Nobody does. I don’t want to have to dig through all the same old, tired shit about my dad and my lunatic mother’s arbitary obsessions (don’t get the sink wet! Put the extractor fan on, even if you’re making a goddamn sandwich! Don’t eat after an unspecified time that changes every night anyway! Keep the hall door open/closed/open/open/open/closed/you basically CANNOT WIN) turning my childhood into a rifle range, not to mention how utterly pathetic it sounds to lay a lot of issues at the door of your school. But when half a term in your life was saved by a passing off-duty nurse whose face you never saw because there was too much blood in your eyes after someone intentionally split your head open with a rock (an act the teachers called “teasing”) and that’s one of the less depressing things you remember, well, it’s not encouraging, is it?
But the real kicker is that… it’s all just such a damn cliché, y’know? Oh, a violent alcoholic father and a divorce and an insane control freak mother and the slow, inexorable death of your once-burning desire to learn and work hard and do well at things. Gosh, I certainly haven’t heard this story nine million times this week. Why waste their time? I already know where it comes from, so problem solved, right?
I told you I could talk myself out of things.
It is a pity that some human beings are not more transparent. If Mr. Polly, for example, had been transparent or even passably translucent, then perhaps he might have realised from the Laocoon struggle he would have glimpsed, that indeed he was not so much a human being as a civil war.-H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly
Dealing with depression is complicated because it doesn’t come alone. It’s not something you can isolate. Every other facet of your personality and your life is right there alongside it, woven into it like some miserable Bayeux account of your life, all severed friendship limbs and guilty extramarital Normans and kings who really need to get this arrow out of their eye before they can worry about undoing thirty years of damage.
Think about your own life – can you really just decide that today you’ll fix that one bad thing about yourself, and nothing else will get in the way?
Your mind is its own world, and you do not absolute authority over it. The USA can’t invade (convenient political bogeyman du jour – Ed) without every other country having something to say about it, and your inner monologue can’t just drop a nuke on the Axis of Woe and be done with it. If it were that simple it wouldn’t exist. Hell, it’s hard enough to acknowledge it at all. I’ve felt the same way for as long as I can remember, and the only reason I even know I’m depressed is that when reading an article on depression, I started crying for no reason and just couldn’t stop. And then I knew it was bad, because I almost never cry for myself. Other people, sure, but not for me.
Barring perhaps my very early childhood, I have never not been depressed. As far back as I can remember, it was there. When I was tired, I was depressed. When I was angry, I was depressed. When I was content, I was depressed. When I was proudly working at a place I still like to show off about, I was depressed. When I was grateful for the wonderful, beautiful people I can call friends, I was depressed. When I was in love, I was depressed.
Pain is always emotional. Fear and depression keep constant company with chronic hurting.-Siri Hustvedt, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves
Over a lifetime, it becomes part of who you are. Years younger, I was actively opposed to some things that might make me happier, because they were so antithetical to what I was used to. The me of fifteen years ago would hate me. The me of ten years ago would never forgive me for something I did nine years ago. The me of five years ago would see someone who’d done so little, and yet somehow aged so very much more than five years. But we’d all have that same lurking black dog, and like any dog it’s faithful to the bone.
Grow up poor and there’s always that poor kid in you, guilting you out for buying anything for yourself, hoarding money in lieu of having any kind of life at all (me), or going the other way and spending everything instantly on crap before it can be snatched away (my sister). Maybe it turns you into a dogmatic, overachieving business heavyweight, or maybe just nudges you to eat those bloody revolting “chinese ribsteak” things when every rational impulse is telling you they’re made of anuses and contain thrice their own mass in alarmingly orange grease.
Grow up depressed and it’s always there. Grow up poor, depressed, and goddamn Catholic, and it’s pretty incredible that there’s anything else to me but fear, confusion, and neuroses. Hell, it’s arguably even harder when you’re good at rational analysis, because that can come straight back at you in the other direction. I’ve always been unhappy. I was doing massively avoidant things when I was nine years old. I am on my own, I do a meaningless day job, I do nothing creative, I am no closer to fulfilling a fraction of my potential than I was x years ago. I am I am I am, and I think I’m just a fuckup therefore I am, and that’s just logic.
A very dear friend, who is far smarter than I, has a far worse struggle with this, precisely for that reason. I feel useless to her, unable to out-logic her and knowing how little good it does to be told that someone cares, or that things will get better, or that it hasn’t all been bad and blah blah blah I already know it doesn’t work. Nothing works, there is no cure, and love is most certainly not enough (that’s a central refrain from that tv series I’ve still not written. Might as well use it now, eh?). It’s a dog that never quite leaves you, and like any dog you just have to train it as best you can and hope it’s enough.
Johnson: “A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them.”
Boswell: “May not he think them down, Sir?”
Johnson: “No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness.”-James Boswell, Life of Johnson
About a year ago I read an outstanding thing by Paul Dean about suicide, and the Samaritans. About a year ago I was also feeling pretty great. I’d started a job that stimulated me, was feeling the benefit of the thyroxine I’d started six months earlier, I was going out every weekend (unprecedented), discovering whole new genres of music. I even went on dates, which may have been a first, since previously I’d just met people through work or being drunkenly shoved into bed with them by a mutual friend.
So all this combined made me feel pretty good for a few months, with even my oldest friends commenting on how different (good!) I seemed. For the first time, I felt ready to try working with the Samaritans – something I’d wanted to do since my teens. I went to an information day, passed the interview, and did extremely well on the first day of training. I liked it. I felt good about it. I wanted to keep it up.
When the second day of training came, I called in sick. I didn’t sleep all night, and I felt so lousy I cancelled it. The next session was months later. I did it again. In the intervening period, I did the same for work, too. My job had been rendered mind-numbing and pointless, but the truth is, I’ve done the same for every job I’ve ever had. Even the ones I loved. It’s not just work, either. I’ve done it for things I really wanted to do. A talk by prominent figures of the Egyptian Revolution. An expensive gig. An £800 History course. An appointment to get more post-operative medicine (the lack of which is probably why I still have sinus problems a decade later). More nights out with beloved friends than I can even remember.
I don’t know why it happens. I hate it. It ruins everything.
I don’t know what I expect from all this. Perhaps to get out of my comfort zone, and maybe make inroads into the writing I’ve been talking about for ten years. I tell myself I need to team up with someone to really come into my own, and it’s true that I’ve historically been at my best when supporting someone, and every ruler needed their right hand man, every hero their backup. There’s no shame in being part of something greater. I was an arrogant kid but am gradually learning the value of humility. But how much of that is just me avoiding things again? Maybe I’m just copping out and clinging to that because it’s easy to say you come up with good ideas but need someone to bounce them off, since as long as nobody shows up for bouncing, it serves as a Get Out of Life Free card.
My depression is very much the avoidant kind.
All those years, I thought it was normal to wake up in the morning and just see grey pointlessness. I thought it was normal to cry whenever you heard music. I thought it was normal to stare at people in the street and feel overwhelmed by sadness and futility at the sight of their pointless lives. I thought it was normal to avoid my friends most of the time. I’ve been seeing life in grey – like a rainy day in winter – and thinking this is what everybody sees. Happiness, whenever it has come, has been fleeting and so unfamiliar that it makes me sick with anxiety.-Zoe Lewis
It started in earnest at secondary school, I can tell that much. There I turned from the overachieving good-at-everything boffin to the utterly apathetic, do-nothing waster. It was a survival skill in that place, and I know only one person – who was there – who really understands it, but it proceeds roughly like this: In a broken, closed system, if you care you get frustrated. If you get frustrated you get angry. Get angry for long enough and you become numb. Go insane that way, or sidestep all that suffering and crush any urge to care.
Some people get hooked on that anger. Some get hooked on something more tangible. I dodged that bullet by a narrow margin – I was 18 when I started drinking, and was still 18 when I chose to pour half a bottle of vodka down the sink instead of turning into my father. May we all be so lucky.
It’s still the lesser evil, this path. My anger and crippling self doubt from one side is tempered by the knowledge of how much worse it would have been had Mum stayed with him. She divorced him when I was about seven. It’s the bravest thing anyone I know has ever done, and she did it for us – me and my sister. I don’t want to think about how much worse things could be if not for what she did. She broke a cycle that went back for many generations – a long line of child abuse and suicide (one who tried it in my bedroom) spanning generations and even oceans, that would be my fate if not for her. I love her very much, and I want to hit her with sticks.
But it was a trade. We escaped the drunken, violent influence and instead had years of what I will charitably call “confusing” parenting. Crying in the car before school, being yelled at for missing dad and told I shouldn’t want to see him. Being screamed at for four hours because there’s a fork in the sink. Buying a video game for a friend and being bitched at for a week because “he wasn’t worth it” (but if it was that other friend, it would be okay. Apparently friendships were not mine to choose). The exact same argument years later when I bought a girl I liked (who later became my first girlfriend) a £5 lava lamp for Christmas.
But I’ve learned how to paint my face
How to earn my keep
How to clean my kill.
Some nights I still can’t sleep
The past rolls back
I can see us still.
You’ve learned how to hold your own
How to stack your stones
But the history’s thick.
Children aren’t as simple as we’d like to think.-Dessa, Children’s Work
That argument ended with Mum finally telling me what Dad actually did, and then I was like great, now I hate him, feel guilty for resenting you, pissed off that you didn’t tell me this ten years ago, and jesus christ did we really just go from “you can’t spend five pounds on a girl” to “your dad used to (x)”, where (x) is something I am even now hesitating to spell out in public, even in the midst of the most personal thing I’ve ever put out there.
I am still proud of her for what she did. It’s the reason I care about other women so much, and why I’d gladly die rather than give up on that. I wish I didn’t love my family. It would make it all so much simpler.
I want to go back to the Samaritans when I’m ready, and I want to be a counsellor, like, a lot. I did a short course last year, and it was going really well until ho ho, guess what, you’re staying in bed today, pal, no more progress for you. Why don’t you write a poem about it, ha haaa.
Counselling did little; I ended up lying to the counsellor because the truth felt too pathetic. I’m not really convinced by the person-centred approach myself, having looked at it from both ends. It’s valid and I’m sure it does work for some people, but some people need to be dug out. If I sit in a room and just talk, I’ll burn through a hundred hours and not do much but spiral off into a tangent to the nth power about how Romeo and Juliet is actually a cautionary tale about shitty parenting. Although maybe that’s not a tangent after all and I went to that example precisely because of my current patterns of thought and OH JOY HERE COMES THE SECOND GUESSING, HOPE YOU HAVE ANOTHER HOUR.
“I enjoyed our talk in the car,” says Cello.
“Me too. I learned a lot.”
“Oh, I have no thing to teach you. It’s more a matter of throwing a little light on the knowledge you already possess, don’t you think? All of us have more rooms in our house than we inhabit.”-William Nicholson, The Society of Others
I’ve never self-harmed. In fact the first time a friend told me that she cut herself, I was shocked. The idea had simply never occurred to me, plus I’m a wuss when it comes to unsexy forms of pain. The one time I seriously considered suicide I was 15.
School had finished for good that day – they sent us home a week early at the last minute (so that people wouldn’t be able to spend the last week throwing flour at teachers, the miserable arseholes), so I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the few sort-of friends I kind of almost talked to about stuff. Because we were early, I had to call Mum and tell her not to pick me up on this rare occasion when she could, but this was before mobile phones were much of a thing (I know, right?), so I had to rush home and hope to call her from there before she tried.
When I got through, she gave me one of her usual tirades, and I put the phone down and went to the kitchen to find a knife, because jesus fucking christ I cannot handle another summer of this.
SPOILER: I didn’t go through with it. I had a lifeline.
If you’re worried about someone, don’t give them advice, try to solve or take over their problems, or let them take over you. Just be around sometimes. Exist somewhere nearby, be a person who is there who accepts them and might listen and be the one thing in their life that doesn’t pile on more abuse. That goes double if they’re young, because we have all forgotten how utterly horrible it often is to be young in this world, and our laughing about how petty their problems sound to our superior adult ears only makes it worse. Every time you laugh at that emo kid or angry, posturing rudeboy, picture them hanging from a noose.
It happens. It happens every day.
When that curse leave a shell
Like a snake with fresh scales
Some people seem to call that home
But some souls roam
Keep riding til the cycle is broke
We ain’t gotta go through nothing alone-P.O.S., Been Afraid
I tried antidepressants (SSRIs, pretty standard) when I was 16. I don’t remember enough about that time that isn’t heavily distorted by hindsight, but I do know I stopped taking them after a few months because they didn’t do much. Fortunately circumstances happened to be a little better by then.
For a while I thought it was all the undiagnosed thyroid problem, and getting that treated has helped, but didn’t stop the depression.
Several years ago, in Warwickshire, I gamed a depression questionnaire while trying to get a thyroid diagnosis, and was put on the same antidepressants. I chose this because I’d had so much time off, and my doctor there was crap, but I needed something to show to work. Big mistake. They didn’t help, but they did turn my night terrors into sleep paralysis, and Good Lord, do not make light of sleep paralysis. Unless you routinely sleep tied to the floor while people you love are being tortured and killed in the next room, you will never go through anything so harrowing in your life.
So I stopped taking them after a few months, too. Plus at that time, my life was actually going better than it ever had. Okay, I was living with a bona fide psychopath who came onto me then when turned down moved on to screwing our married housemate in his wife’s bed, but that was all yet to come, so didn’t count. That only reinforced my confidence that the thyroid thing was at the heart of all this.
I still don’t know how much of it is the thyroid thing. I’ll be on tablets and blood tests for that for the rest of my life, and I’m not convinced the dosage is right. It’s definitely a factor, but some of it too must be unrelated depression, and/or simply be the frighteningly deep impression of habits still worn into my psyche after a lifetime of pressure, which amounts to the same thing.
I sat there in a stupor fractured by the hugs
That I gave your family members
Growing sadder by the months
But I won’t dwell inside the ends
And that’s not what you would want
You would tell me find connections
To the world and to tell it my confessions-Sadistik, Micheal
“Commit yourself again to the current of the world”, right? Make connections, get out there and make things happen. Well, I’ve done that, and while it ended badly every time, that’s not what holds me back from doing it again. What holds me back is knowing that when I was engaging with the world, when I was doing all the things that I thought would help, when I was as content as ever, I was still depressed.
So I don’t know what’s left.
You return to it so often that it starts to sound like an excuse in itself. It starts to sound like you’re making up depression as a reason to avoid dealing with your depression, and that whole recursive, self-punishing loop has piled on for so many years that you just don’t even know what’s real anymore.
So maybe all that’s left is to ask yourself: what still gets through? What makes me cry? And then depending on the day it’s usually either fictional things about betrayal and kindness and tragedy, or something unexpectedly bypasses the armour and then it’s “everything, just everything, when does it stop?”. And then you stay up until
4 6 9am spewing words into a machine and hoping it’ll help someone, somewhere, if not yourself, feel a little better. Maybe.
I don’t know if this will make the slightest difference to anything. I’ll do it anyway.
Plans made as we were better then
Have crumbled into dust again
The sapping wind does not relent
Regardless of our best intent
In finding time to count the ways
We find ourselves with shorter days
And only time for feeling shame
And fear at making thoughts our aim
Though never able to prevent
The harm of those we represent
We try until our last for them;
Our mourners will be outcast men
With guns on every side of us
Despite the noise so thunderous
We’ll stand to sweep away the dust
Forever doing what we mustDust