To my mind, the use of a single word depression to try and encapsulate such an immensity of experiences and varied degrees of suffering is a bit like using the word weather to describe what goes on outside your window every single day of the year.
Depression can range from, at the milder end of its spectrum, merely feeling a bit grumpy or out of sorts, right through to when everyday life becomes so utterly unbearable that you choose to end it.
The variables between those two extremes are numerous – anxiety attacks, a whole raft of stress related illnesses, pre-menstrual tension and postnatal depression, to name but a few. All are equally serious and unpleasant enough for the sufferer, but are seldom life changing, unlike Bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or paranoid schitzophrenia, to name but three examples.
Also, to date, very few depressive conditions are currently considered to be a mental illness.
It is said that most people will either experience or have experience of some form of depressive illness at some point in their lives, although for most their exposure is short lived or transitory.
Sadly for others, their own specific and personal condition can affect them throughout their lives.
I myself have suffered from varying degrees of depression from an early. Apart from a few poems (more later), I have never actually attempted to sit down and write about my own experiences, until now. My hope in sharing is that someone suffering similar symptoms might realise firstly that they are not alone, and secondly, that there is plenty of help out there if they would only seek it out. Just one will do, more would be a bonus.
No matter what we might read or hear in the media, there is still, amongst the great majority of the population, a massive, and largely unacknowledged, stigma attached to any mental condition.
It’s a bit like migraines – if you’ve never experienced one, you can’t possibly imagine how utterly debilitating one can be.
Well, it’s the same for depression. Just because there’s nothing so see – no blood, swelling or broken bones – doesn’t mean that there’s no pain.
I can vaguely remember being depressed even as a child, except that I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to my feelings and anyway, at that age, I was just reckoned to be moody, sulking or highly strung.
However, I can all too clearly recollect those terrible days when nothing was right, and no-one could make it right, when all I wanted to do was to crawl into a deep, dark hole and pull the earth in on top of me until it, whatever it was, had gone away.
As I grew a little older, it became increasingly difficult to get away with being moody – except when I went to art school in the 1960s where everyone was doing it. That’s also the time when I discovered love and lust and the terrible pain those two sensations bring. For a while, my bouts of depression became inextricably mixed up with equally awful bouts of misery caused by the loss, absence, or unrequited nature of love.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I experienced for the first time a series of truly debilitating depressions. It was at a time in my life when pretty much everything had gone wrong – I had recently lost some close friends to climbing and mountaineering accidents and my fiancée had walked out on me, leaving me in a town where I knew absolutely no-one, with no job and nowhere to live.
(Well, if that little package can’t make a guy depressed, what can?)
Except that it wasn’t those circumstances that caused the depression, it was what came next. It seems that when really bad stuff happens, I manage to rustle up deep reserves of self-reliance and determination and cope.
Through a bizarre set of chance meetings and coincidences, I quickly found myself a job, a flat, and a new set of friends. Unfortunately, it was the mix that proved toxic. The culture I had fallen in to was so alien to any previous personal experience – a bunch of highly paid, highly motivated, hard working, hard drinking and hard playing consultants on the one hand, and a bunch of young, poverty stricken ex students on the other, all working together in a highly pressurised environment.
They were mostly lovely people, don’t get me wrong, but the circumstances were way outside my comfort zone. We would work flat out until lunchtime; hit the pub across the road for a few of pints and a pie or two before heading back to the office for the afternoon. We’d then work late before hustling back over to the pub again for a few more pints before grabbing a curry or a Chinese. After that, we’d head back to someone’s flat for more beer, maybe some scotch and a couple of games of poker.
Next day we’d do it all again, and the same the next day and the next.
It wasn’t long before I started to suffer from the combination of long hours working, even longer hours drinking and lack of sleep. I wasn’t getting enough exercise, I’d lost touch with my family and most of my friends from my earlier life, and I was stumbling from one short lived relationship to another with a rapidly diminishing understanding of where my life might be leading.
It all started out with hideously dark moods, which resulted in me staying in bed until lunchtime or phoning in sick. All too soon my work began to suffer, along with my health, and I was persuaded to take myself along to my local GP. Big mistake.
Here, young man, take these pills, they’ll make you feel much better.
Which they did, at first. But without any alteration or modification of lifestyle, they soon stopped working and so the man doubled the dose, then doubled it again, until I was so wired I couldn’t sleep, and then he provided me with pills for that, too. Couple all that with an escalating marijuana habit and ever more alcohol and it wasn’t long before my world fell apart in spectacular fashion.
How I managed to function at all during those missing months, I have no idea. If I jumped up and down, which was unlikely, I would probably have rattled with all the pills inside me. The only way I managed to get to work any time before midday was by firing up a joint before I even got out of bed.
Of course it couldn’t last. Hearsay and dim recollection has it that, despite having a deep-rooted abhorrence of any form of violence, I jumped on a guy mid way through a darts match because I reckoned he was cheating with the scores. (How I managed to work that out considering that, by then, I could barely count up to ten, we’ll never know.)
Anyway, a loyal friend called in some favours and next thing I knew, I was a voluntary inpatient at the local mental hospital.
The first thing the medics did was a major detox to get me off all the uppers, downers and sleepers. Obviously, because I was in a hospital, my alcohol intake was curtailed and smoking dope was frowned on, so I tried my best to relax and go with the flow.
After some embarrassing and time wasting sessions with a psychiatrist (who actually asked my about my relationship with my mother and how often I masturbated), I discovered that the people with by far the best counselling skills were the nurses, both male and female. I have no idea how many hours I sat and spewed out all my problems, contradictions and anxieties to those unbelievably patient guys, but I owe them a huge debt of gratitude because they, and a few close friends, gradually put Humpty back together again.
It wasn’t just that those people listened; it was they wouldn’t take any bullshit, of which I was brim full by then. They questioned constantly – do you really mean that? Is that how you really think or feel? At times it became almost confrontational, but they eventually pared away the layers of denial and obfuscation and released some of the real toxins that had been poisoning my system for so long.
I was eventually discharged, and quickly thereafter realised that the only way to recover fully was to get away and start afresh. So I headed back to Bristol.
Unfortunately, a full recovery was easier said than done.
One thing I have learned about my particular type of depression is that it never really goes away, it just lurks, out of sight and mind until it jumps out from behind a hedge, just when I am least expecting it.
A brief spell in a folk rock band with my brother didn’t help my stability greatly; there were too many distractions and opportunities for various kinds of excess, and a very sketchy structure to our lives. It was only when, by sheer chance, I was offered a position in a small design agency, doing what I did best, that I got back on the rails again.
Even a disastrous marriage, the subsequent divorce and a move on to another relationship while coping with an extremely demanding job failed to knock me off course. I found myself starting a new business venture from scratch, renovating an old cottage in an area I wasn’t familiar with, all while bringing up two small inherited children. But it was a bit like surfing, all you have to do is stay ahead of the wave and you’ll be fine.
But then, almost without me noticing, the wave began to creep up behind me and the old demons came slithering out from behind the skirting boards in my head.
Of course, work stress played a huge part in their resurrection, along with an unhealthy dose of work place bullying (which will the subject of a future blog).
Their arrival went completely unnoticed at first, their presence heralded in a completely unexpected manner.
Most of us have suffered from chronic indigestion from time to time, but alarm bells start ringing when it doesn’t respond to the usual over-the-counter treatments and instead just gets worse and worse. Soon I was popping all sorts of antacids and specialist medication, to no avail. When a series of, mostly undignified and uncomfortable, investigations proved that nothing serious was going on, my GP prescribed a mild anti-depressant, just to see what happened.
The effect was nothing short of miraculous.
I was cured, no more tummy aches.
A couple of years later it was a series of full blown asthma attacks, resulting in inhalers and all sorts of other nonsense, the necessity for which vanished, along with the asthma as soon as certain stressful elements in my life resolved themselves.
Other aches and pains came and went over the next few years, along with some lengthy periods where I had to resort to one kind of happy pill or another, but then a real nasty started to rear its ugly little head – Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Of course, my symptoms weren’t diagnosed as IBS until every other possibility had been ruled out, so out came the tubes and the probes and the barium meals and all those rather frightening tests that they do.
At least it wasn’t bowel cancer, or any one of a litany of unpleasant and often life shortening conditions, it was just good old IBS which took a lot of coping with, and still does.
By this time, it was well apparent to my GP that I had a stress or depression related problem, and that’s when he suggested counselling.
I was introduced to a very nice lady in Glastonbury who spent the whole of our first session debunking all my preconceptions about talking therapy. She also warned me that the harder we worked at it, the more difficult it might become. So, no pain, no gain, I thought, and how right I was.
To explain the process in one, very simple analogy is to imagine trying to get rid of a wasp’s nest by poking a big stick into it and thoroughly waggling it about.
I got stung, a lot. And yes, it hurt.
There were occasions when I had to sit in my car for an hour after a session before I could bring myself to drive home and face the world. But it worked.
Gremlins were tracked down one at a time, their origins discovered and motives ascertained before they were slid back into their hiding places. None were destroyed, but all were confronted, face-to-face, so that I would recognise them in future and know how to deal with their eccentricities.
In the space of eighteen months my black dog – a description borrowed shamelessly from Winston Churchill – went from a slavering wolfhound to a small black poodle.
The little sod still visits every now and then, stays for an hour or two and occasionally spoils a day, but the damage is nothing compared to how it used to be. I take a pill every day, a relatively low dose of Escitalopram, an SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor), which takes the edge off my occasional bouts, mostly of anger when something goes wrong, but mostly it just acts as a dog repellent.
Some of the most difficult attacks of depression to deal with are those that come out of a clear blue sky, on a beautiful sunny day, when nothing’s going wrong and all is well with the word, when suddenly the glass flips from being more than half full to almost empty.
I can only surmise that some kind of chemical trigger has fired off somewhere inside my head, nothing else seems to explain it. And it can happen in an instant, the blink of an eye, good day, bad day, just like that. It’s a mystery.
But it is knowing how to best handle these sudden reversals that is the hard bit, because when they’re happening you don’t actually give a shit about handling them, you don’t care, because everything has gone to shit, absolutely everything.
Of course, that’s when things get really tough for friends, partners and, in my case, my wonderful wife. It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde thing, one minute she’s sharing a day with her loving husband, next she’s having to tiptoe around some miserable bastard who shouts and swears at her and for whom she can do nothing right.
My advice, as soon as that glass flips, is to walk away. Go and find somewhere to hole up until it’s over, because it will come to an end, sooner or later. No amount of sympathy or understanding can shoo that dog away, it’s glued to your chest, inside your head, stinking up and shitting all over your day. The best thing is to try not to spread its stink too widely.
To sum up, most kinds of depression are survivable. They are a bit like a head cold, utterly useless, unpleasant, but short-lived.
The key to coping is the knowledge that the darkness will pass. You will feel better, sooner or later. And above all, don’t hide it. Tell people. Let them know what’s going on, at least then they can take the appropriate avoiding action when you lash out and, hopefully, not take it personally.
And give it a name. Make it real, like Mister Churchill’s black dog. That way you’ll be far more able to weather the storms when they come. And don’t ignore the medication option, it won’t turn you into a zombie or an addict, it will just take the edge off when you need it most.
I hope something here helps, even if it just makes it easier to understand someone else’s suffering. I have been living with depression for nearly seventy years now, and I have seen it transition from a quite unmentionable condition to something acknowledged by Royalty, professional sportsmen, celebrities and selected media. But to really begin to face up to and de-stigmatise depression once and for all, everyone needs to get on board, ordinary people like you and me. We might never completely cure it, but by making depressive illness more socially acceptable, we can make it much, much easier for sufferers to seek help.
Cocked his leg and
Pissed on my day
Chased away laughter
Ate all my dreams
Wet and stinking
Curled up in my head
Wouldn’t roll over
Wouldn’t play dead
© David Hermelin 2017