Scanning The Guardian my eyes fell on a piece about Depression. Its a subject close to my heart and so I clicked the link. In truth, I was compelled to. I knew that there I would find descriptions of an illness I know far too well and some kind of company in the way commenters below the article would describe their own situations and experiences. I was not disappointed. This week, so the article says, it is Depression Awareness Week. I don't know who arranges such things and I have my doubts about their usefulness but, thanks to whoever, you are now going to become aware of my own experiences and understandings of it. Depression is not a pretty subject and there are many who shy away from it as from some unpleasant, contagious disease and so, if you are one of those, now is the time to stop reading.
So, for those remaining, what does it feel like to suffer from depression, depression as a condition of life and not as a passing moment? The article, and the comments, give some powerful testimony:
"The oddest thing is the degree to which it clouds your judgement, makes you think differently, experience everything differently, even move more slowly, not just 'feeling sad'. Only when not depressed and looking back can you see how truly broken your brain was in that moment."
"I wouldn't wish depression on anybody, mine is frightening."
"At the time you lack the capacity to realize that anything is wrong. Coming out from under it is like slowly waking up, or thawing out. Then you realize six months of your life went by and you did nothing but exist in a wretched state."
"I always thought it was a personal hell, and everyone being different, I found it impossible to describe to anyone else."
"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment."
"For me, the opposite of depression is peacefulness of mind. Depression felt like the prolonged absence of that peace, a constant sad agitation of discontent."
"When I'm not well, I have to lever myself out of bed, my eyesight isn't good enough to get me to the bathroom without feeling around for the walls; I ache, limping and stumbling, all while feeling disorientated and confused - every night."
"Like being in a dark tunnel where no light can be seen at the end of it. The oppressive nature of depression is tangible, even exerting physical influence as tiredness, headaches and stress. Like being on a futile treadmill to nowhere but you can't get off."
"Sometimes nothing makes sense, even loved ones encouragement and everything becomes somewhere to escape from, to an extent that thoughts are only of methods of suicide. "
"It reduces the world, and the wonders in it, to mechanisms."
"When I'm depressed I'm constantly awaiting the apocalypse - convinced that catastrophe is just around the corner. The feeling hangs heavy over my head and cuts off any fleeting feeling of pleasure."
"The loneliness is really difficult."
"I am in a deep depression because of the situation I am currently in. Pure and simple. For the past 7 days I have barely stopped crying. I wake up and all I see before me is more of the same."
"At the time, I didn't feel sad, I didn't really feel anything but a grim emptiness and bitterness. I couldn't motivate myself to get out of the armchair in my sitting room and do...anything. I barely ate, and as described my memory of those days are extremely fuzzy. I became caustic and angry and hard to be around."
" The condition has all but destroyed who I was, emotions are very difficult to control, and I have very regular suicidal thoughts. I don't take medication as I couldn't stand the way it made me feel."
".. the crushing feeling takes your breath away and curling into a ball does not help. Accompanied by not being able to breathe brings panic attacks and i have had them in multi-storey car parks, shops and out to dinner. Your head feels inactive and not your own, it is hard to capture any thoughts. This can last from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours.."
"I'm struggling. I can't see any positives and I'm a crushed by a terrible sense of guilt."
"My bright, funny, sensitive, deeply thoughtful fifteen year old was diagnosed with depression last autumn. His grades dropped, he found social activities challenging and he became frightened and confused by his illness. We sought help and applied all the usual 'sticking plaster' parenting devices. We tried to make his life as easy and as enjoyable as possible but failed to address those deep, scary thoughts of his head on. My beautiful child took his life in October of last year. Our world is now upside down and we ache with sorrow. Depression feeds off sensitivity and intelligence and needs to be confronted with love and understanding."
"I always thought of it as being enveloped, stifled, constricted in a dense black cloud that would crush one's spirits and sap all one's energy; like the insidious stench that would follow one around and not go away."
"Sometimes when I'm not in it I'm aware of it as a black thing sitting beside me, that I can look at, but it does not reach out and engulf me. Or as an abyss which I know is there but I don't go down."
"I didn't really understand what it was until I experienced it myself, just a thousand days of darkness."
"When I am with the 'black dog', one of the characteristics of my state of mind is a sort of anomie - an utter rejection, a repulsion, of all empathy, all positive relations, with other facets of society. I suppose there's a paradox there: I both want sympathy, and I want to repel any offer of sympathy or support, from another person, simultaneously.
Depression is full of contradictions."
"Depression is incredibly hard to articulate, but for me it just felt like a constant state of nothingness, emptiness, hollowness and pointlessness. I couldn't enjoy or feel anything. I couldn't laugh. I couldn't celebrate when my team or I myself scored a goal. I couldn't enjoy food or music or friendship. It's like I was just existing, but my quality of life was pretty much zero. It felt like I had a constant knotted, churning sensation in my stomach that just wouldn't go away."
That's a lot of testimony but only a fraction of the comments reproduced under the article. I felt it important to replicate some of it because I wanted to try and depict both the variety of experiences of depression and give an idea of its scale. So if you feel I went on at length a little bit then that is why.
I recognize a great many of the experiences that I have related in these comments. This is especially true of the statement that "depression is full of contradictions". It is. You become locked in a world of your own and the antidote would be to get yourself involved with others. But you have no energy for that and letting others see you in the state that you feel like inside fills you with horror. But, of course, they don't see what is inside you and that is another part of the problem. You may just seem quiet or pre-occupied but in your mind there is a kind of on-going silent scream. Just recently in the last 3 weeks I have begun to endure a new depression-related issue. I now seem to have developed headaches and there seems to be pressure on my head every waking moment. Its a small thing and not acute but its another thing constantly nagging at my troubled mind. When you suffer from chronic mental health issues you try things because you are never sure if the latest annoyance is something once more self-inflicted. When I first got the headaches I thought it might be flu. I have never suffered from headaches in my life before. And now a semi-permanent one. So I took painkillers but they had no effect. And yet, in moments (and they are sadly only moments) when I can step outside my monochrome world of an empty self, they recede. It suggests these headaches are related to my mental health and not to a physical ailment. My life is full of the physical effects of bad mental health from anxiety attacks to being sick, needing the toilet in a desperate rush, sundry random pains in my joints and other things. It comes from being locked in a private world and projecting inwards rather than outwards.
For some, of course, this is all too much and 800,000 people a year are reckoned to kill themselves. This total is startling not least because this is just the people who succeed. How many more don't? How many other people (some of whom will be depression suffers too) live in a kind of hell because they can't kill themselves? A fate worse than death? I admit that death has and does seem like the perfect escape plan. But ask yourself what kind of life you need to be leading first before ways of ending it take up your thinking time. Suicide is never a casual thought or a mere trifle. If you are contemplating it its because you think you have some serious problem. The writer of the article that inspired this blog, Tim Lott, himself someone who has suffered from depression, makes this point when he muses on why some despise depression and fail to take it, or its sufferers, seriously. Its because, he says, that the depressive outlook on life might actually be getting at the bones of a point about life itself. Depressives often feel empty and lethargic, they can find no motivation for things which all seem like so much pointless wasting of time. What if, suggests Lott, this view on life might actually be right? It points a questioning finger at everyone else who doesn't suffer, and at life itself, and says "Is there really any point to any of this? Why should we be bothered?" And that is a scary thought if you are trying to find meaning in something. It suggests that our whole worldview can be invalidated. And not many people want to contemplate that thought. Those suffering from depression get no choice in the matter though.
I offer no cheerful happy ending to this blog. I'm 47 and have suffered mental health issues for probably 37 of those years. They will last as long as I do. I have resigned myself to it. I am trying to nurse myself through the suffering (which is why I write blogs, make music, run up hills and compile podcasts) but its always a coping and never a curing. God knows how many others are in a similar position to me or worse. The only point of this blog today is to say that we are out there and maybe you know one of us. We have health issues and these issues affect us daily, maybe they even change our personalities. No one really knows what goes on inside someone else's head but it might not be pleasant and maybe is even almost unbearable. It can sometimes feel like a constant state of grief but one that seems to have no context or originating point. Its like its always been there, dark and featureless. In the end you have to make the best of it. Today I have sung as I walked, looked at the blue sky and written this blog. All of these things have taken my mind off it to some degree. Of course, there are lulls in between where it must be faced again. This is life for some people. A friend can help too. If you can manage to find one. Its insidious that all too many people with mental health issues are also alone or lonely and this is a vicious circle which often makes things worse.
But what can you do? Life rolls on...