Janine Ashbless

When I was twenty-five, it was a very bad year…

When I was in my mid-twenties, something strange happened to me. I started to cry a lot, and I couldn’t stay awake. I’d get up and walk to work, crying. I’d struggle to keep my eyes open at my desk. I’d fall asleep in meetings and on the toilet. I’d walk home again crying all the way, eat some food and crawl into bed, wake up for an hour around ten and then sleep all the way through to the start of the next morning. I gave up driving: I was too frightened I might crash the car and knew I wouldn’t be able to cope if anything went wrong. I stopped going out on my own at all. I dreaded every day and I despised myself: my only escape was sleep. I could sleep anywhere: I slept right through a party, sitting against a radiator; I slept at the front of the mosh pit in an All About Eve concert, huddled against the crowd barrier.


Eventually I went to the doctor. I thought there was a good chance I had M.E, which was featured in the papers a lot at the time, or some virus. I spent a while describing the physical symptoms – the crying, the hypersomnia, the panicking.


Doctor: “Tell me … Do you ever think about committing suicide?”


Me: “Yes. All the time.”


Doctor: “Have you attempted it?”


Me: “Oh no. I wouldn’t do that to my boyfriend – it would devastate him.”


Doctor: “But if he was out of the picture? Would you?”


Me: “Without hesitation.”


Doctor: “Hm. I think you might be suffering from depression.”


Me: “What?


I was genuinely shocked by that diagnosis. How, I thought, could I be depressed? Depression was for people who’d been abused or had family members murdered or lost both legs in an industrial accident, wasn’t it? It was for people whose lives were irredeemably awful. Yet here I was with a well-paying job (which I loathed … but nevertheless it was a good job with no heavy lifting); I had a steady supportive boyfriend; we’d just bought our first house together; we had no problems and good prospects; things were settled and looked ideal. What fucking right did I have to be depressed?


Hah. I found out you don’t have to earn Depression. It comes as a freebie.


Depending on which country you live in, something like 10% to 20% of the population will suffer from a depressive illness at some time in their lives. Women are twice as likely to be afflicted as men – but men are four times more likely to end up dead. The causes are complex and unpredictable: it might be triggered by stress or trauma, by being unvalued or functionless (like when you retire) or by out-of-kilter hormones (like after giving birth) – or you might just have a crap set of genes, because it definitely has a hereditary component. And you are most likely to first get it in your twenties. Symptoms vary too – I was unusual in falling asleep all the time; it’s much more common not to be able to sleep properly.


Basically, your brain chemistry gets messed up. That’s all it is; not enough serotonin, or something. The effects are indescribably awful.


In my case, I can guess the trigger. Whilst never the sunniest bunny in the warren, I’d been very happy while at university: probably it was the ideal environment for me. I’d acquired for the first time in my life a wide circle of friends who actually shared my interests. I’d got me a fantastic boyfriend, P (nowadays Mr Ashbless), and had lots of sex. I was really interested in my academic course and worked hard at it with good results. But then I graduated – and entered the ‘real’ world. I was cut off from friends and P. I ended up in jobs which were repetitive and alienating. I had to work in an office environment, which – it turned out – I found incredibly oppressive. I felt like I’d landed on an alien planet. I lived only for the weekends, but the weekends were not enough.


I am pathologically goal-oriented. Heck, I can’t even relax on a beach for a day. I need to have something to do, preferably something creative I can put my heart into and feel really proud of, and I really want to be patted on the head afterwards and told “Janine, that was great!” (Why do you think I’m a writer, eh? Why do you think I’m writing this?) Suddenly, at 24, my life had no goal. No purpose.


Gradually I went into mental collapse.


If you haven’t had it, you probably have no idea just how bad it is. You might think Depression is a bit like “feeling down.” That’s not the half of it. Depression is like … it’s like carry a lead blanket around 24 hours a day. You can’t lift your head. You can’t see the light. You’re physically and mentally on the brink of exhaustion all the time. The tiniest setback is like a brick wall and the smallest task becomes a massive effort. The whole world seems like it’s opposing you. I can remember one morning the toothpaste fell off my toothbrush onto the floor and I burst into tears and went back to bed – there just seemed no way I could carry on fighting my way through the day.

And you have no skin. Everything is raw. Nothing bounces off. The most innocent remark becomes a damning condemnation of everything you are and can be.


Don’t dismiss Depression. Don’t underestimate it. It’s a killer.


Here’s something else you might not know about being depressed: very often, it’s only the thought of suicide that makes it possible to keep going. It’s your escape-hatch. You think “I can’t bear this … but I’ve only got to make it to bedtime. Tomorrow, if it’s this bad, I can kill myself then.”


Without question, if it weren’t for P, I’d be dead. He stuck with me all that time, not saying much, just being there. Looking after my body while my messed-up mind went its own way. He says he didn’t even think of leaving me, because he loved me. I find it hard to wrap my head around the enormity of his tolerance and sacrifice – because oh god I must have been horrible to live with.


Doctor: “Why don’t you quit your job?”


Me: “But … it’s a really good job. Most people would be grateful for it.”


Doctor: “You said it’s making your life miserable. Could you manage financially without it?”


Me: “I suppose so …”


Doctor: “Then quit.”


I quit. I went onto anti-depressants. And slowly it started to work. My therapy (and practically the only thing I could focus on to start with) was gardening. We had a tiny patch of land, and I could research and plan and dig and watch things grow. I became an obsessive gardener, out there for hours with my hands stuck in the soil, because it was the only place I felt in control.


Things improved. In time I became less fragile. I went back to college and did a Forestry course. College courses are good for me – I like deadlines, I like passing exams and I like learning. Goals, you see? I need something to do. I need goals. Short-term ones like writing stories and blog posts. Long-term ones like novels. I didn’t find my way to a forestry career, but I did in the end find my way to writing.


Depression: it changed my life, ultimately for the better. It made me what I am now – and the fear of it drives me still. I want to finish with a quote from Gwyneth Lewis’ book Sunbathing in the Rain. Now, like I said, Depression is an individual thing and this does not hold true for every sufferer, but in my particular case it’s bang-on accurate:


“If you can cope with the internal nuclear winter of Depression and come through it without committing suicide – the disease’s most serious side-effect – then, in my experience, Depression can be a great friend. It says: the way you have been living is unbearable: it’s not for you.”


If I’d stuck contentedly with a career in computing, I’d never have been a writer. If it weren’t for Depression, I would never have become a writer.

Writing is my armour, my bonfire that holds back the darkness.


There is one corollary of that … and here I am naked, for all the world to see. Should the day come that the Writing stops for whatever reason, the Depression will come back. I know it’s there, waiting for me. I can feel it. And if that happens, this time it will win.


But not today.


xxx


Janine Ashbless

Janine Ashbless is the author of 5 Black Lace books – three novels and two collections of short stories – and numerous short stories published by Cleis, Spice, Xcite, Nexus and Black Lace. She specialises in fairytale and fantasy erotica because she never grew out of that Dungeons & Dragons phase, despite her mother’s fervent wishes.  She nurses a number of fatal weaknesses: for minotaurs, guys with long hair, Victorian paintings and embittered liberal smartarses. Don’t anybody ever go and make her World President, because she’d do very very bad things with the very best of intentions.
www.janineashbless.blogspot.com

35 Responses to “Janine Ashbless”

  1. Dear Janine,

    Thank you.

    Alana

  2. I cried again after reading this for the second time, Janine. It’s so touching and so beautifully honest. How gorgeous. Really. Thank you for your brevity – I know this was difficult, but extremely liberating and did I mention, gorgeous? :-)

    Hugs to you and what the hell, kisses too!

  3. I am crying as well as I finish reading this. This feels deeply moving to me, such that I don’t quite know what to say. Thank you, though, for sharing it. How has it felt to you to share it? Had you written about this before, or was this the first time you wrote it out as such an account?

    It feels as though whatever I say here sounds superficial. However, congratulations to you for the hard work of surviving what you describe here. There is more, but I do not know how to say it here or now and especially feel self-conscious about potential misinterpretation. Know I wish you all the best.

    Hugs.
    Love,
    Emerald

  4. Ashley Lister Says:

    Janine,

    Thank you. That was beautiful and eloquent and supremely moving. Depression is a pernicious illness – misunderstood by the majority of those who don’t suffer. I’m hoping that your post might enlighten some and offer encouragement to others who are battling against its symptoms.

    Outstanding writing.

    Ashley

  5. Hey guys

    Thank you too. Hah – so often when I read F-Stop I am stuck for what to say, apart from that. I don’t consider myself eloquent enough to respond without sounding trite or odd. And like Emerald I worry about “potential misinterpretation” of my words.

    So when I wrote this post it was a struggle to describe my internal feelings, and to get the words right. It was a struggle too to face up to where I am now with depression. A large part of me thought that the whole thing was unsuitable for F-Stop, or just too long and boring for readers to cope with, or a bad career move.

    I sent it to Neve trusting her to make the right decision. She could have told me to hold off. She didn’t. I still trust her. Thank you Neve.

    I feel naked, but that’s a good thing sometimes.

  6. P.S: I wonder if there is a connection between depression and creativity. Are writers particularly prone to it? That would be a comfort for us – it would mean it’s a sign of potential, something positive, albeit frustrated.

  7. This was beautiful and intense, Janine. So well expressed, I could feel your pain and anxiety. I know how hard it must have been to share this, but I’m so very glad you did.

    I don’t talk about it much, but I suffered from some fairly protracted and intense bouts of depression from my middle teen years well into my thirties. I rarely contemplated suicide, but sometimes the urges were strong. I often wondered why and felt so stupid; I had so many good things in my life, and I suppose those good things went a long way to keeping me from walking over that line.

    Now I tend to keep awfully busy, family obligations, my day job, writing, music. People talk about retirement, and they thing I’m joking when I say I have no desire to retire. But the truth is, I really don’t want to. I guess, in a sense, that I need to pour myself into “being.” I still sometimes feel those pangs which feel more like sudden anxiety and helplessness that I can’t rein in than the depression. I hate those feelings.

    Of course, I go through “normal” depression after a sad event or a difficult time or whatever, but it’s a different sort of feeling, if that makes any sense.

    Anyway, I just want you to know that you’re not alone, and also that your wonderful essay did me a great deal of good. Honestly, I’d never put the all the pieces together and realized the activity I encircle myself in is, in a sense, my own therapy.

    Again, thank you Janine.

  8. I knew someone who was scared to give up his depression in case his creativity went along with it. Not his depression, so much, as his fucked upness, his issues, and the feelings that went along with it.

    I think you’ve written something really important here, and I hope it reaches widely. Thank you for sharing it.

    And woman. Is that your ass? Is that your spine? Damn!

  9. Wow, Craig. Thank you.

    The statistics say that medication helps, but not that much. Councilling helps, but not that much. Some people just recover after time, without intervention. Gwyneth Lewis (who is a poet by profession) takes the angle that it’s about how you live your life: whether you are being true to yourself. I suspect that the answer for everyone is different. We have to find, consciously or unconsciously, our own coping mechanisms.

    For me, gardening was an extraordinary discovery and a vital part of my recovery. I’d never been much interested before, and I became obsessed. There were other rungs on the ladder too … some of them very risky. Writing is the one I’ve taken to my heart.

  10. Wow, that is way more naked than naked. I’m in awe of your bravery and your bonfire. Thank you for expressing yourself so perfectly. You really captured how trapping the illness can be and yet your piece is also full of hope and strength. I think it’s a real feat to be able to write about depression with such balance and feeling. Amazing work.

  11. Jo, I get your friend.

    From where I stand now, having got through my twenties, I feel that if depression is the price I have to pay for having become a writer, then it was a price worth paying. Whatever happens in the future, however it ends, it’s been worth it. Because for a while I became something more than my self.

    Oh. D’you know that the first time I’ve worked out that I am glad I lived?

    And yes, that is my ass and back! It carries a tatoo these days, of course.

  12. Janine said: Writing is the one I’ve taken to my heart.

    Hear, hear.

    And I can relate to those “other rungs on the ladder.” Suffice it to say I’m very, very happy to be approaching 50, having climbed past those rungs.

  13. I’m sort of at a loss for words. But just sorta, LOL. I’ve also battled depression – and at one point it almost won – but there was something strong in me – and it led me to writing (again – when I was young I wanted to be a writer but gave it up). Sometimes I do wonder if depression has something to do with the creative mind in some way.

    Well, I’d write more, but I should be packing up to check out of our motel. I’ll come back later when we’re home and write more.

    Thank you Janine for sharing this with us.

  14. Hi again Janine,
    I’m so proud of you. Thank you for trusting me. I think your words resonate with many of us – and we can sympathize, empathize and understand that pain. I’m not sure if I’ve suffered from this intense of depression, but A. I’ve always been a misfit of society; never quite fitting into one group or the other – finally resolved that my creative spirit is best suited with other like-minded misfits and B. I have a very close friend that struggles getting out of bed each morning – so many things are tied to those reasons: tough childhood, seasonal disorder, alcoholism…to name a few. I had her read your words last night and it touched her deeply. She cried too.

    Hugs to you -

  15. Janine,

    I also find myself at a loss for words, which can never fully express how powerful, moving, eloquent and courageously naked your essay is. The first time I read it, I also teared up. The second time I was profoundly impressed by the beauty of your writing, which is also evident in your fiction. Indeed something very good came out of your journey through the darkness.

    I actually wrote my dissertation on “madness” and creativity, so it’s a topic near to my life. My father suffered from depression, back in the days when electroshock therapy was the go-to cure. Your essay also helped me understand what it must have been like for him. Such things were not discussed with children (or really anyone).

    After a lot of reading on the topic–as if one can get answers from others–the heightened sensitivity of the artistic temperament can, taken to the extreme, be much like depression. The break down in the boundaries of perception of the schizophrenic are not unlike the artist’s fluid talent for metaphor (I’m thinking of Zelda Fitzgerald, a good example of many of your points especially a dissatisfaction with her life situation). I mention this because there does seem to be a line between an amount of this sensitivity that nourishes art and too much that overwhelms. Your image of Depression waiting on the other side brought this to mind–although so much more powerfully than any reference book.

    So much to think about, so much to feel. Thank you, thank you, Janine. I know this essay will stay with me.

    Donna

  16. Erobintica, I’m hearing from so many people today who have been through depression. We are many.
    *hugs*

    Neve and Donna, thank you for letting me part of this blog. And for inspiring me to talk about something that I’ve kept to myself for so long.

    I can only imagine that having to live with someone with a depressive illness must be hell. It must be so frustrating to see them sunk in their own slough of despond, when you can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t just snap out of it.

    From my own perspective all I can advise is: Remember, it’s not your fault and nor is it theirs: No, there’s nothing you can say or do to fix things: Yes, they still need your love and all the practical support you can give them: Yes, they can get better. Above all, be patient – and nurture your own joy.

  17. Dear Janine,

    You are a wonderful human being. I mean that with as much sincerity as I have. You’re one of the best people I know, and I’m glad you made it through to be a writer, so I could meet you.

    Love,

    Charlotte

  18. I’m glad you’re here, Janine. And hope that I’ll get to meet you too, some day :)

  19. I ditto Jo’s thoughts, Janine.

    Erotic writer’s weekend retreat? Paris, Barcelona, Cleveland? :-)

  20. Janine, this piece is momentously courageous. And, like most acts of great personal courage, its positive vibrations are felt on many levels. Not only has your braving nakedness allowed the people who love and admire you to better understand you, love you more, and admire you further (not that the latter was your objective, of course); but you’ve opened such an important window, in general terms, on a widespread but ill-understood condition that’s all around us.

    You’re a hero, many times over.

    At various times, I have been close to people who, I believe, were suffering from some degree of what would be categorized as depression. So it’s a topic that brings up a lot of memories.

    Thank you for being here, and for sharing yourself and your art in all the ways you do. The world is a better place because of you.

  21. Depression and creativity ~ this week’s New Scientist has a wee article on creativity & mental illness – nothing exactly proven, but a mutation in the protein neuregulin 1 can increase creativity and also be a risk factor for schizophrenia.

    I suffered from depression for 2-3 years and was so certain I had something valuable to learn from it. When I recovered, I looked back at what I’d learnt and it went like this: Keep getting up. Wash and dress yourself. Buy food. Prepare it. Eat it. Try not to drink too much. Arrange to see people. Pay your bills. Wash your clothes… the list went on, but you get the picture. The most basic dot-to-dot for living. That’s what I learnt.

    BUT it wasn’t depression, it was progesterone intolerance, and rather than “this is me being treated for my hormonal instability, how much worse would I be without the pill” I was actually poisoning my will to live every morning with a little pill. (And doing untold damage to my life.)

    I’ve since had to endure it several times over, taking progesterone to treat endometriosis, am just recovering from the latest time, and guess what – the dot-to-dot really does come in handy, what I learnt *was* useful. And it was this: “Keep the home fires burning. Keep your life in good order so that it’s there when you want it again, because you *will* want it again.” And another lifeline: “This Is Not Me. This is chemical. It’s not me.”

  22. Charlotte, Jo, Jeremy – what can I say? :-) :-) :-)
    See – the internet is not entirely made up of cats and hate…

    Neve, Barcelona is on my list of places to visit, so sure! Or maybe one of those upstate NY hotels Jeremy has written about…?

  23. No way, Janine, there’s also sex and cupcakes!

    I was just thinking of such a retreat! Would a barely-three-stories-in girl qualify?

  24. “This Is Not Me. This is chemical. It’s not me.”

    Even if the cause is your own brain-chemistry, that can still be a lifeline to cling to. Human brains are such complex objects; sometimes they just malfunction.

    And “Keep your life in good order so that it’s there when you want it again, because you *will* want it again.”
    Oh yes.

  25. Of course she would, Jo!

  26. Janine, that was wonderful, thank you for sharing this with us.

  27. I just want to say thank you again – to everyone who read this, to everyone who commented, to those who e-mailed me. I’m so glad now that I did this post. I can’t express how much it meant to me to read your words of empathy and acceptance and appreciation. You are amazing, wonderful people.

    xxx
    Janine

  28. Thank you so much, Janine. Difficult as I’m sure it was to write, your essay eloquently embodies all the reasons we write–to tell the truth and to connect. I’m still and will always be in awe of what you’ve done here!

  29. Among the most touching and articulate words I’ve ever read about depression. So honest and searing. Thank you and I’m so glad you are better. Many people in my family suffer from depression – two have attempted suicide, one succeeded. I am one of the lucky ones who has not experienced for than a fleeing dark moment and yet, I do understand what you went through – even if it’s from the outside looking in. Wow.

  30. Very sorry to be late and I can’t stay, I’m not on my computer, but this is moving and inspiring. Thank you Janine.

  31. From someone who is always late to the party – Thank you too, Isabel!

  32. Julia, your comment has only just appeared on my screen for some reason . My heart goes out to you for the courage you must have to live with depression in the family. All my best.

  33. Here from Jo’s blog.
    That whole post made me love you.
    You nailed it all.
    Brilliantly written.
    I want to print this and keep it and show it to everyone.
    Those who are suffering and those who just don’t get it.
    So glad you found your way out.
    Writing and gardening, yes.
    Thanks for writing this.

  34. :-) Hi Bethany

    Print away!

  35. Terribly late to the discussion, I know. But having read your piece twice, Janine, I want my praise for your honesty and clarity and freakin’ fabulous way with words, on record.

    You are a tremendously talented writer who is also generous and brave.
    What a trifecta of attributes! Those who know you, even those of us who only know you through the words you write, are lucky people.

    And thanks to Mr Ashbless. Sometimes it is the steadfast love of one good person that makes a grim situation bearable.

    On depression – I’ll just make two comments.
    I’ve found that as I get older it gets harder to drag myself out of the pool of despond once I’ve fallen in. Because I know this, I fight the fall all the more vigorously.

    A good tactic to have on hand for those miserable times when one is draped across the bed or curled up in a ball in a chair is – move.
    Sure, get up get dressed and go for a walk in the park is fine (if possible) but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying – get out of the chair and go to another room, another chair in the same room, or make your way to the sofa. If none of that is possible, change position in the chair. A simple tip but it can make all the difference.

    xoxo Madeline

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