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.”
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.