I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
Hamlet, Act I, Scene II
In magazines, they always talk about celebrities “battling depression.” It sounds reasonable, but if you’ve had depression yourself you’ll know that it’s a concept that could only come from outside personal experience of it, because when you’re depressed you can’t summon up the energy to battle anything. The best you can hope for is to fool yourself that you’ve beaten it, until it sneaks up on you (usually sometime after lunch in my experience) and you realise it’s been snapping at your heels all day.
Depression’s such a strange affliction. It’s probably caused in many cases by overthinking and over-worrying, but if you’re prone to those habits it’s not generally easy to stop. A couple of decades ago, my spells of depression consumed and paralysed me, to the point of having panic attacks in the street, but now we seem to have reached a modus vivendi. I’m on a maintenance dose of Fluoxetine, which makes me feel inadequate as a human being – I know that’s irrational, diabetics don’t (I assume) feel that way about needing daily insulin, so what’s the difference? It’s just a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some reputable people claim that it’s all part of a dark, pharmacological plot to make creative people into conforming zombies. Well, I’ve been reading James Joyce’s biography and, though he gave the world some amazing books, it doesn’t sound like a very happy life. Creating stuff was often agonizing for him and not much fun for his family either. He self-medicated by means of alcoholic binges. I’d rather be on pills than live like that.
I spent much of the last year trying to get off them and succeeded to some extent. I’m now on 50% of the dose I was on twelve months ago. On the whole I feel better for it – more alert, more intellectually engaged (although, having said that, I managed to finish an MA course on the higher dose). But once I dipped below 20mg a day, things began unravelling. I forgot people’s names, I could never find things, I slept badly and every job, particularly cooking, for some strange reason, became a mountain I just couldn’t climb.
It’s more complicated than simply feeling miserable. I think Hamlet put it best, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem all the uses of this world.” In one compartment of my mind I know my life is good, and I’m truly grateful for it. Interesting job, nice kids doing well, good marriage, kind friends and enough money to buy everything I need and a few things I just want. All that adds up to happiness, and the fact that I can be intellectually aware of this and yet feel utterly hopeless is proof that there is, literally, something wrong with me.
It’s very diurnal. Mornings are mostly okay. Then a little black cloud appears on the horizon and gradually gets bigger until it blots out concentration, focus, enjoyment and the ability to hold a logical conversation. My nearest and dearest tell me I become ridiculously sensitive, over-reacting to perceived slights and criticisms, and I’m sure that is indeed the case. By mid-afternoon all I want to do is guzzle chocolate and go to bed, preferably at the same time. I feel like phoning my husband and tearfully begging him to come home early just to cook the tea. It rarely gets quite that bad, though
I “battle it”. Of course I do. But the battling has to be done when you’re still relatively well. Once it strikes, it’s probably too late. I know what I need to keep well – regular workouts, sunshine, healthy diet and at least nine hours’ sleep a night. I know what I shouldn’t do – the Internet any time after nine in the evening is invariably a mistake. And chocolate never helps as much as you think it will. Nor does retail therapy. It just means that when the credit card bill arrives, you’ll have even less respect for yourself than you had before and you’ll probably have no clear recollection of what you bought or why it seemed so essential at the time.
Strategies – I expect everyone has them. One of mine is to put every book I fancy I cannot live without onto my Amazon wish list, and if I get to payday without financial meltdown I can have up to two items. It’s surprising how often you look at what you nearly bought on impulse a couple of weeks ago and find your lack of sustained interest in it quite remarkable. But I wish I was as disciplined about stopping myself from going out at four in the afternoon for a cappuccino and a slab of Café Nero truffle cheesecake.
I’m not expecting my depression to go away any time soon. It just becomes less debilitating – partly because of circumstances (teenage and young adult children rather than toddlers) and I get better at controlling it. If I need to stay on pills for the rest of my days, I’m just glad those pills are easily available to me. I would like to feel completely morally neutral about them and have no sense of inadequacy whatsoever, not to reproach myself and struggle to deny the truth about myself. Depression is always a balancing act between challenging yourself to do what you are able to manage and recognising when to let the waves break over you, rest and just go with it for a while. Nobody’s ever quite figured that one out, as far as I know.
Nevertheless, I keep trying. I owe it to myself and my family not to give in. And to love myself, enough but not too much. My life is good, far better than many people’s these days. Just as when it’s cloudy you know the sun is still up there shining away, I recognise that as the fundamental truth, even when my silly old brain is telling me the opposite.