Stayin’ Alive

Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t a surprise – it’s something I’ve experienced on and off for years – but the act of naming it, of putting up my hand and saying “I need help”, was an important part of getting better. When you hold monsters up to the light, they lose their power.

And depression has a lot of power. As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, depression isn’t about feeling a bit sad. In my case it was an inability to feel anything positive. All the things that give me pleasure – family, friends, music, movies, comedy, books, work – didn’t. Imagine eating your favourite meal but something has switched your tastebuds off, seeing your favourite band live but being unable to hear any of it.

The only emotions I still felt were negative. Fear, panic, self loathing, anger. Tiny little things would release furies, anger that would rage and burn everything it could reach. I’m the least frightening man you’ll ever meet, and yet I found myself one morning jumping out of my car to harangue a bull-necked, shaven-headed ogre of a man in a big BMW because he’d had the temerity to beep his horn at me. He could have snapped me in half easily but backed off instead, calling me – with some justification – “fucking mental”.

The feeling of being a passenger in your own body, the feeling that somebody else is driving the bus, is very frightening.

I’m writing this now because I’ve just finished reading Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a novelist whose The Humans I really enjoyed. This one is non fiction, and it’s about his experience of depression. It’s a good book, sad and funny and wise, and the conversations between Matt-then and Matt-now really resonated. I particularly liked the list of things Haig experienced that elicited more sympathy than his depression, a list that’s as horrible as it is hilarious.

Like Haig, I’ve come through it and I’m in a much better place. Everybody’s experience is different, but in my own case I found my wife and brother invaluable, seeing a sympathetic GP helpful, Sertraline/Zoloft useful (albeit possibly due to the placebo effect: the dose was small and I was also making big changes that I’m sure had positive effects) and counselling a complete and utter waste of fucking time. Over six weeks of three-hour gaps in my working day (there’s a clinic in my home town but I was sent to a faraway one due to an admin error; once you see your counsellor you can’t change clinics) I was given the following advice:

  • why don’t you get a wee part time job?
  • think you’ve got problems? Remember there are babies with Ebola in Africa!

I imagined my counsellor hanging around road accidents, yelling at the mangled victims: “look on the bright side! At least you don’t have AIDS!”

One of the questions you’re asked each week is whether you had made plans to kill yourself since your last session. When I said I had I was told that the question really meant was I making plans that I still intended to keep. As I clearly wasn’t trying to top myself at that specific moment, my answer was logged as a no. Presumably that was to keep the figures looking good as my six weeks were nearly over and I wasn’t getting any benefit from the sessions.

I’m not just bitching here. The point is that I got better despite such fuckwittery. Not all counsellors are hopeless. Not all drugs are ineffective. Not all lifestyle changes are pointless. X might not work, but Y just might. And talking to people about it really helps.

Like Haig, now-me could have a conversation with then-me. I’d tell myself that what I was feeling was real, but that I could make changes to deal with it. I’d tell myself that depression is an obstacle, but not a life or death sentence. And I’d tell myself that one day in the not too distant future I’d be sitting with my family, making them howl with laughter, feeling joy so much greater than the worst things depression could ever throw at me.

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