I am heartily glad that Marian Keyes has posted on her website about her continuing battle with depression. It’s a condition I’ve suffered with for many years, possibly even as long as I can remember.
Depression is a word that’s often bandied about to such an extent that it can lose its true meaning. “What? The Old Speckled Hen’s off? Now that’s depressing”, “this weather makes me so depressed”, “I won’t come to the pictures tonight if it’s all the same to you: I’m feeling a bit depressed – maybe tomorrow?” all that kind of thing, it can make depression seem trivial, like it’s just a bit of a glum mood that’ll pick up after a good strong cup of tea (that same dilution is happening with the word, “iconic”, incidentally, with people using it when they actually mean “quite well-known”, but don’t get me started on that now or we’ll be here all day).
Depression is cruel, vicious, teasing and debilitating. It occurs often when you least expect it. It dances around you, convinces you of things that aren’t true, pokes at you, tugs at your clothes, envelops you in a pool of darkness and laughs in your face while doing it. It tells you you’re worthless, useless, that nobody loves you, that you’re a burden on anyone stupid enough to love you, that your very existence is utterly pointless. It’s so good and convincing at telling you all this that you believe it, you believe all of it.
I’ve undergone long periods of counselling for both depression and chronically low self-esteem and they have, to a large extent, helped a lot. I’m not cured and never will be – like alcoholism, it never goes away in the same way that an alcoholic who’s not touched a drop in thirty years is still an alcoholic – but it’s given me the techniques, tools and weapons to be able to spot the signs when they start and beat them off, usually successfully, at least partially so.
One of the worst side-effects of depression is the guilt. The dark clouds start churning over you, the world starts moving away to the end of a long, dark tunnel and you think to yourself, what on earth have I got to be depressed about? I have a blissfully happy home life, I do a job that essentially involves thinking up fun things to do and then doing them. I have good friends around me. I’m lucky, for goodness’ sake, I should be wearing a permanent rainbow around my shoulders and giving it the full hey-nonny-nonny up the street, distributing flowers as I go. So why do I feel so gut-churningly, self-loathingly, desperately miserable like this? The guilt then exacerbates the depression, the depression induces more guilt and the downward spiral spins ever faster.
What adds to this is the fact that some people find it hard to believe I could possibly be depressed. I remember once being in the pub and telling a fairly close friend that I was having treatment for depression and chronically low self-esteem. He spat half his pint across the table, punched me on the upper arm, threw his head back, laughed, and pronounced me ‘hilarious’. I distinctly remember the crashing, sinking sensation this produced in me, like I was descending into a vast, empty, magnified loneliness.
Fortunately the people who matter most understood perfectly and I will always be grateful to them, but the unintentional ignorance of some – for which I don’t blame them in the slightest – didn’t exactly make me at ease with the condition. So thank goodness for people like Marian Keyes and Stephen Fry, the kind of confident, outgoing people you’d never suspect of being depressive, who put it out there.
At the moment I am up to my eyes in trying to finish the book I’m writing. As usual, I don’t think it’s any good. In the past I’ve had awful trouble in feeling like an imposter and a charlatan that’s going to be unmasked and ridiculed and exposed as the fake I am. Every time I submit a book to my publisher I literally hide for a fortnight, no email, no phone, because I’m convinced they’re going to come back and say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen and they want their advance back. Every time I see an e-mail from my agent drop into my inbox I’m convinced it’s to tell me she’s dropping me as a client.
One way I’ve learned to deal with this feeling is to think that if I truly am useless and worthless – which is no longer strictly the default setting but it’s usually there or thereabouts somewhere – then my opinions are equally so, hence my opinion is therefore invalid and utterly wrong. There are probably all sorts of logical non-sequiturs in there that if I thought about too much my mind would shut down and be replaced by a picture of a bear in a pointy hat riding a unicycle, so I’ll just stick to it as is, for now at least. It seems to work for me anyway.
I no longer read reviews of my books because, I’m not ashamed to say, I take them personally. Why wouldn’t I? A book takes a year or more of work, dedication and total immersion in a subject to produce something that means the world to you and that you hope people are going to like. It’s an intensely personal thing. If someone then slags it off of course it’s going to hurt, of course I’m going to take it personally and, most of all, as a depressive of course I’m going to believe that everything they say is true and it’s what everyone is thinking.
(That’s not to say, of course, that if I get wind of a good review I don’t rush out and buy it, commit it to memory, distribute it to everyone I know and pronounce the reviewer a genius at the cutting edge of the literary zeitgeist: luckily, taking it personally cuts both ways.)
Depression is no longer something to be ashamed of (which is a strange concept for a depressive, as being ashamed is one of the major components of the condition). You’ll pass several people in the street today who will have suffered some kind of depression-linked mental illness in the past, and others who will sometime in the future.
I guarantee that more than one of the people you admire most suffers or suffered from depression: among mine off the top of my head are Noel Coward, Stephen Fry, Buster Keaton, Charlie Parker, Dr Johnson, Richard Pryor, Graham Greene, Gustav Mahler, Tony Hancock and Ernest Hemingway.
I’ve not had a serious depressive episode in a good while now, but I know the next one may be only a month, a day, even an hour away. It may last a day, it may last a week, maybe longer, but people like Marian Keyes being able to talk about it keep me prepared, keep me confident that I’ll be able to deal with it because I’m not alone. I’ll get through it: we always do.
I’m not trying to make light of depression by citing these things, far from it and indeed quite the opposite, but the more the condition is discussed, the more that people in the public eye like Marian Keyes can talk about something that’s so personal, so private and something that the condition itself often prevents you from even thinking of discussing, the better.
It took me years to realise that the crippling darkness, melancholy and knuckle-chewing self-doubt I suffered on a regular basis was actually an illness, a diagnosable condition, not the product of a deeply flawed character, and that it wasn’t just me – there were and are others in the same boat. Thousands of others. Taking away that loneliness was the first step to confronting my depression, the Achilles heel of that dancing, poking, taunting bastard that made me feel that way.
Just realising that I wasn’t alone was a massive step to getting to where I am today: happy, probably happier than I’ve ever been before, and still a depressive.
And being that way is fine. Just fine.
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