Wednesday, 22 August 2012


After extensive years of research (okay, one hour of half-hearted googling), I have discovered that most euphemisms surrounding depression are animal-based, and this does not surprise me. What else could possibly describe the true nature of depression - the debilitating, destructive hunger of it, the viciousness, the way that it is not part of the sufferer but a whole new entity, external and uncontrollable. A wild animal, an untamed beast - not something that you want to domesticate and welcome in, arms open. David Foster Wallace called it "the great white shark of pain". For Churchill, it was more like a black dog on his shoulder. When I was younger, and too young to really understand the nuances and intricacies of what was happening to me, I referred to it as 'the bugs'. It seemed logical at the time - I felt as though I was being devoured from the inside, slowly, by tiny creatures who had no mercy or limits.

It's impossible to deny the strength of both Wallace and Churchill's images, as they manage to convey the ferocity with which depression can attack you - after all, black dogs are notoriously regarded as being dangerous and unlucky, and a great white shark kind of speaks for itself (I'm assuming that the two people who read this blog are as obsessed with Jaws as I am). When I talked about depression as 'the bugs', it was an attempt to describe the self-disgust I felt - but one that was larger than just disliking myself, or pitying myself, because it was bigger than myself. Somehow, the whole world was involved in a way that I couldn't quite wrap my head around. All I know is that it made me feel frustrated, and depressed, and like a total failure. Like, I couldn't even experience a break in mental health in the right way! And who manages to fuck up depression? I mean, I spent a lot of time throwing pity parties for myself in my online journals (so what's changed, really?) but I could still function, I could still leave my bed and go to school and go through the motions of being a normal 12 year old, and then a normal teenager, and then a normal adult. Except for, you know, the times when I couldn't. But I soon covered those episodes up by adopting the adorable trait of 'lazy fuck', in an attempt to fool others (and myself) that any time I didn't leave my bed for days was through choice. What I didn't realise then is that depression is actually less of an animal and more of a shape-shifter. It doesn't always attack in the form of dead-eyed anhedonia.

And, just so you know, I'm not sure that I've ever experienced depression as pure anhedonia, ever. Actually, to me, that seems like it would be some kind of a relief - caring about nothing, sleepwalking through life, untouched by everything. Of course, this is a stupidly idealistic view - I'm sure it's horrific to those who experience depression in this way, because nothing about depression is ever relieving, or positive, or comforting, or appealing. I remember being given many questionnaires to fill out by my doctor and, later, a psychologist, during my teenage years - one question that always appeared was "Have you lost interest in activities you used you enjoy, such as reading or socialising?" and my answer was always a frustrated no - like, it's not that I've lost interest in these things, it's just that I am so permanently  and constantly distracted by the pure psychic pain in my head that even the concept of paying attention to anything else is just a total write-off. Like, one thing I've never been able to understand is when some people - doctors, friends, journalists - refuse to entertain the idea that depression is a physical issue as well as mental. That it is only anhedonia and that it does not hurt. Because it does, to me, at least - most of the time it hurts like I've taken a beating. It is exhausting and painful and it wears you down, either slowly or quickly, but either way it basically wants to obliterate you.

To me, one of the ways in which it does this is by completely removing your ability to empathise, or to feel any kind of emotion except obsession with your own psychic pain. It might seem hypocritical that I'm quoting David Foster Wallace just after emphasizing lack of empathy or understanding of others, but I read this paragraph the other day and I felt as though I'd been whacked round the head by Dave himself, like he was saying "Of course I'm still here, you big idiot, isn't it obvious that I can read your mind and that I've never really left your brain?" Like, if I was infinitely smarter and more eloquent, this is how I would describe depression:
 It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also throughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.
David Foster Wallace, you give me life. And like, after reading the above paragraphs and being whacked with understanding and empathy and consciousness in a way that has literally never happened to me when reading about depression before, I started thinking - why do we refuse to talk about psychic pain in the same way that we talk about physical pain? Why is it socially acceptable to discuss every private inch of your body (which you know I'm an advocate of, naturally) but only skim the surface of the mind? Why has it taken me 23 years to find one or two paragraphs that I can relate to, in terms of mental illness? And even then, they are paragraphs from the novel of a dead man. Why do I always develop gruesome stomach bugs when on the phone to my manager during a sick day? Why is it preferable to be thought of as spending your week puking and shitting out your intestines, rather than admitting the truth and saying, "I'm depressed"? Why is mental illness still so taboo? I mean, I'm disgustingly private to a fault, so you know something is fucked up with the way society views mental illness if even I feel as though I should be allowed to air my dirty laundry without raising any eyebrows.
There seems to be a hierarchy when it comes to mental health issues, too. Like, I will never have an issue telling people that I have problems dealing with anxiety, and no one bats an eyelid if I mention it - I think this is because of the way that anxiety is presented to us, as being a simple, manageable extension of something that normal, otherwise mentally sound people also experience. It is still viewed very much as a Thing, an illness, whereas depression seems to be viewed (and this is dangerous, in my opinion) as more of a character flaw. If you are depressed, that is a problem with your personality rather than an illness, and this is reflected in the way that depression is confronted - pull yourself out of it, cheer up, it can't rain all of the time  (ok I definitely just quoted The Crow and I apologise deeply for that, but it's staying.) Those kind of reactions just seem absurd to me now that I've accepted that depression is a manageable illness rather than one of my many gigantic personality flaws - kind of like telling a person who breaks their leg to just walk it off. No, you put a cast on it, and I take two different pills three times a day. And somehow we both end up less broken.

Now a confession - I'm not really sure where this post is going, or even where it has been (proofreading is for losers so enjoy my spelling mistakes!), or what the point of it all is - I guess it is my first step towards helping to end the huge taboo that surrounds discussing mental illness in public. I'm going to leave you with another paragraph from David Foster Wallace, because he managed to say all of the things that I never will, and he said them beautifully:
The so-called 'psychotically depressed' person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote 'hopelessness' or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling 'Don't!' and 'Hang on!', can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

I guess I'm going to end this by dedicating it to the putting out of flames by psychotic depressives everywhere - in honor and admiration and respect of the man who tried to, for all of us, but couldn't.