A bout in the ring with the black dog this week. There’s never a winner so sport metaphors are fundamentally flawed but it does feel like a fight rather than a dance. In reflecting on what it is like to live with depression from inside it, I will use the first person. I don’t know what it is like for anyone else and indeed this illness is fundamentally isolating, so it is doubly hard to create any sense of connection at all from within it, let alone with my fellow travelers. Also, I chose first person to remind us both that this is a moment in time that I want to share with you as honestly as I can – not a story ‘about a friend’ or as an academic survey or a summary of therapy and help options. All these things already exist elsewhere and by people better qualified than me, I’m just someone living with depression who this week can think of nothing more useful or honest than describing what that is like.
I’m crazy to tell you I have depression
By the way this is not sympathy fishing or for pity or some kind of release for me. After all I’d be crazy to tell the world I have depression. Who’d hire someone like that or be friends with them!? Well apart from that, from inside this place, those are not emotional states or exchanges I require. They don’t make any sense in here. I’m motivated because I know other people are curious about what it is like and generally they’re too polite or thoughtful to ask (or of course they have their own journey in these lands). In this place I am not verbally capable of answering and generally I work hard to hide this experience. This time I am doing something different. I’m telling the truth as gently and carefully as possible, but the truth nonetheless. If you’re uninterested in reading, I understand completely. I’m uninterested in continuing to experience this, so you have my sympathy.
Living through a depression is for me an experience of involuntary retreat. I can see my normal self at a distance. I have some limited access to the positive emotions of that person however not very much to the positive ones. I know I’m eating delicious food and it is a beautiful day but there is no connection to the sensation of pleasure or the emotion of joy. The bright colours of my clothes feel grey. They are part of my camouflage to try and act normal, to get by in the normal world.
A hollow world
My world today is hollow, grey and has no taste. I am become a meaningless burden on society and the earth. My body is sorrow and I am dissolved into nothing. Through that umbilical thread that connects me to my normal self, I can see that this hurts those who love me and that they’re reaching out, trying and wanting to help me. My normal self feels guilt for their pain and shame at this involuntary weakness. From where I am now, I brush it off. I smile (yes, I know it looks fake but I’m trying ok) and say ‘it is ok, I’m sure it will pass soon’ or some such distraction. It is a white lie that makes my normal self feel a little better about the cleanup she’ll have to do when it is all over and she hopes to still have friends. She’s aghast that I’ve decided to write this today but respects my decision and reasons to do so. She’s given her commitment to stand by it later, but I know that she’s worried about it. Selfish cow. As I like to remind her – we’re all in this together.
I am one, I am many
Does it make you uncomfortable that I’m speaking about parts of myself in the third person? It is something that helps me remember that the hollow lands of depression are not the only place I am a citizen. There are times when this me who survives these times of annihilation is just a memory too. When I didn’t have this technique, thoughts of suicide were common inside this place. After all the normal me was completely lost then in the maze. When no joys can be felt or even remembered, the hollowness that stretches out is unbearable.
Compartmentalising things is useful and so is keeping chunks of time in short bursts. There can be no far horizons in this place. Keep to just now as much as possible. For me this means the routines of life need to be honoured. Gentle exercise, scheduled tasks, as many as possible of the responsibilities of normal life need to be maintained. My normal self knows that these all contribute to alleviating the length and severity of the bout overall. They also help in hiding what is going on for such useful purposes as staying employed. I do all these things and it is an autopilot setting. It is not infallible. It feels stupid, but normal me knows it helps. I’m no brave little soldier, I need my time under a blanket too, but just as easily I can stop and sit and the day will pass unheeded around me.
So many days gone by
That’s what I used to do before I understood what this was and what was happening to me. When I was little it was seen as “being moody” and not simply snapping out of it was considered a belligerent act of rebellion. I can’t begin to unpack that right now, irony is also too subtle for this state. It was a long time ago, so it doesn’t really matter, but in hindsight there were so many days where I was lost in the hollow lands. I wish I’d had some help sooner, but I had no way of asking for it, nor of accepting it had it come.
Help did eventually come in the unusual shape of the suggestion in my normal life to help others whenever possible. This simple thing ended up creating a radical shift. We could summarise it as ‘learning how to be nice’. One of the life-altering outcomes of this that effortlessly translates from normal life over into the hollow lands is that I got a dog. I wanted someone to love and care for that wouldn’t be too harsh about my failings as a human and I had no idea that I would forever after be the greater recipient. Even in the hollow lands, that little dog fearlessly and lovingly trots next no me, happy to walk if I walk and happy to nap under the blanket too.
I’m trying to find a silver lining in the dark grey cloud, and it would be that little dog. His love built the bridge that I use to travel back to normal land. He taught me that love can survive even in the hollow lands and there could have been no greater gift for me. It lead me into a happy future, where this is a place I only visit, not live.