You are no doubt aware that in recent years the month of November has been co-opted into a fundraising event known as Movember, in which men grow facial hair to raise money for a variety of causes, including mental health charities. For reasons that will be made plain if you click to read more, this is something I’d like to discuss today; if that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, feel free to pass this post over and I’ll see you on Tuesday for more of the usual.
This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of my being tentatively diagnosed with clinical depression. 16 months prior, I had given myself 18 months to attempt to figure out why I felt so awful on a near-permanent basis, and if no solution was forthcoming I had resolved to kill myself at the end of 2007. Why 18 months? I have no idea. Why suicide? Well, because that’s what depression did to me; it made a lot of sense at the time. It snuck up on me craftily, rubber-soled, the death by a thousand cuts. By the time you realise you’re bleeding, what difference can one extra cut make? It is, after all, only a little more blood.
It never occurred to me that I was depressed. Depression, if I ever thought about it, meant sadness, and I wasn’t merely sad — I hated myself and I was so thoroughly sick of feeling so disconnected and separated from everything around me, of the person this had made me become, that simply sadness wouldn’t come close to covering it. My inability to function in a normal and easy way cost me a lot of friendships while at university; something fundamental about me didn’t feel right, and had steadily worn me down to the point that even I lost patience and interest. Engaging in basic things was a fight that I did not have the energy for a lot of the time, and through a series of long-gestating justifications — really, the most amazingly watertight justifications — I had come to accept that I would always be like this, that this was my lot in life.
It was not a life I wanted. Thus, I did not wish to live.
As part of what I do professionally — we’ll come to that — I reflect upon my own depression fairly regularly, and when I realised this anniversary was due I knew I wanted to acknowledge it in some way. Then it occurred to me that a lot of my time is also spent wrapped up in impossible crimes and, my brain being the way it is, the following analogy was born. This might be the closest I’ve ever come to explaining it accurately in words, and I know full well that it does not speak for everyone’s experience with this disease, so if you see any flippancy in the following, well, it is not intentional.
Like the best GAD stories, it must take place in a small environment and with a limited number of characters, all of who play some part. Our setting, then, shall be my brain, hermetically sealed — last time I checked — inside the locked room of my skull, and populated with the standard stimulus-and-response metric on which most people operate: I stub my toe, I feel pain; I read a Gladys Mitchell novel, I feel anger; etc, etc. I understand the recent Pixar movie Inside Out employed a similar idiom; if you have seen that film (I have not) and it helps you picture what’s going on here, feel free to use that equivalence.
The periodic attacks of severe depression I experience, then, are the impossible thefts at the heart of my own life: the sudden vanishing of Captain Reason, or Mrs. Agency, the evaporation of the maid Hope, of the squire’s visiting cousin Joy — without warning, without cause, and frequently without anything approaching a taunting anonymous note, these things up and vanish from my brain, plucked clean out of watched rooms or locked cupboards, with nary a footprint in the snow to show for it. There is perhaps evidence of a struggle, they’re not ones to give up the ghost so easily, but mainly it is futile effort and they’ve gone…and no-one knows where, or when they’ll be returned.
If that joyous response is removed and the brain still has to process information that should elicit that response, the normal channels are disrupted. Some times, a lot of the time, this is something I can falsify; I’m aware that there’s an absence and that my brain is not giving out what it should but, well, it’s been over a decade of this now and if Hope’s not there to dust the tops of the bookcases I can cope with dusty bookcases for a few hours. It is not fun, but it can be managed. If it also turns out the bins aren’t emptied, the beds aren’t made, the horses haven’t been fed, and she’s forgotten to press my suit for the Ball this evening (it’s a Country House Mystery, of course)…well, you will appreciate how irritation can build to frustration can escalate to panic. Sometimes Agency or Reason go off to find her as things seem to be getting out of control, and then they vanish too and the real trouble begins. Suddenly losing faculties on all sides, it’s this sort of experience that very much puts the press in my depression.
I spend at least some part of every day wrangling with the resigned fury of never really knowing my own mind. Every fleeting irritation could simply be that someone has stepped into another room and didn’t hear me call them, or it could be a harbinger of the revelation that I’m about to follow them and find them equally departed. I feel like a cat jumping at shadows sometimes, every single flicker of mood analysed and weighed against the risk of a depressive episode coming on. It is exhausting. There are perhaps four or five days a year where the attacks are too severe to even contemplate kicking against, and everything is just swept aside, everyone fleeing the house and leaving me with no-one to lean on. Imagine opening your front door to find your entire house gutted, everyone inside snatched away, lost. That’s the sudden bracing descent into the screaming echo chamber that is my own mind at war with itself. Sometimes the only option is to give up until it passes. They all, eventually, come back, piecemeal. We rebuild the house together and tell ourselves it’s just as good as it was before.
I have to keep an eye on all of them. If I can herd them into a single room I can keep them safe, but you can’t live your whole life in one room of a house. Someone needs the toilet, someone else has to cook the meals. Most of the time they come back safely, sometimes they don’t. And I have to live with the futility of wanting to keep them protected: even if I could be everywhere at once, they would still get taken. This is an impossible crime story, after all; no-one is safe.
It should be, then, that the SSRI medication I take daily is cast as the Genius Amateur Detective who swans in and, after some initial struggle, lays the whole enterprise bare and prevents all such crimes happening ever again. Alas, it is perhaps closer to the well-meaning but ultimately bungling bobbies of the local police force, who are tasked with keeping and eye on the denizens of the house and ensuring no-one goes in or out. Sure, they may frustrate the criminal’s plans, restricting his access and thwarting some of his approaches, but only temporarily. For every occasion that a shadowy figure is glimpsed running away from the house, disappearing amidst the snow-covered trees in the nearby woodland, there’s a time that Constable Myers is looking the wrong way, more concerned about his ailing mother, or a confusion of shifts means two people are watching the house but no-one is guarding the garages. The depression always gets in, eventually.
The truth is, there is no Gideon Fell analog here, no saving, salving presence that opens up to ridicule the idiocy of such episodes and sweeps everything away forever. This is that most frustrating of impossible crimes: all setup, no solution. When something is taken and returned, there is the certainty that it will be taken once again behind that grateful return. We never find the secret passage, or break the alibi of the chief suspect, and so on and on and on it rolls, and all I can do is throw blockers in the way of an assault that can come from any direction and at any time. Exercise helps; talking doesn’t help but neither does it make things worse; but, man, it is difficult to constantly be on guard.
How does my profession come into this? I teach. I teach teenagers, an age group in which incidents of mental health are unsurprisingly common. And so I talk about my own difficulties with this illness because…well, if there’s a criminal on the loose then someone really should put up some posters warning the public: Have You Seen This Man? If You Suspect Something, Say Something. We watch the ports, we post a notice at all the airport desks, but you have to know who you’re looking out for before they cause even more havoc elsewhere. I talk about my depression, my meticulously-planned suicide, my escalating isolation, the gut-clenching terror of the perceived pointlessness of all endeavour, because it is so obviously wrong and my brain still found — ha, get me, writing about it in the past tense — still finds a way to convince me it is right. And if it strikes even the faintest chord with one person, if it gets them to consider their own responses and perhaps set them on a path to realisation that all is not well in their perception of the world…well, maybe that will save them the agony of never knowing. That alone would make it worthwhile.
Because, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, do not underestimate how difficult it can be to ask for help; the ability to logically recognise an aberrant thought process is flawed, the responses a healthy brain would generate no longer there, and the justifications and temporising hastily constructed to explain this take a lot of breaking down. And even when broken down, there is no relief in admitting to these sorts of thoughts — of staggering inadequacy, of suicide, of self-harm, of the utter despair at knowing your brain is poisoning itself — because this is how the disease gets you: Reason went off looking for Hope who disappeared trying to track down Joy. And this is a a daily or a weekly event, remember, it just happens without cause, and has become as acceptable and reasonable as the ticking of the clock that fills the empty space left behind. You don’t ask why the clock ticks any more than you notice the absence of your guests, almost because you fail to remember that they should be there in the first place.