Depression: the one thing nobody talks about
There has been more open discussion about depression and mental health over recent years… but there’s one thing people don’t mention.
Having suffered with depression on and off for most of my teenage and adult life, I eventually had a nervous breakdown in 2010 (yes, I know I’ve just published a post about how there’s no such thing, but it’s easier than explaining the ins and outs of what happened that summer).
I was very luck to have a great manager at work, who literally sent me to my GP, telling me, Don’t come back until you are feeling better. I also had a brilliant GP, who made time to see me every Friday, to chat to me, to offer support. Each Friday morning I would wander to the surgery, talk to the doctor, collect a sick note for another week and then wander to the office to drop it off.
My GP would ask me whether I thought I needed to see an alcohol counsellor, and reassure me that my obsession with suicide was just a side effect of my medication. I could see that she cared and was genuinely worried about me, and I didn’t want to let her down — so I played along. I didn’t want to bother her any more than I already had, so I attended the appointments and went along with the assumption that I wanted to get “better” and back to “normal life” but there was one thing I didn’t tell her or anyone else:
I didn’t actually want to get better.
For me, this is possibly the worst thing about thisawful illness. It’s not that I wanted to stay depressed and miserable; rather that I felt the entire rest of society was somehow asleep, not conscious to the fact that we were all trudging through a pointless existence. How can you enjoy going to the cinema when people are dying/animals are suffering/the entire globe is on fire. I felt like “getting better” actually meant going along with these stupid people and their stupid “fun” who just didn’t grasp that the entire world was a dirty, suffering mess.
Perhaps I read too much Plath in my teens.
The thing about depression is that it grabs hold of you and wrings out any sort of desire to continue with anything — and nobody mentions it. I was of course convinced that my suffering was unique to me, and that nobody could possibly understand it — another facet of an illness that isolates us in any and all ways possible.
It’s sort of taken as given that if you’re depressed, of course you want to get “better” and go back to work and your old life. After all, if you had a broken leg or some other physical illness there would be no question as to whether you wanted to recover. It’s just what we do when we’re sick, right?
For me, the most dangerous part of my depression was the fact I had absolutely no desire to be better.
For me, “better” just meant “hoodwinked.” A brainwashed automaton, drugged up to the eyeballs (they kept increasing my medication in the hope it would work), programmed to conform and go back to my rightful place behind a desk just like everyone else.
Stop being a burden; ignore the sheer, unrelenting futility of every day life and get on with contributing to society. Go to work; earn money; buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like. Get drunk at the weekend and then begin it all again on Monday morning. That’s what life is all about, right?
I felt like Renton in Trainspotting when he does that fantastic Choose Life speech — except I hadn’t discovered heroin; I hadn’t discovered anything and that was the problem.
I honestly felt that people who were happy were really just woefully stupid and ill informed. They just couldn’t see what I could see: the sheer bleakness of real life. I felt that getting “better” wasn’t about feeling contented in my life so much as just learning how to ignore how shit everything really is.
I took a perverse pleasure in all of this; I would often see how far I could push it, how far I could stray from the “normal” path. With every step, I knew I was getting closer to a point from which I may not be able to return. But it didn’t stop me, because I didn’t want to return.
When I looked around, there were no examples of a happy life. It’s really hard to find someone who is genuinely happy in their life and not moaning or plodding along, waiting for the weekend or their next holiday or some other point in the future when they will be happy.
When there are no examples of happiness around you, it’s easy for depression to convince you that happiness is really just a concept and not a thing people actually experience.
Antidepressant medication does not make you happy. It patches you up without dealing with the underlying problem — like taking pain killers for a broken leg without actually getting a cast.
I did attend some group counselling sessions, while I waited for there to be a space in one-to-one counselling. But group counselling on the NHS is just a bunch of depressed people in a room with an overworked NHS worker reading hand-outs to them.
Nobody seems to acknowledge that the hardest part of dragging yourself out of the Bog of Eternal Stench is actually deciding you want to get out.
Perhaps they’re not aware! I think for many people, unless you’ve been to such a low point yourself, it’s a fair assumption that anyone who is suffering would want to get better.
This is why the standard advice is not always helpful.
When you’re depressed, you already know that things like getting outside for some fresh air, exercising or socialising with people will probably help. I certainly already knew these things — but I didn’t want to do them, because I didn’t want to lose the clarity I felt I had gained about the way things really are.
Depression is like someone leaning over your shoulder and whispering, she doesn’t really mean that or this is just pointless — all the damn time.
This is different from feeling that you don’t deserve to get better — also a common theme in depression — that your life is somehow not as important, you’re not valuable enough to warrant continuing past the end of the week. Rather, this is more a sort of extreme apathy or intertia, where you don’t see any real reason to want to continue past the end of the week, whether you deserve it or not.
For me, having a breakdown also became something of a career crisis. Once I’d been signed off work for a few weeks I realised I actually didn’t much like my job. I had stumbled into a career in financial services six years earlier and had worked my way up a few rungs of the ladder. My sights had been set on promotion, but now I realised I didn’t really like the work. It was the people I worked with who had made my job bearable, even enjoyable at times. When depression robbed me of my ability to communicate with those around me, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work.
In this respect, I didn’t want to get better because I didn’t want to go back to a job I didn’t like or a career in which I no longer had any interest. This was not so much laziness as the absence of any sort of desire to be good at my job. And because I was depressed, I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do instead.
The problem with depression is that you have to want to feel better in order to help yourself — and you have to help yourself in order to get better; nobody can do it for you.
The very nature of depression is that you don’t want to feel better, and are at best apathetic as to whether you live or die.
Why don’t we talk about this? Perhaps if conversations began with Look, I know you aren’t even sure you want to get better but would you at least come for a walk with me depressed people might feel more inclined to put their shoes on. I felt ashamed that people were trying to help me and I really just didn’t want to be better. I felt like this was yet another thing that was wrong with me; another ugly part of myself that I should hide from those around me, lest they find out the dirty truth. Another reason my depression, my suffering, must be so radically different from anything anyone else was experiencing. Because surely any normal person suffering with normal depression would want to be better. And I did not.
Sometimes, as an outside looking in at someone with depression, it can seem that they are wilfully refusing to get better — they are refusing to help themselves, to do anything that will help improve their mood. It can be so hard to maintain compassion for someone when they refuse to take even the smallest step towards recovery.
It’s also really hard to be depressed and to admit that actually you don’t want to get better. You don’t want to continue suffering as you are, but you also just don’t care one way or the other. Like flicking between two reality shows on TV; you don’t particularly care to watch either of them, but you also don’t dislike either of them enough to do something about it. This was depression for me: not liking or disliking anything enough to change the channel.
What can you do about it? I wish I had the answer.
Ruby Wax says that if Bill Gates had put his money into depression instead of malaria, we would have an answer by now. But he didn’t, and we don’t.
For some of us, we wait it out, telling ourselves This too shall pass. For some a friend or relative will step in and arrange for counselling and medication. A routine can help. Compassion and companionship from friends, without the pressure of trying to fix things can help — but these can also feel suffocating and overbearing, inducing huge levels of guilt, even with the best of intentions.
There is no one answer because although depression is a horrible disease that claws away at one’s very personality, each person’s experience of this is different.
What we can do is talk about it; to share our experiences and to say I felt like this, and now I don’t. Perhaps if more people do this, then those who are stuck at the bottom of a very deep hole might start to recognise traits of their own disease in our sharing. Perhaps they will be able to use these to build their own personal ladder towards daylight. Perhaps.