Depression and a journal of revelations

I have kept a journal these past twenty years; not rigidly I confess – I am neither very disciplined nor imbued with the talent to catalogue the minutiae of every waking second – but it has been there to record and recollect my emotions and dark feelings on specific occasions. And the reason the journal has been less about documenting events and more about the workings of my dark shadow is that I suffer from depression.

My goodness it is a difficult read, even for me: tear-stained, pathetic, whimsical and at times vitriolic, it is an account of a thirty-eight year struggle to understand the form and manifestation of an illness that is uniquely individual. For each of us who suffer from it, we know it better than we know our closest loved one and ironically ourselves. At times it becomes a personification and at others, appears to us as a string of adjectives; very few other illnesses can claim our powers of description in this way or push our imagination into its corners looking for the edges. The reason? We do not comprehend it fully, it appears vast, infinite even, and overwhelming – unlike a rash it does not seem tangible. This might be more so for those of us that have had a lifetime of it rather than a fleeting touch of its black wings, but one thing is certain, its dominance will stretch over all of us in familiar waves of apathy and debilitating impotence.

One depressive will immediately empathise with another depressive even though the cause of their depression might come from opposing directions. At the nub of both opposite poles might be dissipating self-esteem and a loss of control which inevitably leads to a heavy mood so entrenching, that we lose function and ability to fight through it. We feel we have been snared in a jungle that grows exponentially with only a penknife to hack at it. In such situations when I have my ‘anvil mood’ as I call it, it is all that I can muster to sit on my bed and stare at a spot on the wall for days on end. Endless repetitions of action and thoughts fill my days: listening to the same song one hundred times a day, slapping on face cream every ten minutes – an almost complete breakdown of function where all extraneous noise and distraction is filtered out.

It took about twenty years for me to understand what was happening during these periods of comparative total inertia. Then after one such episode of self-imposed shutdown, I had a revelation. I realised that the reason for these time-outs were in fact so that I could have just that, a revelation. The distress I suffered was so totally crushing, that my brain could not surmount its difficulties without partial shutdown.

During our calmer periods when we confront our problems without depression tripping us, and we allow our brain its time each night to navigate through obstacles and conundrums, we approach every day with a readiness to overcome each stress that beset us. This is disturbed by the constant trickle of hits we take over time until, implosion. Then the negative mass that steadily accrues becomes remarkably large that no answers are forthcoming when we lay down our heads each night, or we share a chat and a coffee with a friend. This mass is incredibly burdensome, it takes a breakdown or several to tackle its force; therefore the revelations are hard fought for and come so infrequently it might take a lifetime, but they do come.

It can take days or it can take months, but eventually the journal becomes the receiver of an all new understanding of this condition. No group therapy can do this, no counsellor who assures you they are only there to prod you in the right direction can reveal these wonders manifold. None of these things have worked for me anyway.

And it’s not just the nature of my own depression that is revealed, it is often something deep within the layers of the illness itself that emerges. Those counsellors who sit opposite us and sagely tell us depression is anger would probably be surprised by a journal entry from earlier this year: depression is love I wrote. It is self-love. If you sit and wonder just how low your own self-value has fallen think of your depression because it tells you one thing: you value yourself so much to care about the state you are in. Your brain has told you, ‘Love, you cannot carry on trundling through life with this burden. Now is the time to act. And if you don’t act I’ll do it for you.’

Yes it is a conversation between two halves: a push-me pull-me. It was there long before I realised it was. Standing on the stairs at work, having spent months defiantly fighting off an illness I could not understand, I realised I could not descend the remaining steps: my feet felt like they were made of concrete – perhaps clay would be more apt? And my legs wobbled with weakness making any descent seem perilous; in the end I found crawling down the stairs was my only option. I was glad no one else was around to view my humiliation but within days I could not go out of the front door. So it had begun. During this time my brain had whispered to me that I could not fight this illness any longer and the impasse on the stairs was the signal that it wouldn’t let me go on being in denial.

Here is the love. While it might be true that all the knocks make us angry, it isn’t the depression that is the anger – not for me anyway, depression is the alarm bell. No matter how awful it might be it is there for a reason; it manages to manifest the cause of my troubles in ways that slip them out of my subconscious and into the physical:

Depression feels like your skull is about to cave in, depression feels like you are the scum of the earth, depression is a perpetual and constant grief: an… inexorable loss from which there is no recovery. Pain so deep that you have to clench your teeth together; distress so overwhelming that you body is in interminable panic; but above all things, depression is love, it is compassion.‘ Journal entry 15/03/2013

And what about the ‘voice’ of my distress once depression becomes a physical manifestation? I never found speaking about my problems useful, not in any real sense. I struggled for years to actually talk about them even in one to one therapy – my throat would close up when I came to speak about them and I could not make a sound. Finally it happened and then I was free to speak without throat paralysis; interestingly the pain moved to my hands and fingers every time I tried to speak or even write about the problems. I took this as cue that if I wrote about my ails without inhibition, the pain would go from my hands and probably move somewhere else. To date I have not tested this theory.

Instead I stoically soldier on using the only balm I know to dull the pain: a world of fantasy. The problem with fantasy is that it is an addiction; it solves nothing apart from protection against a head that feels as if it’s wrapped in honey soaked wool. In the end it becomes cyclical and only serves to perpetuate the misery I feel. And the guilt is enormous; I could eat twenty doughnuts and still not feel as bad. As ever, the alarums of my indulgences in the fantasy world serve a purpose and that is to notify me of an impending crash. The more I fantasise, the closer I get to a crash:

‘It’s like watching a blunt stone fall from the sky, waiting for it to hit you on the head. The problem is, you are both the victim and the stone.’ Journal entry 9/2/2013

I could of course seek solace in a crate of Jack Daniels; in contrast fantasy appears on the surface to be a harmless hiatus to the real world, when it is in fact far more damaging. ‘Nothing is real apart from the relentless, slow pace of nothing,’ I wrote on 21st October last year. I was achieving absolutely nothing by indulging in it apart from wasting my life.

When I started writing more seriously, I realised that fantasy was more useful than I had hitherto anticipated. All the time I was engaging in what I believed to be a pointless activity, I was actually increasing the size of the creative area of my brain. I quickly realised I had to ‘to turn my attention away from fantasy and channel that energy into writing… the pain transfers to the page, whereas in fantasy that energy dissipates and the pain is sated by imagined relief‘ – 23rd March. That relief, of course, is only temporary.

These changes to our brains happen whenever we do something habitually and new neural pathways are formed as a consequence. The habit of depression will actually change us physically; I’ve heard many sufferers say they would be different without it and that no matter how much they despise the condition, they feel enlightened by it and cannot let go. I do not want to hold on to my depression, I know that changing those neural pathways to something more positive will not alter a lifetimes experience and understanding of this illness.

My journal will always continue to hold these memories and save them for me; it will allow me to see the fragments of this illness, to unravel it from a disjointed tangled chain of connections, to a single thread: a new path to follow.