I have re-edited this post for World Mental Health Day on October 10th 2013. I know it’s early but unfortunately depression is always relevant and I want to put this out there because so much other writing made me feel less alone and I’d like to contribute to that. Winston Churchill famously referred to his gloomy periods as his ‘Black Dog’. My own Black Dog has been with me since puberty, over three decades now, and will doubtless be with me until the end. Life was great before the age of 12, I had a childhood roaming the fields at the back of our house, I was good in school, I was confident, more of a leader than a follower. That all changed when I hit puberty. For people who are to suffer from long-term depression, or whatever you want to call it this is the time when it often makes itself felt. From that time life became a confusion of greyness characterized by constant pain-physically in my chest, psychologically everywhere-and extreme mental fuzziness. I had a Five-Year Diary at this time, one of those pretty ones with a little lock on it. I had nothing to put in it. Every day I put Nothing Much Happened in it, shortened eventually to NMH. I have often thought I will get carved on my grave stone. I was miserable and bad-tempered. I had no idea what was wrong. Or that anything was wrong. To those on the outside I was just an awkward sullen child and I assumed they were right. It took me decades to figure it out. Over the course of my life very few people have guessed what was going on inside. In fact I don’t think anyone has.
I struggled through school, going from being a good scholar to barely scraping through. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life, to be honest I didn’t think I was able to do anything. My self-esteem was non-existent. I thought I was the ugliest girl on the planet, not helped by what I perceived to be the hostility of the local boys. A lot of these feelings have stayed with me to the present day. When I left school, I went to art college, against the wishes of my parents. I really thought when I left school everything would become better. I know now of course that it wasn’t school that was the problem. My determination petered out there and I didn’t have the clarity to push to do Fine Art which I wanted to and I ended up doing Graphic Design. My 20s were characterised by a lot of unemployment~though I did have two jobs I got made redundant from~and a lot of drinking. I knew there was something missing but everything was still unclear. My head was just fuzz. I didn’t know what I liked or didn’t like, I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know anything except that it would take a long time for me to unravel the knot that was permanently lodged in my chest. In the meantime I would need something to get me through the literally aching hell that was every day life. It was drink that saved my life, which I know is not something I am supposed to say. I would not recommend it as a course of action to combat depression. If I had a good therapist it would not have been necessary, or more likely if Prozac had been available I wouldn’t have needed to self medicate. But Prozac hadn’t been invented them.
I did on occasion end up sitting down by the river after closing time, crying and contemplating the leap. But I would have done that sober. In fact, sober, I wouldn’t be here, I am sure of it.
In the mean time the pub gave me a community of sorts and even though it was a painful and miserable time, this milieu enabled me to practise becoming a person and even helped to establish my identity as an artist and eventually get me work. I had actually begun attending a therapist and continued to do so monthly for 9 years. Initially this was good but he was pretty useless and didn’t give a damn about anything except the money he was getting from the Health Board. I didn’t know this at the time, I just thought it didn’t work because I was a hopeless case. Through my 20s, I pushed myself to do things I was terrified of and I was terrified of everything. I got involved in theatre and film. I remember being asked to design my first set and saying ‘yes’ and then crying and crying from sheer terror. I enjoyed it eventually and though I did not, and still don’t, have the ability or energy or social skills to build on this to make a coherent career, the experiences served to build some confidence.
I travelled a little, to France, to Belgium. I did a lot of drawing and entered a few pieces for exhibition. And I started to paint. I made friends, some of whom are still here, long after the alcoholic fug has cleared. I don’t know why, but I am grateful. They were dark times. The only way I can describe it as is to say I was buried two miles underground. Sometimes I was wandering in dark brown caverns, the huge flickering shadows on the wall were the people around me who I could not connect with. Sometimes I was buried in a grave the size of my body. Trying to relate to people was like talking underwater or screaming and screaming and no sound coming out. It was relentless. Every day, every day, for weeks, months, years and then decades.
Most of this time I was sick with colds or throat infections. At one point I was getting some kind of cold every 4 to 6 weeks. I used to get vicious tonsillitis. One time I even grew a pustule on my face. I still have the scar. I ended up taking a lot of antibiotics which has probably contributed to later hearing difficulties. As my 30th birthday approached I thought that things would change, they would become different. I would become a person. When I did not, I suffered some sort of mental breakdown. I was homeless for a while when a friend rented me a small bed sit with a massive TV where I spent 4 months in bed. At this point the drink was no longer working for me and I was just sick of it, the constant greyness, the constant struggle so I decided I would turn on the gas and stick my head in the oven. This I duly did and waited. And waited. And waited. The oven, it turned out, was not working.
I was lifted out of this hell by the rare occurrence of a man in my life. He did not care for me, he was only looking for company for a month or so but it was enough to set me on my feet again for a while but by the end of that year I was slipping so I decided to run away, something I hadn’t really tried before. I headed for Holland and the bulb fields.
I eventually ended up in Amsterdam and it was there, on the back of a book I had read, Prozac Nation, that I first went on medication and got myself a really good therapist. The author of Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel was diagnosed with Atypical Depression and as this book described my own experience so well I also believe it is what I suffer from. I know certain people will think that pain and hurt are the province of people who have been physically abused or who have lived in terrible poverty or in war zones. Well they are welcome to that thought but in my view the causes of Atypical Depression are less obvious and so can be less easy to deal with. This is condition that can affect apparently functional, successful people. It was at this point I started to take my depression seriously. Up until then I still half thought that I was imagining it or making it up and that one day I would wake up and be “normal”. It was when I realised it was real and separate thing from me that I could start to fight it.
We say in Irish that “The happiness is upon me(Tá áthas orm)or the sadness is upon me(Tá brón orm) not “I am sad” or “I am happy”. In Irish the emotion is always separate from who we really are. Its worth remembering. I came to realise that the depression wasn’t me and I started getting glimpses of the spirit in me, the young me, the bubbly me, the happy me that, as I get older, I think I am accessing more and more. My therapist in Amsterdam, Susan, was great. We did a certain amount of digging into my past but for the most part she challenged me in my daily life. It was from her that I learned to engage with people rather than shut them out, to express feelings in a controlled way rather than bottle them up. Susan also told me that if she could only tell me one thing it would be to honour my feelings. That’s not necessarily to act on them but to acknowledge them.
The other thing she told me was that I would mostly likely have been dead at that point if it wasn’t for my anger. I started to honour my anger, to see it as the energy that got me to my feet again. And this anger, I believe is buried deep under everyone’s depression. I will not say my depression stopped here but I did feel like I was finally on the surface of life, no longer buried. I stayed on medication for two and a half years and found it very helpful, at least initially. Emerging from long-term depression brings a whole new set of problems. You will find that you are a long way behind all of your peers in terms of career, confidence, relationships, social abilities and so forth and I think often times this gap cannot be eliminated. In the last ten years I have put down roots in Ireland. I gave up drinking for 5 years and withdrew a lot, which wasn’t in retrospect very smart but I got a lot of painting done. I eventually began to make connections again. I have never managed to close the gap between myself and my more successful peers but I really believe a lot of that is down to my chronic hearing problems which make me shy away from connecting, rather than depressive tendencies. I cannot say I have beaten depression and in fact in the past few years have been quite hard exacerbated by the standard female hormonal issues of middle age. Hormones I am starting to think have played a large roll in all this misery from the start. They just don’t suit some of us. Bring on the menopause and childhood number two I say… I tried taking Lexapro last year and it deepened my depression into something very dark so I would advise caution now when it comes to taking pills. They don’t suit everyone all the time. With middle-age I am still dogged with negative feelings, feelings of having failed at everything but then maybe that is a common enough for this time of life and possibly I am lucky that I have learned how to handle life when these feelings threaten to overwhelm me. I have learned that the pain in my chest is stress and anxiety and it can be soothed. I have learned meditation. I have learned that simple things like eating and exercise can make the difference. I have learned to get in the moment. I have learned when to stay in bed and when to force myself to get out and about. I have learned to have some compassion for myself despite the negative harpies that still constantly chatter at me telling me how useless I am. I am learning to be grateful(though in these days of social media and being constantly barraged with how fabulous everyone is I confess I find it hard). When I was younger I hated myself, thought I was stupid, wrong, a dud that should be sent back to the shop. I still feel like this sometimes but more and more I am learning to separate these feelings from who I am. These days I love myself fiercely. After a life time of doing things that scare me I know now I have more than a little chutzpah. Only I know all the things I have been through, all the times when it was impossible to take another step but I did anyway, out of sheer bloody-minded stubbornness because in the end that’s what beats it. Getting up again for no reason just because…just be-fucking-cause. That’s all. Maybe it’s because in getting up again I am proving to myself that I am worth fighting for. I am still here, feet on the ground, or sometimes knees on the ground, or face on the ground. I am getting to know what I am made of, all of it:the awkward bits, the sad bits, the contrary bits, the delusional bits, the stupid bits, the weird bits and most certainly the angry bits. All of me, I am here.