Thursday, 21 April 2016

Don't keep depression under your hat...

I think I was vaguely aware through social media that this was National Depression Awareness Week,  just as I've been vaguely aware of similar days or weeks for years, and vaguely aware of the growing media interest in mental health issues generally.

Vaguely aware because - in spite of having written a novel about depression - I've never really felt able to acknowledge or face my own feelings on the subject. (Even the novel was written in the voice of a teenage girl in a pathetic attempt to avoid embarrassing questions!)

The truth is I suffered from depression - was hospitalised with it - in my teens. For six long months of medical intervention I gradually improved to the point where I could function. But it was years before I actually felt 'better'.

Why am I telling you this now? Two reasons. One, a harrowing report on the Today Programme yesterday morning about what it's like to be a nine-year-old with depression, Two, an article I read by Tim Lott in The Guardian, in which, among other things, he said:

I have a suspicion that society, in its heart of hearts, despises depressives because it knows they have a point: the recognition that life is finite and sad and frightening.

Actually, there's a third reason, too. A conversation with my wife over supper about a pupil she teaches who is currently being treated but who - get this - since turning 18 and being moved to 'adult services' is marooned on an island of medical isolation while the school (which, of course, has a statutory duty of care) is blanked by the agencies that have suddenly taken over this person's welfare.

I don't know quite why this combination of factors finally made a difference. I do know why I've been reluctant until now to talk about it. There are people I know who still regard depression and similar afflictions as a sign of moral weakness. (Mind you, the same people sometimes regard physical illness in a similar fashion.)

So what I'd like to contribute to the debate is this:

Depression is erosion, slow erosion, wearing you to nothing. Depression leaves you nothing but a shell - not even ill. It’s not an illness – can’t be. If you’re ill then there’s a ‘you’ that is ill. But when depression strikes you haven’t got a chance. There is no ‘you’. You’re dead already: finished; empty. No-one knows that - nobody. 

Those are my words. I wrote them. I put them into the mouth of my protagonist in Writing Therapy. But they're based on my experience. Anyone who assumes depression is anything remotely akin to feeling 'sad' or 'miserable' or even 'depressed' hasn't got a clue. Depression isn't anything you feel. It's the complete and utter absence of feeling, of all feeling necessary to function.

Sometimes people say they feel depressed in the same way some people with the common cold claim to have had the 'flu. The key word here is 'feel'. If you feel anything, you're not depressed. Not really. Depression takes you over, hollows you out and leaves you with nothing but an aching, hurting, cold black void.

But that contradiction lies at the heart of the matter. Because whether depression is organic, to be cured by balancing brain chemistry, or behavioural, to be treated psychologically, it's real.

And yet its reality is fundamentally a denial of all that is real.

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