One accusation that is frequently made of those who suffer from depression is that arises out of too overriding a focus on self, on being too self-absorbed. This is manifest nonsense in my experience. My innumerable character flaws emphatically do not include self-centredness, which is not to claim that I do not have my introspective moments, but my depression is invariably and indubitably at its worst when my focus is on the world around me, or the universe at large. It’s my environment which appals, irks, terrifies and depresses me.
Another common misconception is that depression is a symptom of weakness of character. If that’s the case, then an extraordinarily high percentage of the greatest minds and most influential individuals in the history of the world had weak characters. As an example, let’s take Churchill, not because I’m a fan of his, but because most people will at least have heard of him. Rightly or wrongly, he is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most significant politicians. He also spent an inordinately large amount of time fighting off what he called “the black dogs” of depression. His technique? To drink himself into a state of stupor every day. Whatever influence Churchill had on the outcome of the second world war – and I realise that that’s a highly contentious question – was achieved by a predominantly depressed and sizzled mind. Not that that’s what history remembers him for, of course – such things tend to get glossed over.
No, depression is neither a symptom of self-absorption or of weakness of character. It is simply one of the many unpleasant things a blind and equivocal universe inflicts on people, no different in that respect to the common cold, pneumonia, tonsillitis, Parkinson’s Disease, deafness or cancer. My favourite comparison actually is a broken leg, which like depression can affect anyone, regardless of how strong their bones are. When you have a broken leg if you attempt to do many of the things you normally take for granted, such as (most obviously) walking you experience only pain and, ultimately, failure. It’s exactly the same with depression. I normally enjoy things like watching films, listening to music, playing with the dog, going to the pub for a drink with friends – the list is really quite extensive. At the moment, all these things cause me acute pain, sometimes to the point of being unbearable. For “broken leg” read “broken soul”.
At this time of year it’s customary for people to consider what they’d like for Christmas. The only thing I’d like is to stay out of hospital, as I know that it would cause Laura considerable hardship and distress. So far, at least, I’m managing to go through the motions, no matter how dreadful I feel inside. Last Tuesday I managed to travel to Sheffield to meet a couple of my sisters for a pre-Christmas drink. The way I did it was to stand outside myself and watch this “other me” do everything. Nevertheless, there were numerous prolonged silences on my part, which hopefully my sisters will have interpreted as me being polite by letting them engage in some “girl talk”, but actually were just a side-effect of me trying desperately to hold it together.
Even more amazingly, on Wednesday night I had to organise and run a table soccer competition. I still don’t know how I managed to get out the front door. My first game was a blur of suicidal thoughts, self-recrimination and despair at the universe, during which I deliberately contrived to lose. By that stage, I’d had enough, and decided to slip quietly away and go home, but my conscience got the better of me. Consequently, I stayed, took a leaf out of Churchill’s book and had two stiff double brandies. I honestly can’t remember the details of what happened after that except that the recorded scores indicate that I played well and won a trophy, which I threw away in disgust the next morning.
Since then, I’ve coped by taking things a few minutes at a time, and drugging myself up when possible so that I sleep a lot. Writing this has taken an age and it probably reads terribly.
The fact that depression is a source of such constant, unmitigated pain is no doubt the reason so many depressives take the ultimate step of ending their lives. As for me, I’ve only ever once had a genuine, overriding suicidal urge. That was in 1970, shortly after returning from heaven to hell – sorry, I mean from Australia to England. Everything seemed so dour, bleak, unforgiving, hostile and dirty, and I honestly couldn’t take any more. I was in deadly earnest about killing myself, but I was only fourteen and fortunately proved too naïve and cowardly to actually do it. Almost certainly though, unless I die before Laura, one day I will.