Back to black
There’s a global gloom as we find ourselves two years into a pandemic. But how does that feel for someone who has suffered from depression since childhood? Hannah Betts reports
Photography KATE PETERS
FRIDAY LUNCHTIME, in the wake of being photographed for this article, I head to my local café. On hearing what I’ve been up to, the barman tells me that there isn’t a moment now when he couldn’t just sit and weep. ‘And do you?’ I ask, knowing that one can long to cry, yet lack the energy to do so. He says he can. ‘And does it help?’ ‘I think so, although it doesn’t shift the despair.’ I ask whether he’s spoken to his doctor. ‘God, no,’ he scoffs. ‘I mean, everybody feels like this now, don’t they?’
Apparently, they do. My depression used to mark me out as special; ‘special needs’ my waggish brothers would say. Today, happy pills seem as commonplace as masks. ‘Postlockdown depression’, commentators have taken to calling it. The same thing happened post-war, disproportionate as the analogy is. People rally in extremis; it’s in calamity’s wake that they go into a decline, adrenalin spent, dismal reality restored. ‘Any idiot can face a crisis,’ as Chekhov may or may not have written, ‘it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.’
I lost two friends to suicide last spring, taking little fire crackers to the funeral of one, a single mother, to give to her 10-year-old twins. The other, I remember as being the most stable, level-headed of women. Did the pandemic play a part in their demise? One feels that it cannot have helped.
My own mood began to worry me at the end of the summer. When I finally went to have my medication altered in October – dragging myself to my (excellent) GP with an agonising, tectonic slowness, ashamed, despite knowing that no shame should attach – she told me that the incidence of depression feels like an epidemic; another epidemic, one should say.
Personally, I don’t know whether we are talking about collective depression here. Where some individuals may have had the condition triggered by post-lockdown gloom, more may be suffering a general flatness. In my experience – ‘lived experience’ as the buzz phrase goes – depression isn’t necessarily about things, it happens in spite of them; a chemical state that can be provoked by, but may be otherwise independent of, what is happening in one’s life.
Hence the redundancy – and malice – of the inquiry, ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’ which I have had levelled at me by both a cognitive behavioural therapist, after I confided that I was having suicidal thoughts, and the chap on a mental-health helpline who informed me I sounded too middle-class to require help.
Frankly, for me, even the well-meaning question, ‘What are you depressed about?’
My GP told me that the incidence of depression feels like an epidemic; another
epidemic, one should say
misses the point. There isn’t an about – life can be going swimmingly when I feel that old paralysis. At this contented point of my life, that’s how I know it’s depression, rather than some logical reaction to an event, which is surely what this post-lockdown flatness is?
My own depression is a tendency that has always been with me. As a child, my psychiatrist father would tell me that I was ‘mercurial’, ‘oversensitive’. The oldest of five – an atheist at four, a feminist at seven – I worried about my family and the world. In my late 20s, a pompous boyfriend would describe me as ‘having no gift for happiness’, while gaslighting me senseless. Still, he wasn’t wrong.
The event that spurred me into beginning to consider myself a depressive was my mother cutting off contact with me in my early 30s, for something I hadn’t done, encouraging my family to follow suit. Leaden with unhappiness for a year, there came a moment when I felt literally unable to move.
I sought therapeutic help for as long as I could afford it, self-medicating with alcohol when I couldn’t. The next great descent came in my late 30s (still ostracised by her), an angst that went past angst and terrified me that I wouldn’t be able to support myself. This time I chose to take the antidepressant citalopram, switching to the variant escitalopram last October.
In 2015, aged 43, I outed myself as a depressive in The Telegraph, when my editor asked whether I knew anyone who could write about the subject, and I answered: ‘Well, yes, me.’ Publicly acknowledging my state felt seismic. I wept writing it, as I weep writing about depression today. People – even close friends – were shocked. A former boss berated me: I had done a terrible thing, sabotaging my career and frightening my colleagues.
However, the fact that – as I was so often told – I was ‘the very last person anyone would imagine suffering from depression’ is what gave the revelation power. People from all around the globe contacted me to express gratitude, some saying it saved them from suicide. And so I continued in this policy of radical honesty, writing not only about depression, but alcoholism, anxiety, grief; putting pictures of my medication on Instagram; playing poster woman for all manner of s—tstormish things.
It’s different for me, of course: a certain exposure comes with my job. However, I found in this openness something emancipatory. It is our secrets that damage us, fester. The truth has brought me great solace, in the form of support, kinship, membership of a shared, if troubled, humanity that my reticence was never going to make me a part of.
Still, even as a ‘professional’ depressive, it
can prove curiously challenging to spot the black dog when it takes hold, to recognise that I’m not just a terrible person, as my mind insists. Frequently, it will be someone else who points it out, leaving me teary with thanks that I’m not going mad, I’m going under. Autumn’s bout will hopefully be a dip of just three or four months brought about by too much work/not enough living, while being a 50-year-old who still has periods. However, it might not have been had I not acted.
My chief symptom will be a missing brain, in its place a blank; a void beyond memory or word loss (although these figure) to become complete disconnection, from others and from myself. The phrase ‘I’ve got nothing’ could have been made for these occasions. I become unable to communicate, a walking wound, painfully sensitive to noise. Everyone is too loud, too fast, too much.
My lack of energy is extreme. Either I gorge on sleep, seeking refuge in 10, 13, 16 hours; or I am racked by insomnia, thoughts spiralling away into the past, like some interminable, drawn-out panic attack. My dreams are obscenely violent. Normal things become vast. I hate myself. I know I should ask for help. I don’t. I am utterly incapable of anything but work, which comes as a quotidian relief.
I keep a list of happiness-inducing activities for when my mind begins to absent itself: art galleries, the sea, Liberty’s button department. I try to maintain not merely ‘sleep hygiene’, but ‘life hygiene’: some degree of structure and nourishment, even where I lean towards the lawless.
I also refuse to draw a veil over the aspect of my illness that society still finds unspeakable. I have never been actively suicidal, but I can succumb to a certain suicidal ideation. There’s a vast difference between thinking about something and doing it, between a little, light ideation and having a plan (‘Do you have a plan?’ being the therapeutic question traditionally deployed here). However, for me, such thoughts can constitute a canary in the
It can prove curiously challenging
to spot the black dog when it takes hold, to recognise that I’m not just a terrible person,
as my mind insists
coal mine; a sign that I should take my mood seriously, seek help. In acknowledging these feelings, with luck I’ll be kept from the act.
I realise this is difficult to read. It’s difficult to write. However, along with my radical honesty, I’ve gained a certain radical acceptance. At long last, I’m better at being happy when I can be, have developed that ‘gift for happiness’. It’s just not my permanent state. And that’s fine. It’s OK. It’s who I am. I’m (almost) happy with it.
In My Own Words