Artwork by Nick Scott
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It's when people ask why that you feel most impotent. Guilty even. Why are you depressed? What's happened to make you feel so down? As if you don't feel bad enough in the first place, now you have to rationalize, or explain away, your depression.
It's no wonder that one of the symptoms of depression is self-loathing. Of course you're going to hate yourself when there's no bloody reason for feeling so bad. And yes, it only makes it worse when you know that there are people starving and homeless who have real cause to be miserable. You lacerate yourself for your self-indulgence.
And yet there's nothing self-indulgent about depression. It's an imbalance in the brain that makes you feel desperately bleak and/or terrified of everything around you. You don't need to have existential nausea, an intricately woven theory about the purposelessness of life. You don't need events to conspire against you. You don't need to lose your job. Though all these can help. You simply, sometimes, need the blip in the brain. And when you have the blip life loses all objectivity and stops making sense.
So, for example, you can't face getting up in the morning, and you wrap yourself like a sausage roll in your duvet and lie in the dark forever. Or you do get up and find yourself weeping uncontrollably in a supermarket for no obvious reason. (I spent years weeping every time my partner and I went to Sainsbury's on Saturday morning. I don't know why—I actually quite liked the place, but eventually she decided it was easiest doing the shopping by herself.) Or you find yourself playing dare in the road, recklessly weaving in and out of cars hoping for the worst. Or you don't dare go on the tube for fear of throwing yourself under—and yes, I know the terrible impact it would have on all who witness it.
For all my adult life my ambition has been to feel something that reflects the real world; happy because something good has happened, sad because something bad.
Or you're scared of looking people in the eyes because you constantly think you're going to be exposed, even if you're not quite sure what form that exposure will take—for being thick, a smart-ass, insensitive, oversensitive, liking someone, not liking someone, having nothing to say, you name it. Or you're so paralyzed by fear, or locked into your own world, that you stop being able to comprehend the basics—somebody might ask you the time, and you're incapable of answering because all you can hear in your head is the metronome clicking from side to side and it's suffocating all other thought.
I remember being on holiday one year in Greece with a girlfriend. It didn't help that we had no money, so we spent our waking and sleeping hours on a nudist beach surrounded by narcissistic hedonists who delighted in nothing quite so much as themselves. Every day I wished it would rain. Not because we would have an excuse for leaving the beach, but because I would have reason to feel shit. "We've come all this way to enjoy the fleshy delights of Greece and now it's pissing down. Damn. Life is cruel." And for all my adult life that has been my ambition—to feel something that reflects the real world; happy because something good has happened, sad because something bad.
And it is the curse of the depressive to be denied that seemingly simple ask. Unless, in my experience, they take pills.
I resisted antidepressants as a a teenager and young man. It was probably because my doctor put me on antidepressants when I, in fact, had encephalitis—inflammation of the brain—so I never much trusted the experts' diagnosis. Pills were a sign of failure, of madness, one step away from ECT and not that far removed from the full lobotomy. Anything but pills.
So at ten years old I was sent to see a hospital psychiatrist. She asked me to talk about how I felt, and then decided I had Münchausen by proxy, rather than encephalitis, and it was all my poor mother's fault. Turned out she—the psychiatrist, not my mom—was bonkers and used to run round the hospital naked regularly when the clock struck midnight.
A few years later, in the grip of genuine depression (many encephalitis survivors suffer depression for a variety of reasons—because their brain has been messed with, because they are left with disabilities or because they struggle with life afterwards), I went to another psychiatrist. How he enjoyed making me talk about what made me feel bad, how clever he seemed to think he was when he suggested my depression might have something to do with what I'd gone through. I didn't know what I was doing there, listening to a man absorb my life story and then reach a conclusion I already knew. I didn't want understanding, not even sympathy, I wanted help. Besides that, he was weird—a nice enough fella, but he was overweight, so he had his jaws clamped. That didn't do the trick. So he then had a stomach bypass operation, which eventually killed him. I had to sit in the room with the windows open because his stomach was so wrecked by the op that he trumped his way through every session I had with him.
Not long after I tried pills again. They made me catatonic. Zombie pills. Whereas before I just wanted to sleep through the days, these pills actually made me do so. Of course, you're not going to feel so bad if you're totally out of it, but it ain't much of a life. I came off the pills.
The change was astonishing—I didn't become a shiny happy person, but I did stop crying all the time.
For the next decade or so, I survived without shrinks or pills. I cried my way through life, wrapped myself up in the sausage roll duvet, and just about got through. Everything was good in life—I had my dream job at the Guardian, great partner, kids, friends—and yet I still felt like shit.
Depressives tend to be drawn to one another. You can smell them from a mile off. And that's what probably drew me to my best friend, a colleague at the paper. She was a classic depressive who didn't have anything to be miserable about. She was brilliant, lovely, loved, unique. But none of this helped her cope with life, and she killed herself.
A few months later I cracked up. I knew it was to do with my friend, and was inevitable. I took myself to the doctor and said I was suicidal, and just wanted something to make me feel better as quickly as possible. She sent me to the psychiatric hospital, which didn't detain me but put me on antidepressants. Prozac was still relatively new in the 1990s. REM wrote "Shiny Happy People" about the pills—and that was the common fear, that they were a giddy form of chemical cosh. Doctors promised me I'd feel sick for a few weeks (I did) but I should persist.
The change was astonishing. I didn't become a shiny happy person, but I did stop crying all the time. The metronome stopped clicking, I could tell people the time, and I became something approximating a functioning human being. Diane, my partner, had been against antidepressants because she had seen the effect of the earlier ones on me, but now she became insistent that I remain on them.
I read stuff about how people had become crazy and killed on Prozac, and worried. But I have never felt like killing anybody. I read that it made it more difficult to ejaculate (true, but it's good to have a challenge) and that you lose your emotions (I've still got plenty, but don't cry quite as easily as I did in Sainsbury's). I tried to come off every so often but felt awful when I did. I questioned whether this was my depression or I had become addicted to the Prozac. Perhaps it's both. In the end, I stopped worrying.
If it's made life livable, who cares whether I'm an addict? Eighteen years and counting with the cylindrical green and white godsends. Have I been on them too long? Probably. Am I an addict? Possibly. Will I ever successfully come off them? Probably not. Do I care? No way. Viva la Prozac. Here's to the next 18 years.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.
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