Anatomy of Melancholy.
And the need for hope.
It is our duty to ourselves to live our best life. An unspoken self-obligation; that we seek the truth; that we are authentic and real, loyal to our true selves. To aspire for goodness, greatness even. But most of us fall desperately short of the mark each day of our lives.
Every day when I wake I tell myself “today is going to be a good day”. And I mean it, I want it more than anything. But depression remains a constant sidekick — discolouring life, dampening vitality, choking the desire for human connection.
What can we do about this? I mean really. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists will tell us to practice self-care. To nurture and be kind to our inner child. I don’t disagree, but what if this fails in keeping the demons loitering in the abyss away? What if all the exercise, yoga, meditation, beautiful food, hot baths, massages just don’t work? What if we cannot rise from our beds to even tend to all the above?
When depression is biological — a manifestation of shoddy brain chemistry and wiring, all the self-care and positive affirmations in the world will not bring the colours back. It won’t make you skip down the road, or push you to strive for your next promotion. And it won’t make you a better parent, friend or colleague. Maybe in fleeting moments, but not sustainable for the long term.
Quite simply the only thing I know to be true when the abyss swallows me whole is that this shall pass. The clouds unfailingly part ways eventually, and the sun occasionally shines through filling the void with warmth and a sense of hope. But sometimes even knowing this is not enough.
Sometimes the pain is too great. And how ironic that we can be in such pain when standing against a backdrop of the great nothingness that biological depression gives rise to. One of life’s interminable mysteries. The vast and expansive space of hollowness holding hands with psychic agony.
I have battled this for as long as I can remember. The social isolation, the loneliness, the overwhelming sense of being defective. And the belief that I will never be normal. The worst bit of all — the sense of prevailing and imminent doom. That something tragic is on the cusp of occurring. The sense of doom and melancholy is all-consuming and pervasive. It has a heaviness that impedes growth, stymies personal brilliance.
My first major depressive episode was when I was about 14 years old. Knee deep in my parent's nasty divorce, nightly calls from unknown strangers linked to my brothers’ drug dealing: threats to rape me.
This set against the scrim of chaos arising from the psychotic derangement of my mother. She had to all intents and purposes, lost the plot. The demise of her marriage and the proceedings of divorce had precipitated her swift unraveling. My brother had embarked on a rapid spiral into schizophrenia. I no longer recognised these two important people in my life. So, I did what I have come to do best — plummet. That is when my childhood depression accelerated into something more malevolent.
Depression has become a second-skin. It has become so normal, so a part of my being, my personality even, that I am now unaware of its presence in my life. I am unsure of what role it plays in the decisions I make, or how it seeps into my relationships, or just my general ability to function (or not) in life.
When it is bad, it’s profusely clear what role it plays. It’s like somebody pressing pause on a movie. The pictures stop moving, the colours fade, everything comes to a standstill. And there’s silence, in abundance. In these moments, it can feel worthwhile to end the movie altogether. But it’s not worthwhile, not ever — and there are things we can do to barricade ourselves from hitting the stop button.
There are moments I trick myself into believing that my depression is rational. That it is my innate pragmatism that cannot get beyond the cruelties of life — its events, the abuse, the toxic people. But really it is not, rational or pragmatic that is. Defunct brain chemistry is not discerning. It will take you to places, dark places without rhyme or reason. The sky could be blue, life could be full, but yet the darkness permeates. A black and sinister mist that spreads through all the organs and limbs as though through brilliant psychological osmosis. It is a malady that is up there with the cruelest.
And then there are the invariable intrusions of suicidal material. The mental flicking through of the end-of-life roller deck. Which way? This way? Or that way? Which will cause the least harm to those I love.
I was standing on the tube this morning and considering what would be if I just evaporated into thin air. I watched Mummies caress the tops of little children’s heads; elderly ladies struggling to rise from their seats as the train pulls into their stop; friends laughing together at a video on their screens; businessmen pinging out instructions to the Universe from their phone. And of course, this is what continues — life, continues, with or without us. People full of hope for the days that lie ahead of them. Trains are intolerable in these moments, nothing feels safe, people are scary. Because they are normal.
I long for exuberance, for verve and vigor. I long to laugh like the people on the train. I long to look into the eyes of my beautiful friends without feeling the shameful reflex of my looking away — I want to tell them please don’t look into my eyes, you don’t want to see my darkness.
Loneliness is depressing, and depression causes loneliness. Who understands? Psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and neurologists I guess. But friends don’t, family doesn’t. Depression is not rational. When you don’t respond to positive stimuli or events with a positive response, then it’s just not rational. No, depression does not discern. And so we sit with it in solitary quietude. When really what is most needed in these times of blackness, is companionship, love, tenderness and good old fashioned human connection.
The drugs don’t help. I float around the sky, elevated by a psychological and psychopharmaceutical helium balloon. If there was ever meaning or understanding it dissolved itself into the drugs when they entered my body. Now nothing has meaning, it all just is. And it’s utterly tragic.
There comes a point that even suicide feels too much like hard work. In this state of mental agony and sluggishness, the body and the brain do not work in harmony. The brain says get up Amelie, the body doesn’t move. The brain says to call your friends Amelie. My hands don’t pick up the phone. The brain says you need to eat Amelie, my body rejects food. The brain says to be positive Amelie, my heart tells it to take a long walk off a short pier.
No, it is not rational. In these moments there is no past or future. Just this syrupy tar of psychic dis-ease that we wade through in the present moment. If only this could be construed as mindfulness but it is not. It is a metaphysical resistance to the natural order of things in life. It is on the borderline of outright idiocy and madness.
So what can we do about it?
- We can surrender to it passively and with inactivity. And in doing so, prolong the agony.
- Or we can accept it, and try to achieve one small thing on this day of doom. A crucial gesture of hope will sustain us for the episode until we feel safe enough to peek our heads out from under the cover.
I go with option two as number one offers us no hope. What is there if there is no hope? We must find it, and allow it to envelop us. Hope is what we get out of bed for each and every day — the promise of newness, and of greatness. We are all aspiring for this, depressed or not. We owe this to ourselves most of all, but also to the people we love. There is always hope.