“You see, your brain is made up of two hemispheres, each a replica of the other,” he explained as he pushed his two fists together. “But then, you also have the frontal cortex of each hemisphere, which divides your brain again. And in each cortex, different things happen.” His hands remained pressed together in a strange, fingery facsimile of my mind. He drew his finger around each section. “The left cortex controls logical thinking. Rationalism, mathematics, that kind of thing. It’s also associated with positivity. Positive actions, positive ideas. Now, the right cortex” – he looks over his glasses as he switches hands – “The right frontal cortex is the emotional center. So feelings, in general. It’s also a primal part of the brain, responsible for a lot of our survival instincts. With that comes the negative aspects that counteract the positive cortex. Anxiety, stress, mistrust. These are your problems. Your brain has become too reliant on the negative, and has forgotten the positive.”
I was sitting in an annoyingly clinical surgery room, listening to a psychologist explain what’s wrong with my brain. He was also a neuroscientist, and obviously a deeply intelligent expert in his craft. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s about the sixth or seventh shrink I’ve seen over the years who, in various slightly different ways, has explained to me what’s wrong with my brain. It’s apparently an effective way to deal with depression and anxiety issues. The theory is, supplying a perfectly simple explanation to a depressive as to why they feel shit all the time will grant them some sense of perspective. It’s a noble and, in theory, effective way of dealing with it. But at the same time, believing that kind of thing is guaranteed to work means putting faith in some kind of regularity and stability. And, funnily enough, regularity and stability are barely things that ever enter your mind when you’re depressed.
I think I probably know one or two things on your mind as you read this. You’re thinking that this is just another diatribe on depression in a climate that’s already full of diatribes on depression. You may also be thinking, “Oh god, he’s whinging about depression on the internet”. And you’re probably right. I’m not writing this to really make you think or feel anything about depression as a disease that you don’t already know. Personally, it’s more of a cathartic experience than anything. It’s an attempt to legitimize things for myself, and a way of rationalizing the stuff that goes on in my head, in a way. At this stage of my life I feel I understand more about it, and that it’s not healthy to deny its existence. On the other hand, I know how uncomfortable it is for anyone to hear someone seriously talk about the issue. And yeah, publishing something that’s supposed to be for myself is probably pretty conceited, but if you are to learn anything about depression from what I’m saying, then that’s good.
I’ve had chronic depression since the age of 16. I try to avoid using the word “suffer” when talking about it, because I don’t like to put depression in the light of a disease. It’s less than that and more than that at the same time. On an average day in an average year, depression is simply not as limiting as a disease, and that’s something that often goes through the depressive’s mind. That is, until they find themselves unable to get out of bed for hours upon hours, and they realize something is terribly wrong. It’s an insidious illness, partly for the reason that you never know, day by day, how much you’re going to be affected by the weird tangents of your brain. I associate this with a lot of the misunderstanding with depression. When someone sees someone with depression getting on with their day in a relative sense of ease and satisfaction, it’s easy – and probably totally appropriate – to assume that they’re fine. But depression is an internal illness, not an external one, and one that depressives spend a lot of time – probably too much time – trying to hide from the people around them.
I spent many years hiding my depression from everyone around me. Even my mum, who has always been the most constant support to me. One thing that non-depressives might have trouble understanding is the level upon level of fantasy depressives often build up in their mind. You’ll often hear these strange trains of thought when it comes to depression: “No-one cares about me”; “There’s no point me going outside, there’s nothing out there for me”; “There’s no point living any more, I’ve got nothing to live for”. In any context, these statements seem ridiculous. And they are, but they seem true when your brain is so screwed up. One thing I’ve heard a lot from talking to other people with depression in various states of recovery is that there’s a futility where you see everything around you, everything that’s happening in your head, as the actual truth. A lot of the stories I’ve heard revolve around the underlying, obsessive thought that this is what life is really like. It’s not happy, and people are not happy to see you. The world is terrifying, and your depression has lifted the veil on that fact. Which, of course, is the complete opposite of reality. But when your brain tells you it’s so, it’s pretty hard to not believe it.
This, obviously, all puts a strain on your relationships. The futility of trying to explain what you’re thinking and feeling is ever-apparent; it’s kind of a combination of not thinking anyone would be able to help you, and the firm belief that no-one wants to. What doesn’t help this, although it’s completely unavoidable, is that everyone looks at you differently when they know you have depression, despite how caring and helpful any individual person might be towards it. Ever since I was first open about my depression, I’ve always been of the mind that explaining your condition to other people is one of the most important steps in recovery. But a deep sense of exposing yourself goes along with that, a feeling of making yourself vulnerable to those around you. And the first stages of that, of trying to explain that you’re essentially sick, is one of the most difficult things you can do at any point in life. I guess it is that difficult because you don’t really know what’s going on in your brain yourself. As I mentioned earlier, no matter how many times someone with a doctorate will try to explain exactly what’s wrong with you on a physical level, it never completely accommodates the issues you face on a day-to-day basis. And being so negative all the time leads to those negative viewpoints on life: distrust, anxiety, immense sadness. And it’s pretty hard being on the outside of that, trying to work out what’s wrong with the person you care so much about.
One of the most important things to me when I’ve been at my lowest points is the relationships I have with the people who I care about the most, and who care about me the most, even though that’s a really difficult thing to believe in those moments of time. And that, in a true vicious circle of depression, puts an unavoidable weight on those relationships. Whilst my parents have always been a constant comfort, because they kind of have to be as my parents, there’s been relationships that haven’t been able to deal with the strain of the person I become when I’m down – often swinging between angry, manic and despondent, much more likely to drink and take drugs, and fairly out of touch with reality at times. It’s hard to find anyone to blame but yourself when those things happen, which can very easily drive you further down. One thing that experts on depression and anxiety issues always talk about is how the present and the future are always big problems. What I feel doesn’t get enough coverage in these cases is just how crippling the constant thoughts of the past always are. I’ve had to deal with the fact that regret and guilt are constant emotions I feel, and no matter how many times someone tells me that worrying the past is useless, it’s often something I can’t escape. The breakdown of relationships is central to that, because when you spend so much time feeling inadequate, feeling that you’re responsible for ruining something so special to you – and, probably, special to the other person in said relationship – becomes a prominent part of your own self-worth. And yes, of course, everyone goes through that kind of thing after a break-up, for instance. You spend some time feeling absolutely shit, then some time crazy, then some more time pretty down, and then you eventually get over it. I’d like to think that around six months is enough time to get through that, but a lot of the stories I’ve heard from other depressives revolve around making that failure of being a normal, lovable person a central part of their character. “She/he didn’t want to be with me, why would anyone else?”
As important as maintaining relationships is keeping a motivated, working lifestyle. Being idle is one of the biggest traps with depression and, as with a lot of the other stuff I’ve mentioned, it’s a double-edged coin. It becomes increasingly difficult to stay motivated and constructive when you’re in the throes of depression, and this will most likely effect your work ethic. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll probably still feel responsible. I had a large dive in my career halfway through 2014, and I associate this heavily with my last bout of depression. Not that it’s the only reason: any downward movement in your usual life can throw you back into depression, no matter how minor or major. But it definitely had a big effect on my self-worth. The career that I had aimed myself towards for years was seemingly falling apart around me, and I had no control over it.
So basically, depression is an illness of negativity. It has little physical symptoms until its most excessive stages, when the inability to get out of bed, shower, get dressed and face the world become more and more frequent. It mostly resides in the non-physical brain, or the ego. It’s an illness of personality and vitality. That’s what we know. But we’re still finding new stuff out all the time, and the push to truly understand what depression is has been accelerating for a while now. Whilst I do take those simple, scientific explanations with a grain of salt, there’s no doubt to me that it works, because anything involving positive thinking usually works. And knowing that what’s wrong with you possibly does have a physical explanation is the first step. What you do from there is really up to what kind of person you are, how you’re depression manifests itself, and what you’re willing to do next.
I’ve been on various antidepressant medications, probably around three or four in various different dosages. A lot of the people I look up to in terms of dealing with depression – writers, comedians, other people in artistic careers who usually use their issues as material – talk about the moment when they realized that medication and psychology were most likely going to have to be a part of their lives forever on. That’s a very difficult stage to reach, obviously, because you’re pretty much admitting to yourself that you’re never going to get well by yourself. But at the same time, it’s also an admittance that you can get well, and that you can have a fairly “normal” life, science willing.
For me, medication has always been a pretty controversial subject. When I was 17, it felt like a joke, but a big part of that was the rebellious, “fuck you, authority” a lot of us have at that age. I went on and off meds every six months and so. I’d go on them for a while, get sick of it, go off them, go back down and eventually get prescribed another dosage or medication. That was yet another vicious circle, but even now I feel that it’s very important, from a personal perspective, to be cautious when taking a medication that effects your brain. There’s a huge range of antidepressants on the market, from a range of different companies and countries. Some have been used for decades, others in only the last few years and hold that vibe of experimental treatment. But in essence, they all do one thing: they change who you are, and what you feel. Basically, these medications “balance out” the hormone uptake of your brain, supplying you with a much more level sense of emotion and thought. The downside to this is that you stop getting the bouts of mania and creativity that fuels so much of your work. I have often found myself staring at my computer screen, unable to come up with any creative ideas, and eventually being pretty resigned to that fact. In essence, you have to give up a part of yourself in order to get better. That’s a really hard thing for a lot of people with depression to deal with, and one of the obstacles that the ones who choose to stay on medication have to get over. For myself, it’s something I still think about a fair bit. I’ve been on some good meds, and I’ve been on some terrible meds. Again, it’s a thing that completely depends on the context and the person with depression, because no two reactions are going to be the same.
On the other side, there’s psychological treatment. While I took this about as seriously as popping pills every day when I was younger, I’ve become much more advocating of treatment. Even if just for the basic fact that you’re talking to someone about your problems. That’s a massive weight off your shoulders, especially when you’ve reached a stage of complete withdrawal, unable to accept that anyone will accept or understand what’s wrong with you. That kind of thing leads to the lowest of low points, and in many cases to suicide. So the amount of help available out there – and there is a lot of it these days – is incredibly important. Again, it’s always going to be difficult to make yourself so vulnerable, but that’s part of the treatment. You have to break yourself down to build up again, as cliché as that might sound.
For me, recovery has become a pretty simple yet disciplined set of processes. I go running at least once a day, usually twice. I try to learn a few new things every day, and meet a few new people every day. I make myself get up early, and I make myself leave the house. Some days these things are completely natural. On others, they’re the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I have to constantly remind myself that they will make me feel better, and that I will definitely get a sense of satisfaction out of them, moreso than lying in bed and staring into the middle distance.
I’ve seen and felt the worst of what depression can do to somebody. But I’ve also come to understand that depression, and all mental disorders, need to be addressed and accepted as part of your life if you’re ever going to move forward. I still have days where I don’t see any way out, but then, at some point, there’ll be something small that will make everything seem just a little bit better. And that’s just the start.