For everyone with depression, the experience is different. But you wouldn’t know it from our societal image of the black dog. A million and one cookie-cutter ‘signs and symptoms’ pieces online, will blithely tell you the things to look for. Sleeping too much or not enough, isolating, lack of personal care and loss of interest, are always near the top of these lists and what one comes to realise the longer one lives with depression, is that these lists are almost always for the benefit of people without depression. What we might call the ‘worried well’.
Because the thing that I notice when I know I’m truly in a hole, (as a depressive with over ten years’ experience), is almost never mentioned.
It’s the silence.
In this silence, it is peaceful, but nothing enters from the outside world. If you’re lucky you lose the concept of the negative thoughts at this point too – the positives have long since departed. But more than likely, they’ve just become old companions, they don’t sting as much – but they’re still cruel bedfellows although their chatter is so well known to you at this point you don’t have to pay attention. They are mantras and negative affirmations. You can look without seeing, you can have food without taste, and interacting with people is done as if from behind a glass wall. You see them, but they see only the mask you want them to see at this point. And it’s a role you’ve gotten used to playing. And of course, it is silent theatre.
I have on occasion spoken publicly, and in media about depression and my own suicide attempt. I am always asked variations of two questions. First “How are you these days?”, as if the trajectory for someone with depression was purely linear, and depression not an insidious mass of thoughts, life experience, perceptions, body chemistry and who knows what else. The second one though, is more interesting. I’m always asked a variation of “What’s it like when you’re down there?”. And this is where the silence comes in. I suspect that most interviewers I’ve dealt with are expecting me to portray a seething, tangled knot of grief, loss, misery, suffering, pain and regret – maybe with a tincture of psychosis or delusion thrown in for the sake of a stereotype. I always wonder if it is therefore a disappointment, when I tell them how bland the experience of depression at it’s worst is for me.
The silence of depression is truly extraordinary. In the days leading up to my first suicide attempt, it occurred to me that I should at least try and write a note to explain how things had come to this point. After an hour of abortive first lines – I gave up. Because I had nothing to say. It wasn’t that I felt too upset to write how I felt, it was that I felt nothing at all. The internal torture of depression comes earlier when you’re on the way down to your own dark finality. When you’re there at the end – there is nothing to do. In the cookie-cutter pieces, the symptom listed as something akin to ‘loss of interest’ is often seen (I think) to be like this silence. It is not. I cannot stress to you the sheer paucity of the English language to sum up that feeling of grey numbness. It’s not to lack interest, it is to lack that quintessentially human spark of personality and originality that every one of us has by virtue of being a unique individual.
And that’s how I can tell when I’m in real trouble. Andrew Solomon put it well when he said, “the opposite of depression, is not sadness, but vitality”.
I find this such a vital concept to try and explain, and yet I know that I will have failed miserably. That is OK, it’s that paucity of language that is the hindrance – I think that’s why so many people with mental illness, speak in simile and metaphor. My own personal metaphor? I direct you to a piece of music by Thomas Newman from the movie ‘Road to Perdition’ called ‘Ghosts’. And even that only gets a tenth of the way.
So often we see ‘headclutcher’ publicity photos to signify mental health problems – I always think they should just as often have someone stare blankly into the lens. That silence is something that needs to be appreciated more when we talk about what depression is.
My name is Chris, I’m 28, I live in Worcestershire in the UK and I live with depression.
When not writing I can be found training to become a counsellor, delivering mental health training, speaking publicly when called upon about suicide and depression, attending humanist gatherings, exploring and debating political and disability issues, watching cricket, drinking cider and ales, singing a cappella harmonies from across the world (with particular interest in the traditions of the Republic of Georgia), procrastinating, and cuddling my cats.
Though not all at the same time.