I have altered some identifying features and written under a penname to preserve my anonymity, in order to protect my children from the contents of the following.
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Depression defies description. For me, it is primarily about absences. How do you describe something only in terms of what it is not? But it is imperative that I paint an image of this ugly hell.
I need to paint it because it is a reality that must be faced. It must be faced by those who exist in this place. It must be faced by those who care about them, and by those who treat them.
I need to paint it because I don't know how else to deal with it but paint it, to help me, and others, better see it for what it is.
I was struggling to find the words and to write them down while holidaying recently with my parents. My father came to sit with me, and I explained I was trying to write about depression. "What the feelings are like?" he asked.
My answer was, "What it's like to have no feelings."
Perhaps if I explain it like this …
Imagine a woman in her thirties. She is the mother of two beautiful children, is in a loving satisfying marriage, and is surrounded by a large number of close friends – old and new. She has a loving family. By some twist of fate she dies, perhaps through someone's careless driving, or an accident in the home, or an aggressive cancer.
Now imagine the grief that will be felt throughout her family and friends. The anguish and piercing loss experienced by her husband and daughters, her parents and brothers, her wider family, and her many friends. As they come together for her funeral the grief and pain will be tangible and terrible. For some, the loss will seem almost too much to bear. The collective agony is inestimable.
And now, try to comprehend the notion of all that pain and loss being somehow collected up, concentrated and borne by a single person. Imagine the loss of each individual in her circle of family and friends somehow accumulated and given to be the experience of just one person.
This begins to sketch the outline of my pain. For this summing of losses is exactly my reality.
My illness robs me of all joy and pleasure in my relationship with my husband, all capacity for emotional response, all sense of hope and anticipation, all sense of fulfilment in my relationship with him – to the point where he is lost to me, and it is as if he is dead to me. I grieve deeply and terribly for the acute loss.
It is so with my daughters. There are no longer any emotions of motherly love, pride and protectiveness, no desire to watch them grow and see how they fare as adults, no ability to care for them. Literally, I cannot be bothered with them. My motherhood has been robbed from me and it is as if my daughters are dead to me. I grieve deeply and terribly for the acute loss.
Still there is more.
Each of my beloved family and circle of friends represents a relationship now stripped bare of pleasure and fulfilment. There is no joy to be had in the company of the other. There are no special moments, no wonderful meals and evenings together, no real communion. My memories of good times serve to mock me because they bring no warming of my heart or smile to my face. I am no longer emotionally privy to the relationship that once was. It is as if all the people I ever cared about are dead. In some ways the loss would be easier to deal with if this had actually happened, terrible as that may sound, for then I could go through a normal grieving process and work towards acceptance and moving on. As it is, I am permanently snared in that early stage of grief where the loss is still a fresh wound, and the news is still deeply shocking.
My friends and family have been taken from me and I grieve deeply and terribly for the acute loss.
The collective grief that would be felt by my husband, daughters, family and friends at my funeral has been amassed into a single burden and given to me to bear alone. All my loved ones are dead. In my emotionally empty world there is not even a stranger to comfort me, for comfort itself is dead.
And still there is more.
For it is not just my relationships that are lost to me. There is no pleasure to be found in anything.
So I have lost music and birdsong, sunsets, frangipanis and my daughters' blue eyes. I have lost chocolate and champagne, perfume and the scent of the Australian bush. I have lost back massages and the feel of salty surf on my skin. I have lost the satisfaction of a job well done. My illness has robbed me of the ability to enjoy or find contentment in these things and so it is as if they do not exist. All sources of comfort and joy are gone, and I grieve deeply and terribly for the acute loss.
There is more.
In such a world my own identity fades. I have not only lost family, friends, and all pleasure, I have in part lost myself. For without relationships, feelings and tastes I am ill-defined. I don't know who I am or who I will be if or when I emerge on the far side of hell. This man that I live with – will I feel love for him again? Those younger people in the house – my children – will I ever feel like their mother again? What will my tastes be like? Will I like the same music and food? What will I do for a good time?
When I was plunged back into the depths after a period of relative health, I remember lying sobbing on the bed and saying to my husband, "I've lost it." At the time, I wasn't really sure what the loss was, I only knew of its enormity. Reflecting now on the journey through that Valley of The Shadow of Death, I realise that the loss is not just that of my family and friends, and that of my likes and dislikes. The loss is a significant part of my own Self. I miss Her and want Her back.
It becomes imperative that I keep "going through the motions" of my old life, not for the sake of keeping up appearances, not to hide my illness or pain from others, and not because I am brave.
It is because I'm desperately clinging to the remnants of my Self. I eat the chocolate and drink the champagne, keep smiling and going to work, in compulsive imitation of Her – to somehow try to keep Her alive.
But no, I am the walking dead. She has been gone for twelve years now.
The picture of the world I occupy is bleak, but it does not illustrate the end of the story. I believe I will be recovered. Even in the darkest depths of the Valley, with no hint of dawn, there remains the belief that the sun will rise another time. It has happened before. I tell myself to believe that it will again. There have been days, sometimes weeks, when the colour has returned to my world, my husband and daughters have returned to visit, and a hint of taste has been injected into one of the chocolates. Each night I hope that this will be true for tomorrow.
Of course, this hope brings cruel hurt.
For while I refuse to accept my losses and I cling determinedly to the possibility that my loved ones will return to me, the wounds that spell their banishment from my life are cut afresh into my heart each day. While I am in stubborn denial that my life is over, the morning news that there will be no life today is announced with undeniable clarity.
How I dread waking up!
With the first unwelcome return of consciousness, there burgeons from within a heavy ache, seeping throughout, enveloping and settling until every bone, muscle, vein and fibre is filled and weighed down. I will myself to awaken no further, to halt or at least slow the progress of this insidious onslaught, but I cannot. The ugly flowering goes on. I lie still, keeping my thoughts quiet, trying not to assess the extent of a burden I don't want to even acknowledge. But the pain! It lies in waiting while I sleep then rolls throughout me, keeping pace with my wakefulness. There is no escape. I am owned and subsumed. I cannot shed a burden that is within my very being.
The death toll spelling my losses is intoned into my mind as I awaken and learn afresh about the desolation of my world.
I discover that the melody and harmony have been removed from the sound made by an orchestra. I find that the texture and taste has been removed from each chocolate in the box. I look for my family and friends but they have vanished. The magpie no longer warbles. The flowers are all dead.
The world is blank, unfocussed, grey, quiet, still, lukewarm, solitary, and above all else, it is utterly, intensely empty. Senses are dulled. Even the pain has no edge, for it is fathomless.
Throughout the day, I will be aware of the passage of time, but I will not live. Air will move in and out of my lungs, but I will not breathe. Sounds will be registered in my head, but I will hear no music. Words will be spoken to me and I will form words in response, but I will not converse.
No music, nor taste, nor scent, nor colour, nor emotion - nothing will penetrate the stifling cloak that isolates me from the world and what was once a life.
Can I do this? Can I take this on for another day? Why do those who say they love me ask me to endure this? I have staggered beneath this for long enough – haven't I done my time? My life has long since been choked out – must I continue on with the deathly nightmare of each day? Why is it irrational to want deep, everlasting Rest?
I have fallen and am hanging suspended over a cliff, clinging to the end of a rope. My arms are aching with the effort, my body is strained and exhausted, but I have to keep hanging on.
Some days there is progress as the rope is slowly pulled up, inch at a time. Some days I even reach a ledge where there can be precarious rest for my arms. Then I'll be knocked off the ledge and my arms must again take up the burden.
Some days the rope is lowered and rescue appears to be further than ever. Many days, I simply hang motionless and alone in agony. No progress is made or lost, but inexorably my strength is being used up.
I have no idea how long it will be before I am finally hauled to the top. Despite my belief that it will happen eventually, I feel my strength failing and how I long to end the agony now!
Of course, if I believed my rescue was never going to happen, I would let go at once, gratefully relinquishing the burden and relaxing forever. And what temptation!
This is the option known as suicide and condemned by some as the ultimate selfish act.
Those who make such a judgement have not hung in desperate agony at the end of the rope.
A friend wrote to me recently explaining the anger of his wife when a friend's brother shot himself. He wrote, "She said he had no consideration for others, what about those he was leaving … friends and relatives would have to endure it for ever."
I understand this pain and anger, for I responded similarly when one of my friends killed himself. That was before I understood that the pain of those left behind is just a fraction of the pain experienced by the sufferer of depression.
Within the illness, all loved ones are lost. Those left behind have lost just one, and still have many people and things in their lives that bring them joy.
So if there is to be anger in response to a suicide, let it be directed at the illness that led to it, not at the sufferer of it. Let there be understanding and compassion. Each individual left behind will have indisputable pain, but let it be known that the one who has gone had pain one hundred-fold times their own.
I cannot deny that suicide is selfish. It is an act that shows no care for those who are left. But it must be understood that this apparent lack of care is not a choice willingly or flippantly made. There are days, months, even years, of anguished soul searching, struggling for the strength to hold on for just one more day. And ultimately, if the sufferer loses the struggle and succumbs, it is because the pain of existence has overwhelmed the ability to care for others. Indeed, part of the sufferer's grief comes from losing the ability to care.
Yet from my seemingly untenable position at the end of the rope, I go on hanging on, believing that I will eventually be recovered. Provided my arms do not give out, provided my strength lasts.
I do not know if it will.
This I do know –
It is too much to be asked of me.
There is not one person alive who has the right to ask it of me.
I alone may ask it of myself.
But when deafened by a pain louder than I ever thought possible, it is not easy for me to hear the quiet voice that says to hold on for another day in case a rescue attempt succeeds. My muscles are screaming for release now.
I do not claim a monopoly on pain. I did once, a long time ago.
Giving birth was such a profoundly shattering experience for me that afterwards, I audaciously believed the only people in the world who could lay claim to knowing real pain were those who'd been through labour as I had.
I understand now that I am not unique in believing my experience is so unique that no one else can possibly comprehend it. Just as I have no monopoly on pain, I have no monopoly on uniqueness.
There are others who enter a hell through a door they also call depression and find themselves in a very different world to mine. It may be a place where there is crippling self-doubt, even self-loathing, feelings of uselessness and utter worthlessness. It may be a place of terrible anxiety or fear or paranoia.
I cannot imagine the pain in their hells.
No, mine is not the only hell, nor are the hells experienced by the sufferers of depression the only hells.
But I have needed to paint a picture of my particular hell, so that those outside it can begin to understand it. So that they know it isn't just a passing mood. So that they know it can't be fixed just by a good sleep.
So that they'll understand if I don't make it.
So that they know that the questions to be asked are not "Can't you just hang in there just a little bit longer … we'll find the right medication eventually … can't you see you have so much going for you … how can you even think of suicide?"
The question is "How on earth have you lasted this long, surviving the terrible tragedy that unfolds daily, the loss of everyone and everything you ever loved?"
When I told my dad that depression was about having no feelings, his insightful comment was, "It must be scary".
You were right, Dad. It's dead scary.
- July 2003 -
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