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FIRST PERSON: The Light and the Dark

It doesn’t really matter how depression caught me; it happened to trigger when I lost my mother, a longtime alcoholic and depressive herself, to suicide, when I was 20. Almost any negative emotions can ferment into depression if they sit around long enough unprocessed, but in my case, living with her and then losing her meant a whole adolescence’s worth of anger, fear, confusion, misery, frustration, wound up in grief and, ultimately, depression set in.

What began with me shutting myself away in a grieving process has now far outlasted the grief, and gone on to last most of my twenties. So far it’s prevented me from pursuing a real career, getting a decent job, or from thinking realistically or constructively about my future in most of the normal ways. It’s held me back in relationships, been a burden on them, and made me unwilling or unable to commit. It’s worn down my physical and mental health, and my self-image. It’s prevented me from getting any pleasure or pride out of many things that used to give pleasure and pride so easily. It’s eclipsed all enjoyment and activity most days of my week, and most hours of my day. It’s ruined all my endless hopeful plans for the day I’m finally free of it, which has never come, because it has never left.

It’s messed with my memory, and often makes it difficult to get any real perspective at all on whether things are going well or not. It’s made me ashamed, even disgusted with myself and who I’ve become, as well as with other people and often the world itself. It’s sometimes made me wish my life would just end. It has a very clever in-built mechanism whereby every attempt I make to haul myself out of it (exercise, hard work, force of will, using every shade of denial), leaves me so wound up that I spin off my axis and exhaust myself right back into depression, leaving me with no way up or out of the hole, yet so many inviting ways to go just a little further down.

On the other hand, in so many important ways –and I’m not lying here– it’s helped and shaped me in truly positive ways I am really grateful for. It’s forced me, almost at gunpoint, to take a much, much more laid back approach to life than I ever had before, and to narrow my life down to what I really need to get through the days. I was surprised to find out what this was. I was a frantic, busy teen and a very high achiever: desperate to be liked, working bloody hard to impress and please others, and pinning my whole identity on an idea of ‘success’, often instead of following what was really in my heart. When you simply can’t muster the energy to meet others’ expectations anymore (or, worst of all, your own), you find yourself behaving more frankly and sincerely, and I’ve found a lot of amusement and freedom being a more ‘realistic’ version of myself now that I no longer have the energy to waste on pretence.

Depression eats up gigantic amounts of your time. It sucks up everything it can and gives very little in return. And yet, on reflection, there is a bright side — it’s the one you end up creating to cast some light on the gloom, with whatever little energy you can muster. In my case, the seclusion it forced upon me led me to music — hours upon hours of listening and practice that few have the chance to do, which have now led me to becoming a dedicated semi-professional musician, an achievement I thought would never happen, and which has become a truly wonderful and fun part of my life. It’s given me hours in which I’ve read and learned an enormous amount about the world, something I might never have made time for if I had stayed busy. It has forced me to be vulnerable, to reach out to people as warmly as I possibly can and has made me develop and keep a lot of very close friends — after all, I really know now how lonely an alternate world would be without them. It’s made me more thoughtful and empathetic than I used to be, when I would bulldoze anxiously through people’s problems, caught up in my own hectic life. I’m so aware now of the massive struggle we all go through simply to live; I always want to hear what makes people tick along, and it eases my own burden a bit to get an idea of how they manage. That’s totally changed my whole outlook. Lastly, when real good fortune comes my way, I usually grab it gratefully with both hands and can’t afford to take it for granted. So, in a strange way, there have been some real benefits, although they can be tricky to see sometimes.

One of the hardest things of all, and what led me to write this, has been tagging myself with the label ‘depression’, without wanting to think that somehow it’s simply going to blow over sometime soon. After eight years of living as a depressive, I still haven’t truly decided whether to view it as an illness or as part of my personality — often I see it as some kind of symbiotic thing feeding on me, and me on it. If it often feels like a disability, it’s mainly because it’s one that I carry secretly, that I still feel has a stigma attached to it, if only in my own head.  A disability I can tell no one about unless I trust them. Whatever it is, the only way is to accept and make your peace with it, and learn to accept it fully and deal with it as it comes. I’ve realised, writing this, that there must be so many of us depressives who one minute one hour can feel utterly worthless in a miserable, horribly grim world, and the next have lifted anchor to otherwise interesting, fulfilling, sociable and vibrant lives. And we often don’t even realise it. If only we could just speak up about it all a bit more!

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