The Bubble and the Fear
Depression Diary, Part 2
Most writing about depression, mine included, rightly focuses on the pain and misery involved. The idea of sadness unattached to a cause is difficult, in my experience, for non-sufferers to get their head around.
Every depressive dreads the well-intentioned but worse-than-useless advice normals give us: Have you tried exercise? Fake it ’til you make it. Try this diet supplement. Here’s a link to a list of generic advice about cheering yourself up. Dogs are nice, aren’t they?
This is why it’s vital to keep drumming it in: these feelings that cripple us come from nowhere, pure, sourceless emotion in the same way that a headache is pure, sourceless pain. If we could cheer ourselves up, it wouldn’t be an illness at all.
But life with the black dog has many dimensions. He might block the doorway and drag you in the wrong direction and growl at your friends, but he’s still a dog, which means you get to know him. If he’s your only friend – and given enough time, he will be – the black dog can even be comforting and familiar. He knows your habits and you know his, and at least you have one another.
Putting this poor metaphor out of its misery, what that means in real terms is this: depression radically circumscribes your life, and at first this is nothing but devastating. You leave the house less and less often, steadily lose touch with friends and family (apart from those you happen to live with, who will find your company hard work) and struggle to find or hold down a job, which only intensifies your isolation.
But a death spiral can only carry on for so long. I can only speak for my own experience, of course, but once a bout of severe depression has persisted for a certain amount of time, a new status quo forms. Like a seabird finding a tiny cliffside redoubt to shield its eggs from the elements, you carve out a little world of your own, just big enough to hold your body and keep it alive, after a fashion.
The size of this bubble varies according to one’s overall mental state. There have been times when my life occupied little more than one room for months on end, darting out for food and other necessities as occasionally as possible (“necessity”, in this case, didn’t involve bathing or changing my clothes or taking them off to sleep, just to paint you a picture). In better times, the bubble expands somewhat. Some version of this state of affairs has obtained for much of my adult life.
As you can imagine, this is a miserable, arid existence when taken as a whole, but on a day-to-day basis…
I want to be careful here. There are still many out there who assume mental illness, especially depression, to be an affectation, a way out of adult responsibility and/or an unfalsifiable means of claiming state assistance. The entire medical profession disagrees, but some people just won’t be told.
When I use the words “comforting” and “familiar”, then, I don’t mean “objectively pleasant”. The cold side of the pillow is comforting when you have a fever; a picture of your loved ones is a familiar thing to focus on in a war zone. When you’re inside the depressive bubble, your life comes to revolve around a set of extremely short-term reliefs and rewards. The things that merely punctuate a functional life become the purpose of yours: eating, sleeping, and so on.
The word I’m grasping for here is safe. The real world is a terrifying and miserable place, but if I can pretend it stops at my front door, then there’s no risk. No upsides, but no downsides either. If your expectations from life are lowered to the point where getting out of bed counts as a day’s activity, you’ll let nobody down but yourself.
It’s a kind of self-preservation tactic, in other words, and in the short term it’s certainly better than standing astride a howling abyss. But all too soon, it becomes the deadliest of traps.
I remain convinced that the only way out of depression, in the long term, is to build a routine, stick to it and steadily expand it until it can pass for a “normal” life. This process can take years, but it can and does work; antidepressants are a lifesaver and improving as we speak, but they won’t cure you absent your own will to get better. This is where the bubble becomes a prison.
When an opportunity to move forward presents itself, you should want to grasp it with both hands as a means of escape. But once inside the bubble, you can’t convince yourself it’s worth it. “If you carry on as usual”, you think, “at least nothing can get worse”; at the back of your mind you know things can get very much worse, but the medium-to-long-term doesn’t exist for you. “If you make a change”, you continue, “it could easily – will easily – end in tears and you’ll be worse off than when you started. Have another biscuit instead”.
Having gone through this process countless times, I’ve come to think of that inner voice – my inner voice, in fact, but only part of it – as “the Fear”. Tom Doran wants all sorts of things, but the Fear wants to hide away forever, disappear. Tom loves the company of others, the Fear just wishes they’d go away. Tom has dreams, the Fear only nightmares.
This problem is not just an abstract one for me, right now. As a result of my writing, I’ve been offered an amazing opportunity. I won’t go into detail right now, but it involves travelling to a country I’ve never been to and meeting a lot of interesting and important people. It is, objectively, the best thing to happen to me in a very long time.
The Fear disagrees. As I woke this morning, it sat at the end of my bed and gave me the hard sell. “How will you manage, so far away from the bubble for so long? You do realise you’ll have to talk to people? Several times in the same day, probably. Think you’ll be able to pass as an up-and-coming blogger? They’ll see you for the terrified shut-in you are as soon as look at you”. And so on, and so on.
So I face another turning point, probably much more dramatic than last week’s. The only way forward is not to give myself the choice: I leave on the 16th of this month. Now I just need to stop the Fear hiding my passport.
Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.
(to be continued)Tagged in: confidence, depression, depression diary, familiarity, fear, mental health, mental illness, motivation, recovery, self-esteem
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter