Memories of Depression

By Henrietta Ross

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Soren Kierkegaard said three hundred years ago. 

It hasn't changed. Seldom do such astute observations lose traction with time. The ways we make sense of our lives; the stories we tell ourselves (and others), our memories and recollections, our pains and our pleasures, rarely remain consistent. Life cannot be experienced as a linear, continuously straight line. It is not neat and ordered but instead shifts around; jumps backwards and forwards, waltzes sideways, turns in on itself, and sometimes becomes stuck in one definitive point in time.

Depression, too, is often only understood once it has retreated into the background, but perversely is always experienced in the exquisite misery of the present. A misery that feels intolerably stuck in one definitive point in time. It's a constant amongst sufferers of depression – we live with the memory of how awful it can be, knowing it could return, not sure if we can see it off next time it raises its head. As Virginia Woolf wrote to her husband and sister on March 28, 1941 before she took her life, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.”

Woolf was an extraordinary woman. One of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, a practised dreamer – practised as all women of her time had to be – secretly carving out a mind of their own. She was founder of the notorious Bloomsbury Set along with sister, Vanessa Bell, and an intellectual, imaginative, sensitive and thoughtful creature, well-loved and well liked. Although, the devastating cloak of mental illness was never far away from Woolf, suffering as she did from what we would probably recognise today as Bipolar Disorder. It is sometimes suggested her breakdowns and periods of psychosis enhanced or aided her writing – the all persuasive romantic link between mental illness and creativity. But, as with all things, that which helps and aids the creative process in one moment can quickly become the thing that distinguishes our innermost flame in the next.

My first bout of depression occurred when I was fourteen. It should have been a happy time. School had been going well and I had won awards for my writing. My home life hadn't been going so well, I admit, but it felt like the customary antagonism between parent and adolescent. Life felt full of hope and possibility, full of teenage dreams. Melancholy then seemed alien and implausible – a thorn in the germinating bloom of youth, a blade in the tenderfoot fledgling taking her first steps out in the world. But, as Woolf herself said, “Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy.” It feels undeniably black, wretched and heavy; a sizeable weight bearing down so your every laboured breath feels like an achievement.

Once depression and I had made acquaintances, utterly begrudgingly on my part, it would not slacken its grip. It was like a house guest who had outstayed their welcome – ransacking the inside of your house until it had reaped all its rewards. I needed it to leave, I begged and pleaded for it to leave, but it remained steadfast and absolute. That's the thing with depression. It arrives with the conviction never to leave - just as we conclude, upon its arrival, that it surely must if we are to survive. 

I've never been a bouncy morning sort but stuck in depressions claw, I awoke each morning wanting to die, or perhaps more accurately, just not wanting to live. Are we hemmed in with angst due to being human? Kierkegaard thought so – angst simply a consequence of being alive – with our minds and thoughts, our consciousness and crushing self-awareness. I used to like having the choice – the dizziness of freedom, toes on the precipice. I suppose it's sad, wandering around with a fatalistic get-out-clause – it’s almost like a sweetener to carry us through each long, dark day. But, sometimes life makes one need an escape route, and it's only the knowledge of a possible end that keeps us moving forward. 

My parents didn't understand my depression. How can a teenager become depressed? What do they have to be depressed about? Eventually, due to a suicide attempt, they did have to take my despair more seriously, whisking me off to a psychiatrist from which I returned with a love letter from Lily. I'm not entirely sure the drugs helped. Whilst they did perk me up for a few short weeks, the slight raised mood would not come to an end. It kept on rising, the depression abruptly being replaced with something resembling mania and then eventually when it did disperse, simply more filthy black moods. A clear line of demarcation exists in my life now – everything before that first episode of depression and everything that occurred after. 

Depression changes us all in a myriad of ways. We are changed upon its arrival, after each new episode, and when it finally leaves. I don't think anyone returns from depression the same person as before. At its worst, we have a complete disintegration of the self, a falling away of all that we ought to be replaced with all that we think we are not. Who can walk away from the self-hatred, the hopelessness, the blinding misery, the inherent stickiness of melancholy without finding a piece of a new self within the fragile whole?

Who I am now is different than who I might have been. But, without sounding mawkish, I don't think I would change anything. It's the age-old question: Would you take a pill if you could be rid of mental illness? My answer would be no. Depression feels as much a part of me now as my green eyes or dark hair, and I don't think it morbid to accept it as a small part of who I am. Rather, I believe that to accept the existence of something and be prepared for its return helps us to cope better in life.

Of course, when we are depressed, we never think we will get better. Then, when we get better, we always remember being depressed. It's the scars we all carry after being inwardly pillaged by depressions claw. We know how utterly bleak things can be and we know equally how good they can be. But, we often greet the good with timid, hesitant legs. Although woven in between these anxieties and our rapid thudding heart, when depression leaves, it is often what feels like a bright, brand new world. It's the one aspect of depression I love – when it recedes and I open my eyes and a new dawn slides into focus. In that precious moment, I am grateful I am still alive.


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