Melancholy Comes Calling
In her essay collection Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag wrote, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” Melancholy derives from the Greek 'melan' for black and 'khole' for bile referring to the four humours of Hippocratic medicine. There is something wistful about melancholy – a longing for things to be different, a reluctance to accept the status quo along with the mystical whiff of the tortured genius who even in sorrow finds a creative impetus. In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G. Wilson argues that the difference between melancholy and depression is that in melancholy there is still movement whereas depression is marked by inactivity and quite often apathy. Depression then feels bleak and despairing by comparison, stuck fast against the coalface of misery without the ability to wrench oneself free. David Foster Wallace describes depression as feeling like, “being underwater, but maybe imagine the moment in which you realize, at which it hits you that there is no surface for you, that you’re just going to drown in there no matter which way you swim,” perfectly highlighting the utter hopelessness we experience and the claustrophobic sense that nothing can save us now.
During my teenage years, you might say I coveted melancholy in the same way I coveted loose-fitting monochrome t-shirts, black Doctor Martins with purple laces or black floor length skirts as big as a tent. The romanticism of the mad but fantastically creative individual was enticing. We all want a trade-off and it seemed a good compromise; faithfully melancholic with spurts of glorified genius. I wanted to believe, perhaps as all teenagers do, that I too was “touched by fire” as coined by Kay Redfield Jamison's 1993 book exploring the creative temperament, and that there was more to my depressions than simple mundane wretchedness. I spent most of my teenage years reading, feeding my romantic myths with images of cobbled London streets, a Wildean character with a fixed glum expression and a chorus of men in a Gentleman's Club proclaiming, “he's just a little out of sorts; leave him be, he will soon be his old self again: won't you top up the chap's tumbler with gin, hand the man a cigar.”
It was those nostalgic cobbles my teenage self ran to but without the gin or cigar to pacify any anxieties or perk me up, and certainly no gentlemen with an interest in my well-being. I didn't believe the streets were paved with gold or London equaled the land of opportunity. Regardless of my daydreams, I mostly thought it would be Dickensian; having to keep one step ahead from pick-pocketers and vulgar looking men in greasy suits ready to sell your kidneys on the black market after a glass of something rotten and a cheap cigarette. I just wanted to get away, most notably from myself. There is a Buddhist saying “wherever you go, there you are” meaning we cannot leave ourselves behind. It is also I suppose indicative of how, if we don't like who we are, the potential for pain is tremendous.
I left for Victoria one summer, not by myself exactly, but with my boyfriend, on a National Express coach stuffed with people. In my old rucksack, I had a few books and toiletries and I wore all the clothes I wanted to take with me till my face turned red and my skin itched. I was trying to start again, become a new me; leave the old, depressed version behind with her wretched moods and stooped form as she dragged herself from moment to moment like a survivor of a bomb blast. No one would miss my moods or my laments about death as I stood outside English – whilst other kids talked of parties, sleepovers, the latest Smash Hits magazine or read advice columns to each other from crumpled Just Seventeen mags – how Amanda worried about having sex with her boyfriend or Kelly couldn't make friends because she had a birthmark – I moaned about how utterly pointless life was and how I felt dead inside.
There were other kids at school who were depressed, and you would think we would hang out together, walk around dressed all in black, being morose and tragic, quoting Poe or Plath or Ann Sexton to each other like depressive missionaries, jazzing it up now and again with some Bukowski. But, I hated being with others who were depressed. Our combined misery felt positively funereal, had a deadening, oppressive quality that made you want to come up for air but when you reached the surface, a bit like Foster Wallace, it was like trying to find your way out of a lake whose surface is frozen with ice, or a coffin.
I preferred to be by myself, tell everyone I wanted to be alone like Greta Garbo whilst inwardly I treated myself like a science oddity. Why did my heart still beat, my feet take me from place to place or my lungs take in air when internally I felt as if I were dead? Why did I still have periods, catch a cold or get acne, all things associated with being alive, when I had been wiped out the summer before by a depression that removed the contents of my mind as smoothly and swiftly as scooping out the flesh of an avocado? I felt nothing most of the time. Depression, whilst it can be an increase in negative thoughts, can also be an absence – an absence of feeling, an absence of affect. It can feel like a steel wall separates us from who we once were but also from all of humanity.
Maybe I believed leaving for London would help, but it didn't. If you are depressed and add isolation and an unhappy relationship to the mix, the odds are low that you will find your way back to something resembling your idea of normality. Initially, I felt optimistic. My boyfriend was older so we managed to get a bedsit – a dive at the top of a tired looking three story Victorian house: two rooms, a damp filled kitchen, sash windows that iced up in the winter and two gas fires which had to be turned off as they leaked carbon monoxide. We lived on a street where most of the occupants worked in the city, wore expensive bespoke suits, drove Mercedes and had unusual names for their kids who went to private schools and lived micro-managed lives. If depression makes you feel disconnected from humanity, then this street was its physical manifestation – I had become an imposter with my cheap clothes and cheap shoes and my even cheaper low-grade thoughts.
We lived in the bedsit for two years, although it seemed longer. The place had a depressing feeling of neglect about it: chipped painted walls, windowsills turning to a splintery brown rot, worn fireplaces greased with nicotine, and a cheap blue cord carpet complete with huge scorched marks where an iron had burnt away the pile. Outside I was an imposter, inside, the flat relentlessly mirrored my moods. Dark and drab. Of course, I didn't admit this. Not to myself, or my boyfriend, or the woman who showed us around with a sneer in her smart skirt suit and shiny patent shoes. I eagerly joined in the excitement of going from room to room and looking pleasantly surprised – although as there were only three rooms, it didn't take long. The flat was decorated with a limited amount of money so we had cheap emulsion – rose pink in the living room and powder blue in the bedroom, and we whitewashed the sticky fireplaces and camouflaged some of the window rot. The kitchen had old waxy paper with a busy pattern of green, cream and insipid peach shrubs slowly peeling itself back off the wall, but we thought it would hold on a bit longer so we bought a fridge, one saucepan and a wooden spoon instead.
My boyfriend was a happy sort. He wasn't the thinking type and nothing much in life seemed to bother him. He bounded around with a floppy fringe and a wide-eyed expression and you either got pulled along with him in his topped up glass – topped up with what, he probably didn't know – or in my case you got left behind. It's incredibly hard to admit that you are not happy when everyone around you seems to have a permanent spray-on smile, and harder still to admit you feel quite depressed. Telling my boyfriend I was depressed would be like talking a foreign language; he simply didn't do depression, and so would look at me like I was some unknown curious creature withering about in the dark like an irritating smudge on a pristine white floor.
He came home one day to find me cross legged in front of his sound system. Tom Petty was whining, “it couldn't have been that easy to forget about me” from Even the Losers, off his 1979 album Damn The Torpedoes whilst I counted out pills on the carpet, wearing stained pajamas; my limp, dirty hair raked back off my face making my cheekbones look like cliff edges. The fact I was forever tainting his enjoyment of Meatloaf or T’Pau didn't enter my mind. I wanted to work out how many pills would kill me, then put them in pot and hide them in a pocket of a jacket or rolled up in my socks or in a pair of shoes I never wore because I had a lot them. Shoes, that is, for all the steps I was never taking.
It probably sounds strange, but I never realized you could die by your own hand until I became a teenager. I thought death always came via cancer or lung disease or a freak accident of some sort involving a helicopter propeller. No one I knew had taken their own life, so death seemed cold and clinical: something outward-acting that generally in the West we tried to ignore, until we found we were ravished by cancer or had a bad heart and realized denial is pointless. The reason I discovered death could be a self-directed outcome was due to my friend at school taking an overdose in the communal bathroom at school. When found, they carted her off to a hospital to have her stomach routinely pumped. She came back to school a few days after with a pale face, and she looked somehow smaller and less well defined. Sometimes I think mental illness does this, reduces us inwardly so outwardly we appear diminished. I wish I could say I was sympathetic to her – offered her my ears, bought her something to cheer her up or took her for a bag of chips, but my only real thought or feeling back then was a slight bubbling euphoria, because quite by accident, I happened upon a way out of life. In that moment, I determined to use this mechanism when I felt sufficiency awful again.
My boyfriend didn't have the patience for what he understood to be my dramatic behavior. He grabbed a plastic bag and threw away my means to end it all, dumped hope in the bin and expected me to survive. He told me to take a bath, put on a dress; we would go for a meal where I could paint on a smile and pretend to be okay. Most people in my life have dealt with my depression by trying to tidy it away. It's too messy and inconvenient to do anything with, so they will stick it in a cupboard with disinfectant and polish and hope it gets rubbed away. It makes you not want to talk about it, not want to be that person; the one who people dance around awkwardly as if your moods might be catching, the one who is considered hard work, the one who elicits sympathy one moment and infuriates the next. We feel impatient with ourselves already. We want to snap out of it, pull ourselves together, get a grip, but it's not always easy and expectations simply compound the problem and entrench our already precarious sense of self-worth, shaking the little confidence we have in ourselves.
My boyfriend and I didn't last. I don't think I could be with someone who doesn't at least try to understand now. The gap between understanding and ignorance (or not knowing) is not so wide. You just have to step a little closer and listen a little harder. After all, for all the ideas about madness and genius, sorrow and misery, mind aching depression and wanting out of life, one fact remains. We need each other. It's the connections we make that sustain us, whether in real life or online – knowing others have been where we are now and survived, knowing people are there for us and knowing that even though we may know the way out of life, by making these connections with others, we plant the tentative hope that we just might stay. It's worth another ride. It's worth another day.
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