Depression? Ssshh, don’t talk about it…

Guest blogger Geoff Gunby writes a moving article about the nature of depression and his own battle with it.

I’ve never had any problem telling people that I have suffered from depression, because, in my experience people just don’t want to know.

Their eyes glaze over and their faces take on that ‘let’s talk about something else’ expression. You just know that you might as well have told them that you’ve just cut up a herd of cows with a chainsaw.

This almost magical effect, it just doesn’t apply to strangers or passing acquaintances, but also to health professionals, nearest and dearest and friends I’ve known for years. Something about it embarrasses them. Nevertheless I don’t want to launch a diatribe about how the world won’t listen or how uncaring people are because I don’t believe that things are that simple.

Man depressed
Depression: a common problem but still a taboo subject?
If people are annoyed when someone says that he or she is depressed we have to ask why. Time and time again I hear it said that we citizens of the western world are faced with an epidemic of depression. It’s life shortening and costs working hours. There seems to be no easy explanation of why this should be given the comparatively easy lives we have. There is something there, something huge and yet somehow imperceptible, like the elephant that has been in the living room for so long that it has ceased to be something worthy of even the most flippant comment.

But what could it be, this group secret of which mention must never be made? This dark mass in the corner, that takes up so much of our time with its constant demands without our being ever being really aware of its over-solemn occupancy? The mention of which brings out such a quiet rage in the people around us. As with anybody else all I can do is to look back at my own experience of what Andrew Solomon terms ‘The Noonday Demon’ and try an make a few connections.

In 1970, when I was nine years old, Unilever sacked my father. He had moved to the seaside town I grew up in to work for Birds Eye foods in their laboratory. As part of a general rationalisation of assets the lab was relocated and my Father suddenly found himself surplus to requirements. The effect on him was quite stunning. It was as if a miniature atom bomb had gone off in our middle class home, the fallout from which would never entirely leave us.

Dad had never been an easy person, irritable, violent, perfectionist beyond all reason, but he had always had a kind of energy which got things done, kept the garden tidy and kept him interested in life. Thus I had always forgiven him his excesses. Overnight, it seemed, things just came to a halt. The grass on the lawn that he had been so proud of grew two feet tall, the vegetable patch was abandoned and he spent long hours on the sofa with his head in his hands. The swing at the bottom of the garden hung rusty and useless as yesterday’s cliché, love and kindness were a thing of the past. Too proud to claim benefit he heaped humiliation on himself by borrowing from his own father to pay the mortgage. He argued with and struck my mother on several occasions. He subjected me to mental torture, making me stand in front of him while he told me how awful my life was going to be, how I would grow up friendless, and how I had no idea about anything. Of course at the time I didn’t understand what was going on only that I didn’t like it.

I had no idea that my father was depressed, had perhaps suffered what people used to term a nervous breakdown. In time, my mother went back to work as a teacher, my father got a job in the NHS and things were OK again. Except that they weren’t.

Between my parents things were never quite the same again and in my eyes, my father, who I had once worshipped no matter what his faults, was effectively dead. Someone to get money from if possible and to otherwise be avoided. In this period and the loss of direction that came with it were laid the foundations of my career as a delinquent, my failure at school and my inability to take pleasure in anything I later achieved. In other words the template for my own future depression.

I can’t say for sure when it started. All I know is that as my twenties progressed, I began to be aware that things weren’t right. A disastrous love affair, a pointless MA in Media Studies, moving to London with no clue as to what to do, the constant anxiety about the epilepsy which was slowly starting to control my life, the death of my beloved grandmother from cancer; all of these caused me pain, but wouldn’t it be the same for anyone? Nobody can go through life without some sorrow but people carry on and yet somehow I found myself less and less able to do so. There was something, something more, isolating me, colouring my thoughts. darkening the future, something I couldn’t get a hold on.

For years I carried on, writing novels that were never published, doing odd jobs, buying a house, getting married, travelling around, seeming to be having a good time. Yet all the time experiencing a growing emptiness, hearing an ever louder self accusatory voice pushing me towards taking my own life. Down and down I sank until there really seemed to be no hope. I had stopped working and gone on Disability Benefit because of my epilepsy and gradually I became paralysed to the point where doing anything was an almost unbearable effort.

On the surface yes, I was moving forward, was learning to paint, thinking of moving to Portugal but underneath it was hopeless. And still I just thought it was me. Finally my GP sent me for counselling after I had been to see her about something else but still it didn’t really register. I think the low point was when I told a friend’s wife not to take her kids to Disneyland because Walt Disney was a tool of the CIA. She just snapped and for about an hour berated me for being so miserable. Next day I went and sat by a pond in a park in Chester and cried for hours, watching the rain fall into the dead water.

And then it was over. My marriage broke up, I didn’t go and live in Portugal, met someone else and had children with her. And I was happy for the first time since I didn’t know when. Afraid that the darkness might just come back some day I’ve asked therapy on a couple of occasions but have given up after being made to do a kind of phone quiz and then been told that I may have been depressed but that it was now ‘in remission’.

So maybe that’s it, everybody’s happy nowadays, if a little anxious, just that I can’t help wondering what happened to me. So many books, so much research, so much pontificating, all pointing to the simple truth that everybody has their own depression. Mine wasn’t too bad, after all I’m still here, even if it did last a long time. And yet there has to be a common thread somewhere, surely?

For me the thread that leads back to the elephant comes not from looking at depression but from those who are not depressed. From the relative ease with which I cleaned out my life and started afresh. The whole process took on its own momentum – with my wife went her friends, her inlaws, a whole existence. Really I behaved so oddly that only my true friends stuck with me and it was all for the good. Change your life and change yourself. Use your choices.

Of course things are not quite that simple. But still it seems to me that the oh-so-polite anger that lies behind our friends’ refusal to acknowledge our pain is their own fear that it could happen to them. They too are simply running out of choices, and the choices they do have don’t amount to much. Surely you, sad as you are, can see that we are both the same? A tempting elephant but surely much too simplistic to cut it in the nervous world of pachyderms. Or then again…

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