I once bled onto a Flintstone sock for four days in a Ballsbridge bedsit ’til it was hard enough to slash through human flesh or qualify for a Garda weapon’s seizure. Another time the man I was sleeping with just plain refused to crawl into my bed: ‘June, I can’t…there’s a phone in there and a half-eaten plate of pasta, beer cans and what looks like a piece of an ironing board.’ He was very sweet not to mention the month’s worth of dirty clothes, unread books, loose wires, odd shoes, an upturned lamp and decorative wooden salad fork set I bought as a present but was too lethargic to pass on.
While not very apt descriptions of prototypical depression, these two scenarios sum up the cloisterphobic clutter and superglue awfulness of an internal mood shift that can recalibrate your customary life into a bizarre orgy of silent dislocations. So much so that if you turned your head slightly to the left and saw your severed arm stuck rigid to the wall like a haphazard slot-machine handle, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Human voices become sloppily muffled, the tiniest of bureaucratic tasks: a crippling run between two lines of people facing each other and armed with clubs…days shadowed by sincere lack of interest in anything that breathes, moves, shivers, while all is accompanied by chronic tiredness the likes of which only a cat by a coal fire in January should ever experience. Here’s something your €75 an hour artificer of niceness in open-toe sandals won’t tell you: life is a throbbing bore. Inbetween the obvious bouts of anthropoid beauty − falling in love, exciting sex, University, babies, a glowing career, warm-hearted friends, laughter, cream cakes, awesome holidays, general milestones, packaged peace − there’s incessant stress, tragedy, ill-health, violence, sadness, rape, heartache, unworkable families, emotional abuse, lack of opportunity, dreadful dysfunction, absence of love: an entire giant wheelie bin of dispiriting melancholic glupe. Even just coping with people constantly is a colossal pain in the arse.
When I’m on top of things, in good form, I’m pretty good at sifting through the annoying bits, being diplomatic or even at times, being nice/kind/functional! But when feeling low, the prying bag at the bus-stop demanding all kinds of insights into my life or the wanton perv in the pub who refuses to let me sit and drink a pint & read the paper in peace (this happens a lot if you’re a woman out in public alone) can be a dreadful chore. ‘Why don’t you stick your hand down my knickers, it might be less intrusive’, I feel like roaring, sometimes. Come to think of it − now that I’m being randomly honest − I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss either who wasn’t a complete megalomaniacal gobshite. Relationship embroidery is pretty much set up this way. Predisposed patterns for sibling rivalry, petty jealousy in the workplace, power play, naturally opposing or defensive positions (“I can’t stand the mother-in-law”), competitive friendships, family feuds, what seems to be a natural urge for unflagging conflict both big and small, raining down around us all the time, with no hope of a brolly for protection. Layered on top of this is the earthly tendency for chaos and all that we can’t control, from tsunamis to car crashes, redundancy, breast cancer and beyond. I would argue that if you didn’t find life sporadically tough, tormenting, dull, painful and bleak, you’d be a complete and utter moron. You’d belong to the Louise L Hay School of Grinning Cliché and you’d probably find yourself dancing up O’Connell Street wearing a salmon pink sheet or belonging to some other sesame seed based cult.
The Irish Times this weekend published a heart-rending and beautifully written piece by Carl O’Brien on suicide. Phyllis MacNamara’s personal story about how she lost her best friend, life companion, lover, hubby, soul-mate, was so incredibly moving because it was also the re-telling of a 24-carat love story running parallel to a desperate man’s clamorous attempt to understand what was happening to him. In the terrible business of do-or-die, solicitor Michael MacNamara could not negotiate a way out of the extreme debilitating emotions he was experiencing. Although his symptoms were at the ‘severe’ end of the depression spectrum: ‘In the final three days his speech deteriorated badly. His words were jumbled…When he went to the supermarket he looked through a hand-written shopping list, came to the word “rosemary” and stopped. He didn’t understand what it meant’…he felt too ashamed to seek psychiatric help and his wife never thought for a nano-second he was capable of killing himself. He told her she was the best wife any man could have, that he loved her completely. Then he went to the barn and hanged himself.
We are as ill prepared to deal with deep/severe depression as we are with tackling the current economic crisis. Except worse. The entire linguistic system girdling mental anguish is wholly redundant. When was the last time you saw a ‘pit’ for real (in a Gulag or Paddy field maybe) or craned your neck skyward to look at the always mentioned ‘dark clouds’? People all along the chromatic spectrum of off-kilterness need to be able to recognise where they’re at and to talk about it. In the early stages of depression, a navigable ear or a gesture of simple kindness, can pull a person back to where s/he is capable of being well, far better than any faux-pharma offering. In the mid-stages even knowing there’s plenty of functional sad folks out there getting on with life very well, with just a smidgen of guidance, could be a massive relief. At the late stages, recognising that intervention is needed and is not a contender for any kind of shame game, is the difference between life and death. We need to shear off the shite language and start expressing our sad selves for real, and know it’s just as ballsy to do so as it is to rant about our flagrant successes in the gilded good times.
Ten years ago I sought the help of a psychotherapist when I was in a bad way. The experience was an unfettered disaster. I was so solidly depressed I could barely speak or monkey-perform to his humanistic-integrative liking. I was totally incapable of crying into the plentiful supply of tissues like the ‘here’s a seashell for your window-cill’ attendees before me. He was clearly gifted at his job and incredibly intuitive and talented but that meant nothing, given the state I was in. I sat pulling the loose threads on a small black button on his Freudesque leather chair, week after week, boring him rigid. He battled long to get any reaction out of me at all. He also ate too many rashers and burned essential oils like a crazed hippie. There was a biography of Bruce Springsteen on the shelf and a book on iChing. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had an overwhelming urge to unzip him and star in my own private Flake ad. In between the imagined sex and the approaching breakdown he said some interesting stuff. “You’ve turned self-abuse into an art form…anger & sadness are on the same axis as fear and love”. When he did eventually begin to defrost me for real, it was all a bit nuclear-horrific. “I can’t help you anymore, there’s a lot of transference [and counter transference], it’s too difficult for you, it’s not working,” he said. Off I raged, unravelling to the level of Hitchcock’s Marnie for too long a time. An experience I hugely regret, on all levels. However, I still recognise the benefit of seeking professional help and would always encourage anyone dipping a toe into Dante’s Inferno to do so. Being alone isn’t worth the torture rack when everyone around you is similarly alone and creaking too.
June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here: