Week in Review

Anna Rawhiti-Connell: Black holes, black dogs and black days

A week out from the platitudes of Mental Health Awareness Week, Anna Rawhiti-Connell drops the euphemisms to explain how she sees her depression as a gift - albeit one she wishes she hadn't been given.

I have a folder on my phone called ‘My D’. It’s full of notes about my moods and I’ve been filing things there since 2013. ‘My D’ is My Depression. When I first started the folder, I couldn’t even write the word. Re-reading my own notes now is a painful, embarrassing and sometimes very funny experience. I laugh about some of the worst times – the wretched state of sitting around in the same disgusting t-shirt for a week watching 60 episodes of Nashville - while still flinching for Anna, aged 36, gnawed and nagged at by the fear that this was her life now.

I still struggle to articulate what it is I have had, or still have. I am always clumsy in conversation about it. I am a depressive? I am prone to depression? I was depressed? I live with depression? I manage depression? None of them feels right. Even though it’s more acceptable to talk about, the word itself is so clinical. And if I am not in a depressive state, am I still depressed? 

I’ve had several bouts of the kind of depression that leaves you drained of energy and robbed of joy. The kind that starts with irritation and envy and transitions into self-loathing and a dangerous deficit of confidence. The kind that begins by pushing friends away and ends with days of praying to feel anything but hopeless; silent, unstoppable tears streaming down the side of your face as you lie in bed, paralysed by fear and exhaustion.  

My first was in my early twenties. I spent six months failing law school, eating mallowpuffs and smoking in bed. I barely left the house, only doing so to buy supplies and save face when I thought people might find out what a failure I’d become. I didn’t know it was depression at the time. Nor did anyone else around me. My saving grace in these times has always been my pride. When that goes, I know I am in trouble. My pride has also been my downfall. My unwillingness to surrender control or admit defeat keeps my depression hidden. Even now, as the stigma falls away and we all openly talk about it like it’s the same as having asthma, I have still skated a bit close to black holes before admitting to anyone that I was not okay.

It is far easier to describe the sensation of waking up devoid of energy and joy as feeling like you’ve done a full lap of the earth before you’ve even opened your eyes, than it is to say "I want to claw out my insides in a bid to manifest the pain I feel as real".

Black holes, black dogs, black days. My depression language is littered with metaphors. They are useful but also euphemistic. It is far easier to describe the sensation of waking up devoid of energy and joy as feeling like you’ve done a full lap of the earth before you’ve even opened your eyes, than it is to say "I want to claw out my insides in a bid to manifest the pain I feel as real". Euphemisms make it easier for other people to understand and even in your depressed state, you know better than to scare the shit out of people with ugly, visceral descriptions.

I am writing this a week out from Mental Health Awareness Week, a time of peak euphemisms. In the past, I’ve said I hate this week. Chirpy platitudes ring out from corporate LinkedIn accounts. Doing gardening is recommended as a remedy. "It’s just like having a broken leg," suggest lovely well-meaning people doing their bit to minimise the stigma. Stigma becomes one of those words that starts sounding and looking really weird the more often you see it over the course of the week. "Are you okay?" they write on cards placed on desks at work. "No, I am bloody not. Now fuck off."

The enforced attention and attempts to empathise stirs the rebel in me. I will not be told what to do or how I feel, especially when it comes to the twisting of my mind and the black hands that grip my soul. I will not be comforted by knowing there are like minds like mine. I will not.

I retreat to the comfort of Tim Lott’s writing on depression, who suggests: "We don’t understand depression partly because it’s hard to imagine – but also, perhaps, because we don’t want to understand it." Lott suspects that "society, in its heart of hearts, despises depressives because it knows they have a point: the recognition that life is finite and sad and frightening – as well as those more sanctioned outlooks, joyful and exciting and complex and satisfying". 

I love that quote from Lott. Maybe it sounds unhealthy, stigmatising or pessimistic to you. To me it rings true. I feel united with him and others who are sometimes privy to truths about the human condition. It’s not a state I recommend you spend time in if you can avoid it or manage yourself away from, but writing like Lott’s has helped me accept my depression and to even see it as a gift. One I wish I hadn’t been given but one I have nonetheless. 

Nihilism might be okay if you’re truly robust but it is a depth I cannot swim in.

Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon has an essay I recommend called ‘Depression, Too, Is a Thing with Feathers’.

It’s a callback to an Emily Dickinson poem titled ‘”Hope” Is The Thing with Feathers’. Like me, he doesn’t recommend depression as something everyone should go through but he does suggest there is insight you can gain and that valuing it makes you better able to tolerate a relapse and the fear that comes with knowing one could be just round the corner. 

The valuing of depression goes hand in hand with managing it for me. 

I spend a lot of time in my head. It is a double-edged sword. When you’re told you’re a brainy kid, your intelligence increasingly becomes a very strong part of your identity. Nothing is unsolvable and the answers reside in your head. I spent a lot of my twenties in a constant search for a theory of life to pin everything to. I was often trying to rationalise my way out of a depressive state. 

That’s the huge irony of depression. I can think myself into it, but I cannot think myself out of it. This has been very puzzling to people around me. "But you’re so smart." Perhaps, but it is my tendency to spend too much time in my head that contributes to the slide into the unproductive abyss. Nihilism might be okay if you’re truly robust but it is a depth I cannot swim in.

I know as much about what causes depression as anyone else who’s seen doctors and counsellors about it and hoovered up literature and SSRI pills hoping to find relief and an explanation. 

What I do know, and where I have made my peace with Mental Health Awareness Week and their annoying advice, is that for me, a combination of a daily SSRI, regular counselling and the really boring ‘are you shitting me’ activities listed on their website help me manage it. Gardening actually helps. Talking to a friend actually helps. Leaving the house to go and look at bloody trees actually helps. A healthy diet and exercise actually helps. “Connecting with my community” actually helps.

I am ever grateful for the empathy and insight my depression has granted me but ever vigilant about the resilience and practices required to keep my head above water.

The rebel in me still wants to scream ‘WHAT DO THE TREES KNOW ABOUT MY TORTURED MIND THAT SEES ALL THE AWFUL TRUTH?’ but years of experience has taught me that my tortured mind needs a break from itself and even though I don’t think you can understand depression unless you’ve been in it, swimming the depths by myself, in my mind, only results in being sucked further down. 

My go-to metaphor for accepting both my depression and the need to manage it is an aquatic one. I quite literally think about my mind as a big concrete water container with many levels. When all is well I swim in the shallows, with a large concrete lid over doors to the levels beneath. This metaphor probably defies the laws of how water works but for me it’s an acceptance that I have swum the depths beneath and I don’t need to again. It is tempting to sometimes think about what might be down there, as it was in my twenties, but it’s a deception. I do not need to plumb the depths, I know what they look like. Instead I’ll take my pill, see my counsellor, plant some tomatoes and go for a walk. I am ever grateful for the empathy and insight my depression has granted me but ever vigilant about the resilience and practices required to keep my head above water.

Solomon writes: "I think that what I have learned from all of it is that the very vitality that the depression at one point robbed me of has returned newly strong and has caused me to live more richly. That may be a delusion that I have talked myself into. But if it is, it has been a very productive illusion for me. And it’s what I recommend to everyone else."

The opening line of Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon, is filed away as a quote in that folder on my phone but it doesn’t need to be stored there. Depression, he says, is the flaw in love, and I carry that with me everywhere. 

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