EVERY TIME stories of suicide make the news – the local man who pistol-whipped his girlfriend or celebrities like fashion designer Kate Spade or celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain – I think about how often I have felt like someone from Oliver Sack’s book An Anthropologist on Mars. In the deepest, darkest realm of depression where I have descended, I recognised neither the world nor myself. Feeling strangely disembodied, I wandered around a colourless, unfamiliar, oppressive world, which I desperately struggled to understand.
My depression often accompanied debilitating migraines with auras. I would lose half of my vision. In my imagination, I teetered on the edge of a black void, always nauseous from the height and terrified of tumbling into oblivion. I would lose my ability to walk and talk. The symptoms mimicked a stroke.
Then, I would disappear into self-imposed exile: a dark room where I would lie in bed for at least a week. Long school vacations accommodated these episodes of migraines. Years passed before I read Sacks’ book Migraine, and recognised myself in another one of his patients, a woman overburdened by the stress of taking care of her elderly parents. Sacks hypothesised that her migraines served as the only vacation she ever got from her sad and stressful life. Was this a version of my life, I wondered?
I began to question whether my migraines were an emotional escape. Worse yet, I thought I needed migraines and the depression associated with them to fuel any semblance of creativity. Every time I survived a migraine, the world seemed brighter, fresher and filled with endless possibilities. As a young journalist, I learned to create a bank of stories for those times when I couldn’t function. I could write and work in a manic state fuelled by a geyser of joy. Then, I no longer felt like a fraud – a big component of my depression, and from what I have read a component of many people’s depression.
And then there was the guilt. I was supposed to be happy. I loved my job, my children, my books, my writing. I had a home. It felt unreasonable to be sad.
My depression stretched back to my childhood. I felt lonely and aloof as a child, but of course I didn’t have a word for my feelings. In university, I often started my day by staring at the mirror in a desperate attempt to recognise myself. In my 40s, I acknowledged only pain or fatigue, but I could find the energy to argue with my doctor that I didn’t feel depressed. And I didn’t. Not in my eyes.
Nothing became clear until my doctor talked me into taking some experimental medication in a French study on depression. Somehow, that appealed to me. I took the medicine, noticing no real changes. The state of being a zombie seemed normal to me.
Then, one day, I was sitting in a car, day dreaming while my friend spoke, and I began to feel a tingling sensation in my face. Baffled, I tried to figure out what was happening. Finally, I recognised I was feeling my lip. Utterly shocked, I marvelled at feeling my body take shape, much like filling in the lines of a person in a colouring book. That’s when I realised the doctor was right.
The strangest aspect of depression is that it is a state of disease that many people suffer at some point in their lives yet few people recognise it, acknowledge it or understand it. It is a vicious, silent and clever stalker that operates in a land mine of negativity: shame, confusion and denial.
Or you could say it functions as a large umbrella covering a number of vastly different people huddled together against the rain as one entity, and yet everyone under that umbrella is an individual with distinctly different experiences of depression.
I have learned to “manage” my depression. Books about the neuroplasticity of the brain have provided a blueprint for me to work at happiness so that I don’t live in terror of when the next bout of depression will occur. Regular exercise, avoiding sugar, getting enough sleep and understanding how my brain functions all help me. Community service uplifts me.
Neuroscience has proved just how giving helps us to feel happier.
I am in a better place than I was before because I am better informed about depression.
When it comes to beating depression, communication serves as an invaluable weapon.
Next week: The best book I’ve ever read about depression