When I lived in London, most Sundays would see me wake up, throw on some cloths and walk to the corner shop for the Sunday Times. I would return home, make a cup of tea and start my way through the brick of a newspaper. I had a little ritual. I would unfold the newspaper separating each section until I had a pile of them for my reading. I would place the regular sections on top of the special Sunday sections and place the two magazine supplements beside them. I would ritualistically read the magazines last, except for the Aunt Sally column at the back of the Style magazine which I would read first.
If I was sitting somewhere with a girlfriend we would often read the column aloud and share what advice we would give to the inquirer before finding out what Sally Brampton had to say. Usually, our advice was similar to hers, however she had a clever way of giving the letter writer a soft lecture about what it was in themselves or their behavior that had engendered their problem, before informing them of a way out of their mess.
Unfortunately, as most people, Ms. Brampton couldn’t see a way out of her own mess and last Tuesday, walked down to the sea near her house and simply kept going. Her body was found washed up on shore by a passerby and no attempts at resuscitation were successful. Sally Brampton’s ‘mess’ was chronic depression. As well as an Agony Aunt, she was also the past editor of the UK edition of Elle magazine (in fact she was its first editor when it was debut in the 1980’s) and a writer of books, one of which was entitled Shoot the Damn Dog. It was a memoir of sorts detailing her ongoing battle with depression. The dog was a reference to another sufferer of depression, no other than Sir Winston Churchill who referred to his depressive episodes as his ‘black dog’.
When I found out the news earlier today that Ms. Brampton had taken her life, I was deeply affected. I felt horrible for her and her family that she could not seem to shake off her depression as I and others have successfully done. My entire day was spent doing what I needed to do whilst eyeing the constant thought of depression in the corner of my mind. I was thinking about how some people like me, manage to shoot the damn dog and others tie it up in the backyard and feed it thus assuring that it isn’t going anywhere. What was the difference between the two? What was the difference between me and Sally Brampton? More importantly what similarities did we share?
Today as I was driving my car, I saw a little ant climbing up my arm. I flicked it off onto the dash board and watched it run about here and there not knowing where to go. By climbing on me it had separated itself from its friends, from the scent trails that denote its constant, automatic actions. In the car the ant was not sure what to do with itself. I looked at the ant and said aloud, “How sad for you”. Later as I sat in the park watching my daughter play I thought about that ant. I thought that one similarity shared by people who are prone to depression is that they separate themselves from the flow of life, not consciously of course, not knowingly, in fact I have no idea how it happens. They just seem to wake up one day and an invisible cord to the rest of humanity has been cut, with no scent to follow back to the fold.
The ironic thing is that I believe another similarity shared by depressives is that they are actually supreme empaths; people who feel the pain of the world. From the tiniest ants to the tallest trees. They do things like worry about ants trapped in their car who will never find their way back home. They do things like cry when their husband’s boss tells him to cut down a 600 year old olive tree. Maybe it is the constant foot on the empathy pedal that engenders the depressive episode. It is a needed break from all of that caring, all of that observing of pain, all of that feeling sorry for everything and everyone, because let’s face it, in this world there is a lot to feel sorry for. Perhaps, because the empath is unable to stop themselves from taking on all of that crippling psychic pain, their mind does it for them. It hits the stop button in the form of depression. The problem is that once cast adrift from their normal operating base of compassion they fully experience the opposite, total despondency for life and those in it, including themselves. All of a sudden there is nothing in the universe worth caring about. Life seems pointless and futile. You seem pointless and futile. There is nothing to do or say or feel anymore. You are at the bottom of a black hole and do not even care to climb out. Some people spend their time in that black hole taking to their bed 24 hours a day and alternating between weeping and sleeping. Some people take to alcohol and drugs to while away the hours as well as numb the experience. Some like Sally Brampton, after years of trying every coping mechanism around, have enough and just walk out into the sea letting its waves carry away their depression.
I am thankful that in my life time I have only had one full-blown depressive episode, which eventually was cured by a few months on anti-depressants, alternative therapies and travelling around India for four months. I do however understand chronic depression,such as Sally Brampton admitted to experiencing throughout her life. Depression is a place where once you go there, you can easily find your way back. I have felt the black dog following me throughout my life, but for some reason had the wherewithal to let it come close enough so that I could kick it in its teeth. This past month was one of those times. My daughter and I got a virulent, immune-system-kicking flu and with no one to help me out, I had to carry on with my mother/housewife role even though terribly ill. A week after our incubation my husband got the same flu and decided that he needed special sick person status, which involved me nursing him better despite that fact that I still felt terrible myself. Probably, because I had an unknown kidney infection for which, after dragging myself to the doctor, I had to take heavy duty antibiotics that were worse than the infection itself. I could barely eat or sleep such was their onslaught on my body. Of course, during this time I decided to be practical and take advantage of the self-imposed isolation and potty-train my daughter which didn’t go too badly, except that even when we started to get better we still couldn’t leave the house for fear of random acts of pants peeing. Reality was bad enough but my thoughts bout it were worse: I am stuck at home, I am stuck in this situation, I am stuck in my life, I am stuck, I cannot envision a way out of this mess. With extra gusto, I let a few awful, boring, difficult days (24 to be exact) trapped in the house with a toddler, become a metaphor for all that I thought was wrong with my life. That is another trait shared by depressives: they overthink everything until what is a few weeks at home becomes a life sentence in jail.
Thankfully, just when I was teetering on the edge and near to the end of our exile, I sat outside in the garden and observed things around me. I looked at the flowering fruit trees and the insects that were pollinating them. I looked up at the sky and took a breath of the fresh air. All of a sudden I didn’t need to go anywhere. All of a sudden it hit me and my perceived ‘stuckness’ was gone. Life is pointless. It is an exercise in futility. It doesn’t lead anywhere but death and along the way there is pain, so much pain. Your own pain, other’s pain, the pain of a tiny ant and the pain of an ancient olive tree but you know what? Life is fun. Just existing is fun. As I sat in the garden, I seemed to step outside of myself and observe myself observing the world around me and I liked it. I liked looking at things. I liked considering what they were doing. I liked feeling their pain. I liked loving everything in the world despite knowing where it was all going to end up. I liked breathing in and out, my chest going up and down, knowing one day it will stop at my final breath.
It is this realisation that, I believe can bridge the gap between the depressive and how they interact with the world so that they no longer need to experience a black hole vacation. It’s the realisation that it’s okay to feel deeply for people, places and things because your emotions are not going to kill you, life will take care of that. It is the realisation that we are all automatically following a scent trail that leads us nowhere and that too is okay because in the meantime we get to exist. To experience ourselves experiencing life. I remember my trip to India. I remember sitting on a train for 36 hours with my travel companion. We had brought books for the journey and spent our time either talking to each other or advancing our positions in borrowed stories. We remarked how strange it was that most of the natives around us weren’t doing anything. We snobbily thought them uneducated and backwards. We were wrong. I wish that I had gotten the memo from the universe then and not a few weeks ago. They didn’t have their noses in books because they were just hanging out. Enjoying life. Enjoying living. The state of existing was enough for them. Life was enough for them. Pointless life with all of its horrors and terrible states kept them interested enough not to have to read about it, think about it or fret about it. To them a black dog was just something roaming around the street looking for food. They weren’t going to feed it. They weren’t going to feel sad for it. They were just going to see it for what it was: another thing having this experience called life. Now that Sally Brampton’s life experience has ended, I feel sad that she couldn’t take her black dog to the shelter, get back in her car and not look back. I feel sad that her family and friends have to experience her loss. I feel sad that there are others right now deep down in their own black holes who do not have the energy to climb out. I feel sad, deeply sad, but not enough to forget that when the black dog comes nipping at my heels it is going to get a swift kick in the chops before it can give me one in mine.