Depression: the long and winding road

Hi friends, how are you all doing? It’s been a funny old time this week. My last blog post on what not to say to a student who is experiencing mental health problems went a bit viral and had thousands of views in a very short space of time. I made some steps towards thinking about what I’m going to do with my life. All of this should have made me feel good and happy and positive, but it didn’t. Instead I feel a bit empty and pretty unhappy. Last night I had my first meltdown in a long time and I’m worried that my depression is getting worse instead of better. I simply do not know what to do about my PhD but being at home all the time isn’t helping. I’m actually starting to feel pretty stupid and humiliated that I even thought I’d be capable of doing a PhD in the first place. So…not great.

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Often when I’m feeling low, I turn to fiction. You might not know this about me but I LOVE to read. Something that has really been helping me recently is to think about myself as being on a journey. I’ve been trying to remind myself that this patch of depression is not my end point. I won’t feel like this forever. It’s just another stage of my journey. Many of the characters from my favourite books undertake long journeys without being sure of their end point or whether they will ever make it home again. You all know by now that I’m always on the hunt for ways of making it easier to talk about and think about mental health. Depression can be a difficult thing to imagine and even more difficult to  explain to someone who has never experienced it. There are many people who are far more skilled than I am at describing the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that generally accompanies depression and I have found some of the best descriptions in the pages of novels. 

I thought I’d share a couple of the most powerful with you today. They might help you to understand depression a little bit more or, if you’ve experienced mental health issues, maybe the idea of life being a journey, with all of its ups and downs, will help you too. The first is from my some of my favourite escapist fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia and describes the unrelenting sameness of every day when you’re living with depression:

“Presently they were given food – flat, flabby cakes of some sort which had hardly any taste. And after that, they gradually fell asleep. But when they woke, everything was just the same; the gnomes still rowing, the ship still gliding on, still dead blackness ahead. How often they woke and slept and ate and slept again, none of them could ever remember. And the worst of thing about it was that you began to feel as if you had always lived on that ship, in that darkness, and to wonder whether the sun and blue skies and wind and birds had only been a dream.”

The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis

The second description comes from my inherited, well thumbed and pretty mangled copy of The Hobbit. Poor old Bilbo. His journey takes him out of his comfortable life and drags him through some pretty unfortunate adventures. One of the worst things about a journey through depression is that you can lose sight of where you’re come from and where you’re going:

“It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. But they has to go on and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of the wind on their faces. There was no movement of air down under the forest roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy.”

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein

This final description really spoke to me of the daily struggle you experience when you have been depressed before and you know how far you have to fall. Sometimes the only way to cope is to fix your eyes on the path immediately in front of you and take one tiny, tentative step at a time:

“And so, in a shocked silence, the column of the dead began their journey along the edge of the abyss, How long it took, neither Lyra nor Will could guess; how fearful and dangerous it was, they were never able to forget, The darkness below was so profound that it seemed to pull the eyesight down into it, and a ghastly dizziness swam over their minds when they looked. Whenever they could, they looked ahead of them fixedly, on this rock, on that foothold, this projection, that loose slope of gravel, and kept their eyes from the gulf; but it pulled, it tempted, and they couldn’t help glancing into it, only to feel their balance tilting and their eyesight swimming and a dreadful nausea gripping their throats.”

The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman

The thing about a really good book is that nothing ever happens by accident. These authors wouldn’t write about long and dangerous journeys unless they had some reason to do so beyond getting their character from one place to another. These long and arduous journeys cement friendships and allow characters to learn more about themselves and discover strengths and abilities that they didn’t know they had. Neither Lewis or Tolkein were strangers to periods of depression and Pullman has spoken about representations of mental health and depression in his books. These guys know what it’s like to wake up every morning with the tangible of nothingness pressing you into the mattress. Reading their books helps me to remember that I am on a journey and this journey serves an important purpose in my story. Every step on my journey is teaching me more about myself, developing resilience and compassion for people who are suffering in the same way and, although it may not seem like it, making me a stronger person. Although I may be attacked by trolls, spiders, magical snakes, giants, harpies and Mrs Coulter, I’ll get where I’m going in the end. I may not know where I’m headed, but I do know that the view is going to be great. Onward ever upward.

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2 responses to “Depression: the long and winding road

  1. Jessica,

    I am so familiar with the ‘good things seem to be happening and yet I’m so sad’ phenomenon (it seems especially noticeable after something obviously good happens). It happens to me still (though to a lesser extent, I think). It happened to me yesterday, actually. I’ve long thought of my depression in terms of the Hero’s Journey narrative (I think all the books you cite here have that form– Joseph Campbell’s work on it is brilliant). I’ve compared my depression to Mirkwood in the past too. It feels like it’ll never end. I’m not sure I have much better to say, just that you’re not alone and keep swimming/moving. Depression is such a frustrating thing. Hang in there and keep writing/making things/trying things. Some things will work. The other thing I’ve found most vexing about depression is that it can be genuinely hard for me to accept real affection from supportive people. I want connection, and yet I seem to push away too. You also write something that I’ve written “Other people have written more brilliantly about this than I have”…you’ve written brilliantly about depression. I’ve written some good stuff too. That counts! I’m going to stop rambling now and get back to work…

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: It’s a never ending battle for a peace that’s always torn | An academic follower of fashion·

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