What Hurts

Each day I sit down to do battle with monsters. Sometimes I win, but not always. If I am successful the end result is a page of text that is at least ‘not too bad’. If I lose, I fall into a pit of despair. Finding my way out of it again can take some time, feeling my way down dark corridors. Sometimes there are sporadic flashes of illumination, a feeble, distant glow, which allows me to feel my way. These are usually the writings of others, which allow me to see where I am, at least. Sometimes the corridor is flooded with light, and I cringe at it, dazzled. These are the visits of friends, the intrusion of others’ lives into my own. They depart, and my night vision is knocked out for a while, so I stand with eyes closed until I remember the direction that their presence temporarily illuminated, and begin to slowly feel my way down the corridor once more, trying to find a way out.

I live with depression. It’s been there forever. Sometimes it sets the agenda, sometimes I do. I refuse to give in to it, but the constant battles can sap the strength over time. It strikes unexpectedly, in the most inconvenient places: a holiday on a tropical beach with friends, where I muttered a half dozen phrases each day at most, was particularly bad – their obvious enjoyment of the surroundings only threw my own private despair into sharper relief. And yet I needed them there, drew heavily on their presence, their love. I have had an amazing life, and have done extraordinary things. Sometimes I just can’t see it, that’s all.

One of the things that is the most devastating about this is the sheer pettiness of it – the discovery of some of our most unloveable attributes: envy, jealousy, nastiness, pride, anger. One likes to think one is better than this, somehow more evolved, but no: it’s there alright, a skulking schadenfreude, the devil in all of us. Pull it up from the roots, dig deep into yourself and weed it out, or it’ll poison the rest of you. Why do I think the things that I do? What mental associations have I cultivated unconsciously that have led to this toxic thicket? It’s necessary to hack your way through it at times in order to clear the ground and plant afresh.

Physically, too, one becomes affected. In my case I develop an ache, an actual physical ache, in my heart. Right there in the ventricles. I’ve been checked out by the docs, wired up to machines, prodded and examined and listened to. But it’s sporadic – it comes and goes, the sick thump measuring out the beats of my lifespan, and on it goes, relentlessly. “Nothing wrong with it,” they say. “Strong as an ox.” But it feels broken. Trouble is, I can’t remember how it happened. Or who did it. Me, probably.

I take a certain grim pleasure in the externalisation of this. I look at the spatter of rain on the window, the geraniums in the windowboxes shivering in the wind, and I actually smile inwardly; the weather matches my mood. I love the rain, whether its a grey sky weeping smuts of drizzle or the hot tropical downpour of the monsoon and the scent of the slaked earth. Sunshine and heat throws it all into sharper relief, alienating you still further from your environment, like that beach holiday, where I sat and sweated miserably in the shade of a beach umbrella. An intemperate climate is in my nature; my mental weather.

Worst of all though is the inability to write, or to write well about it. You’d think that suffering might be a useful attribute for a writer, or that writing might actually be therapeutic. But no – what actually happens is that your emotional vision becomes foreshortened; you can’t see further than your own misery, and each sentence sets off into the unknown, hand on the wall, before plummeting off a cliff-edge after the full stop. You long for distant horizons to give a sense of perspective, but your gaze is fixed firmly on your feet before you, and try as you might to lift it, it remorselessly returns there. The self-indulgence and self-pity of it hurts as much as anything. No book, no film nor music can distract you from yourself. Sleep is elusive, a blissful refuge torn away by the mind’s dull ache, and the depression seeps into every part of consciousness; I have woken up at four in the morning to find tears silently running down my face without knowing why.

I was 18, and working in the kitchen of a Pizza Hut in a small town in Germany. The depression struck. My life was already over. I was 21, on mountain rescue missions amongst jagged African peaks, winching people off cliffs and out of crevasses. I was 25, sitting on a bench in the rain in a small town in England, clutching a can of strong cider, together with two other homeless guys. I was 30, on a train through Vietnam with a deadline to meet for a magazine article. 37, more deadlines to meet – assigments on a master’s degree. 40, my birthday, at a police checkpoint one night in Afghanistan, with a lump of hash in the car and a bigger lump in my throat when they walked off with my passport. 42, on a beach in India – the tropical beach I mentioned earlier – surrounded by friends and the people I love and who love me in return, unconditionally. 42, in a central London flat, looking out at the rain as I write this. I never thought I’d make it this far. If I had given in to the depression, I wouldn’t have. But my life’s not over yet. So I’ll keep on feeling my way down that corridor, because I know there’s light at the end of it. I’ve been there before.