The lake sat beautifully in the afternoon sun; it was late autumn, my favourite time of the year.
I first fell in love in September, when I was sixteen, and if you’ve been fortunate enough to ever feel that and then claim her, you’ll know it’s an unforgettable, indescribable, heart-pounding, rushing joy…
But that was twenty years ago. I’m now thirty-six, and I’m sitting by this beautiful lake with my girlfriend and a pulsating rot in my gut. There must be a medical reason I thought. It must be because I’m with her, I thought. It must be because… And so the whirring began. Creeping up as an oncoming darkness. The last time I’d had a hernia I was making a diving catch in the covers – but this is different. It’s not a hernia. It’s a unique sort of ‘pain’. It languishes in the spreading of its energy; a lost voice, nagging, clouding my thoughts, inducing its unique brand of anxiety.
What was this deep gnawing in my gut? What are these cries? These feelings that everything’s ‘not right’? They are so very deep, deep within me.
Perhaps that moment marked the beginning of the journey to meet my dog.
The black dog scratches at my door, he’s persistent. I let him in from the cold. He cuddles up to me in the darkness. He delights in the loneliness of my soul. His howls are the calls of my heart. Beyond his whining I feel the gaze and lazy smile of my tormentor.
Eight years ago and it was my fortieth birthday. I invited all my friends and I told them all to “fuck off” during a drunken speech. I hired a sports club; nice feel, wooden (it burnt down a few years later) and a bit rough. The usual getting drunk ritual took place. Some friends turned up whom I’d invited but weren’t really friends at all. My girlfriend took me home. I have a vague memory of being in a car and collapsing at my house. I crawled upstairs and Nathan my lodger had to drag me into the bathroom. I didn’t make it and was sick all over the landing. I just lay in it all. Happy Birthday. What a good night etc…
Something had been wrong for a while.
“Here Dep! Good Boy… Where’s your bone?” He walks in and skulks in the corner, frightened and frightening, saliva dripping, seething dirty energy. He’s old, aged from his tormenting, yet his inner vitality rots at my core. He makes his bed next to mine.
Six years ago, I’m 42 and on West Hampstead station. The train taking me back to Richmond is an arrow firing me into the void. The later email confirming she doesn’t want to be with me is a message from the lips of Medusa. I curl up in a rack of pain, howling like the dog who’s licking his lips just around the corner. I try to cry but I don’t know how, I’m a man without the emotional armory, I’ve no language for this. My guts are razor-like and scooping, churning. Everything inside me is burning. For the next nine months I wake like this, frightened and alone. Crying myself to sleep with unhappiness, I take a lover, who comforts me. I plunge blindly through work; how, I don’t know. Everything is loss, all is lost. I can’t get her out of my mind. I can’t go into town because she’s there.
What was happening?
During those nine distressing but important months, deep losses collided within me. I’d been triggered. She was the object, yet I was trying to mourn something untouched inside me.
Stitched to my feet he’s my shadow; he’s my longing, my Peter Pan; he pads silently beside me, manifesting himself in my collected pain. He is part of me. He’s my dog. His eyes are my deepest losses; like those red stockings clinging tightly to her brown legs his saliva dribbles seductively down from his chin.
‘Depression.. a set of symptoms that derive from complex and always different human stories. These stories will involve the experiences of separation and loss, even if sometimes we are unaware of them.’ (The New Black – Darian Leader)
I’m now 49 and the last ten years are beginning to make some sense. This does not mean I’ve cracked it, it means that having unpacked some of this stuff with my therapist, I can begin to gently fold up my clothes again, re-sequencing them in a wiser order. I can see some of my luggage labelled now, laid out on the floor. All the stuff I’d been carrying on my journey. A heavy load.
For years I’d been longing for the relationship in which I could emotionally unpack. Of course that relationship isn’t about finding the special one; I’m not the first man to lose himself in the seductive, physical offer of The Goddess and I won’t be the last for which she’s the Achilles heel on this hero’s journey. Yet my longing is a divine call to return home. To meet my Maker. I am crying because I am separated from God. They are cries outward and upward, not in.
My soul was weeping.
I want to propose that we are both sent and drawn by the same force.. We are driven and called forward by a kind of deep homesickness, it seems. There is an inherent and desirous dissatisfaction that both sends and draws us forward, and it comes from our original and radical union with God. (Richard Rohr – Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)
What is Depression?
So what is Depression? Is it simply part of a pharmaceutical circus that prescribes us pills to feed our own capitalist economies? Or to show the NHS that it’s meeting its government-set targets? Isn’t it all a bit of a medical wind-up that we invented for ourselves forty years ago – to make the drug companies millions as part of some big consumerist cover-up? Are any drugs making any of us feel better? Don’t we need to call it an illness to retain this facade? Isn’t it all nonsense?
But it really wasn’t nonsense when I was finally reduced to a shuddering pool of twenty-four hour anxiety, fearful of the next moment, unable to care for myself and struggling to understand the complete despair I felt. What was happening to me? And it absolutely wasn’t nonsense having to return to this state of living hell three times. Perhaps Prozac assisted me in getting through the very worst, the ‘survival’ hours, the bottom of the pit, to help the hellishly, derailed sleeping pattern, to help me feel I was taking some action against the endless despondency, fear and torment. But they’ll never treat the cause. They won’t remove the pain. Yes, serotonin is a factor, but the experience of loss doesn’t lie in my brain, despite what some Government literature might tell me. The NHS can prescribe me a CBT quick-fix course, but it won’t help me in getting to the bottom of me. Drugs are not transformative. They are not the real work.
They can’t tell me that the cause is spiritual. They want to tell me it’s an illness and that it can be treated. And at the time that’s what I wanted to hear. I’m so desperate and it’s an answer! Thank God they can make medical sense of this. But.. What an arrogance! They don’t want to tell me that the only way is through, and not out. They don’t want to tell me there may more suffering on the journey. They don’t want to suggest I need to learn about courage and hope. But of course, don’t ask us to live in this paradox!! We expect to be ‘fixed’ in this postmodern, scientific world…
Leader employs a brutal analogy: quick-fix remedies work in the same way as a missile strike works on a terrorist base. In the short-term it looks successful, but it does nothing to alter the terrorist mindset. When loss and misery enter our lives, we are impatient to condense a process that, by nature or through talking therapies, can only be worked out over years. We want a name for our condition, and we want a timetable. (‘Anatomy of melancholy’ – Hilary Mantel, Guardian)
After my first nervous breakdown I realised I had made a huge descent, a road to my ashes of the type Robert Bly describes in Iron John.
I had finally started to hear my weeping soul.
Darian Leader frames the term ‘Depression’ well for me in his timely new book The New Black.
It is used so widely and with such little care that it acts as a barrier to exploring the detail of our responses to loss.
Overcoming loss will always be painful. My loss is part of me. My suffering is the roots of real transformation. The question I am asking now is – how do I integrate it into my life? Poor choices may mean my dog whines at the foot of my bed for years; wise choices that he’s free to go. Part of the paradox of being alive is that the human condition needs to endure necessary suffering and not suppress it. I see this clearly and complexly in the supreme gift we are offered; Jesus is the moment in time where God steps towards us and shows his human face. I’m beginning to understand this.. and integrate it into how I want to live. Being is about compassion, community and loving the other. Leaving the old behind is tough. I realise I don’t want a comfortable life, I want to live the adventure of life. Jesus asks me to follow – so God asks me to walk on my edge each day.
Yet it’s not all about psychotherapy and religion, it’s about the integration of a real truth into my life. Richard Rohr speaks of the truth as always being the truth, it can’t be questioned once established. Much of this truth can be found in the myths and legends of ancient cultures and civilizations. Jesus’ image in Matthew’s Gospel of a winnowing fork is used 700 years before by Homer in the Odyssey, yet might the image be at home in a modern trainee therapist’s thesis?
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:12 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)
I don’t think my dog wants to answer to the name ‘Dep’. He’s Smudge or Joe or Monty. And he doesn’t need to be black. I think my ‘depression’ belonged to an old identity that has died. An identity that bled to death in his own ashes – no longer the big ‘I am’ – and then knelt quietly, and surrendered his soul to his Lord.
So as I begin to sort out the wheat from the chaff, it’s time to stand by what is real, and leave what is unreal, to stand by what lasts, and leave what doesn’t last behind me.