On Monday of this week, it was World Mental Health Day. Funnily enough, I didn’t see any bunting or parades…
It staggers me that we need a day to remind ourselves that Mental Health is one of the most pressing issues we face in our society, but it seems we do. In fact, let’s not make it a day. Does it deserve a week? I think so. A month? Yeah, fuck it – in fact, let’s take many months. Years. As much time as possible until everyone remembers that a significant proportion of our population suffers from a mental illness of some sort. And the message should start with the fact that people with Mental Health issues need more support than just a firm talking-to.
Depression for parents is a real and terrifying thing. Parents of both genders suffer from it in their millions. Mothers put up with depressive illnesses to an extraordinary degree, and it’s sickening that it has only been taken seriously in the last few decades. Dads suffer from it too. It breaks us. It diminishes us. It makes us less, when most of us need to be more.
Now please forgive me if I hereafter only refer to my own depression, or depression from a male perspective. I’m not in any way downplaying the depression that mothers feel, it’s just that I can only speak from my own experience as a father dealing with it.
I’m one of that significant proportion of people for whom Mental Health is a daily issue. In fact, I’ve just – in the last hour – come back from a doctor’s appointment. I went in, said “BLAH BLAH BLAH”, and the doctor looked very grave and said “Hmmmm, well those certainly sound like the classic symptoms of Anxiety…”. Meh. I’m not surprised. I’ve long suspected this to be the case. I had a couple of episodes this summer which felt like panic attacks, and it pretty much sealed it for me.
I already suffer from Unipolar Depression. The new diagnosis of Anxiety just means that my illness has a cousin, and they can skip around in my head, holding their hands like jolly chums. Such larks they can have! Of course, while they are good buddies to each other and loyal companions, they are nonetheless arseholes who like to pick on the person in whose head they reside.
My mental health issues shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, if you’ve been reading certain other entries in this blog. However, I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly discussed my ongoing depression in a blog post, but I’m going to now.
Depression is more than just a black mood to me. Depression means that I can’t take a joke. I’m scared of what I can and can’t do (and I frequently opt for “can’t”). There are days when I cannot face even my best friends, or even return their phone calls – all for reasons I can’t explain logically. Too many times, I’ve talked myself out of doing something, or going somewhere, or experiencing something new, because I just didn’t give myself permission, or I felt I wasn’t welcome, invited, or allowed. Often, doing something fun – a day out, a gig (either watching or performing), a social gathering – requires some pretty immense mental effort on my part. I find workplace banter confusing, and I don’t know how to respond. I find the manipulation, mind games, jostling for position, ambition and backstabbing of certain colleagues bewildering. And I just don’t know how to handle it.
You can’t really see the effects of depression on me. The scars it leaves are invisible, but permanent, and you couldn’t possibly see them all in one glance. It affects every single aspect of me as much as it did 10, 15, 20 years ago. 20 years ago, I thought I was just yer average miserable teenager. 15 years ago, I pretended it didn’t exist. 10 years ago, I realised I needed professional help.
In the long term, depression has done nothing for me. It has striven, very hard and deliberately, to ruin my life. It has been doing it for so long, I’m unaware if it has ever really been absent.
I fucking hate it. It stifles me and holds me back. I’m a creative (and I like to think reasonably articulate) writer, but I’m not very good at telling people about my blog. I’m more of a drop-my-link-here-and-scuttle-off kind of guy. I’m also a composer and musician, yet I almost never present my music for appraisal to strangers. I am poor at promoting myself, and at 39, I’m pretty much out of contention of ever experiencing much success. Weirdly, I’ve got no fear about standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people and performing music I’ve written, but I’m crap at giving just one person a CD. Not because I have no faith in my music, but because I have no faith in presenting my weird face to other people, and even less faith in my ability to handle the inevitable sneering I have presupposed my music would encourage.
Depression is the shittest friend I never asked for, and he’s a loud, obnoxious bully; always taking the piss, always knocking me down a peg or two for his own amusement, always reminding me of my failures, and drowning out any successes, and telling me what I do and don’t deserve.
It even has managed to find a way to ruin some memories of my wedding day, which I know was the happiest day of my life. These are the false memories and images that my depression sends as entertainment at night when I cannot sleep. It’s like a play where the title is ‘Fuck You, You Appalling Cunt’, and the star is me.
It’s automatic, uncontrollable, random, and punishing, and it strikes at any time, sometimes because of stimulus, and sometimes for no reason at all. My wife – my incredible, patient, forgiving, realistic (in that she’s sensible and grounded, and not that she’s remarkably lifelike), merciful, strong, practical, comforting, listening, companionable wife – has plenty of reasons in her own life to be properly glum, and yet she’s the sunniest, most cheerful and optimistic person I know. It’s not fair. It’s certainly not fair that Sarah has had to endure it for years and years.
You see, being a father did not come naturally to me. I never regarded myself as husband material – That was what the depression kept telling me. Throughout my twenties, I believed it was impossible. Being a father was out of the question. Me? Revolting, stupid, horrible me raising a child badly? Me? With my short fuse and slovenliness? No chance. Shut up. Idiot.
Sarah saw things differently. She married me. That’s an endorsement of some sort, isn’t it? She encouraged me to seek help and support. Getting a handle on my depression meant that I could look forward to being a parent. When I finally began shouting down the depression, I could see myself with a child, being responsible, being capable, being able to handle stuff. I wasn’t always convinced, but I could see myself doing it. And that’s the point. I could do it.
But here’s the thing. I’m a Depressed Dad. I still think I suck at being a Dad on a regular basis. My kid is going to have to grow up with it as part of the family. My own father had Type-1 Diabetes, and I had to grow up with everything to do with that. It was bullshit, all of it. Diabetes eventually took my Dad away from me. I hate Diabetes.
I had nightmares of my kid finding out I was depressed. I dreaded the day when she would encounter me crying for no reason, or when I would have to sit down and tell her that my mysterious and erratic behaviour was because of an illness she couldn’t see.
And then, it actually happened.
I can’t remember the exact day, but I was going through some awful times at work. More than once during this period, she would find me on the sofa weeping. She was not even four years old. She couldn’t understand it. What could she do? She cried as well. It was the only response she could muster. And there we were, father and daughter, both unable to help, clinging to each other like shipwrecked beavers on a raft.
It was awful. It was shaming. When she encountered the same thing when she was a little older, she attempted to comfort me – she patted me on the arm, and in her tiny, and most serious, voice she said “There-there, Daddy. There-there”, which only made me weep more.
There’s an anecdote that Spike Milligan liked to tell; when he was in the grip of a full mental breakdown, his daughter appeared in his room with a glass of water in her hand. It was all she could do to ease his suffering.
Children really do see things differently and honestly before society conditions them. Children know instinctively what to do when someone is upset. They don’t judge. They don’t mock out of embarrassment until they’re older and they struggle to fit in with their group – only then do they turn on the emotionally fragile.
No child should have to find their parent weeping. But millions of children do. Mine did, and she and I have to learn how to navigate this together.
I told her, when I felt she was old enough to understand it, that I had an illness that makes me sad for no reason. I told her that it’s always there, but only makes me properly sad on occasion. It’s not her fault, and it’s not Mummy’s fault either. It won’t happen everyday, but when it does, it’s not because of anything she’s done. She nods when I tell her this. I hope to Christ she understands.
Of course, I’m angry. I’m angry that she has to put up with my condition in the same way that I had to live with my father’s. I’m angry that this will affect her, and I’m angry that she will have to come to terms with it. I’m really angry that it will probably, in some way, affect our relationship; and I’m FUCKING FURIOUS that she may very well inherit it. I hate that she has seen this in me. I hate that I have had to explain this to her. But at least we now have something to refer to. If I can tell her that I’m feeling down, and that’s why I can’t join in with some fun and games, then maybe she’ll sympathise.
Actually, the other day, she did. I told her I had a pretty challenging day at work (when I wanted to scream and run out of the building shouting “GNAAAAAH!”) and she sighed and said “Yeah! Tell me about it!…” and then told me about her day, which was also pretty trying for her. Weirdly, it means we have a shared conversation based on mutual understanding. Common ground. This is vital between parents and kids, isn’t it?
Ultimately, I’m not embarrassed about my depression. Why should I be? I’m wary of telling people I work for, unless it becomes an issue. I don’t mind telling people about it when it’s relevant, but our society likes to ignore it, which is moronic considering how many people are affected, and how much strain it puts on our health services.
And I apologise if this sounds like an ineffectual soapbox rant (in amongst the self-indulgent solipcism of the post already), but really, as a civilised society, we need to change our attitude to people with mental health issues. I’m fed up of having it perceived as a shameful and personal problem. Awareness and public understanding of depression is better than it was even twenty years ago, but it’s still clearly not good enough. If your attitude towards those with depression is to say “Pull yourself together!”, then I have two fucks: 1) off; and 2) you.
If you’ve got depression, well… we need to have a salute of solidarity to give to one another from time to time, and stop being quite so secretive about it. If you haven’t got it, then you probably know someone who has. Look after them. It’s something like Type-1 Diabetes, or Epilepsy; it’s not easy to treat, nigh-on impossible to cure, and it’s a permanent concern, so you have to make changes in your life to manage it. I have to take medication on a daily basis to keep it under control – one of the side effects of which is that I can’t drink alcohol (and I could do with a cool beer, or a glass of red right now. But nooooo…). Understanding it is difficult, even for sufferers.
Or you could think of it as some kind of nasty skin condition. Most of the time it is benign, but when it flares up, the sufferer thinks of almost nothing else.
And if you privately (or publicly) think that people with depression should make more of an effort, maybe next time you see someone looking folorn in a social situation and you’re tempted to say “cheer up!” in a crass attempt at bonhomie, please don’t. Instead, it would be great if you could ask if they’re all right. That would be much more welcome, and it probably would generate a smile.
Let’s start talking to one another about it. Hi. My name’s Dan. I suffer from depression.