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29 Apr 2013 - 06:40:05 pm

NIGHT WITHIN - Mr Hyde at Home

It is said that when the genial and woman-friendly King Edward VII was operated on for appendicitis by Sir Frederick Treves - he of John Merrick, 'The Elephant Man' fame - he started a social craze and no one could claim to be anyone who didn't have treatment for appendicitis. 'Have you had yours out?' must have become a common society introduction. 

One hesitates to say that depression, in our time, has become fashionable. But it does rather seem to be everywhere and runs the risk thereby of not being taken for the dreadful illness that it is. Public exposure and discussion certainly removes the stigma attached to it, or goes some way to doing so. But it is no entertainment matter. My own struggle (and if you think it isn't a struggle, I advise you to try it sometime) is many years in existence. I cannot say when it first threw it's black blanket over my head, but I definitely had bouts of the 'weeps' as an adolescent. These were accompanied by rages of anxiety. In middle and later years, though I travelled widely, the effort required to travel was in many cases beyond endurance and the trip had to be postponed; this was always followed by a crippling guilt and sense of defeat. Approaching the time of the journey, the anxiety would increase, displaying itself in bouts of hypochondria and restlessness, 'thudding' heart, dry mouth, odd dreams, tetchiness and muddled thinking. It always ended abruptly the moment I sat in the 'plane seat. Very odd. I always, with very rare exceptions, enjoyed my stay, wherever I ended up. 

A bad bout, such as I am contending with as I write, involves disproportionate weeping triggered by some unpleasant but not earth-shattering event, followed by feelings of doom, uselessness, ideas that my home is so appallingly unkempt that it should be demolished, preferably with me in it; that I am abandoned, utterly alone, defeated and irredeemable. There are more physical consequences; lack of desire to eat, sit, read; wanting to meet people, not bothering to. Everything around me is imbued with sadness and bleakness. I am afraid of going mad; then, I have gone mad. The lamp looks sad, the sea looks threatening; the dog wants to leave home. I am filled with uncontrollable fits of miserable pity for everything, animate and inanimate. I am, of course, a failure. I am due to go on holiday very soon and I am dreading it, as usual. A friend congratulates me on being able to get some sun; I feel like falling into his or her arms, in tears. 'Have'nt you got your health?' someone will enthuse. No, actually, I have not. But that reply never seems to do anything but puzzle them. 

Between hits of anxiety and blanket, weighted blackness, eventually depression becomes visible: my walking pace drastically slows, my shoulders stoop, my head points to the ground. My conversation becomes rapid or very slow; a huskiness dulls the voice. The 'weight of the world' is on my shoulders. Severe bouts come with obsessive-compulsive thinking, unrealistic worrying. This is definitely not having one's health. The persistent melancholy defeats creativity. Or produces nostalgic, angry or pessimistic writing. How dark can the thinking become? How long is a piece of string? The yearning to be immersed in a soothing, warming sheet of forgetfulness is always there - last week, you wanted to climb Mount Everest single-handedly and without oxygen. 

Let mentally-sound scholars argue over whether your poems derive from this terror, this pitch-black giving up. You walk down the street, having aged twenty years in a night, and someone inquires 'How's the writing going?' There is no desire to write, as there is no desire for sex or food. There is no desire at all. 

I live in two people: one is enthusiastic, creative, ready for anything, up for any excursion, the direst challenge; the other is unable to get out of bed, weepy, tired, beaten and afraid. I am my own Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - whose story Robert Louis Stevenson might well have developed from his medical studies at Edinburgh, when the notion of divided or 'split' psyches in opposition to one another was being discussed for the first time. My demons visit their horrors only upon myself, their host. Little surprise, then, that Stevenson himself suffered from what was quaintly termed 'melancholia.' Or that Hyde could be re-read as indicative of 'hide' or 'hidden,' closed up in an otherwise reasonably functioning personality, hidden from view until released or triggered. We now know that many artists who were called 'mad' indeed suffered from depression, Vincent Van Gogh most notably - but let's not go down that slippery road of considering 'madness' of any sort to be a prerequisite for creativity. Tuberculosis too in some stages can produce idiosyncratic 'visions' or inspirations. And I feel sure other physical illnesses may do the same. What depression uniquely among illnesses produces, in my experience, is a terror of the new, the altered, the changed. Nor is it the overcast Western Irish weather that causes depression; but it tends to make visible and general the internalised depression of the sufferer and thereby enhances it. Overcast weather is the world 'closed;' sunny, blue-skied weather is the world open. Either way, one needs to be predisposed to depression before either good or bad weather can affect it. 

Am I so predisposed? My father spoke once of a bout of extreme lassitude in his thirties, cured by an iron tonic and Victorianesque walks in the park. My mother was nervous and 'highly-strung,' given to flamboyance and centre-of-attention behaviour. That's all I can offer. I know not whether there is anything in this that has had an effect on me. I suspect that being an only child led me to creating imaginary friends and from that there is but a short leap to writing about them. Medical intervention is helpful, of course, but has its limitations. In the middle of a serious depressive bout I doubt very much that anything but the strongest prescribed medicine would make any difference.

Yes, it does pass. Knowing it will is a sort of help, but when in the full grip of depression there is neither knowledge of good times gone by or a fair future to come. Depression forces me to live very much in the 'now,' as they say. There is nowhere else to go. A bad depression can lead to sore teeth, colds, all manner of physical complaints. In truth it is a physically holistic illness. The dishes have piled up, the dog-hairs are everywhere and you smoke like a train. There are lividly-coloured, vivid dreams. Tomorrow morning, I know, I will wake to face the same. The days pass too quickly or with painful slowness. The world conspires against me. That's entertainment. 

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