In 1934 Samuel Beckett wrote to his cousin about the coming of spring:
I think of it as a victory over darkness, nightmares, sweats, panic and madness, and of the crocuses and daffodils as the promise of a life at least bearable, once enjoyed but in a past so remote that all trace, even remembrance of it, had been almost lost.
I found the quote in an article in the London Review of Books. The reviewer, Colm Tóibín, describes this as a hint of Beckett’s ‘famous despair’. There are words and words and words for describing the same things, of course – but, to me, this isn’t despair, it’s depression. Despair is abject hopelessness, and it’s a condition that depression can lead you to, but it’s not the totality of depression. Beckett isn’t talking about abject hopelessness, the remembrance of a bearable life was ‘almost lost’, not actually gone. But he is talking about all the other stuff that depression brings – ‘nightmares’ ‘panic’ ‘madness’. And for Beckett, obviously, it was triggered by the winter and alleviated by the spring.
I don’t know if Beckett had Seasonal Affective Disorder. Come to think of it, I don’t know that he had depression either, only that he wrote about a state of mind and emotion that I recognise in myself and call by that name. I also know that, like him, I greet the spring with a cautious hope, and I fear the approach of autumn with something not all that far removed from dread. Over the last few days I’ve been reminded why that is. I have the weight of depression sitting on my face, my head, my stomach, my arms, my legs. I can feel the effort it takes to crack a smile, to move, to speak, to type. I have constant headaches, I have constant nausea, I have a constant ache in my muscles and my joints. I’m self aware enough to know that the mental ills cause the physical ones – the famous somatic symptoms of depression – but knowing that doesn’t help, of course.
This has not been a good year for me. On Friday I passed the final final deadline for submitting a piece of coursework to the Open University, so I will fail the course. I have not contacted them to explain that I have been having problems, because I could not bear the stress of contacting them, nor could I bear the humiliation of admitting that I couldn’t cope. I could have been sitting back, looking forward to acquiring another couple of letters after my name, but instead I’m just another looser who dropped out when the going got even slightly hard. At some point I will have to explain all this to the relative who paid the fees for me.
I have been having a bad year for reasons that are outside my control. (But isn’t that just what a whiny, self-exculpating arsehole is bound to say – it’s not MY fault?) Swine flu didn’t help. How do you travel out to libraries to do research when every news programme you encounter tells you there’s a plague roaming the streets, that it’s most easily spread in contained spaces where lots of people gather, and when you have a fear of infection that passed through rational and into the realms of insane paranoid stupidity years ago? I put in a lot of work, and I just about held it together in terms of leaving my flat for shopping, and for walks, but that was all I could do. And now of course swine flu is coming back. It’s coming back because we’re heading into the autumn and winter, which means that, as well as all the flu, norovirus – the disease that is most likely to turn me into a hyperventilating, panic-stricken wreck – will start to be reported in exquisite detail by the media’s gleeful doom-mongers.
The worst part of all this – the part that no-one, literally no-one, ever gets – is that I don’t have a ridiculous paranoid fear of these sorts of mild illness because I have an exaggerated fear of what the consequences of getting them would be. I know I won’t die. I know I would be fine, basically. I know, I know, I know, I know. But it doesn’t help, because the irrational dread is not of the consequences of infection, but of being infected in the first place. It doesn’t matter how mild the symptoms are – in my mind, it’s the fact of being infected that’s the problem. And there is no way to reassure myself from that, to proof myself against it, because the truth is I will get infected. Maybe not this winter, maybe not these illnesses, but sooner or later, with something, I will. This isn’t an irrational fear. It’s logical, and it’s inevitable.
So this becomes a perfect storm, where the irrational, panic-driven part of my mind tells me I will be infected, and the logical, rational part tells me also I will be infected. The best I can do is tell myself at each separate occasion that’s its overwhelmingly more likely I won’t be infected than I will. That I will be infected some time, but not this time. This is a high-risk strategy, because in my mind – and I know this isn’t how probability works – each time I’m not infected increases the likelihood that I will be infected next time.
And the worst worst part of this is that I know my immune system will get weaker and weaker as I age, because everybody’s does. It’s an inevitable fact of nature. There’s no escape from it. There is a doom rising up to meet me, and I can’t run from it, and I can’t hide from it, and the tools I use to fight it are weakening and will one day fail. If I ever kill myself, it won’t be because I succumb to despair (probably), it will be an attempt to escape from this shadow that is rising up to meet me. To jump into easy oblivion before the longer, harder road is forced upon me. The coward’s way out, literally.
I get so fucking sick of writing posts like this. I get so fucking sick of being the kind of whiny, self-involved, self-regarding person who writes this kind of shit. I hate smearing it out here in public, but I have to. It’s either write this or write nothing, it’s either post this or post dishonestly, as though I’m Mr Logic, and spend my days pondering deeply on the mysteries of colour preference and the merits of disposable pop albums, and never feel anything. There’s no point in keeping a blog like that. But I will still feel ashamed when I click ‘Publish’.
So, anyway. Yes, I’m depressed, probably moderate-to-severe on my scale, where ‘mild depression’ counts as a good day. Yes, I am grieving that once again ‘a life at least bearable’ has slipped through my fingers. Yes, I am afraid of what the winter will bring, both mentally and physically. Yes, I doubt my ability to make it through to the other side, to the extent that I don’t really think there will be an ‘other side’ for me. Yes, I am feeling very, very anxious. Yes, I feel, like I so often do, that I am teetering at the very edge of straightforwardly horrible anxiety tipping over into something worse.
No, I am not reconsidering my decision to go it alone, and to keep doctors and nurses and psychiatrists and psychologists and psychotherapists and psycho-fucking-everyone at arms length. At least this way I have a chance of hanging on to a few tattered scraps of self respect. At least this way I get to stay as myself, not some medicated, therapised non-person, marking the space where Aethelread used to be.
Coming soon: a post in which I don’t treat myself like I’m the centre of the entire universe.