The little things that kill: living with depression

As humans, I think we’re programmed to believe that only the big things matter. As kids, we innately believe that accidentally breaking the TV is worse than deliberately breaking a pencil, and even though we develop a better understanding of morality as we grow older, we continue to associate damage with size. I’ve argued before that we can see evidence of this in conspiracy theories, as we mistakenly believe that large effects must have equally large causes, and so invent labyrinthine plots to fit reality to our preconceptions, rather than our preconceptions to reality.

The same is true when we look at our lives. We spend so much time looking at the ‘big picture’ – our income, job, achievements, social status, family relationships – that we miss the little details that make up the whole. So often we reduce the wondrous complexity of our individual experience to a linear sliding scale, with ‘success’ at one end and ‘failure’ at the other, and pigeonhole ourselves as monolithic entities, without appreciating that we are a multitude of successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses – we are not the sum of our parts.

Yet despite knowing better, we apply this same misunderstanding to mental health.

In the media, in fiction, among our families and friends, the emphasis is always on singular, disproportionately large and simplistic explanations. A person is depressed because they’re single, or they lost their job, or they’ve suffered a bereavement; they kill themselves because of a relationship breakdown, money worries or a sudden trauma. It’s comforting to think like this, because it means the causes can be identified, and therefore treated. Like a weed growing in our minds, all we have to do is cut out the roots, and the mental illness will wither and die.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. For most of us with lifelong depression, it doesn’t have a single identifiable cause. It’s not a weed that can be excised, but a symbiotic parasite so interwoven throughout our being that the only way of killing it is destroying the host. I’m always suspicious of people who say they used to be depressed but they’re now ‘cured’, because I don’t believe it ever really goes away. Sometimes you’re winning, sometimes you’re losing, but you never stop fighting, and just as in any war, there are casualties in this conflict that can never be made whole again.

What people don’t want to acknowledge – what is perhaps terrifying to accept – is that there are millions of causes of depression, most of them so small and inconsequential that they pass us by unnoticed as the parasite slowly winds it’s way into our bodies. You don’t suffer a shock one day and wake up the next with depression – if only it were that easy! No, it creeps up on you, little by little, so that by the time you realise how much of a hold it has on you, it’s too late.

It’s the everyday things, the little things that don’t seem to matter, that lead you into depression. It’s the family get-together you skip because you can’t face the hassle. It’s the meal you miss because you can’t be bothered to cook. It’s the text message from a friend you mean to respond to, but put off so long you no longer know what to say. It’s the hobby that you can’t seem to find the time for any more. It’s the chocolate bar you insist is a one-off treat as the empty packets pile up around you. It’s yesterday’s clothes you put on because it’s too much effort to pick out a new outfit. It’s the letter you don’t open because it looks scary. It’s the lawn that grows too long because there are more important things to do. It’s the cross word with your partner that doesn’t get resolved. It’s the walls you put up against the people you love.

And it’s the escape you sink yourself into, the dark pit where you can curl up and feel safe. It’s the irritation you feel when people try to reach out to you. It’s the excuses you use to avoid anything that might help. It’s the growing awareness of how awful you feel, and how awful you are, and how awful the future appears, and how little you want to leave your isolated little hole.

That’s depression. Not a comet landing in your neatly ordered life and leaving devastation in its wake – it’s the glacier that slips slowly and silently and unstoppably into your world, covering everything in an impenetrable sheet of ice, where you can see your friends, your family, the sun, but they’re like ghosts behind glass, drifting away in a dimension you can never reach.

And the worst part? Most of the time you don’t have the self-awareness, the reflexivity, to even understand what’s going on. You think this is normal.

It’s only rarely, very rarely, that we can see ourselves from outside, when we have what alcoholics call ‘a moment of clarity’, or drug addicts ‘hitting rock bottom’, where we understand what we’re doing, and where we are, and the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others with our self-destructive behaviours. Most of the time we feel numb, and pointless – most of the time we don’t think what we do matters to anyone else – but for a few brief moments the cloud lifts from our minds and we can see how we fit into the world around us, and the impact we have on our loved ones, and we finally feel something, albeit bitterness, pain and regret.

And then, all too soon, it’s gone.

So what should we do in these moments? We have to focus on the little things. We have to do the opposite of what we want. If we want to hide in a dark hole, we need to step out into the light. If we’ve put up walls, we need to tear them down, hug and kiss our spouse, to enact the affection we no longer feel until we feel it again. We need to play with our children to bring back some of the joy. We need to laugh. We need to respond to friends and family. We need to restart the hobby we dropped. We need to open the post, mow the lawn, and make tomorrow a little easier than it is today.

In short, we need to resume the habits we’ve dropped, set us back on the right course, and do it quickly before the cloud returns in the hope those habits will hold us together until our next moment of clarity.

The little things got us here. Focusing on the little things will get us through.

For a time, at least.

Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

It’s never too late to pick a new path

As a 23-year-old who had just finished a degree in film and just started a degree in nursing, I did something very stupid for someone living in a student house, working twelve-hour shifts in hospitals and care homes, and who didn’t have two pennies to rub together: I bought a violin.

Why a violin? At school, I used to watch other kids leave early to go to their violin lessons, and I was desperate to be one of them. There was something so sophisticated, so otherworldly, about those little black cases and those gorgeous wooden instruments. They spoke of a history and a culture almost unimaginable to a kid raised on Christian music and whose cultural horizons ended just outside the front door.

The violin stirred something in me, a nameless and poorly understood yearning for sharp suits, Corinthian columns and a tender beauty barely glimpsed behind a gossamer veil. I was terrified that if I reached out towards it, it would shatter – that such a fragile magnificence would never survive the cold light of day – but nonetheless, I wanted to throw myself into this feeling, and either triumph or be consumed.

Trouble was, I didn’t come from a musical family. There was an acoustic guitar in one corner for the occasional folk song and an organ in the other for hymns, but my parents weren’t particularly musical. They knew what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t much. While many of the children around me had rich educations in classical, or jazz, or blues, or rock, thanks to the tastes of their families, my brother and I knew the Christian songbook and little else.

But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t open to our learning music. Being two years older, my brother was the trailblazer by which to gauge our musical potential, and his musical potential was, frankly, shit. My parents bought him a trumpet and paid for endless lessons, and over a couple of years of tone-deafness and refusal to practice, he hadn’t progressed beyond making fart sounds. In fact, I think his favourite thing about the trumpet was draining the spit from it.

So when it was my turn, I was rewarded with the recorder, a cheap, plastic abomination of an instrument that is torture for anyone within earshot, including the player, and a music teacher (the school’s head) so frightening that my hands would literally shake as I played. We learnt and played in a large group, and if there were any squeaks she’d stop mid-piece and make you all play solo so she could work out which of you to shout at. Needless to say, my recorder experience was not a crowning success.

When I later floated the idea, multiple times, of learning the violin, it’s therefore no surprise it wasn’t met with any enthusiasm. It was a waste of time and money for someone who hadn’t shown an ounce of musical flair, so while other kids had these fetishistic attachments to polishing pads and reeds and bows, gleaming metal and shining wood, I sat and watched and envied and swore that one day I’d learn violin.

Then something happened in my teens. My brother bought a CD by a band called Nirvana, whose singer had killed himself a couple of months earlier, and through the bedroom wall I heard something that I just couldn’t ignore. When he got bored of Nevermind after a few weeks, I bought it off him, and played it endlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral connection with something beyond myself, some intangible sense of the sublime, and I wanted to disappear into it.

Luckily, there was an acoustic guitar downstairs. Getting some guitar books with chord shapes in them, and watching a video that explained tablature, I threw myself into learning the guitar with the typical obsessiveness of an autistic teenager. I played every spare moment I had, teaching myself by ear, mastering techniques I didn’t know the names of like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, natural and pinch harmonics, tremolos, palm-muting, pick slides. Eight to ten hours a day, I drove my family absolutely nuts repeating the same riffs over and over until I could play them perfectly without looking.

There were, however, a few massive problems with my training. As a lonely social outcast, I saw the guitar as my gateway into the larger world of music. If I could master the guitar, I thought, people would think I was cool and want to be my friend. The guitar was therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I didn’t play it because I enjoyed it, though there was an element of that – what I enjoyed was impressing people with my ability, turning my obsessiveness into a positive and using my guitar-playing to compensate for my social deficits.

That meant that while I was focused on playing songs and riffs and solos, I wasn’t interested in anything to do with musical theory. You don’t need to understand why something works, I thought, in order to make it work. If I’m impressing someone with the solo from ‘Enter Sandman’, what does it matter that I can’t read music or know any scales or what all the notes are?

Looking back, I think this was partly because of my autism, since we’re often great at rote learning but lack a genuine, broader understanding of a topic. But in larger part, I think it’s because I’ve always had a massive inferiority complex to ‘musicians’. I was useless at music – the recorder showed me that. It’s too hard. I’m not capable; I’ll never be able to learn music; I’ll never be able to learn scales. Every lunchtime I watched the other kids go off into that glorious, unreachable world of orchestra and band practice, a world I knew was beyond my grasp.

I therefore ‘mastered’ the guitar without really knowing or understanding anything about the guitar. It got me out and about, it got me into bands, it got me socialising, but that was where it ended.

‘I can play the guitar, but I’m not musical,’ I used to say. ‘I know nothing about music.’

At 23, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be me. I thought that being able to play the violin would make me interesting, so I bought one – not because I wanted to play it for itself, but so I could be somebody else.

Of course, in an age before YouTube and on a shoestring budget with unkind (or sensible) housemates, teaching myself the violin the way I’d taught myself the guitar wasn’t something I had the time or inclination to pursue. After a few weeks I put it in the back of the wardrobe with the idea that I’d learn to play it eventually.

And there it sat for sixteen years.

It was a constant reminder that I’m not musical; that I don’t have what it takes to be a musician. Musicians are a special, select group, walking among us like gods who inhabit a mysterious, divine world that we mere mortals can only dream of.

A few weeks ago, I took it back out.

Earlier this year, I was in a really bad place. Nearing forty, I thought I’d reached the end of me. Nothing really gave me any pleasure. I didn’t look forward to anything, didn’t get excited, didn’t care if I lived or died. It was too late for me to do anything, I thought. Where I am now was where I would always remain.

One of the side-effects of depression, something I’ve struggled with all my life, is a lack of motivation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say depression was invented by a diabolical genius – it makes you unwilling to do the very things that help lift you out of depression. Particularly if it’s something new.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d try to force myself out of my depression by teaching myself the violin. I spent hours watching videos online and trying to apply what I’d learnt, the cat-screech wail of my instrument testament to my utter lack of musical ability.

I was about to give in as the failure I always knew I was, when I suddenly came to a startling realisation that I wish I’d known sixteen years ago:

I don’t like the violin.

All these years I’ve spent looking up to violinists, I’ve been fixated on what they are rather than what they’re playing.

Even a good violin, played by a good violinist, is whiny. I don’t mind it as part of an orchestra to highlight or accentuate movements, but on its own it isn’t very pleasing to my ear. Why would I want to invest that much time and energy learning to play something in a room on its own that I don’t like the sound of in a room on its own?

So I asked myself the question: what do I like? The answer should have been obvious from the start.

Four years ago, while feeding my baby late one night, I was flicking through channels on the TV when I came across a concert by 2Cellos, a classically-trained Croatian two-piece. They were playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and there’s no other way to describe my reaction than that they blew my freaking mind. I had never seen such passion, energy, grace and talent, and when, a few days later, I recorded their 2013 concert at Pula Arena, I discovered that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the least of their triumphs. I then watched it more than fifty times, and bugged everybody in my life to watch it too.

For four years I’ve listened to people playing the cello and loved every moment of it. What started with 2Cellos moved on to Hauser and Yo-Yo Ma, ‘Schindler’s List‘ to Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1 Prelude‘. My favourite piece of music of all time is the opening four-note run in 2Cellos’ version of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator. It’s the bit where, in the original, Lisa Gerrard sang ‘We de(ee) zu’. I can’t explain why but those four notes resonate with something inside me. They communicate in a language beyond words, as if I have strings in my heart and God is playing them. People talk about having a ‘God-shaped hole’, and as someone who’s spent his whole life feeling disconnected, I’ve longed for the touch of the divine. Listening to the cello is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven.

So it is strange that never once in all that time, even in passing, have I ever considered learning to play the cello. It genuinely never occurred to me; didn’t cross my mind for a second. I see movies set in space and wonder if I’d make a good astronaut; I go to the doctor and wonder if I’d be a good doctor; so how big a mental blindspot must I have to obsess over cellists and never once consider learning to play the cello?

I guess it’s because I thought cellos are for musicians. They’re for other people, better people; people who went to orchestra at lunch, who understand music and would’ve been able to play the recorder. I believed, without question, that mine is to watch in humbled awe, to listen and be moved, not to participate. I never believed the magic could be mine to hold.

But why not? I suddenly realised, in this blinding explosion of the obvious, that I don’t want to play the violin – I want to play the cello. Not because of how it’ll make me look, not to make friends, not to join an orchestra or bore my family with recitals – I want to play the cello because I genuinely like the cello. I want to play it for me. I want to sit in a room on my own with nobody listening and play it for its own sake, with no other goal than to play. I want to feel the notes vibrating in my chest, and I want to understand it all.

For the first time in forever, which I know sounds awful for someone with a wife and two young children, I feel excited about the future. I feel hope. It’s like being a kid again, the first day of a new school. There’s a long journey ahead, but you look down at your feet and watch yourself take your first step, and you step into a larger world, a more colourful world, a bright place of endless opportunities, where things will never be quite the same.

I’m not unrealistic. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ll become disillusioned at times, there’s going to be plenty of frustration and tears, but it’s better to be on a path you want to follow than on literally any other path. All I know is that a year from now, I’ll be a better cellist than I am today; that in five years, I’ll be better than that; and in ten, who knows how far along that path I’ll be?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do something because we’re too old, or we’re not good enough, or we failed in the past. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I can’t do music, that I’m too old to learn a new instrument, that unless you have a musical background growing up, there’s no place for music in your life. Therefore, for my whole life, I’ve been completely full of shit.

It’s never too late to pick a new path. Nothing is impossible.

I’m looking forward to the coming year.

The pain of longing for home

Turning forty the other day, my only wish was to revisit the town in which I grew up, and left, and hadn’t been to except in passing for almost twenty years. I suppose that as you get older, you start to look backward with rose-coloured glasses, to a time when things were different, and fuller, and better than they are today. But is it ever true?

There’s a simple comfort from living in the past. Home as a concept, a symbol, is an anchor we carry with us all our lives, an idealised, imagined place where everything is safe, if only we could go back there. So ingrained into our psyche is this longing for home that the theme of homecoming is one of the oldest in literature – The Odyssey, the Godfather of the genre, was composed a whopping 2700 years ago. I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost something. The world sometimes feels like it’s all gone to hell.

But in the early-nineties, my hometown was heaven. It’s not just subjective: objectively, everything was great. The Cold War was over; the economy boomed; Levi 501s were finally affordable; grunge and Britpop ruled the airwaves; and moviemaking reached a pinnacle in Point Break, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Pulp Fiction. Gone were the luminous shellsuits and ubiquitous synthpop of the eighties, along with the perms and the mullets and the socks-with-sandals monstrosities. England reached the semi-finals in Italia 90, to the timeless strains of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. We had Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the best time to be alive.

Then what happened? The grunge heroes died; we saw the awful realities of Islamic terror; Keanu Reeves got old; Mel Gibson went crazy; we were embroiled in endless wars; and climate change became a watchword for everything that is wrong with the world. For the past twenty years, I haven’t just wanted to go home – I’ve been desperate to.

As I’ve bounced from place to place, never putting down roots, my life has felt temporary, transitory – because my real life, and my real home, lies far away, somewhere between memory and fantasy, in the hallowed halls of my youth. If only I could get back there.

So on my fortieth birthday last week, I did.

Why did it take me so long? Because I knew things would be different. I’ve been a fan of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley almost as long as I’ve been away from my home, and was always struck by his uncomfortable impressions of returning to Salinas after having moved away years before: ‘Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.’

I went to all my old haunts – my house, my school, the pond where I had my first kiss, the record store where I fell in love with music. Some of the places I recognised; some of them were smaller, and narrower, and uglier than I remembered; and many of them are gone, replaced by things that might be significant in other people’s lives, but with which I have no connection.

I saw faces, people, thronging the streets. I spoke to some, people who might not even have been born when I left. And one thing was inescapably clear with every word they spoke:

This was their hometown. This was their life. Not mine.

Because my hometown wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place in time, and that time was the 1990s. My hometown isn’t a place I can visit: it no longer exists.

I think that’s the experience of any person who leaves a place and comes back to it.

But more than the place being different, there’s a further dislocation because you’re different. When I was sixteen and broke up with my first girlfriend, I pined after her for months, and when I finally met up with her again, I discovered the horrible truth about life and relationships: that we are all in a perpetual state of change. If we’d changed together, we might have had a chance, but we changed apart, and no longer fit together. There was a time when my hometown fit me perfectly, but it’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we’re no longer right for one another. We had our time, but that time has gone.

An idea contained in another book – the fantasy novel Assassin’s Creed by Robin Hobb – helped me get over that girlfriend, and is illustrative of why we spend so much time clinging to the past – people and places and things that we think are so much better than today. The main character spends most of the book longing for his former lover, until someone gives him some hard reality, and it’s such a life-changing truth-bomb, it’s worth quoting in full:

‘You have been gone too long from her, and too much has befallen you both. And what you loved, what both of you truly loved, was not each other. It was the time of your life. It was the spring of your years, and life running strong in you, and war on your doorstep and your strong, perfect bodies. Look back, in truth. You will find you recall fully as many quarrels and tears as you do lovemaking and kisses. Fitz. Be wise. Let her go, and keep those memories intact. Save what you can of her, and let her keep what she can of the wild and daring boy she loved. Because both he and that merry little miss are no more than memories anymore.’

Yes. We don’t love the people and the places that we used to know – we love who we were when we were with those people and in those places. And if I think of my hometown, I did not spend all those years grieving for a place, but for the person I used to be, and that I lost. I mourn for the boy who was afraid of the dark, that innocent soul who thought the world would be kind, and that he would find in it somewhere to belong. I miss that sweet little fella who had to grow up and suffer all that I’ve suffered. For he is nothing more than a memory now.

There’s a danger in glamorising the past. You stop moving forward, stop engaging with the world, stop living. You become bitter and frustrated, because things are different from the ideal in your mind. Steinbeck again: ‘What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.’ We long for familiarity, for the immutable and the unchanging, but those things are an illusion. Life is change. Or as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago: ‘You cannot step twice into the same river.’ For the river is different, and so are you.

I’ve spent twenty years longing to return to a home that never really existed, and waiting to start a life that was nothing more than a dream. I’ve spent twenty years feeling like I don’t belong, that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, as someone else. No more. I’m closing the book on this chapter. It’s time to accept that this is my life. That this is where I live and this is who I am. And home, the concept of a place you can return to and feel safe, doesn’t exist. It never did. It was simply a time when I was younger, and happier, and more hopeful than I am today.

The theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature? It’s called ‘nostos’, from which we get the word nostalgia – sentimentality for a better, happier past. But that’s not entirely true, for the second part of the word stems from ‘algos’, meaning pain. Nostalgia is better translated as ‘the pain of homecoming’, or more pertinently, ‘the pain of longing for home’.

Don’t let that pain keep you from living.

Mental Illness and Me: a Testimonial

I am mentally ill.

Despite having been mentally ill for much of my adolescence and most of my adult life, it is still not an easy thing to admit. Nor is the word ‘depression’ something I’ve ever really been comfortable owning.

The Black Dog, the Cancer In My Mind, the Darkness That Never Seems To Let Me Go – all of those seem better somehow, more free from the stigma of depression. I’ve spent my life trying to pass it off as something else – genius twinned with madness, a self-destructive temperament, a personality disorder. Depressed? No, never that.

Luckily for me, I was diagnosed with autism, which is one of the best ways of avoiding facing up to your illness. You can attribute all of your problems and difficulties, whether motivational, social, functional, emotional, behavioural or cognitive, to that umbrella term. Don’t want to leave the house? Autism. Always interpret things in a negative way? Autism. Feel you just can’t cope anymore as a husband, a father, a human being? Always the autism.

And so I’ve spent the better part of a decade denying that I suffer from depression. I take antidepressants to tamp down the overactive sensory and central nervous system responses caused by my autism, I say. I take anxiety management and mindfulness courses to address my social phobia, I pretend. I wrestle with the urge to self-harm because I’m a father and I don’t want them to take away my kids, without ever asking why I even have those urges to begin with.

Why do I never admit I have depression?

Because I hate depression and I always have, ever since I was first formally diagnosed with it at 17. Because despite repeated assurances to the contrary, I always felt it was a weakness, something that happens to melodramatic teenagers and socially incompetent adults, and not real people. And because, as an illness, it’s just so self-centred, indulgent and sick.

Most of my prejudice comes from within. You’re a wimp, I think. Just get up and do it. Everyone else manages, so why can’t you? You haven’t got anything to be miserable about. Why are you just wallowing? Why can’t you take steps to get yourself out of this funk? Stop being such a fucking baby.

And yet the big secret, the one that nobody likes to admit, is that deep down we actually love our depression. Because it’s ours, and it’s been with us all our lives, our constant companion, and we don’t want to lose it. We get off on just how miserable we are. It’s part of us, and we look on those who ‘get better’ as traitors to themselves, because it’s not real, there’s no ever getting better, this is who we are, depression is what makes us special, and we think we can coexist with it, channel it, control it.

Until we reach a point, as I did a little over two weeks ago, where we realise that it has taken control of us, and it’s eating us alive, and there’s no place else to go but down.

I wish you didn’t have to reach rock bottom to get that epiphany. I wish there was a way that the insight would be granted you before you’re at the point of desperation. But there it is.

I went my doctor with a care worker, and as I started to tell her how I felt, all the denials fell away, and even I hadn’t realised how bad I’d become. As I put into words all the thoughts and feelings I’d bottled up, I discovered just how much I’d been holding in. For forty minutes it kept pouring out of me, the emptiness, the misery, the tears I had never shed. And bless the doctor, even though the appointment massively overran, she gave me the attention that I desperately needed at the time I needed it most.

She prescribed a new antidepressant, in addition to the one I’m already on, referred me to the Community Mental Health Team and sent me for blood tests for possible ME. And despite being hit by a multitude of side-effects – dry mouth, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, and a sudden dizziness that comes on every time a dog barks, a door slams or my phone vibrates in my pocket – I feel like a different person. Whether it is because of the pills, the distraction of the side-effects, the outpouring of emotion or some kind of placebo doesn’t matter to me at all. All that matters is that I’m not where I was.

What is astonishing is the change I’ve seen. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. My thoughts are clear, my heart is stilled. The guy who walked into that doctor’s office a week ago – that angry, bitter, resentful, miserable, broken wretch of a person – is gone. And I’m glad. That guy wasn’t me. I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t me. A veil has descended over him, as over the dead, and I struggle even to connect him to me. It is as though Gillan died, and I am what has been reborn in his stead.

So finally, with the clarity of thought to reflect, I look at him, this agitated, toxic, troubled soul, and I think: how the hell did he get like that? How did he get like that and how did he manage to keep going so long?

The second question answers the first: he got that way because he kept going so long.

I read a book a few years ago entitled Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. The central premise flips the received wisdom on its head – people with depression are not the weak ones in society but the strong. The weak encounter something difficult, unhealthy, damaging, and they run away from it, quit, give up. The strong put up with it, and press on, and keep going, long after they should. The weak do not endure long enough to get depression; the strong keep going, with no let up or sense of quit, until they’re used up and literally can’t go on any more.

That’s why Gillan got to where he was two weeks ago. He was too damn strong for his own good.

But now he is me, and I will no longer deny it.

I am mentally ill.

I am depressed.

I won’t be quite so strong in future.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Thank You

After my previous unhappy post, I would to thank all the people who have reached out to offer me love and support. I was in a very low place – I still am – but I’m getting up every day and doing what needs to be done. There are arguments for and against sharing your pain in the internet – for showing vulnerability in any sphere of life – but despite all the trolls and hatemongers out there, I firmly believe the majority of people are decent, kind and compassionate and only too willing to help out a person in need, and your responses are evidence enough.

Love like your heart has never been broken and trust like you’ve never been betrayed. Life is better that way.

Aspie Daddy will continue as before!

Much love,

Gillan

Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression?

Dear readers, I have something to admit: I am completely, utterly and irreparably miserable.

How miserable? I don’t remember the last time I felt at peace. There are too many hours between waking up and going to bed, hours where I swing from sadness to annoyance, from cynicism to hopelessness. Getting through each day is a real struggle. I have no energy, my brain won’t focus, and I can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything other than eat and sleep.

Which is pretty rubbish when you’re married with two kids.

I’ve felt this way – not waving but drowning, to quote my favourite poem – since a couple of months after my second daughter was born, so around a year-and-a-half now. True, looking after two children is exponentially more difficult than one, but instead of gradually getting used to it, my low mood has been getting worse over this period until I’m now in a very bleak place indeed.

It’s taking its toll on my life and relationships. I’m the fattest I’ve ever been, have lost interest in all my hobbies, and get snappy at everyone I know. As a result, my marriage is failing, I don’t have any friends, and even my eldest daughter, not yet four, has started asking if I’m okay because she knows, intuitively, that there’s something wrong with daddy.

I don’t want to go to the park; I don’t want to have fun and games; I just want to sit on the sofa, drink my coffee, and get to the end of the day without either breaking down in tears or shouting at someone. Battling endless irritation, despair and emptiness, with no light to alleviate the darkness, leaves you feeling like a terrible dad, terrible husband and terrible person, because you pretty much are just terrible all round.

My wife thinks my antidepressants have stopped working. I thought the same around ten years ago, so went to a psychiatrist, only to be told that of course I’m miserable – I’m intelligent enough to know all the things I’m missing out on thanks to my problems; feeling miserable is the normal reaction for a person like me, so get used to it, because you’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Inspirational. Should work for the Samaritans.

I’m bored, irritated, unfulfilled. I’m sick and tired, fed up, run down and worn out. Smiling fake smiles as I build yet another Lego tower, making out that I enjoy pushing a swing for the ten-thousandth time, pretending watching Peppa Pig isn’t eating my self-esteem and devouring my very soul.

I escape from the struggles of the present by dwelling on the past and dreaming of a different future. All I can think is: I hate this. I want to be more than this. I want to be something. I want to make a difference. I can’t live like this any longer.

I’ve lost my identity, my path, my sense of purpose. I’ve been reduced to a nanny. I know, parenting is meant to be the hardest, most important and ultimately rewarding and fulfilling job going, but let’s get real – nobody got knighted for being a dad. There are no awards for parenting, the prospects stink, you’re on call 24/7, you don’t even get a lunch break and you can forget all about remuneration. While it might be enough for some, it simply makes me feel like a massive loser and a giant failure.

I feel like the train passed me by a long time ago. I missed the parade. I had a chance to triumph, twenty years ago, but I walked the other way, and now I’m fat, and bald, and lost.

To put things in perspective, I used to be a big shot. At school I was hot shit. The best student of English they’d ever had, I was going to change the world and make it my bitch. London, Paris, New York – the sky was the limit. Everyone thought I was going to ascend to the stratosphere. Dean at Oxford, celebrity author, This Is Your Life. Should I be a barrister, astronaut, brain surgeon? I could have done anything I put my mind to.

Life worked out differently. I had the smarts, but I lacked understanding – common sense, intuition, the ability to relate to others. The depression, anxiety and mental illness didn’t help either, or the self-harm, the suicidal ideation.

At my quarter-life crisis I started training to be a nurse because I wanted to help people; switched to medicine when my ego caught up with my philanthropy; had a breakdown at 27 while halfway through the application process to join the police. Was diagnosed with autism at 28. Couldn’t function till I was 30.

Reassessing my life, I decided to become an academic. My teachers always told me I would be miserable anywhere in life outside of academia, and they were right. ‘You have a gift you need to share with the world,’ they said. So I got a Degree in History and then a Masters, intending to go on and get my PhD and bury myself in an abstract world of facts and figures, where my ability to talk at people instead of with them would be a help instead of a hindrance. My tutors thoroughly encouraged me in this; they told me I was made for it.

But instead, four years ago I became a full-time dad. It’s a sacrifice, I know that, but I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much there’s nothing left for me. The people who used to copy off me at school, the kids I used to babysit, they’re bankers now, lawyers, stock brokers, hedge-fund managers. The kid who was one day going to eclipse them all spends his days changing nappies, unblocking toilets, playing peekaboo and dying inside.

I wish just being a parent fulfilled me, but it doesn’t. I want a career. I want to make a difference. I want to be somebody, but I’m almost forty, haven’t properly worked for ten years, and have a history of depression, self-harm and nervous breakdowns, not to mention autism, crap Theory of Mind, and problems relating to people. I’m too old to join the navy; too unstable to become a paramedic; too autistic to join the police. I’ve considered nursing or teaching, but £9000 a year tuition fees are out of my reach, and I certainly can’t afford the time or money to continue my studies.

I’m bursting with desires. I want to spend my life in museums, art galleries, theatres; I want to go to poetry readings, jazz cafes, film festivals; lectures, seminars, performance, dance; I want to see dinosaurs and spaceships, architectural wonders and technological genius; I want to discuss politics with strangers, debate literature with friends, argue semantics in crowded halls; walk the same streets as the greats of history, the greats of now. In short, I want all the things a city can provide, but I live in a little village in the arse-end of nowhere, as far from the throbbing pulse as you can get, with a wife and kids and no job or capital to finance a move I know that they wouldn’t be willing to make.

I can understand now why people walk out on their families. I’ve always thought a guy who leaves his wife and kids for a bit of excitement is a scumbag, but for the first time I can see the appeal. When the choice is being miserable or taking a chance on happiness, can you really begrudge someone who makes that leap? How much easier, I keep thinking, how much easier just to pack my bags and disappear? At times I feel desperate.

But it’s no solution. The number of men who reach this age and start to feel old so buy a sports car or a motorbike and trade in the wife for a younger model – it always seems they gain a month of joy and a lifetime of pain, because there’s no going back. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

And I know that the grass is always greener, too. If I left, I would bring myself with me, and my misery would come too. Because it’s not really my family stopping me from being happy or preventing me from fulfilling my destiny: it’s me. I am responsible for my failure to thrive. I am responsible for the decisions I made. The depression, the autism, the breakdowns, they didn’t make things any easier, but ultimately, where I am in life, or am not, is down to me.

But I’m miserable, and I don’t know how to fix it. Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression? Maybe it’s just the realisation that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and if I’m not careful I’m going to choke on it.