So SAD

I’ve written before about suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Every year I hibernate, stop going out, stop writing, stop reading – just eat and sleep and snap at people over trivialities. And while this year is no different – I keep stuffing my face with chocolate, going to bed two hours earlier than usual and falling out with family members on a weekly basis – I’ve noticed an addition to my symptoms this year:

An overwhelming feeling of sadness.

It’s weird that having something called SAD, I’ve never particularly felt sad with it before. Moody? Sure. Lacking in energy, filled with self-loathing and totally uninterested in anything other than binge-watching old episodes of Arrested Development? Naturally. But sad? No, I’m too depressed to be sad.

For those who don’t suffer from depressive illness, allow me to explain the difference between depression and sadness.

Sadness is an emotion, a feeling, like joy or fear. You can feel it in particular locations in your body, and it provokes a visceral physiological reaction – a sinking chest, a trembling lip, tears. It is transitory and ephemeral, and stimulated as a reaction to something going on in your life – a death, a rejection, a painful memory. It comes in a rush, can be incredibly intense, and then goes away again, without leaving a fingerprint in your soul. That is sadness.

Depression, on the other hand, is a mood – an ongoing, long-lived, debilitating way of life that pushes down on you and pervades your entire body, mind and spirit. It’s not a feeling but a way of feeling. There are no ups and downs, no bursts of colour, just an ever-present gloom. It exists irrespective of what else is happening in your life, and though it is sometimes less pronounced, it never truly leaves you, a shadow that lurks in the recesses of your being and stains all that you’ll ever become. That is depression.

If sadness is a thunderstorm, horrible and exciting, depression is an endless grey sky, without wind, without rain, and without the prospect of ever seeing the sun again.

Which is why it’s odd that this year, this gripping, all-consuming sadness keeps creeping up on me and washing over me, stopping me in my tracks.

Contrary to the philosophy underpinning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that the ancestor of every feeling is a thought, this feeling only comes when I’m not thinking at all. If I’m doing something that requires even the slightest modicum of brainpower, I’m fine – at least, as fine as I ever get. But every time I stop or do something so routine I don’t even need to think about it, I get hit by a wave of sadness.

It works like this – I’ll be watching the kids play, making sure they’re not killing each other, and all will be well and good. I’ll walk into the kitchen to make myself a coffee, flip on the kettle, and – BOOM! – I’m sad. So sad.

Or I’ll be doing the shopping, or driving the car, or playing with my kids, and the moment I stop, this dreadful sadness slaps me across the face. So I keep active doing word puzzles, watching game shows on TV, completing online quizzes so that I’m constantly thinking. Whenever I stop thinking, that’s when it comes – this feeling that I’m going to burst into tears.

People have suggested my antidepressants have stopped working, that I should go see a doctor. I can’t imagine why that would be the case after fifteen years on them. Besides, I saw a psychiatrist around eight or nine years ago to ask him that very question, and he said that you don’t build up a tolerance to SSRIs, needing to up the dose to receive the same effect. No, he said that depression just happens to be one of those things I have to live with.

And besides, sadness isn’t depression, so why would antidepressants control it?

I just have to wait for the spring again, even as it gets harder year on year. And hope that these thunderstorms will go away and leave me with my overcast sky.

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The Long Winter

Every year I look forward to the winter, when the trees turn into skeletons reaching bony branches into a crisp azure sky, the air fills with the reassuring scents of wood smoke and cinnamon, and as the evenings draw in I can snuggle safe in the warmth of my family’s comforting embrace. And as a bonus, I get to break out my rather fine collection of furry hats and oversized jumpers, my gloves and my scarves, and best of all my cowboy boots. Winter, I think, is my favourite time.

And then winter comes and it’s an eternal wasteland of grey days, miserable nights and an ever present sense of despair. The garden turns to mud, the dead leaves swirl about huddled bushes and overturned lawn furniture, and the cold seeps inside and seems to chill your very soul until your outlook becomes as bleak as the view from your dirt-encrusted windows. Good God, I think, I bloody hate the wintertime.

Normally, I start to feel better as soon as the daffodils begin to burst up from the frigid earth, bringing with them the promise of spring and cheerier times to come; this year, the daffodils are in full bloom and this despondency shows no sign of lifting. I’m caught in my own personal Groundhog Day, and there are six more weeks of winter.

The depression goes hand-in-hand with the tiredness. There comes a time when you have to accept that tiredness is no longer a transitory state –  it is now a part of you, a defining characteristic, just another one of your personality traits. Describe Gillan: male, six feet tall, autistic, tired, mostly friendly – provided he’s had his coffee.

I wake up tired, live tired, go to bed tired. In my dreams, I am too tired to do anything – I simply sit and stare at featureless walls in an empty room. I don’t remember the last time I felt well-rested and ready to face the day ahead. This is, of course, a familiar side-effect of being a parent. You count down the hours till the little one goes to bed, because you think you’ll be able to rest, catch up, get at least some of the way towards feeling okay again. But you don’t, because tiredness is who you are now.

Combined with the depression it becomes somewhat debilitating.

I spend hours lying on the sofa just staring at the ceiling. I think I should watch a movie, but after ten minutes I switch it off because I can’t concentrate or care. I think I should walk the dog but I can’t drag myself to my feet. I think I should write but can’t stomach the empty page. I can’t be bothered to cook, so I binge on chocolate and coffee. The other morning I ate four Creme Eggs, one after the other. Yesterday I ate three Crunchie Bars back to back, like chain smoking chocolate. And then I drank five coffees in a row just so I could get through until lunch. I’m not sure which is the most unhealthy.

I know too much, about all the wrong things. I can name dozens of serial killers, only a handful of victims; can name every state in America, but not the boroughs of my local town; know all manner of mental disorders, psychological conditions and mood stabilising medications, but can’t identify the plants that grow in my own back garden. If you need me to name a thousand movies I’ve seen, a thousand books I’ve read, a thousand bands I’ve heard, I can sit down with a pen and paper and list them for you (in fact, I do this a couple of times a year just for fun); but ask me to name a hundred people I have known in my life, I don’t think I’d be able to do it.

And that is the problem with depression – your mood dictates your thoughts, not the other way around. I have a lovely daughter, a lovely wife, a lovely family; I have a book coming out in three weeks, the culmination of a lifelong dream; and I have nothing to be unhappy about. I know this; I appreciate this; yet this awareness does nothing to lift my mood. Instead, the depression makes your brain turn on itself, devour the light and turn everything to the darkness. For darkness is not simply the absence of light – it is a physical entity that spreads and consumes all before it, a shadow fire that chills as much as it burns.

You start to wonder when last you felt happy, excited, or even at peace. You try to remember if there was ever a time you experienced what other humans call ‘joy’. You track back and back, and back even further. You remember a time when you were ten and you were surfing and…no, you weren’t happy even then. So you take it to the extreme – was I happy when I was six? Four? Am I just incapable of happiness?

And then people with no understanding say things to you, like, ‘Think happy thoughts,’ or, ‘Just pick yourself up and snap out of it,’ or, my favourite, ‘What you should do is get up early and go for a nice run, then you’ll feel better.’ If I can’t motivate myself to do those things that once gave me a modicum of pleasure, how on earth am I meant to drag myself out into the cold and the wet to exercise? Whoever recommends that course of action has no idea what it is like to battle every day of your life against simply giving up. And I am tired of fighting.

For depression is not something I have done to myself. I have not thought depressing thoughts. I have not chosen to feel this way. I have not caused it through my own weakness. Depression is something that has happened to me. It is an illness I contracted when I hit puberty, something from which I have never been free. It lies dormant for a time, only to return with a vengeance. Normally in the wintertime, to be fair. A black dog creeping in from the borderlands, uninvited. And no matter how I try to kill it with thought, medication, meditation, diet, I have no doubt it will dog my footsteps the rest of my life to come.

Luckily, for the pile of apathy writing this blog, I am a parent and a husband, and those things are more important to me than my own wellbeing. I cannot indulge my more destructive, neglectful tendencies without irrevocably destroying my self-image, and I am far too egotistical about my prowess as a father and a partner to neglect my duties towards others.

If I lived alone, as I have in the past, I would wake up in my clothes, stay in bed till lunchtime, eat junk, and go back to bed without changing, washing, shaving, opening the post, or doing any of the everyday chores that make a person a functioning member of society. Instead, as a father, I must haul my weary bones out of bed each morning to get my daughter up, dressed and fed. I have to change my clothes to set a good impression, brush my teeth when she brushes hers, eat at the table with her. In the evening I have to cook my wife a delicious and nutritious dinner and I bath when she baths. I might only be going through the motions, an imitation of a living, feeling being, but in so doing I find a way to function, despite the depression. I remain a good father and a good husband even as I cave in upon myself and sink beneath the weight of my own lethargy.

This is my life now, and I can keep it going as long as I must. I have done it before and I have no doubt I will do it again many times over. I just wish this winter would end.