It isn’t right or normal to be unable to get dressed in the morning because you are crying too hard.
I should have known something was wrong well before I got to that stage. Back at home after my degree and a year working in Oxford, I was useless and scared of the future. The life I couldn’t cope with was partly a consequence of the choices I had made but mainly a consequence of all the choices I had avoided making. Of course, back then I didn’t have the faintest understanding of what I now know only too well, that failing to choose is a choice in its own right.
My doctor mentioned the D word and gave me a factsheet, a list of symptoms. She said I didn’t have to make any choices there and then, and asked me to go back in a couple of weeks and talk about it some more. The factsheet was more accurate than any horoscope could ever be, but that didn’t help matters. I put it in the bin but my mornings didn’t get any better. My world was folding in on itself and each day it got smaller and smaller, darker and darker.
It’s the hardest feeling to describe to somebody who has never been there. Of course, if you have been there you know all this already and I cannot hope to do it justice. It’s as if absolutely nothing is possible and that all you are doing is picking between dead ends, every option brimming with the grey absence of any potential except the potential to disappoint. That is only how it starts, that’s the nursery slopes; after a while you don’t even feel disappointment. You expect things to be bad and so they are. Then you no longer have a concept of bad, bad is a relative term you don’t understand any more and you are sitting on your bed crying like a child while your family are in the car waiting for you to accept a lift to your dead end temp job.
I fished the fact sheet out of my waste paper basket and I looked at it for a long, long time. Then I tore it to pieces.
On my second visit, my doctor and I had a very long conversation and still I couldn’t go through with the prospect of medication. I couldn’t face having that badge applied to me. There are some things you know but provided you never say them they aren’t truly real. Nearly everything that makes me me is going to waste. I don’t love her any more. He is an alcoholic. As long as they never hang spoken in the air in a room or sit there like bullet holes in a page we can just about make it through.
But I couldn’t make it through.
On my third visit I left holding a prescription. It was simultaneously my lowest point, the moment where I became a state diagnosed failure, and the only comfort I had known in months.
I still have my first box of Prozac, folded flat in the pages of a diary full of numb scratchy paragraphs. On the back in simple, plain text were a number of comforting statements like affirmations. You will feel better, it said, it won’t always be like this. There was not a single person in my life saying those things to me back then. I had to take my moral support in the only place I could find it, on the back of a packet of medication. By contrast, the messages on the back of a packet of cigarettes were repeatedly drummed into me by my mother.
I didn’t know what the pills would do to me, and I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I could drink any more, or if it would be like having the subtlest of lobotomies. Being depressed was my overriding, defining characteristic. I didn’t know who I would be if it was magically taken away. I didn’t know if I was treating a disease or surgically removing the single biggest part of my personality. I was scared they wouldn’t work, I was scared they would work. I wanted to be like everybody else, I was terrified of being like everybody else.
On my last night before breaking the foil on that first packet my brother, Ivor and I went for a long walk to the pub at the edge of town, my last night of drinking before the pills kicked in. Heavily drunk we weaved back up the road after midnight and they regaled me with a rousing rendition of “You’re Shit And You Know You Are”. Saddest of all, I genuinely believe they were trying to help.
As it turned out, the side effects were an odd and unexpected bunch. One of them was called anorgasmia. What this means is that if I had ever managed to get any action I could finally have achieved my lifelong ambition of shagging like a porn star. But of course that never happened, which is partly because of the second side effect - that after about three pints my personality completely altered. It was like The Mask and I became the sort of drunk I could never have been the rest of the time. I danced like a maniac. I chatted up strangers. I was a better, odder, more fun version of myself, a cover version which vastly improved on the original.
One night I was staying with my friend Becky in Nottingham and we went clubbing with her boyfriend and some other people. Heavily inebriated I decided to tell Becky that her boyfriend was a complete waste of time and that if she was honest she had always fancied me. The latter factoid could only have been the conclusion of someone with a pharmaceutically altered take on reality.
I encouraged Becky that she ought to get off with me and that her boyfriend need never know. Given that he was standing right next to her throughout the whole of my soliloquy it’s hard to see how I could have thought this sales pitch would be successful without the benefit of that drug induced worldview. Under the circumstances, her unsurprising rejection of me was a bit of a shame considering I could have gone for hours - another point which I apparently made to her at great length.
I didn’t care. I wandered off and snogged someone else, a complete random, before having a flaming row with her about god knows what. Later that night I passed out on the floor of the taxi while Becky looked on aghast and, presumably, Becky’s boyfriend successfully fought the urge to repeatedly kick me in the head. Even if he’d given in to temptation I would have been far too wasted to know. The next morning I awoke with no recollection of events and no real understanding of why the atmosphere in the house was so frosty.
That aside, what happened while I was on Prozac was complex and strange. Absolutely nothing changed, except very gradually it did. In the tiniest increments, something turned the dimmer switch up on my life, one day after another. Every day was only infinitesimally different from the day before and in that long string of days something slowly happened which could pass for an improvement. One day I forgot to take a tablet. Then another. And then I sort of forgot to take a tablet every other day. Finally, one day I stopped completely.
How all this came up was that I was away this weekend in a cottage with lots of fantastic friends. And at one point, one of them told us he had been depressed, that he was on Prozac. He’s a proud man, a proper man, not like me. He’s been in the military since he was young, seen and done things I wouldn’t have the resolve or moral fibre to even watch a film about. Since he left the air force, his life has lost its structure and he has had all sorts of trouble with his family. From what I know of him, owning up to something like this took an awful lot of guts, guts a so-called new man like me would never really have or need. I was proud of him, for all that's worth.
Our friend Mel, a psychologist, said something very clever at that point, namely that Prozac was like a plaster cast on a broken limb. It’s not the thing that makes you better, it’s the thing that holds everything together and enables you to heal in time. I like the simplicity of that analogy, and I think it’s what he needed to hear. But I don’t know. Some things never completely heal, and I think that might be because they were never completely right in the first place.
So am I better now? Of course. Am I all better? That’s a different question.
I am a lot happier now, but once you’ve been in that place you always know you can find the way back. It’s a language you never forget, a way of thinking that is impossible to completely unlearn. Some days it’s far off on the horizon, some days it feels uncomfortably closer than that. The world you see when you’re depressed is like the image hidden in the magic eye pictures that were so popular back when I was crying in my room all those years ago. It’s always there, it’s just about whether you can see it. Most of the time you can’t, but if things mount up, if you drop your guard, if you’re tired and you unfocus even for a minute it’s there slap bang in the foreground, the only thing you can see, greeting you like a very old, very false friend.
I sometimes think it would be nice to be like my wife, happy from the moment she wakes up to the moment she falls asleep, operating in the middle of the spectrum without ever getting the highs and the lows. And then I think that maybe I couldn’t cope with that and would lose myself and my identity completely. The most vexing thing of all is this: I couldn’t even say with any confidence that I would change anything about me or the whole sorry saga, because I never resolved that battle of wills before I put that first capsule on my tongue and knocked it back. I still don’t know whether I did end up just like everyone else, or for that matter whether everybody else is exactly like me.
I suppose I probably never will.