Being depressed is terrible.
This is a story about what happened to me. I hope that somebody might find it valuable in their own life. I tried to write down all the things that helped me to get through depression and what I learned from my experiences that I carry in my heart every day. Even if you were never depressed, I feel like some of this knowledge may help inoculate you against it. No matter who you are or what political or religious beliefs you hold, I do not want you to suffer depression.
Conquering depression is a process and it can be a long one. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. It feels as though every day I am touched in some way by it: the memory of it, the skills I learned from getting out of it, the fear of its reoccurance, or the opportunity to help friends and loved ones face similar challenges in their own lives. I am grateful that I have a chance to make a meaningful difference to the lives of other people.
My particular form of depression was what they call post-partum depression. That is a kind of depression people get while looking after a newborn baby. For me, this change of circumstance brought with it a completely new and inferior quality of life: sleepless nights, housebound days, and an endless 24 hour vigilance, necessary so that my girl did not crawl out a window or choke or drown or fall down the stairs.
I lived in a large, dark, damp house in a dirty, noisy and cheap part of town: the only place my wife and I could afford to buy despite being highly paid professionals; such is the way with Sydney house prices. In my memory, this house was a dungeon and myself a prisoner, both to the bank debt and the circumstances but also because it actually resembled a dungeon at times. Mould sprouted from the walls after repainting, slugs visited the kitchen at night, and the air was dank despite our attempts to fix it via minor renovations. Architectural problems made heating the house problematic at best: the warmth from the fireplace would travel straight up the narrow stairwell.
That narrow stairwell was also a constant concern to me as a parent. Baby gates can only do so much. It was just one of the sources of anxiety for me, a conscientious parent. The kitchen also had a few rough steps leading down to a cold hard floor, which proved in some ways more perilous for a crawling baby. The Venetian blinds had cables to adjust them dangling to the floor like nooses. The boiling pots on the stove, the knives in the block, the second story windows by the bed. Even a pre-prepared house with no tall narrow staircase necessitates a great deal of parental vigilance. My house was not designed to rear an infant. I had to watch her, everywhere she went. That focus and singularity of purpose felt like a prison to me. My mind was not my own: it was necessarily dedicated to thinking about my baby. Every. Waking. Moment.
One day a week I put my baby into daycare, and for a few blissful hours, I could close my eyes and not think of her. The sensation was so powerful! I would lie in the bath, underwater, with my eyes closed. For a few hours I would enjoy blissful solitude, before rising to clean and do all the chores I couldn't do with a baby on my hip. Then I would go to pick her up for another six day stint in the prison of vigilance.
My friends tried to keep me company but I could not participate in any friendly social activity with them, thanks to the constant interruptions of nappy changes and feedings and rocking and lullabies, and more importantly the need for me to sleep every chance I got, or risk sinking further into chronic and severe exhaustion. Eventually my friends stopped coming. My day was a fractured set of waking hours and naps. Each day felt like many days, and I resented all of them. I became very reclusive. I only went out to buy groceries, often with tears streaming down my face.
I was severely depressed. My brain felt painfully bored, my mind was constantly elsewhere. I started to live in fantasies in my head, to escape my draining reality. This baby could not be returned. It would be many years before I would be free once again to pursue my own passions. It would be years of washing, cooking, teaching, playing children's games that are unstimulating for an adult, all the while my mind painfully desiring to be elsewhere, challenged and engaged in an intelligent adult world. This prison term was a long one. My mind and body were no longer my own to use as I wanted to. I was not free, and I resented it, right down to my core.
I sometimes describe that time as, “spending every day distracting myself from thoughts of suicide.” My mind seemed fixated on death as a solution to my situation. I thought of stepping into traffic. I thought of throwing myself under a train. How easy it would be! Such relief from such great pain! Every rush of wind of a passing truck or train on my face was a missed opportunity to be free once again. Every time I thought of suicide, tears would run from my eyes. I knew that the day I could think of committing suicide and not cry would be a very dangerous day.
Advice like, “Eat leafy green vegetables and get 30 minutes of exercise twice a week,” felt laughable, when all I felt like doing was stepping into traffic and ending my life. It was not applicable to me. I was too far gone for that advice. The idea of looking after myself was the polar opposite to the idea of suicide, which is what I wanted more than anything else. If anything, advice like, “Stop eating altogether,” seemed more sympathetic to my frame of mind.
One nice thing about post-partum depression as opposed to other types is that I had a reason to live: I had to keep going every day because I was responsible for a tiny human girl. Although sacrificing every waking moment to care for her felt extremely painful, it kept the clock ticking for me. Killing myself was never really an option for me because of this responsibility. I didn't feel like I had any options at all, to be honest.
What does it feel like, to live every day mechanically, forcefully, unwillingly? The pain of rising each day, exhausted and unwilling, to execute my duties, had to be dealt with somehow. My mind served me well, here. It started to harden up, all of its own accord. I sort of watched this happen over the weeks, in amazement and gratitude. My mind hid the pain from my consciousness and allowed me to operate much like a robot, sticking to my routine and surviving. Though I wept spontaneously and without seeming cause, this suppression of emotional pain seemed like the only way forward. Over time, I became unemotional, detached, distant, mechanical, hardened. My creative, playful, intelligent, loving mind starved, and so went into hibernation, and I found myself thinking and acting unemotionally.
When you buy a new car, you suddenly see that same model everywhere in the city. Your brain is no longer filtering that information as irrelevant, so you notice. When you become a robot, you start to notice other robots in just the same way. You start to notice the grim, hard-set faces you didn't notice before. Suddenly something you never understood makes sense. That person who was unfriendly or rude to you at a Christmas party years ago? I understood. I instantly grew a tremendous sympathy for unfriendly people. I had no doubt that people devoid of love and life must have suffered and suffered greatly, and may still be suffering. I wanted to reach out and embrace every one of them: All the pained misfits who had sparsely littered my past. I wanted to shower them with blessings, gifts, sweep away the awful pains they must feel and make their lives better for them. I suppose that's what I wanted somebody to do for me.
To be continued, but only if YOU, yes YOU THE PERSON WHO IS READING THIS NOW, encourage me to continue.