Depression Over the Ages

It’s a funny thing, depression. One of the loneliest conditions a person can experience, it’s nonetheless felt by millions upon millions of people the world over. And yet, despite being so prevalent, no two people experience it quite the same, even though the outcomes are so often similar.

When I first succumbed to the onslaught of depression in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a whole lot for me to know about it. I felt miserable, I wanted to sleep all day, I hated myself and my life, and daydreamed of death virtually non-stop. It was a distinctly personal experience, and one that I had trouble sharing with … well, anyone.

You see, the advent of easy global communication was still a year or two away, and in the beginning, there was just myself and my friends at school. My friends at school didn’t really understand depression – even with my closest friend, Jen, who I know suffered as I did, I struggled to communicate the depth of despair and self-loathing I felt every day.

The funny thing about misery, though, is that it loves company. I eventually found myself on AOL chat rooms and other instant messaging platforms, and suddenly a world was opened up to me – a world of dark, dangerous, depressed people who felt just the way I did (and some of them were even worse). For the first time in my life, I truly realized I wasn’t alone, and although I never met any of these chat people in real life, my online presence became my life. I would count the breaths until I could sign on again to talk to my dark, gothic friends.

These ability to communicate thoughts and feelings was, in some ways, a saving grace. Without it, I would have been truly alone, and I don’t know how long I could have survived in such a state. I have little doubt I would have killed myself.

Before this, though – before people could easily communicate – what did depressed people do? How did they let out their frustrations, vent their feelings, and cope with the voice in their head telling them they would be better off dead?

I mean, depression isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; famous figures throughout history have notably suffered, including Tchaikovsky, Churchill, and Cobain. As public figures, of course – and as artists – they had some form of outlet, but what about the countless ‘little’ people, the ones with no outlet, no forum, and no way of telling the world that they aren’t happy? What of all those lonely souls throughout history?

Whilst depression may not have changed in a million years, our reaction to it certainly has. Even though it’s still considered taboo in some circles to discuss mental illness at all, the fact that it can be discussed is, in itself, a revelation. I came across a post the other day on Reddit about a young girl who was contemplating killing herself. It was a heartbreaking read, but what made it bearable was the fact that, without hours, there were literally hundreds of comments in support of her and her experience – hundreds of people who reached out through the anonymity of the internet to try and help her through this difficult moment.

I’m not saying that people who suffer from depression are in a better place now than in the past; the disease is powerful, and can make lonely the most outgoing of people in a heartbeat. But what we do have now, that we never had before, is a forum through which to discuss our suffering. A place we can go to learn from others, and share our experiences. And whether that’s on Reddit, Twitter, or right here on WordPress, there is a world of loving and caring individuals out there who are willing and waiting to hear what you have to say.

So don’t be lonely, and don’t be a stranger; reach out. Someone will answer.

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How Depression Ruined My Child’s Birthday

It was my son’s 15th birthday on Saturday. He originally had plans to go to the arcades with his brand new (first) girlfriend, but her parents forbade her going at the last moment, so he was understandably salty about the whole thing. He hadn’t planned on a party or event with any other friends, so it was pretty much him and us. And my depression.

Before we even get started on what happened on Saturday specifically, I should point out that I hadn’t exactly set myself up for success in the first place. Due to an unplanned bout of being unmedicated (I just … didn’t take them, I guess), I was still recovering from a deep and strange depression in the weeks leading up to his birthday, and had more or less neglected to even consider getting him any gifts.

Thankfully my wife made up for this by getting him a few t-shirts and knick-knacks, but I told him I would take him to the movies and a comic book store instead, to try and take his mind off things.

Saturday morning actually went smoothly. My wife and I went shopping before our son got up, picked up some nice breakfast things, and woke him up around 11:00 AM with presents. Then, while he was watching Game of Thrones, my wife and I worked together in the kitchen to make meatballs – the first part of a planned lasagna dinner to celebrate.

So far, so good.

In the afternoon I took him to see Captain Marvel, which was (in my opinion) really quite good. I enjoyed the movie and the time spent with him, and we talked about Marvel and comics and movies endlessly on the way home.

Once home, I was getting ready to finish off prep for the lasagna when our cat jumped up on my wife’s chair while she was sitting in it. In itself no big deal, but my wife is allergic to the cat and asked for a paper towel wet with soap just to wipe her hands afterwards.

Somewhere along the line, I failed to hear her say that she already had a paper towel, and just needed it wet. When she asked why I got her a new one, she called me on not listening.

I said she didn’t say it. (I mean, I genuinely had no recollection of her saying anything about it.)

I guess this must have triggered her, because she said, “Fuck you.”

I don’t know how genuinely angry she was, but something in it flashed a cloud over my mind, and I retorted with the same and stormed upstairs to the bed in the loft.

I figured I would settle down, cool off, and come down a few minutes later to apologize and finish dinner. Instead, something took over and, once in that bed, I found I simply could not get out of it. First I made excuses – I’m still angry, I need to calm down. Then I gave myself deadlines – I’ll get up by 5:30 PM … I’ll get up by 6:00 PM. And then … I just gave up.

Instead of helping my son celebrate a birthday that already hadn’t gone well, I spent the remainder of the night comatose in bed, drifting in and out of sleep and wondering what my son did to deserve such a pathetic wreck of a father. I vaguely heard the noises, caught the drifting smells, as my son and wife cooked, ate, and cleaned up after a very lonely and miserable dinner.

They didn’t even have the cake.

Depression is a strange beast. It can strike when you least expect it, and its power over you is somehow stronger than you ever anticipate, even when you know its bite intimately. Once I was in that bed, I wasn’t getting back out of it. It was as simple as that. No amount of guilt, persuasion or logic was going to make a difference.

I don’t even really know why it happened. I’ve been medicated for almost a month now, and the depression and mood swings should have been stabilized. It was unexpected, and unreasonable; totally out of the blue.

I tried to make it up to him on Sunday – took him out, made breakfast, etc. – but it didn’t change the acrid taste in my mouth. I let him down, on the one day he needed support the most. Nothing else matters.

There are times when I feel like a true failure as a person. Once upon a time, in another life, someone once referred to me as their ‘rock’. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am inherently unreliable. Unpredictable. Unintentional, and emotionally unfaithful. I am no one’s rock. I am a passing fancy on the wind, here today and gone tomorrow. I am as ephemeral as a wave, crashing against a rock at sea.

And as a passing breeze, I’ll always be around; what is absent one day will return eventually. But how, and when … that’s anyone’s guess.

I may not be a good person, but I’m all I’ve got – depression and all.

The Unfettered Insanity of Unmedicated Bipolar Disorder

My wife says she can always tell when I go off my medication. She says I stop making sense, speak gibberish, and do and say things that are utterly irrational. I say she can tell because when I’m off my meds, I feel nonsensical, disconnected and irrational. I’m perfectly aware of the inane babble that comes out of me when I’m unmedicated – and yet I allow it to happen anyway.

I’m on four different antipsychotics and antidepressants to treat my disorder. I’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2, which is where you have very mild manic episodes alternating with extremely severe depression. The medications help to keep me on an even keel, even if I do still swing toward the depressive end of the spectrum more often than not, and when I’m consistently medicated I can function, hold normal conversations, feel motivation, and generally get through the day.

So why on earth would I trade that for what is, essentially, bouts of total insanity? I’ll give you an example: the other night we were preparing dinner, and I couldn’t wash and recycle a plastic container. I just … couldn’t. To an outside observer (i.e. to my family), it must have looked like I was batshit crazy – I babbled about how I couldn’t wash it, that the most I could do was throw it away, and then I started pacing the kitchen, turning around every two steps. I probably tore at my hair a little, and eventually ended up on the couch in the dark while my wife screamed at how lazy I was being.

Believe me, it wasn’t laziness.

There are a whole slew of reasons why I do this to myself. Ironically, none of them are because I think I’m better when I am medicated – even though that’s a commonly cited reason for patients to stop. The most common reason – and perhaps the least sensible – is that I’m afraid to run out.

That’s right – I stop taking my meds so that I don’t run out of my meds.

This is the kind of train of thought that probably makes perfect sense to a lot of you – and absolutely no sense to anyone whose never had to take psychiatric medications before. I mean, you wouldn’t stop taking your heart medicine for the same reason, would you? But for some reason it seems, in the moment, perfectly reasonable to skip a day or a week so that I don’t run out.

Sometimes there are more valid reasons to stop. Most recently, I stopped taking them for about two weeks because I couldn’t afford to renew the prescription. Now that’s kind of a shitty position to be in, but the truth is that I didn’t have the money to pay for the medications – partly because my most recent paycheck got screwed up, but also because I do sometimes spend money on things I don’t need (mostly coffee).

But wow – the difference between medication and going au naturel is itself insane. As in, within a few days in either direction I notice a huge difference. When I go off them, I start to feel anxious, unsettled, and completely disconnected from reality. Then the depression sinks in, and the despair … or sometimes the anger and rage. Sometimes I sit in a corner and cry; other times I rush around madly between tasks, unable to start or complete any of them. More often, I sleep, because it’s the only way I can escape the madness.

After a few days, I feel generally unsettled and disconnected; after a few weeks, I feel totally insane. After a month or more, I start to become suicidal.

And the difference when I go back on them … within a few days I feel stable, in control, and able to do most anything. I might still not want to do anything, but at least I can make myself do it.

I know that this constant cycle of going on and off my meds is really, really bad for me, but I just can’t seem to help it. I don’t ever mean to stop taking my meds; it just happens. And when it does, I feel so out of control that it’s hard to find the willpower to go back on them. Sometimes even the effort of taking the top off the pill bottle is just too much.

I hate feeling out of control, but I do it anyway. It’s damaging my brain, but I do it anyway. It’s a vicious cycle, and I honestly don’t know if it’s one I’ll ever get out of.

For now, I’ll just have to go and take my pills.

You’re Not the Only One (And That’s a Good Thing)

Don’t you think that you need somebody?
Don’t you think that you need someone?
Everybody needs somebody
You’re not the only one

Guns N’ Roses – November Rain

Loneliness – the dreadful, gnawing sense of abandonment and despair that comes from knowing that no one in the world suffers as you do – can be devastating. Worse still, you often feel as though you deserve it, because you’re somehow less than other people – less capable, less valid, less … human.

I used to feel this way a lot. I still do, sometimes, although as I’ve gotten older and weathered the storms of depression I’ve learned that even despair passes with time, and that even the loneliest among us aren’t really alone. It doesn’t change the feeling itself – in the moment, when the black closes in around you, you know beyond any doubt that you are utterly, completely alone.

It isn’t true, though. Not really.

Humans, by nature, need companionship. We crave it. We want it with every fiber of our being, and yet … sometimes we reject it. Sometimes, even when a friend comes knocking, we fail to answer the door. When a hand reaches out in the dark, we see it – and turn the other way.

Many of us … struggle with feeling valid. [But] it’s possible to be wrong.

I used to wonder about this. I used to think that loneliness could be a kind of strength, a measure of how deep my depression ran. That, somehow, being alone meant I was validated in my despair, that it was … okay, I guess, to feel so miserable. And I would see overtures from friends and family, and I would actively push them away, driving them off like rats with a stick.

I used to wonder why I was like this. Why on earth did I reject others’ attempts to help me? Why did I want to be alone?

The answer, I believe, lies in the belief of self-worth. Many of us, especially here on this blog, struggle with feeling valid, with believing that we’re worth something. Something deep inside triggers us into feeling that, no matter what, we don’t deserve the love of friends, family, colleagues … that, simply put, we aren’t worth the effort.

I know this feeling all too well. It once was bad enough that I remember thinking that I was punishing the world simply by being alive – that the air I was breathing would be better suited to someone else. I wanted to die, not only because of the depth of my misery, but because it somehow felt that it would be fairer to those around me to just not have to worry about me anymore.

But here’s what I’ve learned over the years. What you feel doesn’t change how others feel. Your beliefs don’t affect those of the people around you. And it’s possible to be wrong.

You see, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die, there are people who care about you. And the don’t care because they must – they care because they want to. There are, of course, varying levels of care, based on the feelings of sadness and hurt when you suffer, but there are so many, many more people in the world that care about you than you know.

Because every single word you utter, every sentence you type, every glance you give, affects the people you know – and sometimes the people you don’t. I don’t know you – we’ve never met – but I care. James here at The Bipolar Writer cares – for crying out loud, he’s even offered his phone number publicly! And believe me that the people who do know you care even more.

I attended a funeral last year for a friend of mine. If I’m honest (I hope he forgives me), he was no one special. He didn’t write books; he didn’t make movies. He wasn’t famous. Sometimes he was depressed; sometimes he didn’t want to carry on, especially towards the end. But he did; he powered through his cancer until the bitter end, because he wasn’t alone. And nowhere was this more evident than at the outpouring of love at his funeral. Yes, there were tears – but more than that, there were laughs, and good memories, and a sense of companionship between the rest of us who live: brought together by one person.

So what I’m trying to say here is simple: you’re not the only one to suffer. And you aren’t alone in your suffering. Every one of us here at The Bipolar Writer has, in one fashion or another, been in your shoes; we know what it’s like. We care. So do many. And the community James has built here should help you understand this simple idea:

You aren’t alone.

Mental Illness, Escapism, and Addiction

I have been on medication for my bipolar disorder – and depression before it – for a great number of years. The most recent cocktail of drugs has been the same since late 2015, when I nearly ended my own life, and it’s been keeping me pretty steady, as these things go. I’m not perfect, but the extremes of mood, the violent anger, and the crushing depressions are lessened, if not gone entirely.

I also drink. Not a lot – not every day – but when I drink, I usually drink too much. It’s contraindicated with my medications, but that doesn’t really mean much to me. I drink anyway. I drink, very specifically, to get drunk. I drink beer, I drink wine, I drink rum and scotch, and I drink quite deliberately, pacing myself over minutes and hours until I fall into a stupor in bed and sleep it off through the night.

I think, deep down, I’m somewhat of a hedonist. I don’t know if this comes from the depression or some other innate personality trait, but I am, for lack of a better phrase, a pleasure-seeker. I very much enjoy physical pleasure, and the sensation of drunkenness falls into this category for me. It’s a form of escapism that requires very little concentration or effort, and when it hits, I can just lie back and let it wash over me.

With medications keeping me level, why do I need escapism, you might ask. Why do I need a vehicle for altering my state of mind, when the whole point of the ‘official’ drugs is to keep my mind from entering that altered state in the first place?

I think a part of it is that I have conditioned myself over decades to avoid misery. I have been so miserable for so long that I instinctively gravitate to anything that feels good, happy or pleasurable. I have very little self-control in this regard; I don’t set rules for myself, like ‘you can have a drink after you do the dishes’; I just drink, and fuck the dishes.

Another part is, almost certainly, a dangerous level of chemical dependency. As I mentioned above, I don’t drink every day – but I do go through phases where I might drink daily for several weeks straight. I usually drink until I’m out of alcohol. It rapidly becomes habit. The same is true of other vices; I recently acquired a small amount of pot from a friend, and against my original intention of maybe once a weekend, I’ve been smoking three or four times a week.

This all leads me to question my behaviors, and the more fundamental motivations behind them. Do I smoke and drink because I’m miserable, because I’m addicted, or because I really kind of just … like it? Like all behavior affected by mental illness, it’s a difficult question to answer, because the very nature of mental illness is changed behaviors … but there comes a point where illness ends and addiction takes over.

I’m not an alcoholic; I know people who are, and I don’t ‘need’ booze to function. I’m not a drug addict; I don’t blow hundreds on weed, and I don’t smoke before, during and after work (for example). But I am dangerously close to this level of functional need, and I recognize it when the thing I look forward to at the end of the day is getting high and watching Family Guy reruns.

That’s usually when I stop – when I see the signs of tipping into the abyss, and take steps to right myself. So far I’ve always been able to come back from the brink, but I worry about one day …

Yet I continue anyway. I refuse to stop permanently. I refuse to relinquish the physical pleasures of drink and drugs. I don’t ‘need’ them, but I want them. Like, a lot.

And sometimes, I wonder if it’s really so bad. I’m aware of the long-term physical and mental changes and harm caused by alcohol and drug use, but I still can’t help believing that the immediate reward is worth it. Intellectually I know that liver damage, lung cancer and mental deterioration are some of the absolute worst ways to die, but emotionally … I kind of just don’t care. I’ve had people tell me that my health is all I have; I’ve heard the arguments before. But when your mental health fails you, you couldn’t care less about your physical health. And whilst the two are most definitely related, it’s difficult to have the second without the first.

That’s when I wonder if the escapism of physical pleasure isn’t worth it after all. The mental toll each day takes, whilst variable, is still a harsh one, and the ability to use a substance – of one kind or another – to forget it is dreadfully tempting. And I recognize this as a controversial perspective – why, you ask, don’t I deal with my problems instead of avoiding them – but I truly believe life is for living, and should be enjoyed daily, if at all possible.

What do you do, when your brain refuses to let you do just that? What do you do, when your own mind is a battleground of misery and despair? What happens when you wake up and simply can’t get out of bed? What is there to look forward to?

And in those trying times, is self-medication justifiable? Is it even self-medication at all – or just an excuse to escape from reality?

And is such escapism really so wrong?

Idle Hands, Busy Work and Fighting Off Depression

As a writer, the most important thing I can do every day is, well, write. After all, they say a writer is someone who wrote today, and by that measure I’m more of an ass-sitter than a writer.

Most days.

It isn’t to say I don’t write; even if it takes months – or in the case of 22 Scars, years – I will eventually get things out. But on a day-to-day basis, I more often sleep and procrastinate. I’ll often lie in bed, daydreaming about where I want my writing to go, or thinking of what to write for the evening’s blog, but in the end nothing gets done.

Depression’s a bitch.

The thing is, the less I do, the more I feel depressed, and the more I feel depressed, the less I do. It’s a cycle I’m sure many of you are familiar with. And that cycle, for me, breaks when my bipolar upswing takes effect, and I write feverishly for perhaps a week or two, before sliding back into a period of low mood that might last for another four months.

I wrote 22 Scars – as in, time spent daily writing words for the story – in about two months. Yet I spent the previous twelve years pretending I was going to write it. A bit of planning here, half a chapter there … but nothing ever really happened.

And herein lies the biggest problem. If I aim to use writing as a method of working through depression – after all, the whole point of 22 Scars was to be an ode to my teenage despair – then I need to actually write, because otherwise I know I’ll just fall into despair.

It takes a great deal of personal and emotional effort to make yourself do anything – never mind something creative, like writing – when you don’t feel like doing anything at all. When you hate yourself, and hate your work, and want to just lie in bed all day. I love sleep, because it’s an escape from the drear of the everyday.

And most days, the energy to break through that wall just isn’t there. I just can’t see past the dark veil that clouds my mind, my judgement, and my desires.

Around this time every year I make plans and commitments to better myself, to keep writing more and more frequently, and to actually make something of myself. And in around a month or so, I’ll give up on those plans, because fuck that shit.

But I can’t say it’s all for nought; two years ago I decided I would finally sit down and make my young adult novel come to life, and lo and behold – I did it. It took a few months of very, very hard work – during which time I nearly imploded with the weight of the depression that the story brought out of me – but I made it happen. I published it in late 2017.

Last year, I made the same commitment for my fantasy work, and got my third novel out there a few months ago.

So what does 2019 hold?

I have plans for a new novel, one that takes on mental illness again, but in a slightly different tone. It focuses on several characters, and their journey through a life of music, misery and angst. I really, really want to make it happen this year – as in, write it in the early months, publish it in the later months.

But it’ll take more than just a commitment to writing the novel. If I want to keep myself well, if I want to vainly prevent the dark slide into the abyss, I’ll need to write here, too.

Because writing, ultimately, is about communicating. And whilst writing a novel is one way of doing so, it’s a lonely, solitary process. And if I can reach out to a community of people who believe in and support what I do on a regular basis, it might just provide me with the motivation I would otherwise be missing.

So here’s to 2019, and here’s to all of you – because without you, I would be nothing.

Mental Illness and Cognitive Dissonance

It’s no secret that the spectrums of mental illness come fraught with confusion, anxiety and fear, whether it be depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In some cases, the illness is the anxiety and confusion itself – a deep-set emotional displacement that has no reasonable cause behind it. There exists an endless number of factors that influence, weave in and out of, and cause mental illness, and it can take decades of therapy and medication to root out the reasons behind it, never mind help resolve it.

One of the biggest pain points for me – and for many people I know – is that there exists a discrepancy between what they see and what they feel, or between what they believe and what they’re told to believe. It can be as simple as feeling worthless when everyone around you tells you how great you are; it can be as complex as believing that you don’t physically exist, despite being able to touch and feel your own body.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The concept of cognitive dissonance dates back over sixty years, when psychologist Leon Festinger proposed that humans need a kind of internal consistency between belief and perception in order to function mentally. The basis of his work came from a phenomenon in the 1930s after a severe earthquake in India. People who felt the earthquake but suffered no damage began to believe that worse disasters were yet to come – not because there was evidence to justify their fear, but because they needed a belief to justify their fear.

This is something that can be seen throughout the world today; perhaps the most obvious example is theology. People believe in the existence of a deity or deities not because there is evidence to make them believe, but rather because the existence of those deities is necessary to support their beliefs.

The thing is, when there is a contradiction between belief and perception – or simply between two beliefs – people will go to extreme lengths to justify both beliefs. Historically, the geocentric model of the solar system is another example. Despite evidence to the contrary (the motion of planets, stars, etc.), astronomers came up with increasingly complex systems to keep the earth at the center of the universe, because it was necessary to support their belief.

Subjective Dissonance

One of the greatest challenges to psychology is the subjectiveness of the field; whilst chemical and behavioral studies can help, and large data sets balance things out for clinical trials, when treating individual patients it can be difficult to isolate a particular illness for the purpose of a diagnosis, simply because the treating psychologist is reliant on the subjective description of the symptoms by the patient. Observationally a person may appear depressed, but internally they may feel content or happy.

This disconnect between objective fact (what a person does or says) and subjective reality (how the person really feels) is often at the heart of many mental illnesses. For myself, a day in bed might be genuine exhaustion from a hard week at work, or perhaps a low-level illness; to my family, who’ve seen me like that frequently, it’s just depression. And of course, the behavior often begets the emotion – the longer I stay in bed, typically the worse I feel.

For someone in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, it can be even worse: to the sufferer, the world is on their side, everything is going amazingly, and nothing can bring them down. To the observer, they are erratic, nonsensical and in some cases outright dangerous.

Belief in Treatment

The key to surviving with mental illness is to get help; to find treatment. It can be in the form of therapy, medication, meditation … all these things are proven to help balance an unbalanced mind. But dissonance can be a challenge here, as well. To start with, it can be difficult to admit you need help – you don’t want to believe you have a problem, despite observable evidence to the contrary. Alcoholics suffer from this; the pile of empty bottles in the garbage simply don’t equate to a drinking problem. They find ways to justify the drinking – even in the most absurd ways – because they don’t believe they have a problem.

On the flip side, someone in the throes of depression may not believe they can be any help – that there is no point seeking treatment, because it won’t make any difference. I’ve suffered this for most of my life.

And then, of course, there’s the behavior changes associated with treatment itself. The classic example is the schizophrenic patient who goes off their medication, because on the medication they feel fine and believe they don’t need medication. Another is when I stop taking my own medications because I’m running low and I don’t want to run out.

Logical Fallacies

To anyone on the outside, this simply doesn’t make sense; it isn’t logical. But logic is the enemy of cognitive dissonance (or perhaps the other way around). In my mind, it all adds up: if I run out of medication I will feel worse; therefore if I stop taking medication, I won’t run out.

My friend at work was talking to me the other day and mentioned a similar experience; he suffers from extreme anxiety, and is on medication to help cope. But once he was on the medication he didn’t feel anxious, and when you don’t feel anxious, you don’t need medication. So he stopped.

These sorts of logical fallacies are the loophole for cognitive dissonance. I can use a kind of “When A is true then B is true; B is true so A must also be true” reasoning to connect the disparity between my thoughts and my perceptions. The subjective truth is that I meed medication to keep a constant chemical balance in my brain, but the objective truth is that I simply feel better.

In the end, cognitive dissonance isn’t going anywhere, and nor is mental illness. But an awareness of this problem can help a lot of people – it certainly helps me – to push through with something that might not immediately make sense, because in the long run it will help. Keep taking the meds, even when you feel fine, because the meds are the reason you feel fine.

And if the problem is that you simply can’t believe in your own worth, use this to look around you. The people who still talk to you, who live with you, who put up with you – they wouldn’t, if they believed what you do. You might not be able to change your belief, but you can change your behavior – and that’s sometimes the first step towards changing yourself.

Music and the Memories of Depression

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From the baroque era to black metal, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening to some kind of music, first on a little cassette player, then on CDs, and now of course through online streaming. In fact, the world of streaming music has opened my library up to hundreds of thousands of songs that I would never have thought to listen to before.

According to my iTunes library, I’ve listened to the 10,000 songs in my library over 300,000 times. Some I’ve listened to only once or twice, of course, but the top ten percent of plays – 30,000 or so – are of just sixty songs – by just ten artists.

From Coma White by Marilyn Manson, at 450 plays, to Brief is the Light by Sentenced, at nearly 500, these sixty songs are an unintentional reflection of my mental state over the years. On average, I’ve listened to these sixty songs at least once a week for the past fifteen years (since I first built an iTunes library), although of course there’ve been days when I’ve listened to some on repeat for hours at a time.

You see, music is my memory. I don’t have the sharpest recollection for things, people or events, but listening to a particular song will invariably revisit the feelings I was experiencing when I first came to know and love it. For me, music is feeling, it is emotion, and frequently, it is depression.

When I listen to My Hope, the Destroyer by My Dying Bride, I am returned to the gloriously dark, gothic days of my teenage depression, candles and vodka late at night, wondering if I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. When I hear Join Me In Death by HIM, I remember the blood running down my arms as I cut myself repeatedly, wishing I had the strength to cut deeper, harder, more finally.

These aren’t necessarily pleasant memories, but they are the foundation of who I am today – the essence of my soul. It would be a disservice to forget who I used to be, and how it led to who I am today. There are still days when I simply can’t cope, when I want to sleep all day and forget the world; there are days when I just want to cease existing. This last week has been especially hard, coping with the death of a dear friend and being asked to read his eulogy.

And in those times, I fire up my Depression playlist, and I remember. I remember what it feels like to be alone; what it’s like to be numb, and miserable, and to want to die. These are powerful memories, and they’re important.

Sometimes people ask me why, if I’m already depressed, I choose to listen to music that reinforces the feeling. They wonder why I don’t listen to happy music to cheer myself up. The answer is that I don’t use music to change my mood; I choose my music to reflect my mood. When I’m at my darkest, I need strength; when I’m at my lowest, I need reassurance. And the memories of past sadness is, in a way, just that: a reminder that I’ve felt this way before, and that I’m still here.

Music, in the end, is timeless and eternal. And in this, it serves as a reminder that all things pass, for better or for worse. I too will die one day, and I don’t want that day to come having wasted what’s left of my life.

That doesn’t mean I want to write a book, or cross off a bucket list; to me, that’s not the measure of a life well spent. To me, it’s about feeling. And feeling, be it happy or sad, alive or numb, is the essence of life. For some, they get their feelings from movies, or books; some get it from food, or family.

I get it from music. I am eternally grateful for the music in my life, and I will continue to rack up the plays on those top sixty songs for the rest of my life. Every time I need to remember, every time I need to feel, those songs will be there for me.

So remember to listen, and remember to feel: we aren’t long for this world.

Compartmentalization (Breaking Down)

For most of my life, I’ve been able to keep things pretty simple. I have home, and I have work. Before that, I had home and school. Even before I became depressed, this was the case – what I did in one part of my life had no bearing, no effect, on any other.

When I was little, this manifested itself as a little boy who played with Legos and make-believe at home, and acted cool in front of friends, because of course playing by yourself wasn’t cool. You certainly didn’t let your friends know what you did at home, or how your dad drank too much or your mom smoked and played solitaire all day long because she was depressed.

Later, of course, home and school became even more separate as I realized that the things I wanted to do – drink and smoke and cut and lie in bed all day – weren’t within the so-called wheelhouse of my parents. They simply couldn’t comprehend what I wanted (for that matter, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted myself), and for a long time I was able to keep the two separate.

Eventually, of course, things broke down and my parents found out about my behavior at school, and the school found out about my behavior at home, and I became so depressed that I just didn’t care, and fuck the consequences. Nothing mattered.

Then I got a job. A real job, one I had to work hard for, and at which things were expected of me. The depression didn’t go away, but it wasn’t an option for it to manifest itself at work, because there was stuff to do. Always stuff to do. At home I collapsed into bed every night, drink and razor in hand, but by day, my god – I was happy, energetic and able to do anything asked of me. (For the most part.)

This was my first experience of compartmentalization. For many years since, I’ve kept my work and home lives separate. They quite literally have nothing to do with each other. I rarely talk about work with my wife, and I never talk about home with my colleagues. They don’t belong together; they have nothing to do with each other.

But recently, things have started changing. It started with a colleague at work – a friend, you might call him – who suffers from extreme anxiety. We started talking one day, and it came to light that sometimes he takes days off work simply because he can’t cope with the idea of interacting with people that day.

I don’t want to say that this influenced me, but it definitely gave me food for thought. Maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t so unfathomable to consider that my mental well-being extended to work, as well. For so long I’d maintained a façade – what if I didn’t have to anymore?

The compartments in my mind – home, work, parents – started to break down. And then the unthinkable happened. My parents arranged a vacation for myself, my wife, our son and my father. It seemed innocuous – it seemed like a good idea.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I’ve only just started to understand that my parents form a huge barrier to the rest of my life – they are on one side, and absolutely everything else is on the other. And when they get involved, I go off the deep end. Sometimes it’s something I can tolerate, but for one reason or another, this broke this camel’s back.

You see, my parents are – without meaning to be – indescribably controlling. They arrange everything, and then tell you what’s going to happen. And I think with this recent event, it just got to me, deeper than anything ever has before.

And it’s affected my home, and my work. The carefully constructed walls between my compartments have begun to crumble. And whilst at one end it feels devastating, on another it feels somewhat liberating. Almost as if I can forget pretending to be something I’m not, and just … be me.

I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like the compartmentalization has only helped my life, but at other times it feels like it’s the worst thing ever.

What do you split off from your usual life? What compartments do you keep for yourself?

The Things We Do When We’re Lonely

Despite having lived with people for most of my life, I’m no stranger to loneliness. In fact, those of you who suffer from depression as I do can probably attest to the fact that you can feel lonely in the most crowded of places, surrounded by the most loving of friends and family. When it sinks its teeth in, nothing can bring you back.

I’m lonely right now. I’m lonely through situation – my wife and son have left on vacation and I wasn’t able to go with them – but I’m also lonely through isolation. Because of the events that led to them leaving without me (I forgot to book the time off from work), I feel a great measure of guilt, which only serves to deepen my sense of loneliness – a sensation that somehow I deserve to feel this way, and that I shouldn’t do anything about it.

I’ve also been lonely before in my life. It started when I first became depressed as a teenager. The first bouts of depression felt like they stemmed from a sense of insignificance, that in the grand scheme of things I didn’t matter, and nothing I did would ever amount to anything worthwhile. Feeling like a blip on the radar of life is a very isolating experience, I can tell you.

Later, I began to isolate myself from my friends at school, both deliberately and through sheer ignorance and bad luck. It came to a head one drunken night at a friend’s house where I made a fool of myself and got us banned from going over there again. My friends turned on me, left me and abandoned me, and I’d never known such loneliness. This led to some of my first truly suicidal thoughts.

When I went to college in London, I lived in a dorm but with a room of my own. That one year was the absolute worst of my life. I saw no one, spoke to no one, almost never got out of bed; I rarely showered, didn’t shave, stank, and fended off everyone around me with vitriol. I hated myself, hated my life, hated everyone else in the world. And I knew – absolutely knew – that it would never get better.

It did.

I met my wife, we had a child, and for a little bit, loneliness was delayed. But it always returned, in the deep of night or on a cloudy day at home when everyone else was away. And I did some strange things, some of which I recall fondly, whilst others are less positive.

In my teenage years, of course, I dealt with loneliness through self-harm. Before losing my friends, I would compare scars with one of the girls at work. Hers were always deeper, but mine were more plentiful. I dealt with it through drinking, too – sneaking whiskey from my father’s liquor cabinet as often as I dared.

Later, as an adult, I continued to deal with it through alcohol. I would finish a bottle of whiskey every few nights. I stopped cutting, but I drank more and more, and kept the loneliness at bay by minimizing my sobriety as much as possible.

Now, I find myself retreating to drink again, but I’m trying to control it. I know the things that will help, and the things that will make it worse. I’m trying to go out more (I’m writing this at a coffee house instead of my bed), trying to invite people to come over and spend time with me.

My cat also helps me feel less lonely. She is my rock, the one creature who will always show me affection no matter what I do or how I feel. When I pick her up she smushes her face into mine. I talk to her, I play with her, and I act like a complete goofball with her. It all helps.

But in the end, loneliness will always be there in the background, waiting to flood my life and drown me in solitude. I can fight it, I can cope with it, but I’ll never be rid of it. It’s as much a part of my life as my bipolar, my depression and my scars.

What makes you feel lonely, and how do you cope with it? Let me know in the comments.