Written, Illustrated and Narrated by Kate Balding
Listen to this article narrated by the author:
Did you know that double the number of people experienced depression in June 2020 compared to July 2019. That’s one in five rather than one in ten. In June 2020 I wasn’t feeling so hot myself. Low points tend to precede undulations upwards though, and what followed was two months of musing - Why do I get depressed? What does it say about me? What is the best way to cope with it? Why does talking about depression make me feel embarrassed, queasy? – These questions comprise the following article and although you can’t solve everything with writing, putting words on paper did seem to help me.
∼ Context ∽
I was lying on my bedroom floor bent in a tuck position and damp with sweat after running. The window above was open and a confident, cold breeze forced itself in, turning the moisture on my skin into hard salt. I was aware of my discomfort, yet did not attempt to alter it. I wondered what the point would be. I felt despondent and empty. I stared at the gap under the bed and tried to stop my chest heaving.
I, like you, can recognise this as a miserable scene and I want to understand it's creation more fully. To understand how I got there, why sharing it feels so pitiful and what it means about me. The word ‘depression’ came to mind easily but I wonder if I really know what it means or whether I experience it legitimately.
'...for me it manifests in the following: Excess pride, a quality which makes failing particularly world-shattering.'
More helpful than labels, I think context may be a better place to seek meaning. Just prior to the lying on the floor, the heaving and the run, I had received the latest in a long line of rejected job applications. The juxtaposition of emotional recess and situational rebuke makes me consider that I might not actually suffer from depression at all. Feeling bad is a perfectly natural, normal retort mechanism to unpleasant stimuli; rejections can set anyone reeling. Yet, for some reason my experience feels like it surpasses ‘healthy’. I think my depression may also result from chronic ‘bad faith’ – that’s a term used by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and for me it manifests in the following: Excess pride, a quality which makes failing particularly world-shattering.
∼ Character ∽
This is not a rash diagnosis and I’m not looking for rebuke. I have been called haughty, high-horsed and patronising by people who nevertheless like me, and I am self-aware enough to see that at times I am woefully bossy. As one of Icarus’s disciples then (yes that Greek guy whose wings melted from flying too close to the sun), I wonder if my inflated ego has doomed me. Maybe it’s responsible for the convulsions I get every time the world tells me I’m not extraordinary. Is self-importance a typical character trait of those with depression? History does seem full of people who lost themselves hunting perfection.
'I thought it was a romantic burden, the noble sort that people carry when they are destined for greatness.'
I remember being 13 and thinking I had something to say. Really, that I was important, destined for something. I used to write little philosophical musings on love and happiness. I felt I had such a great, unrivalled insight into my own being; such grand self-awareness. I thought it was a romantic burden, the noble sort that people carry when they are destined for greatness. At school I found confidence as a know-it-all and answered teachers with an exasperation that said – ‘I am doing you a favour by answering the question correctly’. Unsurprisingly, this made me slow to make friends and for a couple of years I remember feeling almost perpetually uncomfortable, misunderstood and melancholy. Does that mean I can trace my relationship with depression all the way back to 13-year-old me and her malformed character? Is my depression a side effect of being arrogant, and a bit lonely? Diagnosis on a postcard please. That being said, I’m no longer the shrewd calculator I was at 13. I’m gentler, more sympathetic and I’ve got wonderful friends, so maybe the persistent depression depends on another line of enquiry.
∼ Body ∽
Me and anaemia met for the first time when I was 15. My muscles had stopped giving me anything when I ran, my skin was off-white and I was forever freezing. One unrelated blood test later and I was rushed to hospital with iron levels low enough for doctors to whisper ‘leukaemia’ to my parents in passing. ‘You need an emergency blood transfusion…it’s incredible you’re still standing!’. Yet standing I was, and doing lots of other things besides, so transfusion-free I was told to go home and ignore the warning on a box of tablets: ‘UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES TAKE MORE THAN TWO’. ‘Go ahead’ they said, ‘take three’.
Since then my iron levels have gone up and down. I might be fine for months and then BAM I’m back to altitude training. To keep tabs on the undulations, I now have routine blood tests every year or so. The most recent of these came back in June and it told me my B12 was low. B12 deficiency or folate deficiency anaemia can cause extreme tiredness, lethargy, faintness, headaches, irritability, muscle weakness and depression the doctor said. Ohhh I said. That is interesting.
'I begin to wonder if all depression is so murky.'
Around the time that I got diagnosed with anemia my parents also got divorced. The years prior I had watched a close friend battle with anorexia, my best friend moved schools and I had myself moved continents with little warning. That’s the trouble you see – I don’t know whether certain events cause depression, whether I was born with depressive character traits or if my depression is simply some wonky physiological, chemical deficiency. I begin to wonder if all depression is so murky.
∼ Thinking ∽
For me it’s always been that combination of suffocating self-awareness and total incapacity. I am curious as to whether this inability to care for oneself, to clothe, feed, protect oneself when you are depressed is simply an attempt to show physically what is otherwise evident only internally. Is it to gain the attention of others? Or rather self-punishment, martyrdom, kamikaze?
'I knew exactly what sort of emotions I should be feeling, what I should be expressing to other people – joy, gratitude, excitement – but I was simultaneously incapable of delivering.'
Sometimes I am only ‘mildly depressed’. I think I had this sort of depression most frequently between 15 and 19. The spells usually coincided with times of the year or events where I knew I was expected to be happy: birthdays, Christmas, holidays. These depressive periods often lasted two weeks or so and I would describe them as ‘blanket bleakness’ in my diary. I knew exactly what sort of emotions I should be feeling, what I should be expressing to other people – joy, gratitude, excitement – but I was simultaneously incapable of delivering.
That is one thing that always frustrated me. I know other people have high functioning depression where they are able to mask quite well the true extent of their feelings. I on the other hand was trapped, knowing I should be giving my family or friends the joviality they deserved but instead only managing a tight lipped smile - a gesture which I’m sure you’ll agree is wholly unsatisfactory. It was the best I could do to remove myself from the room until I had struggled back into something worthy of company.
Not too long ago I stumbled across an online poetry competition designed for all those who felt disadvantaged in any way – social, economic, physical, racial, mental. There were no checks, they simply asked you to tick the boxes that denoted which disadvantage you related to. I love writing poetry. I filled out the form, sat looking at the boxes for half an hour and then closed it. This was not a competition for me. I was, almost, very, entirely, absolutely fine. I was taking opportunities from others who needed them more. Why do so many people feel perpetually undeserving of the title ‘depression?’ Is it valid or invalid feeling? I’m still unsure.
∼ Feeling ∽
I feel you creeping up, creep creep. Disturbing me whilst I try to read. I shrug you off, scold, ignore until, no --- Okay, I acknowledge you. Sitting in the back of my lower jaw dancing. I chew my cheek. Depression intermingled with anxiety? I feel like I’m chasing something I don’t even want. Or perhaps doesn’t even exist. What is the point of torturing myself every day with useless rephrasing of ‘please want me’. It’s making me sick and my head is smoggy. I feel disorientated. Like I want to sleep continuously. I think I cannot bear the weight of another disappointment but they keep coming and I remain. A little less, but still I remain. I don’t know what to do. I am not sure how to change.
∼ Coping ∽
Once or twice S and H, the two most heavily exposed to my depression, have asked whether I have considered medicating. I have but instinctively do not think that I need to. I have seen antidepressants given to dementia patients and they do not seem so jolly. They seem to flatten, numb and dissolve – removing anxiety by minimising being. That being said, I had a boyfriend who was on medication in the past and I seem to recall he saw it positively. I wonder why I never spoke to him about it more. I feel that was a missed opportunity. In fact, I think I’ll get back in touch to ask about his experiences – look, writing has made me reach out - ‘depression with friends’: an article series? There’s some kind of comfort in that.
'Around depressive episodes I’m constantly tripping up on the question of what my value is.'
The more I think about things the more I relate my depression to the issue of ‘being’. Around depressive episodes I’m constantly tripping up on the question of what my value is. This question is particularly troublesome at the moment because I am in my early 20s, have been nudged out of the university system and am entering the employment market at a time of coronavirus job culling. It is a period in which I am inundated with mixed messages: ‘Do not undersell yourself’, ‘Unfortunately you have not made the shortlist this time’, ‘You’re worth at least 35k’ ‘Unfortunately we do not think you would be a good fit for this job’, ‘You are overqualified’, ‘You are not qualified enough’, ‘You sound desperate’, ‘ You sound too serious’. I get rejected from everything I think may secure me some meaning. The ego takes a beating. I’d like to be able to satisfy the question of purpose myself, without needing the explicit social legitimation of a job, but I like working towards goals and being within a community. It’s important for me to do something that exceeds myself and so I accept that securing that first role is important to me. Knowing that is good though - it at least puts purpose within reach.
∼ Healing ∽
Thinking about depression has been a helpful process for me over the last few months. It’s like when a parent of an ill child pursues understanding of their disease. It’s an act of devotion maybe. A type of self-care? Or maybe it’s like meeting the criminal that wronged you face-to-face, and trying to reconcile what actually took place.
In this imaginary jail room confrontation, I can ask things of depression and consider the possibility that the assault it made on me has also provided opportunities. Opportunities to grow, to feel less afraid. Has it been empowering? Maybe empowerment makes it sound a little too easy. In reality it is probably more accurate to say that through writing this article for you (dear reader) I am better acquainted with me. Did I just discover self-therapy? (uhuh, I know, I know I’m terribly late to this party).
'Take a moment to listen - both to your depression and this piece of music'
I listen to Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’ - Pavane for a dead princess as I finish writing and think: damn. It’s beautiful. I feel like it could be the melodic embodiment of depression – it’s so subtle, demanding and giving. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if any of this has related to you then here is what I recommend: Take a moment to listen - both to your depression and this piece of music. Then go on your way and talk about both freely.
One last thought: sometimes I wonder if I would know if my cat was depressed. She sleeps a lot, sometimes expresses intense avoidant behaviour and other times will demand cuddling. Maybe that’s just normal behaviour for cats. In which case, are depressed people just those with a perfectly natural cat’s disposition trapped in a human body? Food for thought on this fine morning at least. I’ll be here if you need.
Half Irish, half Kiwi, Kate Balding peaked in life when she interviewed Sir David Attenborough for her BSc dissertation 3 years ago. From these heady heights she has descended, taking on an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at Oxford last year. Runner, eater, debate-haver and feminist, you can find out more about her by checking out her environmental podcast or her instagrams @Kate.balding & @katesallforms! She has previously written and illustrated for imprint.