Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Ten and Counting

Personal 10 min read

This is quite a personal post. It wouldn’t be up here if you weren’t welcome to read it, but equally you might prefer to maintain the breezy larger-than-life perception you have of me from Twitter, many of the other posts on this blog, and so forth - if so, you’ll want to skip this one. It’s an optimistic post, and I’m entirely happy and well, but I thought I’d warn you nonetheless.

On August 2nd, 1999, I finally came off a very unpleasant drug which I’d taken every day for the previous three years: the SSRI antidepressant venlafaxine hydrochloride (called Efexor in the UK, and Effexor in the US). I wrote about my experiences with the drug here on the blog six years ago. This of course means that it’s now been a decade since I quit. I’ve had an alarm for this date sitting in iCal since the app was first available. Today, it finally got to go off.

I’ve had no recurrence of clinical depression, and indeed as you may have noted, I generally feel pretty good about myself. But I want to put aside the public persona and attached ego for a moment and reflect a bit on that time in my life. This post isn’t tech/Cocoa/iPhone/Mac related, so as I said do please feel free to skip it as appropriate. I always told myself that I’d write about this once ten years had elapsed, and I intend to make good on that promise. It’s also a way of saying “well done” to myself.

My depression came about as the (natural, I suppose) outcome of several very difficult years in my early to mid teens; a period which began with my parents’ divorce. I want to be clear on one point: the divorce was neither the problem nor the cause. People get divorced all the time. It’s not great, but it’s a facility that does need to be available as a last resort. In my parents’ case, divorce was definitely the right course of action. So, no, this isn’t someone whining about divorce (or the sky being blue, or water being wet).

The problem was a combination of the extremely acrimonious nature of the separation and divorce, and a set of ancillary pressures related to those events. There were some terrible mistakes made on both sides, and of course the kids are always in the middle of it all. A few choice memories include:

  • Seeing my father's face when he found out our last names had been changed to my mother's maiden name; something done entirely from spite.
  • Me, at 11 years of age, convincing two police officers there was no need to detain/arrest my father, after they were spuriously called by my mother out of spite when he arrived for our weekly scheduled evening with him.
  • My father being followed repeatedly by a car full of unsavoury characters, as arranged by my mother's then-boyfriend; a man we later found out had been up on charges of sexual assault of young boys, had been Sectioned twice, and later killed himself.
  • My mother's own mental breakdown, following an eerie night in the house when she became completely uncommunicative and later physically threatening.
  • My mother's very near death after respiratory arrest.
  • A constant enormous financial pressure held over the house by the bank, due to some poor decisions and a measure of deception on my father's part.
  • Unending viciousness on the part of my mother's extended family towards my father, to the extent of any similarity to him being classed as a fundamental flaw (a difficult situation for a son who shares his name and understandably many facial, vocal and behavioural characteristics).

And many other things besides, which are likely best left unpublished. These things aren’t listed to invite pity or comment; I just want to establish that there was a notable level of trauma involved, such as to justify the reaction. Then, as now, I don’t consider myself to have been weak-minded, emotionally fragile, or generally incapable of dealing with life’s inevitable bumps and bruises.

This all continued for some years; from the age of 11 or so onwards, throughout my high school career. The vast majority of these events were kept entirely hidden from my younger brother (he’s three and a half years younger than me), especially by myself. I consider that protective act of sustained concealment to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever done - perhaps the one and only truly great thing.

For quite a long time, as my mother’s state of mind and emotional balance deteriorated, I shouldered many of the responsibilities and burdens of an adult, whilst also naturally pursuing my secondary education. I managed to progress through high school and completed my fifth (Higher, at the time) year, and achieved A grades in all six of my subjects - and I think that at that point the cracks inevitably began to appear.

University admission is based largely on these fifth-year results, or was at the time, and with my places and choices secured I think everything just began to crowd in, until eventually I found (to no particular surprise) that I could no longer function. Once we no longer have to soldier on, we have a tendency to finally let the dam burst. I had the presence of mind to seek medical advice, the good fortune to have one of the most compassionate and proactive doctors I’ve ever known or heard about, and thus a diagnosis was quickly made and treatment aggressively embarked upon.

The following three years remain a dark valley in my memory; there are only fragments of that period that remain accessible. I was almost hospitalised at one stage, and at another I came within an hour of beginning a course of treatment with lithium (I drew the line at that point, thankfully). I have one very vivid memory of kneeling in a bathtub, using a bottle of acetone to rinse glue from my hair; the glue used to hold the electrodes in place during an EEG scan to check for epilepsy or structural defects of the brain (neither were found, to my lasting relief). I was on antidepressant medication throughout, and for a period on very high doses indeed, sufficient to warrant weekly checks of blood pressure and chemistry.

True depression is a bizarre, wonderful, terrifying thing. It’s like the creatures in the Alien movies; pitch black, and the most perfectly evolved and effective enemy of humanity in the universe. How very irreverent and flippant of me, but then it’s my story.

Depression is like a persistent, omnipresent headache but without any physical pain - it’s a darkness which no-one else sees, because it’s actually inside you. If you’ve ever watched any of the multiple X-Files episodes dealing with the “black oil” alien virus, there are similarities to be found there. It’s a spreading, amorphous thing which pools and accumulates in the crevices of your mind, eventually making you into someone else. It blankets all positive feeling and leaves you emotionally deactivated.

The worst part of depression is that, paradoxically, it can be extremely seductive - and not just as a means of escape from your circumstances. It is both terrible and exquisitely wonderful. The very deadness of feeling which characterises it (depression is not despair, and the two are not to be confused) is the ultimate stable condition. It sustains and self-reinforces; zero effort is required for its maintenance. Therein lies the elegant trap.

The key to depression’s power and attraction is that it removes your capacity to desire to be free of it; it attacks the very property which would otherwise banish it. In a manner of speaking, it’s an immune-deficiency syndrome of the mind - and one crafted by true genius.

Nevertheless, I one day managed to regain enough of myself to decide it was time to re-emerge, and after I’d truly made that decision my recovery was relatively rapid. It’s a process of constantly thinking in a very unnatural way: second-guessing your every thought and conclusion and emotional response, in order to maximise your ability to recover. It takes a very long time, but it works. Cognitive/behavioural therapy is good science, and with sustained effort it does indeed perform its function.

After a time, I was once again myself, and I stepped back into my life feeling like a man who has been asleep for years and has returned to find everything basically familiar yet subtly different.

There were large costs, which continue to this day - and that’s without even counting those foggy, drowning years as a cost (which they undoubtedly were). The primary cost for me, as I became fully aware of only recently, was that my need to remove myself from the situation caused me to hardly see my brother for several years (I did not live with my family for quite some time). We’ve thankfully managed to fully rebuild our relationship, and he remains by far the closest member of my family to me - which is the natural order of things.

Relationships with other family members have changed utterly. I’m left with a profound sense of separation from my extended family, which has never gone away even with the passing of ten years. There are precisely three discrete units I care to be in touch with: my brother, my mother, and my father (and his wife). I have no emotional connection whatsoever with all the rest.

Something was damaged by the whole experience. I sometimes look at my parents and find it very difficult to accept they’re the only-vaguely-remembered people of the first ten years of my life. There’s no emotional bridge from there to here; only an enormous, quiet gulf in between. Much as I cast my mind back, I can’t make any meaningful connection between those almost fictional characters from the past, and the people I know today but still feel I’ve been only recently acquainted with.

I feel like I’ve known my father and my brother for about 12 years now, and my mother for perhaps 8 years. I turned 30 a couple of months ago, and whilst I’m intellectually aware that I’ve known my parents for all of those thirty years and my brother for twenty-six of them, they could honestly be entirely different people; there’s just no thread of real emotional connection beyond that point. Something has been cut off. My memories from before that time are nebulous things, and the images could just as well be from movies I used to watch often but have long since neglected. I find that fact every bit as shocking as you no doubt do, if not moreso.

I’m aware of missing a normal drive to actively involve family in my life. I often turn to Lauren for advice on when it’s appropriate for family to be involved in events; I would default to simply keeping them periodically informed, based on what seems normal based on my observations of others (real and fictional). I find the academic detachment troubling too, of course.

I can at least say that I have what I imagine to be normal feelings for my younger brother; I’d give my life to save his without a second thought. That’s no bold statement; just a quiet, simple, unremarkable fact. It comforts me that it’s so trivially true; I feel that something must be functioning properly in that regard. I’m also deeply relieved he’s turned out so normal, and that I can pretty much not worry about him or his life - not for lack of care, but from confidence that he can handle it. Nevertheless, 26 or not, he’ll probably always be a kid - my little brother - to me. I can only assume that that’s normal too, and will eventually fade as he marries, has children and so forth.

The relationships I do have with my parents have taken years to rebuild. It has been exceedingly difficult to forge a meaningful relationship with my mother, but we’re getting there. I’m aware that a day will arrive when she passes away, and that I’ll know we never regained the same closeness we had when I was a child. That fact does sadden me, and I’m trying hard to head off any regrets, build a new relationship, and keep her involved in my life. It’s a struggle, but one that I recognise is important. The person that she is today, I feel I’ve known only a handful of years longer than I’ve known Lauren.

I have an intense discomfort when returning ‘home’ (to what is now my mother’s house). I would never do so without having the car to hand, and even then there’s an actual dread which always remains. We stay over for a night or two at Christmas, and as the light fades in late afternoon and the cold evening draws in, I become uneasy. When we go to bed, and I switch out the light and look up at the tall ceilings, I can feel the weight of that huge, rambling pile of 120-year-old stone pushing down on my chest. Thankfully it’s been so extensively redecorated that there are large parts of the house that no longer bear any resemblance to how they looked in my childhood; I find those rooms much easier to bear. It’s a big, draughty, echoing place, and it sometimes feels like a thin fabric stretched over something much older and only half-remembered.

There are aspects of the changes which have taken place in me which amuse me, too. Lauren’s parents, Robert and Grace, have an incredibly solid 30-year marriage, and remain as in-tune and in-love with each other as I can vividly picture them being in previous decades. That’s wonderful, and it’s something I can deal with just fine - in the same way as I can readily accept and deal with secure marriages on television or in movies. In actual real life, however, I find the situation surreal.

Still being together, and it still being so effortless, after thirty whole years is difficult for me to process. That number - thirty years - is like an Astronomical Unit; you can deal with it just fine until you think about how big it actually is, and then it becomes crazily meaningless in its incomprehensible vastness. At the beginning of my relationship with Lauren, whenever we visited her parents I often felt intensely like an intruder. What subtle action or inaction could upset this delicate, invisible, unfamiliar balance? Which of course is a preposterous way to think, and does them and their marriage a grave disservice.

I understand the ridiculousness of my perception - academically. But when we’re sitting at the breakfast table and Lauren’s mother still casually puts her hand on her husband’s shoulder or makes some heartfelt affectionate remark to him, I feel like I’m on a hidden-camera TV show. It’s just so strange, like witnessing some wacky, bemusing and faintly ridiculous local custom in a foreign country. It has some vague property of marrying into an unfamiliar religion - albeit one you’re eager to join.

Yet life goes on. Things don’t ever really go back to ‘normal’, because ‘normal’ has been changed - almost certainly forever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just the truth. It is possible to climb back out of the black hole, and to learn to safeguard your mind from future pitfalls. It takes vigilance and a preventative, defensive posture, but it quickly becomes second nature and it’s absolutely, eminently achievable.

Life once again becomes routine, and enjoyable, and challenging, and disappointing, and rewarding and all those other things. It is a new life, and in my case it’s a new life with new players who for the most part only superficially resemble the original cast. I don’t see that as something to be upset about; it’s just the way things are.

All things considered, everything is fine. I’ve genuinely never been happier, both with my circumstances and also inwardly, in the more important way. It’s been more than ten years since I considered myself unhappy, and I see no signs of that streak being broken.