It stays with you. It’s one of those experiences that do.
Then there’s the corollary: until you’ve been there yourself, you can’t understand.
I hope you won’t, of course.
For me, it’s been sixteen years. I don’t think you ever stop counting, because you never stop being aware. It’s literally a survival mechanism.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about mental health. Some people are up, some people are OK, and some people are down. Everyone gets down from time to time. Pull your socks up, and get on with it. Hold it together.
It’s reasonable advice - as long as you’re just feeling down.
For some people, though, down doesn’t cover it. They can’t just get on, because their feet can’t find the bottom.
There’s a predator down there. That’s the truth. Black as pitch, and silent in motion. It can see perfectly even where no light penetrates - in fact, especially there. It’s surprisingly warm to the touch, but it can drain all the heat out of a room in moments.
It’s fast, too - always behind you, no matter how quickly you turn. That’s actually a blessing. If you ever did catch sight of it, well, that’d be the worst part. You’d know its name, because you’d see that its face is yours.
It stays with you.
We all hear the word occasionally, in the news. Maybe even in hushed conversation, when the long orbits of our lives briefly brush up against tragedy, and then hurtle onwards and away. Most of time, when we hear it, it’s matter-of-fact; even clinical. Just the right word for the situation. But it’s such a bad word.
Which brings us back to the predator. It’s our natural enemy; supremely evolved. We made it ourselves - or rather, we made it from ourselves.
Picture it, for a moment. What do you see? Fur and claws? Fins and teeth? Or a sleek, black carapace, scuttling through shadows, eyeless yet sighted?
It isn’t like that at all.
For a start, it’s comfortable. More like a shoulder massage than the pinch of talons around your neck. And its voice; ah, there’s the thing. Its voice is honey and silver.
You don’t even notice it happening. Later, if you’re lucky enough to get the chance, that’s the part that terrifies you. Just another day, and another, and another. The room a little colder each morning. The night a deeper black. But what do you care? You’re just fine where you are, in its strangely warm embrace.
Depression is a hot shower on a Winter morning, there amidst the steam and the clouded glass. A stiff drink on a grim night. It’s the blanket, not the breeze. That’s what’s so frightening.
Because it feels wonderful. Sensory deprivation, when you need it most. It’s an off-switch from all that’s outside. And wherever you go, it stays with you.
If you could look in the mirror - the figurative mirror of your mind - your pulse would spike. You’d see its true form, and you’d claw at yourself, helplessly. You’d glimpse the truth of it: that it’s everywhere on you. It’s a coating; a slick. Even your eyes are peering out through it.
It ebbs and flows, in ceaseless, comforting motion. Fluid and perfectly opaque - and it’s inside you, too. It pools in the ridges and hollows of your mind, which is where it really lives. Black, rippling intelligently, and carrying its own heat.
I even started to feel it, towards the end. I couldn’t see it, but when I started to pay attention, I could feel it there.
That’s the trick. It’s not a monster; it’s not even really just one thing. It’s an ocean of its own, around and inside. Amorphous, endlessly shifting and adapting, drop by drop until there’s an entire tide.
That’s the word that swam into my mind one night, back while it was with me. I like to think that I heard it, as the faintest whisper; a formal introduction of sorts. I didn’t care either way, because that’s what it does: it makes you stop caring. And it stays.
It was there when I knelt in a bathtub, rinsing my hair with acetone to dissolve the glue that held the electrodes in place. It was there when I went to live with another family for a while. It was there when the dose was raised, again and again.
It was there when I stopped thinking of that word - that bad word - because you hide away from the actual term itself when you start planning how to do it. It was there the whole time.
Everything is just fine like this, it said.
I’ve come to wonder if the drugs don’t just play into its game. Antidepressants are terribly named; that’s not what they are. They’re mood limiters. Blocking enzymes that break down something that might be a happy chemical, so more of it can stay around.
If you’ve ever stood on that edge, so very warm and flat inside, you’ll know that having just one genuine feeling - good or bad - is probably what you most need.
That’s why it’s so hard to tell you how it feels - because it doesn’t. It doesn’t feel like anything. It’s the absence of feeling.
There’s a calm, rational voice, and it’s just pointing things out. How the future is filled with uncertainty. How one life doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. How the past so often repeats itself. How life goes on for everyone else, no matter what.
They’re beautiful lies.
It’s that voice, liquid and intimate, that commands more and more of your attention as the days become weeks, and weeks become seasons. Draining away the joy and the worth and the life from everything. That’s how the predator weakens you. Then, at the appropriate time, it very calmly and rationally notes that there’s a way out.
I could tell you about actually standing there, looking that decision in the face, in real life. I could talk about how time stretches out extravagantly, with a brief lifetime between each tick of the clock. I could tell you about the terrible awareness of it. I could tell you how the main restraining force is simple cowardice, not hope.
And, evidently, I could tell you about stepping back.
But really I just want you to understand, if you aren’t one of those who has been hunted. That’s what people are living with when they’re suffering from depression. They are living with it; their companion, wrapped all around.
Some aren’t able to come back. I knew one myself. He’d had more years than I’ve even had now, and they came to a halt between two of those ticks of the clock. A light fitting, and a cord; a chair, and one final step. And, no doubt, a whispering voice of honey and silver.
There are two ways out, but it only tells you about one. I chose the other, and I think it’s probably different for everyone. I’m in no position to offer advice. All I remember is a long climb, and then eventually pulling myself out over the top, and lying on my back as I looked - really looked - up at the sky again.
Fingernails figuratively torn; muscles screaming; clothes bloodied. But alive.
More than that, I’m happy. It’s been sixteen years since I wasn’t, and that’s the truth. Where did all the time go?
But you never stop counting. Or checking, every once in a while, for that warm, velvet embrace. That slight dimming of the world, as if you’re looking through a thin, liquid film.
Like a hot shower on a Winter morning, with a whispered voice - so impossibly close to your ear - telling you that everything is just fine like this.
When you’ve learned to feel it, you don’t forget. Then you wash, and you scrub, and you claw it off, and at some point you’re mostly clean again. You remember what colour the sunlight really is, and how the world sounds when it’s not muffled. That black, restless tide is finally off you.
But it’s not gone.
We made it ourselves. With our intellect, and our ability to imagine, and to worry, and to dread. With our introspection, and our pessimism, and our self-evaluation. We made it from ourselves, and once it notices you, you have to be on guard for a lifetime.
No matter how calm things seem on the surface, you have to keep looking. Standing on the edge, peering down, deep down where the darkwater is. Watching and listening for your own reactions, and your patterns of emotion. Your fears, and your hopes.
One day, they might start to ebb and flow, and you have to know when that happens. You have to know right away, because you can bet your life that it will.
That’s the thing, whether it’s been sixteen years, or sixty. That’s the worst part.
It stays with you.
Help is always available for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours a day).
In the UK, the Samaritans can be reached at 08457-90-90-90 (24 hours a day). In the Republic of Ireland, call 116-123 instead.
Search online for similar services in your country. Your doctor can also provide confidential advice and assistance.