Time Regained in a Vacuum

Photography: Helena Worth

Photography: Helena Worth

Last night I couldn’t sleep, and had one of those nights just thinking, and having half-awake dreams. Then, after remembering something that happened in school, I think I had finally managed to work out why I was (or am) clinically depressed, or  part of the reason at least. I don’t know if I am definitely clinically depressed, although I’ve had periods where I’ve felt extremely unhappy with anxiety, and have even wondered whether life was worth living a few times. It’s hard to decide exactly whether this is a medical condition, or just my negative thinking while going through a rough patch. GPs and counsellors don’t seem to have an answer for this.

Not having any friends or family to talk to for advice hasn’t helped either. I had been diagnosed with depression ten years ago, and was prescribed low doses of different medications, although I’m not sure about the success of these treatments. Because I never knew if I was actually depressed, even when I was fantasizing about suicide, or if I was just in a bad mood as a result of x, y and z.

Counsellors didn’t seem to understand why I was depressed, other than the obvious problems of being an angry young man, bored, unemployed, poor, and lonely, and that I didn’t get on so well with my family who criticized me, but also had problems of their own. So I never knew if my depression was serious, or if it was something that would dissipate once I finished university, found a job, or made some friends. Yet these thoughts and feelings never really seemed to leave my psyche, although my circumstances had improved for a short while, before everything suddenly fell apart again two years ago, when I was dismissed for misconduct from my job as a Production Editor for a publisher in London.  I wasn’t sure if this was because of me, or my depression; but I don’t think I was entirely to blame.

It occurred to me last night, through an epiphany, that for the first time, I could see everything in a perspective stretching back all the way to a memory I had from school when I was fourteen, nineteen years ago. Clearly, it’s easy to look back on your past and try to identify key moments that affected you, and then attribute these as the cause for any bad feelings you have in the present; but of course, this then overlooks any current problems, permeating through your life in the present moment. I could remember how things were for me growing up, how I felt about all these trial and tribulations, how angry and sad I would feel, and how alone. I’d resented my parents, my brothers and sisters, and we’d blame each other and argue: unable to say how we felt, convey what we felt, or even express care for one another, in the simplest terms.

My school friends were no better. It would often lead me to fantasize about escaping it all, going to some place where people cared, a milieu of tranquillity, where people express mutual understanding. I’ve met a lot of angry, lonely people over the years, who I’ve often felt something in common with, but was unable to understand why they were angry or why we couldn’t be friends. It’s as if these people, who might be successful or confident, think they’re happy when they’re not, and are ashamed of it, and seem to be hostile and bitter towards anyone who disagrees with them. Perhaps they just want to be loved and respected. Perhaps a lack of dignity, makes people feel confused and insecure.

I think the worst thing about my depression, is this feeling that you have no control over your own life, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change this; essentially, the impotence of rage.

Part of the difficulties of overcoming or understanding depression, is trying to comprehend or identify the exact moment or reason why things began to go wrong, and whose fault, or responsibility it was. I’ve spent years trying to better myself, hating myself, blaming myself, blaming others, and hoping things would change: struggling to make sense of it all.

I’ve gone to see several therapy counsellors, but their attitudes towards my anxieties and feelings of low self-esteem haven’t been especially helpful or sympathetic. I often wonder what the purpose of CBT or Talk Therapy really is. Unless you are genuinely suicidal or psychotic, or suffering from some extreme form of anxiety, phobia or grief, there’s very little counsellors have to say about depression, unless there’s some immediate threat or danger to your health and well-being.

Counselling then simply becomes two people sat in a room talking, or more accurately, one person talking and the other person listening and nodding, and occasionally making ‘uh-huh’ sounds or comments such as ‘I see. That sounds very stressful’, before the session finally ends, and there’s the awkward moment when the counsellor says, ‘well, I’m sorry we’re out of time now, but we’ll talk about this again next week’. I call this process ‘spilling your guts’.

Counselling does help many people, and no doubt there are benefits to just talking to someone about whatever it is that’s worrying you – in fact, to an extent, it’s also helped me, as I believe verbalising why you’re depressed, or why you think you’re depressed, and having someone else make an effort to take you seriously, can actually be life-changing.

I don’t think a counsellor is really able to treat mental health conditions, they’ve never offered any solution or real insight I haven’t thought of already, and only seem to repeat you, or want you to admit that your depression isn’t as bad as you think, or to focus on one problem and try to accept responsibility. I understand the purpose of this is to challenge your negative thoughts and perceptions of yourself, which can help you get to the heart of the problem. Not always, but sometimes this can help, but if the individual struggles to identify their pain or anxiety, the counsellor can be a source of antagonism and misdirection as they attempt to probe and examine your emotions.

Once many years ago at university I’d told a counsellor I sometimes thought that being depressed was like being a vampire, which he’d agreed was an interesting metaphor (or simile). My thinking was that vampires can’t really be loved, because it is antithetical to how they survive, which is by deception, feeding off others, ‘sucking the life out of everything’. There’s something tragic and sad, but also monstrous and inhuman about them. In essence, depression and melancholy are a kind of narcissism that undermines a person’s self-confidence and ability to empathise and relate to others.

I’m not sure if this is related to intelligence, or even happiness or loneliness, or if it’s simply the ability to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. Many great people appeared to have struggled with this and succumbed to their own morbid thoughts of self-hatred and shame.

In Perth, Australia there’s an iron statue of a man riding a horse, a famous monument built to honour an engineer who’d been instrumental in creating a thriving merchant town, before he allegedly rode his horse into the sea and committed suicide by shooting himself.

It’s a beautiful story, although I’m not sure if the folklore is entirely true, as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh severing his ear over a prostitute he was in love with, which according to historians was actually related to a bitter dispute with a colleague and rival.  The photo below is of a sketch by Van Gogh shortly before he’d committed suicide while he was receiving treatment at a hospital, and was exhibited at the Welcome Trust in London as part of a themed collection about mental health. The sketch is of a psychiatrist who the painter had befriended.

The point I’m making is this: life is complicated, and perceptions and stigmas about depression and mental health often seem ambiguous, contradictory and political.

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Once I’d had an online conversation with a Portuguese woman who lived in Lisbon, in which I’d suggested that status and happiness was relative to capital and power, which to me seemed extremely clever but which I’m not sure I entirely understood or even believed.

Strangely, nearly ten years later, I would read about a similar line of thought in Alain de Botton’s discussion of happiness and the meaning of life in his book ‘Consolidations of Philosophy’, in which he explores and paraphrases the Greek philosophers and their successors of the Enlightenment. He penned the conclusion that money and power rarely make anyone happy, if they don’t have friends and loved ones to share it with. Conversely, it’s possible to live without money and power, if a person has friends, although arguably, the consequences and hardship of stigma and poverty tend to restrict social mobility, and influence one’s sense of self-worth.

Famously Socrates (or Aristotle) had lived in virtual poverty and wore rags, and conducted his studies of nature and the meaning of life simply by walking the streets and observing people without any ambition or entitlement to reward. However, for refusing to embrace his Emperor’s doctrine, he was humiliated and sentenced to death for treason (or heresy) by drinking hemlock.

Although I am forever being criticised and judged for indulging in self-pity, whilst the hard-workers and devotees ‘get on with it’, I’ve often found myself struggling to get to grips with these feelings of anger, unhappiness and frustration. I’ve spent hours and years contemplating why I feel the way I do, and what this all means – often wondering if I was stupid or crazy? Why do I feel so upset and angry? What is happiness and how do I get it?

People who don’t know me, don’t understand and have never experienced the same troubles and miseries as myself – from GPs to counsellors to total strangers, to friends and work colleagues – are often content to dismiss me without seeking to understand anything about this state of mind. This has led me to abandon all hope of being understood within the confines of this system, while at the same time both craving and avoiding friendships, simply because I find it difficult to relate to people, or trust anyone who passes judgement so freely.

It’s you. You’re the problem. It’s your selfish pessimism, your feelings of resentment and ignorance of others, your self-pity, expectations and sense of injury which is the cause of the problem. It’s you. No one else, it’s you. You choose to be unhappy. You hate other people just because they’re better than you, or you’re jealous of their happiness, and that’s why you’re depressed. It’s you, there’s something wrong with you, you’re not normal. Everyone else in the world is fine, but you’re wrong. You don’t try, you cause problems and alienate people, and you make people dislike you – you do it on purpose. It’s all your fault.

This is generally the attitude, based on anger and fear, which I’ve received from colleagues, friends and family, and I often find it difficult to argue against, wherein, even if I was responsible for a single mistake, the real mistake is my ignorance of the system. This  perception, created by a structure or authority founded and supported within a workplace environment, a family structure or a relationship, suggests the problem never lays within the individual units or parts of this structure, but the person struggling to make sense of it.

This sounds very Marxist, but my point is that all human relations and constitutions, whether these be social communities, personal relationships or political organisations, are essentially created on the empathy and solidarity of mutual interests or feelings; therefore a ‘system’ of thought.

I’m hardly ever sure why I struggle to maintain ‘healthy’ relationships, or employment, except normally these ‘units of systems’ require or contain unfamiliar or unidentified conditions and responsibilities which vary and change depending on the context i.e. a manager’s opinion of you, their priorities and agendas, or that of a partner, friend, or family member.

All of these contain personal agendas or conditions which are often difficult to predict, and based on arbitrary motives or expectations, which you may not always be prepared for or approve. Not to sound too pretentious but the ‘context’ can be either a literal, tangible one, such as a qualification or suitability for a job role, or an emotional one dependent on an individual’s ability to form relationships and use ‘interpersonal’, ‘soft-skills’.

I’m speaking broadly, where relationships, social groups and hierarchies which form these social structures of work, politics, and cultural attitudes, are areas which have a major impact on the individual, which is not always easy to identify or articulate, but require that person to conform.

Not that some of these contexts or situations can’t be clarified or made tangible, only that some, such as morality, politics and cultural attitudes, are abstract, while in contrast to this the ‘rules’ at work, behaviours in a relationship, and ‘normal’ emotional empathy, are slightly easier to express verbally and quantify in certain contexts, as with work or with family, but not necessarily.

Kafka’s short story, Before the Law, appears to demonstrate this paradox of the difference between our individual entitlement and perception of the ‘law’ against a ‘system’, or ‘authority’, which governs or assumes responsibility of this ‘moral order’; they are the gatekeepers who operate within this system. In a Marxist allegory, the peasant arrives and is kept waiting outside the gate, prohibited from entering the threshold to obtain justice and equality. The gatekeepers show him little regard, and simply acquits himself with the old proverb, ‘the means justifies the result’, or ‘I was simply doing my job’.

This is the conceit of the moral authority, in which they presume to know what’s best for everyone, without necessarily accepting responsibility beyond their own private agenda. This is the very definition of hypocrisy, and depending on your circumstances, it is difficult to precisely defend or usurp beyond the democratic means made available to the individual by this higher authority. Doing so – challenging the status quo – questioning their logic, and this moral authority, along with its pretext of knowing the ‘greater good’, will provoke criticism and ridicule at best, and hostility and persecution at the very worst.

I’ve felt that on a personal level, as an individual, I’ve spent most of my life alone, not exactly in isolation since I’ve either lived on my own, in shared accommodation or with family, however, my relationships, opportunities for development and shared experiences have often felt extremely limited due to, what I perceive, as my financial issues, and my confidence in making friends and building positive relationships. It feels as if I’ve struggled to obtain independence, as a result of having no job or stable source of income. These feelings of frustration, blame, guilt and worthlessness, are then compounded with the difficulty in finding or maintaining employment.

I had assumed that by going to university, from which I’d graduated with a 2.2 in Film and Literature, would improve my material circumstances, and perhaps afford me the opportunity to pursue a worthwhile career in a creative field, offering me the chance to undertake something enjoyable: work I can feel passionate about.

I don’t feel that I really learned anything during my undergraduate years, or achieved anything worthwhile, experienced happiness, or contributed to the wider world in any sense at all, all of which I had longed for. This sounds extremely cynical and self-effacing, and perhaps isn’t completely true; for example, I’d had a beautiful baby with my partner, I did graduate despite my insecurities, and had worked for nearly two years for a publisher before my dismissal. Yet, expressing myself creatively, through writing, has led me to feel a greater sense of self-worth; and hopefully, it inspires others to feel that they can share their thoughts openly too, in this world of ours.