A sentence is long as a piece of string.

So I’m going to get a tattoo. Which is weird, because I don’t even like tattoos. But I heard about this project and immediately it seemed to fit.

First off, it’s a semi-colon. It’s punctuation. There can’t be many folks alive who love punctuation as much as I do.

But second, and more importantly, it’s a sign that you’ve survived depression. It’s a sign, in my case, that I’ve survived a suicide attempt, and you can read about that here if you’d like to (because, as people keep pointing out to me, I am very, very open about these things). What it means is: you could have ended your sentence. But you chose not to. Or, in my case, my own ineptitude stopped me from ending my sentence… But, hey, I was sixteen. What did I know? Very little (although, natch, I thought I knew everything).

After a bit of debate on Facebook I’ve decided where to have it, too. On the back of my neck, at the top of my spine. This means, of course, I’ll only be able to see it in the mirror.

But this makes sense, because… one of the other things I survived was an episode, ten years ago, when I hated my face so intensely I couldn’t leave the house. I had to go live with my parents. We had to cover all the mirrors up, or take them down, and the ones that were fixed to the bathroom cabinets had to be opened at such an angle that they couldn’t be looked in. Does this make me sound weird? I suppose it does. It’s not something I’m proud of. It happened, though, and since I’m a product of everything – good and bad – that’s happened to me since the second I burst, splat, from my mum’s womb, plastering the walls with blood (so I’m told), I can’t see the point in denying these things. I felt I didn’t have a face. I didn’t feel I existed. This made life difficult. I was just extremely ill, as I’ve been ill before and possibly (although every day I guard against that as well I can) will be again.

But my sentence hasn’t ended yet. Virginia Woolf wrote one that was 199 words long. A sentence is long as a piece of string. I feel unhappy, writing this. Things haven’t gone my way and, yeah, I’m sad. But my grasp on punctuation is as solid as ever. I can really rock a dependent clause. So I’m going to get a semi-colon on my neck because I want to celebrate the fact I’m still alive. I’ve fucked up 99% of things in my life, but I stuck around long enough to have the world’s best daughter and, maybe I’m kidding myself, but I genuinely think I do some good in the world these days.

I’m glad I didn’t die.

And I promise my next post will be about writing.

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How to stay alive.

If I hadn’t been so clueless, I wouldn’t be here today.

The only reason I’m still alive is that, rather than gobbling a handful of pills in one go, I took each individually: thirty-five paracetamol and five of my Dad’s blue pills (for his bad back… this was 1989 and Viagra was but a glint in a drug rep’s eye). All this swallowing took enough time that my stomach rebelled and disgorged quite a lot of its contents before I could fall asleep.

I was sixteen years old at the time. And, yes, you have read this correctly. I once attempted suicide.

People are talking today on twitter about #youngmentalhealth, and seeing the hashtag made me realise that, actually, this is something I want to share. I shared it with my own daughter a year or two ago, after a local school student committed suicide, because I wanted her to know that know. I know how it is when you cannot go on… and I know how it is, the morning after, to be woken up, dopily, for your Saturday job at the library, a suicide note in your pocket, your family in shock and bewilderment. Frogmarched into the garden and walked up and down in the biting wind of a February morning. Rushed to the hospital. Stomach pumped. (I’d describe the pumping better if I could, but my brain doesn’t seem to remember it. All I have left is a couple of ‘flashbulbs’: a doctor’s white coat gaping open, come on, Lynsey, we’ve got to do this, and the fact that my throat was being awkward, refusing to swallow the tube. (I always was contrary.)

Anyway, not that you need me to tell you this, but it’s horrible. Having your stomach pumped is horrible.

I was sky high for hours afterwards. A psychiatrist came and discussed my most intimate details with nothing for soundproofing except a plastic curtain. ‘These young people,’ stage-whispered the old lady next to me. ‘They don’t know how lucky they are.’

As I said, this was 1989. I’m not sure what it’s like these days, for an over-dosee, but back then they dumped you with everyone else in the general medical ward. You weren’t terribly popular either. You’d made extra work for the doctors and nurses. You didn’t know you were born, and what did you have to be sad about anyway? Your whole life was ahead of you.

That, of course, was the problem. That is the problem, when you’re really sick. A whole life is ahead of you. And what if it’s all as horrendous as this little bit of it?

If this was a story you’d call it far fetched, but a boy from my school was wheeled in, later that night, having taken an overdose of aspirin after a row with his girlfriend (his ears ringing tinnily because of it, which is one of the consequences). Amazingly enough, he suggested I get into bed with him. (Of all the places I’ve ever been hit on, etc etc.) I declined.

This whole time, although nobody told me, they still didn’t know if I’d live or I’d die. Paracetamol has that effect: once the damage is done, then it’s done.

I was lucky.

But the thing is, you see, I did wake up. I didn’t die. I was glad to wake up; I had come to my senses. It wasn’t too late, for me, and I want to say STOP if you’re thinking of ending your life. Stop and think. Stay alive for another five minutes, then five after that. There are good things ahead of you. Honestly. I promise. A porter came whistling in while I lay in that hospital bed, and he stood a vase of daffodils on my bedside table, and he didn’t say anything but he smiled at me. A whistling man, a smile, a vase of daffodils. That’s all it takes, sometimes. If this blog post can be somebody’s vase of daffodils – yours, maybe – then I’m glad I wrote it.

Stay alive, please.

Everything will (probably) be okay (in the end).

When is a writing blog not a writing blog?

In the case of this particular blog, the answer is: today.

Ordinarily, I write about writing. You can see it right there in the tagline. I’ve just done thirty posts for thirty days of nanowrimo (which you’ll find in the Recent Posts to your right), or let me direct you here or here or here or here if you’d like to take a pot luck stab at an older, more writer-y sort of a post.

Today’s post is about depression. If I was the sort of a person who understood Venn diagrams, I might use a Venn diagram here:

Blank space where a Venn diagram should be.

… with writers in one circle, and sufferers of depression in the other circle, and I’m willing to bet (all of twenty pence) that the overlap would be LARGE. It might even be XXL. Here’s a roll call:

Sylvia Plath
Ernest Hemingway
David Foster Wallace
Virginia Woolf
Anne Sexton
Primo Levi
 

And those are just some of the ones who, very sadly, didn’t make it out alive.

But I’ve talked before about writers with depression, and that isn’t the point of this post. The point of this post, as 2014 rolls to a close, is to write an ending to my own Depression Story, as detailed in my previous wafflings. 

Above all, what I want to say, as I pretty much said in the title, is that everything will probably be okay. Eventually. You just have to hold on. That isn’t to say it won’t be not-okay, again, at some point in the future (this wasn’t my first spell of depression, and, much as I hate writing this sentence, I have to face facts: neither may it be my last), but then, after that, it will be okay again and… I’ve just tripped over my own fingers writing this sentence.

But saying that ‘things will probably be okay’ is chocolate-teapot-ian in its uselessness if I don’t back it up with some rock hard evidence, right? So I offer the following neatly bullet-pointed list, containing everything I did to get better, and if it’s raining in your head right now you may choose to try some of the things on the list.

  • I took drugs. Still take drugs. Specifically Sertraline (Zoloft in the US) at a dosage of 50mg. The first 24 hours weren’t very nice. I began to wonder if Sertraline was, in fact, a mega-dose of Blue Smartie. It was hard to sit still. I was thinking at twice, or even thrice, my normal rate, and the thoughts were universally horrible. If you’ve ever poached an egg without the assistance of an egg poacher, you’ll know that the water needs to be swirling, fairly dramatically, before you can drop in the egg. After 24 hours of swirling, I snapped my pills in half and took 25mg instead for a week. The water stopped swirling. The egg still poached, eventually. I also took Zopiclone, which helps you fall asleep, and (best of all) releases a dose of feel-good chemicals that your joy-starved brain can party with for twenty minutes or so before nodding off.
  • I took ten to twenty minutes of exercise every day. This was usually a bike ride through the woods. Sometimes it was indoor exercise of the close-the-curtains variety (which has created an unduly masturbatory aspect, I now realise) accompanied by a cut-price DVD (not helping myself, am I?) of a go-get-’em American woman assuring me I’m the best, I can do it, etc (could I dig this hole any deeper?)
  • I wrote down three new things every day that I was grateful for. They have to be new. You have to be actively beach-combing your day for the shiny shells amongst the crisp packets, condoms, and dog faeces. Even tiny things can be shiny. One day I was grateful for the wind on my face. One day I was grateful for seeing the beauty in a windblown stinging nettle. (NB: there were other things not involving the wind.)
  • I focused on other peoples’ life stories (radio 4 has a good cache of this sort of thing, in particular their One to One strand), and looked outside myself. I listened to BBC reporter Frank Gardner describing the day he was shot in the spine and his subsequent life in a wheelchair. I read a book about living in North Korea. I reminded myself every day, several times every day, that, yes, some people (appear to) lead Charmed Lives, but those people are best ignored when you’re feeling depressed (unfollow anyone on Facebook, for instance – you don’t have to unfriend them; they need never know – who fires heavy photographic artillery of the My Life is Amaze-balls variety). Open your heart, instead, to the elderly man who’s had nothing all week but frostbite and shit telly for company, or the children who mightn’t eat tonight, or the factory worker who stitched this onto a Primark label:

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  • I learnt about radical acceptance. If your depression has a particular cause (as mine did) you may find this helpful. The principle is this: when things go wrong in our lives we have four options. (1) Solve the problem (if it’s possible to solve it). (2) Change how you feel about the problem. (3) Remain miserable about the problem. (4) Accept that you can’t solve the problem, but life can still be worth living. So if (1) isn’t possible (as it wasn’t, in my case) you must radically – by which they mean fully – accept that there’s bugger all you can do about it, and perhaps (as in my case) you can’t do number (2) either, because it isn’t possible to feel positive about some things, is it? It just isn’t. So, instead, you have to ‘turn your mind’ (as it’s called) by stopping the endless flow of Why me? This shouldn’t be happening… Perhaps God or Zeus or Paul Daniels will wave his most magic of wands and make this not have happened, if I don’t do anything else wrong, ever, for the rest of my life… You have to watch out for this shit, like red lights when you’re driving, and turn your mind to acceptance instead – for which the phrase shit happens comes in very handy. There were days when I read and reread the stuff on this site and then read it again, and I clung to those pages as Harold Lloyd clung to the hands of the clock in Safety Last. So, yes, although radical acceptance does sound a little mung-beans-for-dinner-and-breast-milk-in-your-tea, it’s actually just bloody wonderful.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

  • I asked for help. Sometimes it was horrible, asking for help. One GP leaned back in his chair, like the cock of the walk, while pondering whether or not he would give me the drugs I wanted. I sat for two hours in a Sunday morning emergency waiting room with my greasy hair over my face. I was pushy, I argued, I insisted. If you’re not in a place to be pushy yourself, find a friend or relative who is happy to go a bit postal with the medical service on your behalf. (Some friends actively enjoy this sort of thing and are only too happy to have an excuse.)
  • I took fish oil. As recommended in this great TED talk from Shawn Anchor.
  • I practised mindfulness. I didn’t realise I was practising it (I was told, years ago, that mindfulness meant staring at a raisin for a really long time, which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t entirely useful or accurate). If a piece of chocolate tasted sweet, I noticed that it was sweet. If my head felt comfortable on the pillow in bed, I noticed that too. My brain was a child that wanted to play in the Past Failures ball pool. Mindfulness was the parent who ushered them towards the All That Really Exists Is This Moment slide instead. (Alton Towers, you need one of those.)
  • I watched videos about ballet dancers. Now, this one may be specific to me. But you can customise it. It’s soothing watching physical activity, especially if it’s set to music, and especially if men with shapely buttocks are wearing lycra whilst doing it. It gave my eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I took up knitting. This gave my hands something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I played video games. This gave my hands and eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I swore a lot to myself. I borrowed a catchphrase from Withnail in Withnail and I, and I said it (silently or aloud, when alone) if I felt my mind drifting towards things, and people, that in all honesty it was better off avoiding. Some people have om as their mantra. Mine can be found at 1.21 in the link below:
  • I watched ASMR videos on youtube. Relaxation videos don’t work for me: being told to relax is tantamount to telling me not to think of elephants. I need to secretly relax myself whilst my brain is distracted by people doing relaxing things. And if you think that’s something you’d like to try then read more here.
  • I drank Complan when my mouth refused to eat solid food. I’d lost two stone in less than a month. It was time to take action.
  • I talked to my friends by email when I couldn’t talk in person. 
  • I googled depression and anxiety and sadness and read everything I could find on the subject. 
  • I let myself cry when I wanted to cry.
  • I took a break from work. A long break. As long as I needed.
  • I had a few therapy sessions.
  • I cuddled my daughter.
  • I tried to watch funny things on TV.
  • I read biographies when fiction was too much.
  • When I was able to write, I wrote. When I wasn’t, I didn’t.
  • I stayed alive even though I didn’t always want to.
  • I wrote an occasional blog about being depressed.

And now we appear to have come full circle. To the best of my memory, this is everything I did on the way to recovery.

I’ve been thinking for ages now that I ought to write this post, because – thinking back over my annus horribilis as Queenie would say – it was posts like this that kept me occupied for five, or ten, or twenty minutes and five, or ten, or twenty minutes of calm sailing is all you can ask, sometimes, when the wind blows.

And now it seems I’m back to wind again.

There’s an awful lot of wind in my novel, too. But that’s another story…

What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.

Major Disorder and Annie Donia.

‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.’ So said Jane Austen.

Lately I’ve felt the need to apologise for being depressed. We’re weird, that way, human beings. Our brains are – inarguably – the most complex thing in our bodies and yet for some reason I’ve never quite fathomed we’re deeply ashamed when they start to malfunction. This week’s Shared Experience on Radio 4 dealt nicely with the stigma of mental breakdown (and if you’re reading this in 2014 you can catch it here – the programme that is, not mental breakdown; that’s not catching, okay?). Depressed people are tedious, yes. I freely admit that. You look at their world objectively and perhaps, from the outside, it seems like a whole lot of bellyaching about precisely nothing. Other people have coped with worse, so why can’t you? Stop being so negative. Stop whining. Get out, take a walk, watch a film, see friends.

images

Not especially related to the subject at hand, but a picture of Annie Hall smiling to cheer us all up.

The problem is something called anhedonia (the working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, as film buffs will probably know), which is broadly defined as the inability to experience pleasure. If you’re mildly depressed (as I’d been for the last year or three before things became suddenly worse) you don’t tend to experience this: hence a small case of ‘down in the dumps’ can be cured, or improved, by engaging in normal activities. When mildly depressed, I could still find my usual joy in writing, films, music, a walk on the beach, an open fire, putting my feet up on my boyfriend. I’m not materialistic or greedy or grabbing at all: ordinarily I’m made happy by the most microscopic of things. I’ve never been someone who lusts after handbags or shoes, and I’ve never especially longed for exotic holidays either: I like grass and trees (you can find those anywhere), rain on windows, a really full moon, throwing chips to the seagulls off Cromer pier. (In a sense that’s a problem of mine: I’m too easily happy with easily-haveable things, if you see what I mean. I lack drive. If the world had been left up to me, there’d be no cars or bridges or rocket ships – we wouldn’t even have the wheel, if I’m really honest. We’d all be in caves in our animal skins telling stories. Not a bad life, really…)

But I digress.

When Major Depressive Disorder comes to town (as I write this I’m imagining a moustachioed man in army uniform lightly cuffing my face with his braided sleeve whenever I try to smile) the activity in your brain’s reward centres (the amydgala, etc) flickers and dies (and, yes, Doubting Thomases, this has been shown on MRI scans) – and once Major Disorder has set up his camp it’s a devil of a job to evict him. Your life from now on will be viewed through shit-tinted lenses, and no amount of smelling the flowers or counting your blessings will make any difference: in fact you retreat from your usual triggers (music, books, others’ company) for the sole fact of how upsetting it is that the things you once loved have no power, anymore, to move you. It’s scary, in fact. How do you cheer yourself up when there’s literally nothing on earth you want to experience?

I’m asking, not answering, I’m afraid. There are people who tell you to smile, and that smiling itself will elevate your mood – not entirely untrue – but imagine your life (your whole life) spent like this: Unknowngrinning rictus-style with a sentiment you don’t feel, and what are you? You’re Gordon Brown at the last gasp of the Labour administration – and again I’m aware that people all over the planet lead horrible lives, truly horrible, but losing the chance to feel pleasure is also a horrible thing. Not worse than what other people go through, not at all, and perhaps it is a disease of spoilt Westerners, but still, you know, not very nice and all that.

So I’m going to call a spade a spade, and be open that I’ve had a breakdown. Am having a breakdown. I thought it was going to take a few weeks to resolve. But it isn’t. I’ve learnt not to think in terms of ‘happy’, but ‘temporarily less sad’. In the grand tradition of others before me, I’ve started to write whilst on drugs – I get twenty delightful minutes of peace in the aftermath of my sleeping pill, so I write like the clappers (and edit for England the following day). I find watching ballet strangely tranquil (men in tights don’t go amiss either), and Parks and Recreation makes me laugh. I composed a nice sentence while cycling the other day. I like the scent of my vanilla candle. It’s lovely that my teenage daughter still cuddles me lots. My pets do funny things sometimes. I’m enjoying Bill Bryson’s Short History of Private Life. But, through it all, I’m on auto pilot. I could quite honestly win the lottery – the Booker Prize; hell, even the Nobel – and still have a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle (to quote the incomparable Malcolm Tucker).

I’ll try in the future to keep this writing blog more closely related to writing-type things. But I wanted to set out my stall on this issue, for once and for all: I won’t be ashamed, and I won’t apologise. This is something that’s happened to me, and not something I’ve chosen. The nicest part of my brain has gone on holiday without me, and it hasn’t even sent a postcard. Wish I was there.

Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

Not writing but drowning.

It’s been suggested, by a lovely friend of mine, that writing another blog post might be therapeutic at what’s proving to be the hardest time of my life. But there’s one teensy problem: this blog is a blog about writing. And writing is something I simply don’t do anymore.

It’s been roughly a month since the worst depression struck, but a month – or a week, or an hour, or a minute – can be an eternity when your mood’s at its lowest. And, therefore, it’s been an eternity since I’ve written. I’m not even sure I can write anymore: I’m aware that I’m doing it now – putting one sentence after another – but whether it’s making sense, or expressing the things I intend to express, is another matter entirely.

Just reading is trouble enough for my poor befogged brain at the moment (it hovers away from the page halfway through for a bout of prolonged rumination on pesky ‘real life’ till I’ve read the same sentence 192 times). I read boarding school stories, and books about ghosts, and the final few chapters of gloomy biographies about people (Sylvia Plath, Nick Drake, Assia Wevill) who met sticky ends of one kind or another. I find there’s a kind of solace in itMisery loves company, right? And you’ll read that word, misery, and – unless you’re depressed yourself, right now, at this moment – you’ll have a vague sense of the mix of emotions that three little syllables can contain… but to borrow from Keats (in his love letters to Fanny Brawne: ‘I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair’) I want a more miserable word than misery. There’ll be those of you thinking: ‘Stop carping, for god’s sake! Pull yourself together, woman. Think of those less fortunate, etc, than your fed and warm and sheltered self…’ and of course it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be allowed to fall apart, but – borrowing here, not from Keats but Alistair Campbell in an article well worth reading  – replace the word ‘depression’ with the name of a physical illness and you’ll quickly see the error in your thinking: ‘You would never say: “What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?”’ Depression simply is. When fog descends, the fog exists – and wishing it didn’t does nothing to change it. Occasional pinholes appear and you glimpse your old life, a way through, a way out. But the nature of fog is to shift and to spread, and as soon as a pinhole appears it’s eclipsed again. Gone.

And the thing about writing, you see, is for ages and ages I’d used it to shelter in. A long time ago, when the trouble was telegraphing – from some distant hill – to warn me it was coming, I walled myself up, like an anchoress, in the cell of my novel and stiffened my lip and refused to admit it. And meanwhile, in ‘real life’, events were afoot. I was dicking around in the world in my head while the real one, the one that I actually, physically live in, was slowly collapsing. And so, when I try to set foot in that red-brick country house in the 1970s where most of my 2013 was spent, the front door has been set fast and bolted against me. I don’t even go up the path anymore, to be honest. It seems faux and phoney. There’s nothing inside there to nourish my soul. As I write I’m surrounded by shelf upon shelf of the books other people have written, and adding my own humble tome to those volumes seems only of dwindling importance when ‘real life’ has tragically nosedived.

And what I said earlier – about not understanding depression unless you are living it now, at this second – is true, I think. If you’ve suffered before then you think you remember (I thought I remembered), but, no, it’s not true: you will find that your brain won’t allow you to fully remember. You’d never go on if you could (with the knowledge it might come and claim you again). And that’s why it seems glamorous, in a way, from a distance: the suffering artist, the poor tortured soul. ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself aged 61). There’s a sense that it ought to be difficult, right? You should suffer. Like thousands of troubled teens before me, I burned the (metaphorical) midnight oil over Ariel, written by Sylvia Plath in the last tortured months before she placed her head in an oven, the gaps in the doorframe stoppered up to keep the gas from escaping into her children’s bedroom. I read Edge, widely thought to be her final poem, and marvelled at the startling marriage of life and art:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

It was all (to my fifteen year old self) so exciting. I wallowed inside it. Already I’d known the first twinges of what would afflict me for most of my life, one way or another, and less than a year after first reading Ariel (while waiting for a job interview at my local library) there’d be more than a few niggling twinges to cope with – but that’s another story. The fact is that most of my life I’ve been trying (and failing, and trying again) to outrun this. Whenever it catches me, I cannot write at all. And I think that is true for most writers, Plath included. The cusp of an outbreak can often be wonderfully fruitful (as mine was), but once it’s commenced… Kindly conjure the sound of a bank vault slamming shut. What joy can be found in the world of your head when that head is convinced of a ‘futureless future’ (in the words of Stephen Fry)?

So I’ve written this post for two reasons: firstly, to simply engage with the business of words (to be busy with something that isn’t Escape to the Country, or endless regret, or the click-clack of my woefully inept knitting needles) and, secondly, in the spirit of offering solace to others who might be alone in their own unique ditch at the moment, too low to see over the top, and to know there are others, in ditches, all over the place – and much closer, probably, than they realise.

For all us ditch-dwellers, here’s Dorothy Parker to round things off on a more light-hearted note.

Resumé 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.