Depression can make you think that you’re not ill at all – just an arsehole.
THE MISSUS was away at Glastonbury over the weekend, and I was delighted about that.
I’m not saying that I’m glad she wasn’t here with me and the kids.
Rather, I was excited that she and her sisters were able to go to one of her favourite places in the world.
Ever since the children were little and therefore a handful, Glasto has been her (almost) once-a-year chance to be utterly free from all her responsibilities, get a bit pissed and chill out in the sunshine.
But her going is also freeing for me, because I’m confident that she’s going to be happy.
And if I know that she’s happy, I can let go for a while of one of my big anxieties: that being married to a depressive like me is ruining her life.
In the first part of this mini-series on depression, I wrote about how much time gets wasted just fighting against panic, lethargy or anger.
And today, I want to talk about another not very pleasant consequence: how horribly guilty I feel, having this condition.
I think the guilt might result partly from the fact that the symptoms of depression have an unusually direct impact on other people, and not just on you.
So, if you are feeling anxious, or lethargic, stressed or unhappy, there is a good chance your loved ones or colleagues are going to feel that.
Furthermore – unless you are blessed with uniformly saintly family, friends and colleagues – you are going to cop some negative feedback, somewhere along the way.
And then you start to ask yourself if you behaving like an arsehole is really part of the disease. Or is it just you?
I’ll try and make a comparison here: I’ve never had a heart attack, I would never wish one on anyone, and I know almost nothing about the subject.
But I would guess that the partner of a man who’d had a cardiac arrest wouldn’t experience his pain quite as directly as a depressive’s wife maybe would.
Though Heart Woman might be upset as all Hell, I don’t think that she would shout at the sick man for being sick – because heart disease is heart disease. It’s not the patient, no matter how much he might smoke and gorge on sausages.
But, as Matt Haig writes in Notes On A Nervous Planet, the division between self and illness is not quite so clear in mental health.
“I felt guilty about symptoms I didn’t really see as symptoms of an illness. I saw them as symptoms of me-ness,” he wrote.
Haig – though he’s a multi-award winning, best-selling writer – still thinks of himself as “a mess” and obsesses over how often he has spoiled someone’s day because of his depression.
And I know exactly how he feels, because I think I am a mess, too.
“Sometimes I feel I will never be a proper person,” I wrote in my diary recently.
“I am really bothered by the fact that I am a mess when I don’t want to be.”
The late, pioneering, psychologist, Dorothy Rowe, had sympathy for the likes of me and Haig, who think of themselves as flawed – and potentially damaging – individuals.
She once argued that “you have to be a good person to get depressed”, because sufferers often begin get into mental difficulties in the first place by trying to be perfect.
“Good people,” she clarified once, “are those people who feel that they are never good enough.”
There are occasions – when I am feeling better about myself – when I can see that I’m maybe barking up the wrong tree. And then I can accept that perhaps my depression is not all my fault.
“You wouldn’t say you were a mess (i.e. blame yourself) if you had cancer or… got knocked over by a car and had to have constant rehab, would you?” I wrote in another diary entry.
“But I still think that the mess is my fault. It is me, and not the disease.
“I still feel ashamed of all the bad things I have done and (perhaps more importantly) all the things that I haven’t done because I get depressed.
“I feel it’s something I can never make up for, and maybe never properly come back from, whatever ‘coming back’ is.
“Is it being successful? Never having depression again? Never being mean to someone ever again? Never letting someone down ever again?
“That feeling in itself is quite hard to live with, but maybe the shame is one of the symptoms of the disease as well?”
These days, when I feel an attack coming on, and when I feel that I am likely to be hard work, I tend just to go to bed and shut myself off from my loved ones. My wife, too, has learned to accept and recognise the state I’m in, and let me go.
It doesn’t get to the root of my problem, but at least it avoids it contaminating others. And if I’m not mean to others, I don’t feel so guilty about myself.
So I’m learning. Maybe one day, I can learn just to let the guilt go….