At 11am today, like a lot of people I will be observing the two-minute silence. And later this afternoon I will be silent again, at the funeral of my schoolfriend S, who killed herself because of depression.
She didn't fight in wars, but she made the world - my world at least, and many more - a brighter place. When I knew her at school, she made life better: she was popular, clever, talented and kind. She had awesome handwriting and incredible style. And like many of those whose lives we remember today, she died at a ridiculously young age. All because of a mental illness that gets swept under the carpet and misunderstood.
I hate the word depression. One of the major obstacles to it being regarded as a terrifying, disabling illness, is because its name sounds ridiculously light. A depression is a sofa dimple, a financial recession, feeling a bit low because that person you fancy went off with a fool. It is not an appropriate name for a killer illness.
Part of the reason I feel so strongly is that a large chunk of my life was owned by that illness. Ten years ago, when I was 18, my mother finally relented and took me to my GP. I remember her saying in the car, "If they don't find anything wrong with you, you'll just have to get on with it." I was terrified. I didn't have any 'it' to be getting on with.
I told the GP that if I flunked out of university, which seemed fairly likely at the time, then I would kill myself because there was simply nothing else for me to cling on to. I told her how I had planned to do it. And she, funnily enough, realised that feeling suicidal and living in a brain- black hole were not normal, and put me on anti-depressants. This was three years after I started showing symptoms of the illness. Back then the internet was just AOL dial-up and dodgy chatrooms; there were no helpful blogs or support sites. You couldn't even Google your symptoms.
I didn't know I was ill because, as far as I knew, what I was feeling was completely normal. Maybe you were supposed to feel like your brain was slowly eating its way through your will to live. Maybe that explained The Jerry Springer Show.
I waded my way through my languages degree in a fog of inertia coupled with insomnia and mania. At one point, while I was on probation for missing all my morning classes - the only time I could sleep was 4am - I held 12 positions in my college. I was even playing in sports teams, badly. I was high on sociability. I did everything I possibly could to fill my time because it distracted me from the vertiginous horror that my own mind inflicted when I was alone.
People who don't have depression, who've never had it - and this isn't a dig, you're bloody lucky - seem to think it's an indulgence. All that sitting around, moping. Ooh, and sometimes cutting yourself for attention!
Well, no. When I cut myself, and I didn't do it a lot because it was too noticeable, it was as a last resort. I was so full to bursting with loathing, misery and, that key word again, terror, that cutting was the only way to get a release. I remember excusing myself from watching It's A Wonderful Life with friends in order to hyperventilate in the bathroom before cutting and wrapping my arm in a sleeve. I never wanted anyone to see my scars, and when my mother finally did, she told me off for attention-seeking. Perhaps some do want others to notice their scars, but I firmly believe most just want to forget they exist entirely.
I apologise if all this wallowing in things past sounds slightly orgiastic. By some magical quirk, I got better in 2005, and bar one set-back in 2007, have been depression-free ever since. And you forget - you do, you forget what it feels like to have that awful thing in your brain every minute of every day.
Once better, I was so relieved to be so that I found it difficult to identify with people who were ill. I would find myself getting irritated with my brilliant, talented housemate for never leaving his room, for being the shell of the man I loved. So I can only imagine what it's like for people who have not had depression, who have to watch their friends and family alternately fade away and explode into mania. This is why we need to talk about it more, at all, and often.
People still don't understand enough about depression, even now with all the blogs, the websites and the famous faces associated with it. Some of the most brilliant, funny, wonderful people I know are crippled by depression and it's a hideous waste.
The author of the brilliant web comic Hyperbole and a Half posted a searingly truthful cartoon about her so-titled Adventures in Depression, and some of the comments from sufferers nearly made me weep. Then this comment from a reader: "Wow. I never really understood what proper, actual depression felt like until this post. I think I've been a bit of a shit friend to my friends who have it. Soz dudes."
So let's not be shit friends. Let's understand what depression is and give it the fear and respect it has wrenched from us over the centuries.
Have we really got to 2011, 10 years after it was finally diagnosed in me, with people still unable to find the help they need? If what it takes is a rebrand, to re-term depression "Mind Scorpions" or "Relentless Fucking Misery Disease", then so be it. Any illness that drives people to take their own lives is one that needs a sight more attention paid to it.
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