Some of history’s notable writers attempted to describe their experiences with depression… By Scott McKeen
The task is almost absurd. Explaining depression is like describing shades of green to a blind Martian.
But writers are stubborn lot. Words might fail, but writers search for ways to make us feel life’s colours and shades.
For the uninitiated, depression is not the blues. It is not grief or sadness. In my case, I never cried, though I craved the relief of spilt tears.
Depression was for me an emptiness. Mental images and bodily sensations associated with comfort, excitement or happiness fled the scene. What was left? I can only describe it as imprisonment of the self, in the self, by the self.
Into this prison flowed waves of anxiety — non-specific worry, rising to dread, peaking in heart-pounding panic.
What was I afraid of? The short answer — my feelings. I feared the arrival of uncomfortable sensations in my body. So I scanned my inner world constantly for feelings of sadness, fear, shame or anxiety. In doing so, I created a perpetual echo-effect of gloom and doom.
I was anxious about being anxious. I feared being fearful. I became a self-fulfilling prophecy of depression.
As I write these words, I realize how implausible that sounds. It’s even difficult to imagine those feelings as I write these words today. Yet the sense-memories never completely evaporate. Depression leaves its scars.
Over time, I came to believe that calling depression a mental illness is to minimize its potency and dominion. Depression is a physical, mental and spiritual, whole-body illness. The psychic pain of severe depression creates its own physical or phantom pains and symptoms.
In fact, if I’d known this sooner — if I’d know it was just my depression — I could have avoided one particularly invasive and nasty physical exam. The word ‘prostate’ still makes me whimper.
To be honest, I’m not certain depression was even my primary issue. I’ve suffered bouts of anxiety throughout much of my life. Relentless shyness, fear, shame, worry.
So, anxiety came first. It bloomed. It metastasized. It cascaded into every facet of my life. A life of constant worry, fear and dread is a life without moments of emotional rejuvenation. Endless feedback loops of anxiety block out the world’s expressions of joy, serenity, compassion and grace. Thus, depression.
The thing is, I’m good now. But even before — during all those years of anxiety and depression — I functioned at a high level. Some days it was through sheer force of will. Get out of bed. Shower. Get dressed. Attach psychological armour. Endure the day.
I got an education, met a woman, married and had children. Started a career in journalism and spent nearly 30 years working under clock-watching, stressful demands. I never missed a news deadline and can count the number of corrections I wrote on one hand.
Eventually, after writing news and features in most sections of the newspaper, I became The Edmonton Journal’s civic affairs columnist, a post I held from 2001 – 2010. Eventually, I left the newspaper and in 2010 ran for city council. Yes, I lost. But being that deeply engaged in community during the campaign was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Since then I’ve divided my time between consulting and volunteer work. I’m privileged now to be a director of the Lieutenant Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction, as well as an associate member of the Alberta Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Illness.
Now I’m helping the Canadian Mental Health Association with this, its new blog, Our Voice.
I’m at my happiest when I’m advocating for people — when I”m of service to others. I’ve come to believe it’s the most sane, happy-making thing I’ve ever done.
In coming dispatches, I’ll tell you how I went from bad to good — with a few side steps and backslides along the way. To be honest, I still have my moments. I get depressed some days. Most days I feel some stress or anxiety.
Some say that is normal. But how do you describe ‘normal’ to someone who never experienced it growing up? The better question — one that I will explore another time — might be: How do you describe normal, if normal does not exist?
(Scott McKeen owns McKeen Communications and is acting as editor of Our Voice. He can be reached at Scott@ScottMcKeen.ca)