As a child, I imagined that my moods were the storeys of a house. When I was ecstatic, I pictured myself dancing on the roof tiles like a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. When life was generally fine, I dwelled on the first floor. When I was sad, but not irredeemably so, I pottered about on ground level. It was a melancholy and boring place, but there were other people milling around, windows letting light in and stairs that I could ascend.
But this house had a cellar. It was a dark, dank hollow. There were no bottles of wine or tumble dryers or rusty bikes or other distracting remnants of the adult world within it. Inside it, a person’s senses were consumed with the basement alone: the darkness of it, the smell of it, the threatening sound of everyone else’s footsteps overhead. It was a place that took me out of contact with any comforting person or thing. The basement had a staircase, but, as in a dream, something unspoken rendered an occupier incapable of using it. My childish conception of this hidden, frightening, neglected place was my first encounter with depression. I hadn’t yet entered the basement, but knew I had the capacity to do so.
I have told this story many times to different doctors in response to the question, “What do you think has caused your depression?” I have concluded by saying that the basement is not a place that has magically appeared after a traumatic event – a job loss, a death of a loved one, or a relationship failure. Depression is an in-built dimension of my mind, a part of my personality. On the whole, they have found my response unsatisfactory – the kind of throwaway, resigned-to-misery comment that is often made by the clinically depressed. If pushed, I’ll sometimes give in and recite neat little half-remembered trigger points. Bullying. Appearance. Shyness. These things have all affected me deeply at different times, but I am not plagued by these things now. They dissolved into long-term memories many years ago. The only honest answer to that question is, “This is how I am built. For me, depression is a steady state, not a big bang”. This is not a statement of dull resignation. It is a statement of insight. As accepting the nature of my own mind – light and dark – was the first step towards minimising the power of its shadowy parts.
Right now I’m dwelling on the ground floor. I can appreciate the cooling cup of coffee on my desk, the way my fancy new wall clock worked right out of the box, and look forward to my boyfriend coming home for lunch. I can dwell in the present moment with the little, friendly, modest things for company.
I like it on the ground floor. But getting here was not easy. This blog is about how I found my way out of the cellar, and how I avoid the pull of the hollowness beneath me. I hope some of what I write will be helpful for you.