On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.


47 thoughts on “On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong”

  1. Hi,

    This calls for a private conversation with someone who lives in the same country and runs the same mad race. Email me if you want.


  2. Very brave and honest post, MarinaSofia. Juggling all the demands the modern world makes on us can bring on the black dog at any time (I’ve struggled with it on and off over the years), and there’s no easy answer. We all find our own coping mechanisms or we ask for help. Reading is my coping mechanism and always has been since I was a child – I can always tell when things are bad when I find myself compulsively reading without a break. Regardless of the labels which might be put on you, go back to the doctor and talk and if she can’t help, ask for someone who can. Take care of yourself. x

  3. Such a brave post. I’m not sure how much it helps to have those of us who take pleasure in your blog telling you we’re thinking of you but I’m sure many of us are. I know it’s a bit of a cliche at the moment but my partner has found mindfulness and meditation extremely helpful in combatting depression. Sending you a big virtual hug. x

  4. Several close family members battle depression, too. Keep going to your doctor, be as honest as you can. I understand the fear they cause, but those pills have save the life of at least one person I know and love.

  5. MarinaSofia, I just wrote a huge platitude-filled comment, but you’ll be glad to hear decided to delete it! Just know you’re not alone, nor is there anything to feel guilty about – our privileged life may mean we don’t go hungry, but it also makes far more demands on us than previous generations of women had to deal with, not least the one that says we should be happy while running our families, doing a job, and trying to carve out a space for our intellectual life too. I would agree with Kaggsy – go back to your doctor, tell her how you feel, use the tissues as much as you need. If you don’t want pills, then your doctor should be able to offer you other kinds of support. Take care. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Marina Sofia, for giving voice to the thoughts so many have. Regardless of what others in the world go through, your pain is real. That’s what matters. I admire you for facing this. If I had a broken leg, I would get a cast and treatment. To me, getting mental health assistance when you need it is no different.

  7. First don’t beat yourself up. Life is hard and we are often run ragged with competing demands. Personally, rather than pills, I’m an advocate of therapy. You know, the talking cure. Follow this with some ass-kicking.

  8. My mother’s favourite phrase about cfs is ‘You’re doing this to yourself!’. Gotta love ’em. I wish I could have a long, leisurely talk with you about this, over lots of cups of peppermint tea. My experience is that life is overwhelming. Even the relatively easy bits of it, and your suffering should never be devalued by relating it to global atrocities (of which we hear about way too many, further undermining our sense of being able to cure the pain). I think that possibly, your suffering is actually telling you something, but only you can know what that is. I am so glad that you wrote about your feelings – not least because better out than in, but it is SO good to see them there, in front of you, clearly. Write more if you need to, you know you have friends here who will be ready and willing to listen. Sending virtual hugs.

  9. I’m so sorry to hear this, but these comments should go someway to showing you how appreciated you are. My parents died within a year of each other, just before my twins were born and I suffered from severe anxiety. I know that feeling of wanting to stay in bed all day. Of wanting everything to disappear. Look after yourself x

  10. Oh Marina – my thoughts are with you and all I can offer in the way of words are that you are not alone. So much of what you wrote resonates – you write so eloquently perhaps you should take a copy of this post to your doctor. Take care x

  11. Your problems are as real as famine or war! All the despising and advising is useless to help! Something is a-kilter. I don’t know what that is–only an expert–or time–can tell. I hope you find someone to help who recognizes that “just snap out of it” isn’t available to you. Take care. My heart goes out to you.

  12. Sharing honestly shows strength, not weakness. Marina, I do think of you as a writer and an academic – honestly, i’m intimidated by your amazing lists of reads and reviews! Yes, depression is real…and treatable (middle age and menopause are also real, though not reversible, thank God!) 🙂

  13. P.S. My father was diagnosed with bi-polar several years ago. Following a crisis, he faithfully takes his daily lithium pill and is doing very well! People take pills for blood pressure or diabetes daily…why not for mood disorders?!

  14. Oh, Marina – my heart goes out to you. I wish I could help in some way. Like Guy, I would suggest a form of talking therapy (cognitive behavioural therapy can be very effective). I think it’s worth going back to your doctor to ask for more support of this nature. In the meantime, sending you a virtual hug. Take care. x

  15. You are doing the right thing by sharing these feelings with us all here, if you couldn’t just share it with your doctor. I relate to these feelings quite a lot, but I believe there’s strength to be found in friendships (online or IRL) and knowing that you’re not alone and that you’re not to blame. I don’t know if you need medication or not, but perhaps you could go to another doctor with whom you’d be more free to talk (family doctors are too close to home). Email me if you wish.

  16. I can only echo what others have said in their comments. Your hopes, dreams and fears are valid, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Just know you aren’t alone, myself and lots of others are here, just a tweet, email or message away xx

  17. Marina Sofia, you have shown tremendous courage.

    There is too much for me to address it all here. However, I must make a few comments.

    1. You are being overly generous and not holding others to the standards you demand from yourself.
    2. Doctors are not extensively trained in Psychology. They may have had some basics and told which pill to prescribe for which ‘dis-ease’. The medication is often dictated by the pharmaceutical companies and what is the ‘pill’ du jour. As a therapist I could diagnose but would have to refer my client back to a doctor for medication. Clients/patients are people and not all will respond the same to a medication. Example, I had a man in his late 50’s who came to me frustrated, angry and ready to give up, again. He had struggled for over twenty years to quit drinking. It took him twenty years to earn his thirty days sober pin from Alcoholics Anonymous. The man’s doctor called me for help in deciding what to give the client and to ask which tests I had used to diagnose him. I told him the man had Attention Deficit Syndome as well as Post Traumatic Syndrome and the best way to evaluate was a personal history. Once the gentleman realised that he was neither weak, stupid or any of the other labels that he had been stuck with for decades he did well.
    3. Regardless of who the person is; family, friend (?) colleague… those who would insult you and try to undermine you by giving you those types of judgments are most often projecting their own issues onto you and others.
    4. Not only do I have background as a therapist but I too am a survivor and I’m only a message away.
    5. Learn to be kinder to yourself and those who are not need to be taught that you are no longer willing to put up with their behaviour. There is a term called Circular Causality. While I cannot change someone else, I can change me. When I refuse to tolerate their abuse (yes, that is what it is) they must change their response to me or find someone who will tolerate this abuse.
    6. Writing, painting and any creative process is often excellent therapy. If you don’t have a therapist you can feel comfortable with, perhaps you have a friend who can listen without judgement and knows how to give feedback as appropriate.
    My best to you. I believe you can do it! Léa

  18. My “liking” of this post is a show of solidarity, dear one. The Black Dog has trailed me for many years and at times it takes the lead, dragging me through the mud of depression. I am so glad you wrote this beautiful, raw post, for there is no shame in what you are experiencing and nothing to be gained from silence. Sensitive, creative souls are vulnerable, for we do feel things deeply through the sheer covering of our thin skin.

    I, too, am wary of a pharmaceutical treatment, after a history of reacting very badly to medication. But I might suggest that, if you haven’t already, you have your thyroid and hormone levels checked. I’m of the age that I suffer from the same physical symptoms as you and the manifestation of low thyroid and perimenopause are nearly identical. Exercise and careful nutrition have become the most important tools I have to manage anxiety and depression.

    You are a writer. A poet. Your words matter far beyond the space of your own heart and mind. We are hear, listening, reading, understanding.

  19. Well thank goodness for books, so underrated given the immense support they really provide. Your telephone conversations remind me of those I used to have in my 20’s and even though the outcome was always the same, we take them anyway. My grandmother in the background saying “Why don’t you just hang up!” they never got on those two.

    Without your gift of sensitivity you wouldn’t be the great writer we all love Marina, it is not something to be chided for, it is to be cherished and nurtured and like you taken care of. Know the things that make you feel better and know they are there when you can muster the energy to indulge them. And know there are many of us who share a similar destiny. Bravo to you for sharing, this is a worthy medicine, the support of friends virtual or otherwise. You are a braver woman than I, an inspiration. I do believe it exists, unconditional love. I have felt it. Believe.

  20. MarinaSofia, I am so very very sorry that at this moment life is full of struggle and not enough sweetness. I can only echo the wonderful supportive, encouraging words of so many other commenters. It may not help any, but I wept for/with you reading your post, because it’s blazing honesty and the courage taken to express that honesty squeezed my heart. Life is very hard at times, and it seems to me that those with the sensitivity and ability to feel into another’s reality (and that, for sure, is any decent writer) has a gift which is also, sadly, a wounding lance to themselves. Every single one of us can say ‘oh look, so and so has it harder than I do, I shouldn’t shouldn’t complain’ – but, actually it is your empathy of the other’s pain which means you also have the sensitivity to feel your own. The heart cannot be soft to the other’s pain, and not also bleed in it’s own pain.

    Practically, I echo the person who talked about mindfulness/meditation as a practice. It doesn’t change the real challenges and difficulties which exist externally, and nor does it deny or suppress the validity of what you are feeling, but what it does do is to help to also look beyond /within/above/around all that to help see the strength and the wholeness you have. The problem when we are feeling real pain – whether physical, emotional, spiritual (it is all of them) is the pain can get so overwhelming that we can’t remember the state of not-pain – but, the health and the wholeness is still, always there – and it can give the chance of noticing that .

    Be kind and cherishing of yourself, dear MarinaSofia

  21. wow – that is a brave and honest write
    i think that much more people struggle with depression than we suspect
    i too know those black days
    i don’t expect unconditional love from human beings cause i know i’m not able to really love unconditionally as well and i don’t wanna sound religious but i know my god loves me unconditionally – no matter what i do or how much i fail – it doesn’t change one ounce of his love for me – that is what carries me through..

  22. OH MY Marina… such a sad post but beautifully phrased, eloquent… heartfelt but not mawkish – only a truly gifted writer can write like this; another facet to the true gift you so obviously have as a writer seen by us all who follow your blog enjoying your insights, poetry and reviews – they both entertain and inspire… and I agree with Claire, in this harsh world – and the often abrasive, cynical internet – your ‘sensitivity’ is to be applauded not admonished.

    It’s a cliche but allowing yourself to realise, appreciate there is a problem is a huge step – as is sharing it with us – you must go back to your GP or indeed a more helpful one. There are many reasons why you can get these symptoms – often missed on the first ‘usual’ round of bloods – ‘getting older’ is a cop out! You need someone you can trust to delve a little deeper and who you can also trust if it does come down to medication v therapy…

    And you are SO NOT alone… many of us here obviously empathise and care and only a mere ‘click’ away. Take Care xxx

  23. A very brave post. My sister suffered from similar difficulties as yours for a very long time and then she began seeing a therapist regularly and tried an anti-depressant. Neither worked miracles but they did help her find some sunshine and energy and the medication did not make her dull or artificially happy. You aren’t alone or without options. There are people who can help you. You have already taken the hardest step of reaching out. Don’t stop, keep going. Hugs and all the best to you!

  24. Kudos for such a brave and honest post – which incidentally is also quite riveting. Not sure that comments on a blog post are going to help any, but if that can, know that this one is meant at a strike of solidarity and million metaphoric hugs.

  25. I wish I could offer more helpful advice, but I think it is important to recognize that comparing yourself to others is not good. This is about you and your well-being, and that is important, no matter what goes on around you. This is a moment where it is ok to be selfish, because if you are healthy and happy, in the end, you will be better able to ensure that those around you are healthy and happy as well. Take care of yourself!

  26. So many things to say, but here’s just one. You are not failing to live out your dreams of being a writer: you already are a writer. This is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read.

    Be gentle with yourself (and isn’t the Matt Haig book great!).

  27. I can’t add much to all the heartfelt comments above.
    I hope you will feel better soon. Therapy helps. More than pills.
    I’m sending you lots of light and strength.

  28. First of all, let me tell you I had no idea about any of this. Secondly, you know where to find me.

    This is such a brave post, MarinaSofia. I don’t think you’re a spoilt girl. I think you just described what has been wrong with women’s health for centuries. I’m sorry that you’re stuck with a husband who doesn’t understand you. I’m sorry your doctor thinks it’s all in your head. I’m also sorry to tell you, it’s society’s fault. I was also tried to be given pills to ‘calm me down’ because I was too stressed trying to earn grades good enough to be a professor. I stormed out of the doctor’s office and never came back – a dermatologist, mind you, trying to prescribe sedatives to an 18-year old. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t let them tell you how you feel. And, above all, don’t let them tell you whether your lived experience is valid or not.

    Hang on. From the blogging outside, you’re doing a terrific job xxxxx

  29. Depression: we read about it in the news ( economy) the weather ( storm approaching) and think ‘after rain, sunshine’. But for people depression can be so big you can’t get around it…you have to go straight through it. Your post was impressive and I applaud your courage to be so open about your feelings. As Delphine de Vigan says in her book (D’après une histoire vraie) ” Ne te trompe pas de bataille…” No mistake about it, this is a battlefield.

  30. Some of the closest people in my life are in a very similar situation as you are right now unfortunately, so I know exactly about what you are talking, MarinaSofia. And in my younger years I had a personal experience with depression and all its consequences myself. When I look back I realize that the moment when I learned to accept and fully acknowledge the fact that I was seriously ill, but not a “failure” by any standards, was the moment when things slowly started to move in a better direction. In my opinion a part of the responsibility why so many people nowadays suffer from such serious depressions is the tendency of our modern society to be so obsessed with “happiness” – it has become a kind of fetish for the majority of people in the Western world, creating an incredible pressure on those of us who feel depressed by the human condition. Maybe it helps you to rationalize your own situation by seeing it as a normal human reaction to this trend. Nowadays I think that old Nietzsche was not so wrong when he said “Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that”. In case you are interested in this aspect of how this happiness obsession is linked with the interests of big business I can recommend you William Davies: The Happiness Industry.
    – In any case I truly hope you will be better again very soon. Your courageous posting was probably a starting point for your recovery.

  31. Like so many others here, I too have struggled with depression for a lifetime. I’m so sorry to hear that you suffer from the condition as well (although, to be honest, I’d suspected this). Be assured that your own recognition that it is a condition rather than a personal failing is one of your best weapons in that struggle. And be assured, too, that you’re not alone: other people are rooting for you . . . as is all too obvious in the comments on this page.

    And what’s this rot about you not being a writer? Your essay here, with its great honesty and integrity, is one of the best, most moving and most articulate descriptions of depression that I’ve come across. It should be read by every GP in the world to give them an angle on what it’s really like (although, alas, the condition’s pretty widespread in that profession). Most particularly, it should be read by your own GP.

  32. I send you my best wishes and want you to know your careful thoughts on line have been important to me in these early times for my blog and note how your on line personality influences so many people


  33. Dear Marina-Sofia

    I read this and felt great anxiety for you. My anxiety is not because you are depressed, though it is sad to read. Depression is not trivial, but it is the canary ceasing to sing. The problem is what silences the canary. You cannot bring it back to life while you are still trapped in the coal mine.

    Because what I am hearing and reading is a soul trapped. And it is beyond the capacity of human endurance to bear such a state indefinitely.

    I hope you can find the proper treatment to allay your depression, which must happen first, and the proper resources to deal with its source. Unfree, one can never be at peace.

    Kindest wishes

    Susan L

  34. My dear Marina-Sofia ~ What a brave post and beautifully, yet painfully, expressed. Good for you to be open about your feelings. You are a talented writer and your posts deliver your followers to literary destinations we might not discover otherwise. I hope the support you feel here in your comments is inspiring and encouraging. You will find the right path and we are right here with you. Onward!

  35. There’s so much we’re not expressing every day, it’s criminal. And it builds up. I sympathise Marina and I recognise a lot of what you describe. With this ability to analyse yourself (so beautifully!), there must be hope. One good rule of thumb is to do for yourself what you would advice a good friend to do.

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