I don’t often write about my illness but I feel compelled to do so now because it’s troubling me. It does this sometimes. My mind is torturing me; I’m torturing myself. I’m having what is called a “Depressive Episode”. This is a term repeated many times on my medical record and it was previous episodes like this which led me to overdose and be admitted to hospital twice. I have no intention of letting that happen with this one.
That was around a week ago, when this latest episode started. Like others before it, this was another large, dark ship, floating suddenly in to view, obscuring the horizon and just sitting there.
Like so much with depression – and I am clinically diagnosed as having chronic depression – the feelings are hard to describe, even when you’re in their midst. It’s also personal and therefore subjective. The best way that I could think to describe an episode in words was when I posted quote memes on social media: mental illness is just as traumatic as anything which might happen to you physically. A panic attack is like being stabbed; an anxiety attack, like being stalked. A depressive episode is like being buried alive. Many have written of depression and described it in its varied incarnations. How I feel is something which only I can attempt to put into words.
To demonstrate how my life feels, we would place two mirrors facing one another with a distance between them dictated by a photon travelling from the moment of my birth to the end of my life. Then I stand you between the two mirrors and you can see what it looks like.
It’s an interesting concept that a photon leaving me at the moment of my birth will now have travelled 45 light years into space. Whether photons can be truly massless is the subject of debate. They have speed – they travel at the speed of light – and therefore, energy. So an almost infinite quantity of nearly infinitely small parts of me now occupy an area in space ninety light years across. But I digress. These are the things which occupy my mind.
The best way to deal with these things is not to run away but to confront them. That’s pretty easy for me because my episodes manifest themselves in periods of deep inner reflection. It’s most likely writing my new book which has prompted this. As I’ve observed previously, it’s difficult to write of my breakdown, which was itself deeply personal. It’s hard to rationalise something with hindsight, which at the time I both did and didn’t understand. The breakdown and resulting homelessness were caused by depression and alcohol abuse and the effect was a second diagnosis of PTSD, after the original one following a knife-point robbery. My life is a tangled web of good and bad, conflicting and co-operating.
Although it’s not a complete autobiography, the book has to have some sort of context and therefore, I’m having to revisit the period leading up to my losing it. This is a very difficult time to write about but the clarity I now have in relative sobriety is what makes it so challenging. I’m having to confront the lying and cheating which I subjected my wife and children to; the lying to and stealing from my fiance and my parents; and the alienation of many friends. Sobering up and being able to talk to these people coherently as I’ve rebuilt bridges has taught me that most of them simply gave up because they couldn’t bear to see me kill myself but were helpless to stop me. They were mourning prematurely. Now that I’ve dried out, I know that these people cared. At the time, my judgement was skewed by drink and mental anguish: I was right and they were all wrong, as I was always keen to spit about on my blog. It would be much easier to write the story if I were still in that frame of mind but now I can see all of the damage I caused because I’ve sobered up. Some would say it’s enough to drive one to drink but that would be in very poor taste. So the story has already been written once but it needs to be told again, truthfully and with more sympathy towards the supporting cast. I can now write about the whole episode in the past tense. I am now able to speak with the other people involved, gain a perspective which I kicked away before and write a balanced account of how someone threw away a stable life, destroyed his own and those of others, had a breakdown, then became something different. From a capitalist, rightwing, narrow-minded, bigoted alcoholic, to an atheist, anarchist, feminist, pot-smoking, alcoholic writer with chronic depression. The biggest victory was in gaining recognition for being unwell. There are millions more like me in that respect.
Just as I’m exploring my breakdown, so I am my recovery. There were no single catalysts for either; both just happening around me under a lot of influences. As all of my retained friends who let me go for dead have said, I had to do it myself. I acknowledge and appreciate all of the help which has been around me and which remains. It’s the kind of help which you take for granted but with those who I know take me for granted, I take that as a compliment. Because taken for granted is how it may seem to the outsider but they don’t see the bonds which tie. I’m thinking primarily of the girls but it applies to others. With all those relationships, there’s an unspoken and assumed moral code. It’s an unbreakable thing, which transcends age and distance: it’s friends and family: to me, the two are the same. I was encouraged when I questioned whether I should write the memoir of my breakdown, when it was causing me distress, by two people. Neither of them are physically close to me on a regular basis but I have that bond with them for different reasons. One was an old school mate. Us grammar boys never lose that link. This friend spent many of his post-school years in southeast London, like me. He thinks that I need to write the book, for my own sake and possibly to help others. He knows me. The other vocal support was from one of the girls. She’s interested to see how I became what I am to her now. We have that unbreakable bond. No-one’s broken it yet and no-one would ever be able to. So I’m resolved to do it and the feedback I’ve had from beta readers is encouraging.
I wouldn’t have a lot of the friends and family I have now, were it not for my breakdown and the aftermath. It’s largely because of the circumstances that those relationships are so close. Some happen to be with teenage girls because I was living in a squat and teenage girls love to congregate somewhere: the squat was such a place. I helped them then and continue to do so. It’s a two-way street. They often don’t realise how much help they are but that’s the unspoken aspect again: they’re just there. I don’t bother them but they need me often enough and two in particular were very bright lights in an otherwise dark period last week. Rather than turn to the pills this time though, I confronted my illness, just as I’m facing off against my old self as I write the book. It was and still is like playing chess with your intellectual equal, while you both play with the same coloured pieces.
I am of above average IQ and as such, I’m able to partly understand a little of what’s going on in my head. What I don’t understand – the majority of it – has become fascinating. It could be my increased consumption of cannabis which prompted the episode but I feel more sure that it’s helped me to deal with something which would have been along at some point anyway. I’m able to analyse and dissect things, while at the same time thinking laterally. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with my illness but I have a greater level of respect for it after the latest depressive episode. It’s a troublesome entity of unknown origin. It’s difficult to understand much about it, least of all its motives. Perhaps it means me no harm and we simply have a language barrier. All of which sounds rather similar to one of the many plotlines in a rather good book I once read. I was reminded of the same book a few nights ago, when I watched a contemporary science fiction film, to the extent that I checked that the filing of my ISDN pre-dated the writing of the movie.
I did very little writing last week. In fact, this is the first day in about a week that I’ve been sufficiently disciplined to sit at my desk and write any meaningful prose. I even missed a week of pulp fiction publication in Schlock webzine. I’d let the pulp side of things slide for a while as I concentrated on stories for various competitions. There were five which I felt had the merit required for entry in ghost story, modern fairytale, fantasy and flash fiction competitions. The blog and pulp fiction output have been sparse because the work I was concentrating on before this latest melt was commercial, publishable, paid writing and not marketing or self-promotion. Now I have a rather good Hallowe’en / Guy Fawkes short story at first draft stage. As usual, it’s at least two stories in one, which is becoming one of my better known and liked trademarks as a writer. The trademark served me well with The Elephant in the Playroom, as most readers who commented saw the underlying subtext, the parallels and the references to that which wasn’t actually written. Presumably the rest of the audience fled in disgust. The Hallowe’en story is obviously subject to a deadline, so it will probably be published as pulp, marketing to a free readership, then I’ll decide if it’s worthy of development into something longer. My story of The Alternative Nativity is one which will be written for paid publication, via a route identified in the bible on my desk: The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This particular route to market is via an atheist publication. Us professional writers need to have reference tools, we need to research and we need to pitch ourselves to the right people: this is a business after all.
Whilst not writing over the last week or so, when I’ve not been talking to myself, I have been spending at least some time doing all of the things which a professional writer is supposed to do besides writing. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is good for contact details and Writing Magazine creates work, with its classified ads for competitions and features on niche print and web publications. Many webzines do pay for writing at quite generous rates and I’m planning submissions to a selected few. But the big, background task going on all the time is Forgive Me No-one. It has simply become a natural book to write next and the others which will have to take a back seat in the meantime will most likely benefit as a result. Although Forgive Me no-one is only the second working title, it’s the one we’ll most likely stick with for publication. The full title is Forgive Me No-one For I Have Sinned. As I wrote in the introduction:
I started writing this book after I’d been seeing sense for a while: I had a drinking problem under control and had decided that there was no god. Despite all the help which I received from various churches while I was homeless, my mind is clearer now that my only conviction is that there is no god. I realise that were it not for the church, I may not have survived but I became convinced that all of the money tied up in religion might be better directed at helping one’s own. That would rely on human kindness and generosity. I found much humanity away from the religion side of things. I believe that humankind alone can achieve so much more when not tied to religion. It can be trusted to generally look after its own. Most of the problems arise when religion is involved.
I don’t believe in any unseen entity which I should beg forgiveness from. I have no fear of what comes after this. I don’t have to live life in a certain way to please a false deity. There is no judge after life as we understand it. I have sinned though. If I tell the whole truth, then I am damned but only by religion. I seem to remember writing a book which covered that and many other paradoxes.
I have the perfect life around me, albeit one built of modest aspirations: a wonky little bedsit at the top of a wobbly old pub in a shitty old town. More importantly, I have the friends and family I gained, lost and retained. Those around me now know just the level of intervention required during an episode to largely let me get on with it myself. This time I didn’t let them down and I came back, to those people who are simply there, like me.
For as long as I live, by the grace of nothing more than my own escape from abuse, I shall continue to be free to speak and write as I please.
Expression is freedom: that’s why I have delirium tremens.
If I were asked a question which Stephen Fry once asked himself, of whether he would press a large red “OFF” button to be rid of his troubled mind, I would answer the same as him: no. I don’t think anyone who knows me well would want me to press that button either.
“Forgive me no-one for I have sinned: tales from the road” is scheduled for publication on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback in May 2016, priced at £7.99. “The Paradoxicon” is available now on Amazon for Kindle at £1.99.