Tara West 'It's like the most searing type of grief, like the kind you feel at the loss of a loved one'
Belfast-based author Tara West, who'll be talking about her depression on Wednesday as part of the Belfast Book Festival, writes about her experience of the illness and how we all need to talk about this taboo subject.
Can you really call something a battle, when you don't even know that you're fighting? My 'battle with depression' was never such, because for me, depression is insidious and nebulous and slow. It's more like a war, fought over a lifetime, with some decent wins, but many ambushes.
It's not something I had, then got over. I monitor my mood constantly, and when I feel the warning signs, I protect myself. But I didn't always know to do that.
My memoir of depression and recovery, Happy Dark (Liberties Press, Sept 2016), focuses on my most severe episode of depression, which followed the launch of my first novel in 2002.
I had a loving husband, a kind mother, fun-loving siblings, good friends, a successful career in advertising and my first novel had just been published.
And yet, every day I suffered the rawest kind of anguish. I was beyond unhappy.
I'd get random glimpses of slicing open my own flesh, like a flashback to something that hadn't happened yet.
I could see my skin peeling back like loose sheets of leather, revealing my workings, releasing my guts, opening me up and spilling me out.
I wanted to peel myself to death. I couldn't bear myself, inside or out. I told my husband I wanted to die.
He was terrified and didn't know what to do. Neither did I. We knew nothing about depression and we didn't recognise it. We cowered in bed, eyes open, terrified of what was happening, of what we didn't understand.
This was unlike anything we had ever experienced or even heard about. It had never been discussed. We were cast into the dark together.
Years later, when reading round the subject, I realised that our reticence to talk about depression has been a fairly recent development.
The ancient Greeks discussed it openly: they called it melancholy, or black bile, and they believed it made up a quarter of everyone's physiology (the other parts being yellow bile, phlegm and blood).
Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy was published in 1621 and was read and discussed widely. The Romantics made melancholy their own in the 19th century, and had a substantial fan following.
I don't know why we stopped talking about depression.
Perhaps, in the late 19th, and 20th centuries, feelings of alienation became associated with artistic expression and perhaps ordinary people, because they were not artists or writers, did not, or could not, admit to feeling depressed. They were sensible and productive citizens, or soldiers. They were not poets or pretenders.
Maybe our forebears felt it was unpatriotic to admit to feeling depressed, having been advised to keep calm and carry on. Or maybe depression just fell out of fashion. For whatever reason, we rarely talk about depression, and when we do, it is in hushed tones.
It's been around longer than Western society, but it says something about the UK and Ireland that we have almost no vocabulary for describing how we feel beyond the terms we learned in childhood.
Where other cultures have developed words like Weltschmerz, saudade and mono no aware, we have no language to address the subtleties of feeling we experience as adolescents and adults, which puts us at a disadvantage.
We do not share the fact that sometimes we feel mental pain, that sometimes it can really hurt, that it can become unbearable, and that we might think about suicide.
But depression is part of being human. Think back to the Greeks: they thought a quarter of you was filled with melancholy. That's like one of your legs. Imagine carrying round a leg filled with depression. Of course you're going to give into it sometimes. You certainly won't be able to ignore it. And others will understand when it plays up.
Depression, according to research, is a physical and mental response to the prolonged release of stress hormones.
Stress can be caused by your work, family situation, illness, social pressures or even how you think about yourself. Depression occurs when your synaptic circuits are overloaded by cortisol - it's like blowing a fuse, and the brain chemicals that keep us functioning normally, like serotonin, can't get through the way they should.
We're lucky today to have drugs to prop up our synapses when they break down, and we have therapists to help us sort out our thinking, but wouldn't it be great if we took the talkability and familiarity of melancholy in previous centuries and merged it with modern research and treatments? Would the number of suicides drop? My guess is yes.
As it is, we hide depression, and we hide from it. That means many people don't recognise when they have it, which can be dangerous.
It is not feeling sad or blue. It is not dressing in black and looking a bit gothic. Depression feels like the most searing kind of grief - the kind you feel at the loss of a loved one - but it is directed at nothing in particular. It is pain you experience every moment you are awake and it stains everything. It makes you paranoid, distrustful, desperate, angry, limited, lost, enervated and frustrated.
It is how I felt in 2002, and I had no idea what was happening to me. The only relief my brain could offer was the thought of switching myself off, and my husband was panic-stricken.
That's why we all need to talk about it.
Families are shocked and scared when their loved ones develop depression.
They don't know what it means or how to manage it, but if it was something we talked about openly, we would recognise it in others and in ourselves. We would encourage our friends and family to see a doctor. We would not be afraid to admit it, we would treat ourselves and others with compassion and kindness, we could protect ourselves from it, and we would know how to help.
There is no real reason why we don't talk about it. When I attended weekly cognitive behavioural therapy sessions, I was quite happy for my colleagues to think I was having treatment for mysterious lady problems, rather than tell them I was going to a psychiatric hospital to get my head sorted.
At the same time, I found that frustrating. I wanted to share what I was doing. There were so many people I thought therapy could help (and that's not sarcasm). I wanted to talk about it. I just … couldn't.
Perhaps our reticence is just habit, and habits can be hard to break. New behaviours take a while to embed and can be painful to introduce, but I think it would be worth it.
By talking openly and freely about depression, we would educate our loved ones, and with education comes protection.
With exposure comes acceptance, which would make it easier to talk about. It's a virtuous circle, a win-win.
We have nothing to lose by opening our mouths.
No one should be cast into the dark. So talk about it, please. Treat it like it's a normal, every-day thing - because that's what it is.
Depression happens, it's more common than you think, and people can and do recover.
They can laugh and love and think and work again, but they can't even begin to 'battle' depression if they don't understand what is happening to them, or what they can do about it.
We all have a responsibility to talk about depression, and I've done my bit. Over to you.
- Tara will join co-speaker Dr Harry Barr at The Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Wednesday at 1.15pm as part of the Belfast Book Festival to talk about her struggle with depression. Tickets cost £7 (including light lunch) or £5 (event only) from crescentarts.ticketsolve.com/venues/25544418/shows
An award winner
Tara (44), whose books include Fodder and Poets Are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan as well as her memoir Happy Dark, lives in Belfast with her husband Dave and their daughter Farha (9). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen's University, Belfast, is a member of the Society of Authors, and has received a number of Arts Council Northern Ireland Awards for her writing.