Michael Harding: It’s only on the radio that depression sounds heroic
‘Depression arrives like a flock of crows. But you must never let them sit,’ the poet warned me
I was standing at the butcher’s counter in Cavan one day, trying to make my mind up between a spicy sausage or a single lamb chop, when the butcher started looking at me like I was an old cow he might have to put down.
“You’re not yourself,” he said.
“It’s the time of year,” I replied.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I know what you mean. Sure it gets to us all, doesn’t it?”
“It does indeed,” I said. “I’ll have half a pound of the spicy sausages and three lamb chops.”
He didn’t specify what gets to us all. But there is a general acknowledgement that the winter is a time when melancholy can turn to depression, and the doctors surgeries of the country fill up with people looking for tablets.
Nobody likes to talk about depression in real life. It’s only on the radio that it sounds heroic. So we call it other things.
“I get a touch of it myself,” the butcher said, as he handed me the brown parcel. “Maybe it’s just loneliness.”
I suppose the words change but the experience remains the same. For me the melancholy of winter develops an inertia in my limbs, so that eventually my days are reduced to little more than feeding the cat. I get exhausted by even a single task.
It’s when books come into their own. A good novel can almost turn melancholy into bliss, in a strange, silent way, beneath a big duvet.
And on the plus side melancholy is communal. So many people suffer from it that I would feel more isolated if I was happy.
It’s a consolation to know there are more than me suffering; hundreds of weary souls scattered across the country. I recognise them everywhere: walking the streets of Mullingar or standing at bus stops in Dublin. Sorrow caused by age, or a broken leg, or a chronic illness or the unresolved stuff that went on years ago with some heartless parent. But the result is the same: people walking across Ireland in the early evening twilight of December with weary steps, or struggling to get to the kitchen and make themselves a cup of tea. The trembling hands of creatures being devoured by disturbing emotions.
Many people talk about “battling” with depression. A poet I knew once told me that depression was like a flock of crows. We were in a bar in Dublin. He had just had an argument up the street with his partner and he was nursing a pint. He always looked like a man who never slept.
“Depression arrives like a flock of crows. But you must never let them sit,” he warned, digging his finger into my shoulder. He was that kind of a poet. He’d tell you how to eat your dinner. He said it with fear in his eyes like a man in a shed waiting with his gun for the enemy to arrive. And the more he struggled to scatter the melancholy, the more it took hold of him in other ways.
Personally I could never endure that war. I just surrender to the sadness and go to bed.
Accepting depression is like allowing one’s body fall into an ocean without knowing how deep it might be, or how far into the night the tide might drag one.
I try to allow melancholy and sorrow to roll over me. It often arrives in the evenings, with the fading light at 3pm, and I fly to the bed, cherishing the safety of pillows, or the music of Scriabin seeping up from the speakers beneath the bed.
I say, “Okay, this is who I am. This is what I have become.”
And to be fair, it is a wonderful bed, and I love Scriabin, and feel blessed to live in such comfort.
And the strange thing is that being still, becoming aware of the body at rest, and the light fading in the trees, and the gentle notes of a piano under the bed, all bring me to a place that can only be described as exquisitely painful. I feel alive just by being aware. It’s as if I hold myself in existence. And it is as if outside the window someone else is holding the trees. And someone holds the dark and ragged crows. Some invisible ground of being must hold all these things together, I think.
Then the crows come closer. And I welcome them, and we all sleep together, briefly free from that strange anxiety of being.