Coping: I no longer feel powerless in the face of depression
Depression is never the sufferer’s fault, but it is a flame you can either tamp down or throw petrol on
A chink of light: “The knowledge that I am coping with this situation fills me with hope.” Illustration: Getty Images
‘Coping” is such a small, understated word for the whirling flurry of concepts it evokes. In a given day, there’s an awful lot to cope with, and it is far easier to get pulled under by the tearing current than we like to think.
When I was 17, I left Limerick for university in Dublin. I travelled to a place where I didn’t know a soul, with almost no social skills. I’d just staggered ineptly out the other end of a tumultuous and unhappy childhood, and I couldn’t cope with the solitude, the uncertainty and the perpetual sense of displacement.
One day I lay on the floor of my bedroom and I didn’t get up for two days. Eventually I managed to get myself home to my mother, who helped me to save myself. I stayed with her for weeks, seeing doctors and trying to regain normal function, which took about two years. The diagnosis of depression put a name to the emptiness and despair I’d felt throughout my teens, and set in motion a struggle against the illness I’ve worked hard to manage ever since.
When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and subsequently died six weeks ago, I feared that the desolation that has always felt adjacent to me, and that I work so hard to keep at bay, would descend again, and that I would be rendered prone by it.
I was terrified that now, despite all my self-care and hard work, all the colour would drain from the world, and I would lose the inclination to live in it.
Not everyone experiences depression in the same way, but when mine comes it is a vicious illusion that constructs a sense of total emptiness within me. It reveals the worst parts of my life and character to be all there is, and manifests itself as a fundamental loss of desire – for food, for sex, for love, for life. By the time it has bloomed like a yeasty dough to consume everything around itself and me, my mind has gone dark, and it is a deathly struggle to drag myself out into the light.
It feels impossible to manage. It is a void where coping goes to die.
Managing my condition
The work that I have put into managing my condition is the reason it hasn’t gained a stranglehold over me this time, and that’s reassuring.
Overall I’ve done about seven years of cognitive behavioural therapy. It has sound origins in psychology and Stoic philosophy (see Diogenes, a hilarious and supremely wise chap who lived in a big terracotta pot), and teaches coping mechanisms for people with anxiety and depression. It forces you to take responsibility for the situations you find yourself in, and to understand that although depression is certainly never the sufferer’s fault, it is a flame you can choose to tamp down or throw petrol on.
These last six months have been the hardest of my life, and since my mother’s death in particular, I have been completely heartbroken. Her loss has at times felt like more than I could cope with, but I haven’t been depressed in the clinical sense. Depressive episodes can be triggered by trauma, and the loss of a best friend, mentor and mother would certainly fit that bill. The knowledge that I am coping with this situation fills me with a wonderfully tender sense of hope. As anyone who wrestles with depression will know, if you’re hopeful, you’re definitely not depressed. I wear the hope like a bulletproof vest.
By teaching you to cope with all of the tiny stresses in a day that add up to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most useful applications of philosophy that you’ll ever encounter. It has taught me to know myself with a rare intimacy. After years of work, I don’t feel powerless in the face of depression, even now, when the majority of my mental and emotional energy is being used to cope with terrible grief.
It will always be there, but I have the skills to manage it. That’s enough hope to sustain me.