One of the most misunderstood things about depression is that it’s not the feeling bad that’s the worst thing about it (though that’s bad enough). Rather it’s that sometimes you feel nothing at all.
Two years ago I was given a diagnosis of bi-polar 2. If you know anything about the condition, you’ll know that instead of the see-sawing between the black pit of depression and the fizzy excited energetic peaks of mania, you see-saw between that same black pit and a very different form of mania. Instead of euphoria, you get dysphoria. You become agitated and anxious, strung up and easily de-stabilised. I chose not to accept and “own” that diagnosis, and I also chose not to take medication for it. I stand by that choice. For me, I have managed my life reasonably well despite this debilitating condition, and the severity of symptoms generally hovers at the manageable end of the spectrum. Throwing medication into the mix is a bit futile at present; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
Yet at times I become aware that as hideous as the depressions can be, as unsettling as the dysphoria can make life, it’s the grey numb deadness and the inability to feel anything is what can be hardest to live with.
On the 1st of May I officially launched my newest novel Square Peg, hitting publish the day before so it would be available without hitch on it’s birthday. I ought to have been happy. I ought to have been turning cartwheels. Except I wasn’t. I felt…nothing.
It seems a bit ungrateful to feel that way. I’d had such support and help from others and yet at a crucial point after the book had gone live, I was considering taking it (and all the others down). I just couldn’t see the point of any of it.
There were three triggers for this. They’re nothing much in themselves and none are responsible for how I felt, as such. The first was a brief conversation on Twitter that brought home to me that while self-publishing has come a long way, there are still a lot of folks who intrinsically believe that it is a lesser option than having gone through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. You are seen as being less worthy because you have not been chosen by someone else. You’ll never be eligible for the kind of book awards and prizes and accolades that authors with a “proper” publisher are able to aspire to. Most of the time I don’t care about any of that, but at one time I did care far too much about that sort of endorsement and validation. I’ve got some astonishingly good validating reviews, feedback and messages from readers, yet there is still a tiny, vulnerable part of me that still cries because I was not chosen for that path. Most of me is glad; I have complete control over my own books and I earn a decent percentage of any sales. It’s that tiny vulnerable part of me that still needs healing.
The second trigger was a 2 star review that came in on UK Amazon for The Bet. Now, I’m unconcerned as a general rule about negative reviews. They add something to a row of 4 and 5 stars: credibility. People apparently find all good reviews somehow suspect. But The Bet was and is very dear to me, and the whole meh tone of the review was unpleasant to read when I was already vulnerable. That’s the third time I’ve used that word and that’s telling. It means I’m open to being wounded. Writers need to be tough, we are told and I still think that’s bunkum. I think we need to heal fast, though. Dripping wounds make a nasty mess and they also become a target for other attacks.
The third trigger was about the book itself. Square Peg is entirely fictional but it came from a period in my life when I was fruitlessly bashing my head against publisher’s doors. I was getting led on, with lots of encouragement and praise, then (because this would be another story if it weren’t so) being turned down. At the time I was a square peg myself in the community we lived on the edge of, and I’d been diagnosed with severe depression. Many times I didn’t feel I wanted to live. The main character of Square Peg reflects a LOT of me, more so in many ways than Isobel from Away With The Fairies (who is in the book too, a good few years younger and newly married), and especially the person I was then. So, if people didn’t like her and empathise with her, it’s going to hit harder than you’d imagine. She’s going to be a polarising character; she’s a bit gruff, abrupt, rude, even. She doesn’t make things easier for herself and she does things that are just not sensible. And she’s got good reasons for being the way she is, and doing what she does. Nevertheless, I started worrying that if people hated her and hated the book it would be a massive blow.
So despite lots of excited comments, I went to bed, feeling low and dreary and hopeless and above all, feeling guilty for feeling that way. I should be happy, I should be delighted. It seemed that I was incapable of feeling those wonderful emotions of satisfaction and achievement and hope. Nada.
That’s the work of the Joy-Stealer, depression. All the other things, the factors and the triggers are just its minions who can only work for it when it has its talons firmly in your soul.
Today as I write, I am feeling that numbness and I am choosing to ignore it. Logically, everything is all right, and I’m doing fine. The way in the past I have coped with these phases is to ride it out, to allow myself to feel or not feel but to take no radical actions, to make no important decisions until the greyness has passed. I have my own mechanisms and strategies and in the end, they’ve always worked before. So there’s no reason to suppose they won’t work now. I turn back to Dame Julian’s words:
All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
And so they shall.