REPORTER: Are you offended by being asked to play 'Spot The Loony', Mr Milligan?
MILLIGAN: No, but I do object to being called 'Spot'.
I am a nutter. I'm a loon, a madman, a psycho. I'm officially clinically bonkers.
What I'm trying to say is that I, like so many people you know, struggle on a daily basis with my mental health.
My mental health problems have never been something that I've kept particularly secret, and they're something I'm happy to talk about, but I don't exactly walk around wearing an "Ask Me About Madness!" billboard either. However, this week is (I'm told) Geek Mental Help Week, and given that I self-identify as both a Geek and a Mental (and inspired by similar posts from friends) I thought I should this opportunity to write a long and rambling post about What It's Like To Be Me. So, strap in: let's talk about some of the worst times of my life.
Feeling a bit down in the dumps
The specific thing wot I've got is called Depression. It's a medical condition and a recognised mental health problem. It's also, annoyingly, got the same name as the feeling you get when your favourite TV show is delayed for coverage of cricket or they've run out of Wotsits at your local newsagents. The biggest problem with depression, as far as public awareness goes, is the name. 'Depression'. It's a stupid name, and totally misleading. Everybody feels 'depressed' occasionally. Not everybody suffers from capital-D Depression. It's a totally different feeling. It's not even like capital-D Depression is lowercase-D depression turned up to 11. It's not. It's like … well, that's the problem. I can't really describe to you what it's like. If you've been unlucky enough to suffer yourself, you'll know. If not, you can only guess. For many years now, I've been adamant that we should, collectively, come up with a better name. So far the best I've managed is "Broken-brain-itis", which is hardly a game-winner. Better suggestions very gratefully received.
I realise that saying "if you haven't had it, you can't understand it" is a singularly unhelpful statement, so I'll give it my best shot at a description. Now, this is my personal experience of Depression. Other people's experience might be different - in fact, I know that it is because I've spoken to other Depression suffers and compared notes (which is about the only time the word "sad" can be applied with two meanings - we're like the most miserable train spotters you've ever seen).
What it's like to have Depression
It's like I was in a loud room for so long, I didn't know how loud it was.
Depression is a constant companion. It's not going to go away, and it's going to affect every goddamn experience you ever have in your entire life. Maybe not a lot, but everything you do will be filtered through your own lovely brain - and if you have Depression, your brain is basically broken.
My Depression - I'm going to stubbornly insist on the capitalisation, to differentiate it from 'feeling a bit shit today' - doesn't always manifest itself openly. In fact, most of the time quite the opposite is true. I'm pretty outgoing and personable. I'm usually quite entertaining to be around and I'm one of those people who's always cracking jokes. I think they're funny. My wife disagrees a lot of the time, but that's just because she's jealous of my erudite witticisms. Anyway, the point is that if you met me, most days, you wouldn't think I had any mental health issues. Certainly not Depression. What, that guy? Depressed? Nah, he's always cheerful. One of the happiest people I can think of. No way is that guy depressed. Well, I am. I have very serious clinical depression and sometimes it's crippling. I cope with it by presenting an artificial 'happy' face and faking my way through the day. I basically turn on my cheery autopilot and spend the day hiding at the back of my own head quivering and hating myself while happy fake me continues to be the life and soul of the party. I call him 'Happy Johnnie'. I kind of hate him.
It's not always like that, of course. Sometimes I'm genuinely okay, and I don't have to fake anything. When I'm at my worst, though, very few people will know about it, even people who know me quite well. I have four very dear friends, who are the only people who ever see me 'with my mask off', as it were. Why? I'm not sure. I'm not exactly ashamed of Depressed Me, but it's a bit too personal (and, frankly, fucking depressing with a lowercase D) to let anybody else see it.
I did mention that this was going to be long and rambling, right? We're almost 1000 words in and I've barely started.
Anyway. My Depression comes and goes, but when I'm at my worst it's really bad. I will often talk about The Depression Fairy, who is an ugly fat anthropomorphised cupid who regularly takes a shit in my brain. My Depression basically causes:
Misery. The more my Depression affects me, the more utterly dejected I feel. When I'm at my worst, I'm close to suicidal. It's worth noting that there's no cause for this misery. It's not like I'm miserable about anything. I'm just miserable. (This, incidentally, is why 'Cheer up! What have you got to be sad about?' is the stupidest thing you can possibly say to a Depression sufferer). The misery can become so overwhelming that it's the only thing you're capable of concentrating on, and it prevents you from doing anything else at all. I don't self-harm, but there have been a few times when I've actually resorted to punching myself in the head in a forlorn attempt to tell my brain to shut up.
Emotional numbness. A lot of the time, I can't feel emotions. I know that seems to contradict Sympton 1, but I'll usually have one or another. I can't feel joy and I can't feel misery (except for the times when I can feel misery at which point, dear merciful Zeus, I have ALL OF TEH FEELZ). It can sometimes be beneficial, strange as that may sound. For example, I was assaulted in the street a couple of weeks ago, and quite badly beaten. Did I care? No, I did not. It caused me absolutely no lasting psychological damage, mainly because I just don't give a shit.
Self-hatred. Oh, boy. This is the biggie. I can't over-emphasise how much I hate both my physical and mental self - and yes, 'hate' is the right word here. When I'm at my worst, I wish I was anybody other than me. I wish I was dead. That's not the same as saying that I want to kill myself, because I don't. I just wish that I didn't exist, so I wouldn't have to endure the unbearableness of Being Me. Does that sound self-indulgent? That's because it is. That brings us on to:
Selfishness. It's virtually impossible for me to deal with anybody else's problems when The Fairy is in town. It takes everything I've got for me to cope with my own shit (and half the time I'll fail at that too). The idea of being there for somebody else is a ridiculously distant dream. This has meant that there have been times when one of my friends has been really suffering, and I haven't been there for them. There've been times when I should have been a rock of support for my extremely long-suffering spouse, but instead she's had to deal with me moping about the house like a miserable teenager and occasionally crying for no discernable reason.
Social being-shit-ness. There's probably a better word. When I'm struggling to cope with a bad phase of Depression, I become socially isolated. I don't respond to emails. I make excuses to get out of social invitations. I ignore my friends - especially the ones who try to contact me to express concern and see how I'm doing. I renege on promises. I basically go totally off-radar and try to hide under the covers until it goes away.
Total lack of motivation. Depression makes it very hard to fight against the status quo. Any action you take is proof of your existence in the world, and when you're depressed that's the last bloody thing you want to be reminded of. So, you curl up into a tiny tiny ball and try not to influence anything. This has, in the past, resulted in me ignoring really important things like overdue bills, job applications and - ironically - medical appointments intended to help me with my mental health.
Previously, on Johnnie's Broken Brain
SIMBA: I know what I have to do. But going back means I'll have to face my past. I've been running from it for so long.
[Rafiki hits Simba on the head with his stick]
SIMBA: Ow! Jeez, what was that for?
RAFIKI: It doesn't matter. It's in the past. [laughs]
SIMBA: Yeah, but it still hurts.
I think I've probably had Depression, in one form or another, for all of my adult life. The first time it really started to affect me, though, was in 2006. How do I know it was that year, specifically? Well, I got married at the end of 2006 and a few short months later Depression had ended that marriage. I was a mess. My wife had no choice but to leave me, because nobody could have lived with me in that state. We got back together about a year later (once my mental health had got significantly better) and we've been together ever since, but back then … yeah, I was a mess.
The silly thing is that the change was gradual, so I didn't actually realise how bad I'd got. Friends were really, really concerned, and insisting that I was in a really bad way and should really get help. I just couldn't understand it. As far as I was concerned I was absolutely fine. Looking back now, I'm stunned by that, because I can see how clearly I was not functioning, but that's how I felt at the time.
Eventually, I did get some help (in the form of therapy and medication). Even then, it was only because I was (almost literally) dragged into a doctor's waiting room by concerned loved ones.
After enduring (and surviving) my first bad bout of Depression, I found myself better able to cope when - inevitably - the Fairy returned a few months later. It was still hard, but knowing that the Fairy would, eventually, bugger off again made it easier to put up with his presence.
And now, the conclusion
Where's my nurse? I need some healing.
I've been paralyzed by a lack of feeling.
Currently, I'm not doing too well. The Fairy returned a few months ago, and this time the fucker's been to the gym. I'm currently in the midst of one of the worst periods of mental health of my life. I am, not to mince words, losing the battle. I don the Happy Johnnie mask when I'm at work, but outside of work I'm so utterly non-functional and numb that I border on catatonic.
It is no fun whatsoever.
There's some hope on the horizon, thankfully. I'll be going back into therapy soon (I'm on a waiting list), and I'm under the care of a specialist consultant at the Adult Mental Health department of my local NHS trust. I'm also taking some seriously intimidating medication. I'm on basically the highest dose of the strongest antidepressants known to science.
It's all helping, but I have a long way to go.
I've been down here before
I don't want to end on a downer, so please don't think that it's all doom and gloom for me. It's not: I'm reasonably rational about the whole thing, and I know that therapy and drugs have helped me before and most likely will do again. Life is a repeating sine wave of oscillating peaks and troughs, and I just happen to be in a monster of a trough right now.
As this ridiculously over-long post has clearly demonstrated, I have no problem talking about Depression. So, if you're suffering yourself or you love someone who's suffering, get in touch. I'll help if I can.
You should also check out Ginsberg if you haven't already. It's a free online tool for tracking and analysing your mood and your mental health. A bunch of friends of mine have all worked on it, and it's just launched publicly. It's really rather good.
Alrighty. 2200 words. That'll probably do for now.
This guy's walkin' down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, "Hey you! Can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, "Father, I'm down in this hole; can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey, Joe, it's me. Can ya help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, "Are ya stupid? Now we're both down here." The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out."