Mood over matter: when depression strikesPosted: December 2, 2011
One Monday, nearly two years ago, depression leapt out from the shadows and pounced on me.
In that one day, it felt like I’d plummeted down a deep and gloomy pothole. It was like my stomach had fallen out; like someone had switched off a light in my head; like a part of me had died; like I’d plunged from hero to zero.
Looking back, there were plenty of clues that this was likely to happen – and even after it had, I think I still managed to fool myself for a while that I hadn’t noticed. What happened after that day is another story. What I’ve been thinking about all this week is how I ended up in that position, and what it felt like.
It had been a stressful summer and autumn, both at work and at home. As I wrote in my first blog on depression – Stress, depression and Star Wars – I’d been putting too much pressure on myself. I wanted to be the perfect dad, despite the fact that I was tired from being woken up night after night. I wanted to excel at work, despite the fact I’d taken on too much and expected myself to achieve unrealistic deadlines. And I wanted to shine in my return to the stage in my village pantomime. Oh yes I did.
Trying to be a perfect dad is not a sensible aim. Nobody is perfect. Everybody gets grouchy when tired. You can only do your best. But because I sometimes snapped at my children, I felt I’d failed.
That same fear of failure seemed to drive me to achieve some great things at work – and I did achieve them, but at the cost of my health. I’d spent about a fortnight in my own little bubble, my mind locked onto the tasks in hand. After setting myself a particularly ludicrous deadline for a difficult piece of editing work, I didn’t get time to savour my accomplishments. The moment I’d finished, I realised I was meant to be going into a meeting. I stood up quickly, and practically fell over. My head started spinning, I felt woozy and sick, and my colleagues had to drive me home. Before I’d had chance to recover from that, I caught an infection that knocked me out for more than a week. A warning sign that I was burning out? Yes. Did I heed it? Not really.
Another warning sign was that I’d stopped looking forward to anything, no matter how much fun it might be. Everything had become something to dread; something to worry about. I knew that wasn’t right, but what I didn’t know was that it meant depression was creeping up on me.
Then there was the pantomime. It was the ninth panto I’d done for my group, the Ebor Players, but I’d missed the last two shows to adapt to family life – one of the few sensible things I’ve ever done to try and look after myself. The standard of the production had continued to improve while I’d been away, and so had the choreography. My attempts at dancing seemed particularly feeble.
Now, I love doing the panto, and I love the group. They’re a brilliant, lovely bunch of people – not the sort of folk who’d put me under the spotlight and put pressure on me. No, I did that for myself. This wasn’t just a return to acting, singing and performing in front of an audience, which was, and is, scary enough. It was, in my mind, the equivalent of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special – the TV show, aired to millions, that marked his triumphant return to live performance after years of movie-making.Was he nervous? Definitely. Could he still make great music? Of course. Did his fans still love him? Absolutely.
Clearly my own talents are nothing like those of the legendary King of Rock ‘n’ roll, and I couldn’t claim to have ‘fans’, but my expectations were – rather preposterously – just as high as Elvis’s. This return meant a lot to me, and I heaped the pressure on myself to burst back onto the amateur dramatics scene in a blaze of glory.
I remember one rehearsal where I looked out and realised other members of the cast were watching what I was doing. Not only that, but what I was doing at that moment was not perfect. I was struggling with my dance steps. It dawned on me, as I sat quietly and despondently afterwards, how far my confidence had slipped. And that decline in my already fragile confidence has been a central, ongoing theme of my depression – one which loudly made itself known again this autumn to trigger another bout.
Any criticism, however minor, and whether levelled at me or generally at us as a group, was a crushing personal blow. And there you have another factor of depression – its ability to twist everything so that it is a personal attack on your character.
I was nervous to the point of gibbering, every single night. Despite all this – or possibly because of it – I was fired up for that panto, and it was a huge success for the Ebor Players, and for me personally. It was a fantastic week. We all had a great laugh, and there was a real buzz about the show.
After the almost surreal high of panto week came the reality of returning to work. When you’ve been enjoying the laughter and applause of an audience night after night, sitting at a desk is a bit of a comedown at the best of times. Paul Brookes, as I call my miserable alter-ego, must have known this. He was there, waiting.
Suddenly, I was nobody. I wasn’t important. Reality was a drag, and my moods were dreadful. I would drive to work thinking the foulest, darkest thoughts, picking imaginary fights with people over non-existent criticism. I was permanently tense and felt angry for at least some of every day.
I plodded on, with my minor ailments stacking up and my persistent headaches gradually worsening, until I knew I had to do something about it. I went to see the doctor and told him I was feeling frazzled. About three months after the day Brookes beat my door down and made himself cosy in my mind’s living room, the feelings I was having, the black moods that had been plaguing me, had a name. Depression.
This could be a pretty desolate way to end a blog, but it isn’t. Because facing up to my illness was the first step to understanding it and tackling it. Two years on, I’m still wrestling with Brookes, but I know what he’s up to and I know what I need to do about it. I can talk about it quite openly. Well, write about it anyway. My big challenge now is to put my learning into practice – because depression is all about mood over matter, rather than mind over matter.