Depression Signals a Faulty Society, Not a Faulty Human Being.
2nd January 2018.
The end of 2017 was a bad time for me. The ghosts, the night-demons, the self-gnawing destroyers were out for me. I had unwittingly opened the door to them and once they’ve entered the house unopposed, tricked their way in using the time-tested wheedling techniques of the cold-caller it’s too late: a foot in the door becomes full-blown ownership of my home, with me cowering in the corner, trying to make myself as small as possible, shaking and shivering from the cold, pathetic self-blame.
It’s lightening now, which is why I’m able to write about it. At the time I felt too bleak, too self-blaming to put words down to explain or explore and what I needed above all was as much silence and withdrawal from the world as I could find. (They say happiness is written in invisible ink: it’s my experience that sadness can be too). The hibernation has worked its cure, or at least the beginnings of it. It’s seems when the demons come to call there is little I can do but wait it out. The gangsters take over and what can I do when I have a gun to my head, but give them the run of the house? All I can do is hope that when they leave there will be enough left of the life and belongings I have gathered in this place to be able to rebuild and re-inhabit.
I started living with depression pretty early in life, maybe even about the age of ten. I remember just sitting crying for no reason on the bed in the room I had used to share with my sisters and my sister Maria (who must only have been about 14 herself) putting her arm around me and saying: ‘Sometimes it’s just like that.’ In the last decade or so I thought I had left the worst of it behind, but perhaps it’s only because I’d learned to manage my life to avoid the worst dips. In the last year or so though, it’s become apparent to me that it’s still there and it’s not just a small part of my life – it colours a lot of what I do or don’t do. Is it age that’s making it worse again? Is it the state of the world (and heaven knows there’s enough there to drive anyone to depression these last years)?
Perhaps there is a release in recognising that depression is once again part of my life and affects to no small degree: it’s a serious problem of living and it’s a difficultly I live with that many others don’t. If I recognise that I simply am not able to do what some others can do, then perhaps it can help release me from the demon of comparison. Perhaps …
Whilst it’s useful to admit that depression is a problem I personally and individually live with, I also want to place it within a wider political context. I really don’t buy that depression is simply a weakness on the part of the individual. Speaking of my own case, for whatever reason, I seem to have a deep personal reaction to injustice in the world and to when things seem to me to be set up wrong. I feel sometimes like a canary in a coal mine: I sense things earlier and perhaps more deeply than others. This is also one of my strengths, but it’s debilitating. I do believe that a significant part of my depression is that the contradictions and injustices of the world and my particular set of circumstances manifest in my depression. Partly I see a direct link with my depression and the legacy of the poverty my parents grew up in, which in turn comes from English colonialism in Ireland. Seems far-fetched? Well – it seems pretty concrete to me.
I was deemed to be ‘intelligent’ at the age of 10 and was sent to a grammar school. That particular method of the privileged tokenistically using the less-privileged to make themselves appear benevolent, by literally ripping them from their family and social background, marking them as ‘special’ has been the cause of major fuck-ups throughout my life. Being thrown into a grammar school where I was isolated, set adrift from friends and background, where alien modes of behaviour so totally different and without a doubt deemed to be superior to the ones I grew up with were the norm, which I didn’t (and still don’t) understand left me and still leaves me hopelessly at sea. It said: ‘What you come from is not good enough. The only way to be intelligent and worthy is to become like us, to leave behind what you inherited. Being working class and clever is not a possibility – you must become middle class’. I never could, I always felt a fraud, I didn’t understand the culture, I didn’t want to and yet my own culture was lost to me, I was set adrift and have been ever since. I have no reference points still: as the writer Mark Fisher says, I feel like a fraud in the middle-class arts and education settings I find myself in, I feel a fraud in the working class environments I come from. I have no identity. I have no sense of belonging. Hmmm … and I wonder why I get depressed.
My depression is a manifestation of the contradictions I face in my life within society and yet it feels so painfully personal. I want to say: ‘From now on I refuse to personalise my own oppression and experience. I recognise it as social and political and rather than turn it in on myself I will turn it into anger and action. Into analysis and transformation’. But … so far that hasn’t happened. This is the ultimate triumph of the systems of oppression I have lived within – I may have an intellectual analysis of the roots of my own depression, but when the gangsters come knocking at the door it means shit. When the baseball bats come out my intellectual analysis does nothing to protect me, the damage has been done too deeply, the destruction of parts of my soul too effective and there I am back to cowering in the corner, blaming myself for the bullying I’m experiencing.
This isn’t even to mention how the world I inhabit seems to have gone in the last thirty years: the rising inequality, the blatant and wilful destruction of community and our nationally-owned resources. Homelessness. Poverty. Abuse of the ill, disabled people and the less-privileged. A resurgence of overt racism as an ‘acceptable’ mode in society. The privatisation of debt and human misery. The tick-box, quantification approach to human existence. The selfishness. I believe my depression is a manifestation of all these things. To say ‘Jamie lives with mental illness’ misses the point. I live with emotional and mental suffering. I am not mentally ill. I live and embody the contradictions of post-colonial experience, of generations of abuse by England against the Irish people, of the destruction of working-class life, of my own personal experiences of alienation within social, cultural and educational settings. I live and embody the violence that is daily done to people in the society in which I live and is done by the country in which I live to others around the world.
To say ‘I’m feeling depressed’ doesn’t usually conjure up all this, but it should. ‘I’m feeling depressed’ signals a faulty society, not a faulty human being.