The terrible truth about depression, and the part of its nature that terrifies me the most, is that it appears to operate beyond reason; feelings happen to you for no apparent cause. Or rather, there is usually an initial cause, a 'trigger'as they say in therapeutic circles, but in severe depression the feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness and despair continue long after the situation has resolved itself. It is as if depression has a life of its own, which is perhaps why so many sufferers refer to it as a living thing, as some sort of demon or beast.
Imagine saying to somebody that you have a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, and being told to pull yourself together or get over it. Imagine being terribly ill and too afraid to tell anyone lest it destroys your career. Imagine being admitted to hospital because you are too ill to function and being too ashamed to tell anyone, because it is a psychiatric hospital. Imagine telling someone that you have recently been discharged and watching them turn away, in embarrassment or disgust or fear. Comparisons are odious. Stigmatising an illness is more odious still.
I would not wish depression on anybody. And yet, it taught me a lot. I have not become suddenly mawkishly grateful for my life but I am more interested in it, more engaged you might say. When you have spent long years in the dark, there is joy in seeing the light and pleasure, above all, in the ordinary.
Wanting to die (or 'suicidal ideation'as the experts would have it) goes hand in hand with the illness. It is a symptom of severe depression, not a character failing or moral flaw. Nor is it, truly, a desire to die so much as a fervent wish not to go on living. All depressives understand that distinction.
A friend called the other day.'How are you?' she said. The sun was shining, the sky a merciless blue. It was only eleven in the morning but I had been awake since three twenty. I was in bed because, as usual, I could think of nowhere else to go. I said that I was feeling low. Low is the depressive's euphemism for despair. She said: 'How can you be depressed on a day like this?'I wanted to say: 'If I had flu, would you ask me how I could be sick on a day like this?