Brexit Blues #1: Referendum Depression

Dear readers: you may have been surprised by my lack of rants about Britain’s recent referendum and decision to quit the EU – because God knows, the whole sorry farce gave plenty to rant about, as it will for years to come.

The reason for this dearth, thanks to the double-whammy of the result and a nasty virus doing the rounds, was that I temporarily lost the will to live, let alone blog. Seriously – the farrago of Farage, the lies piled on lies, the jingoistic ravings of the far-right, the self-seeking hypocrisy and gross political ineptitude on all sides, plunged me deep into the sort of depression I thought I’d long recovered from. I don’t mean a bummed-out mood that can be jollied away by a glass of wine and a funny film. I mean a leaden lethargy that turns getting up and dressed to face another day into an effort akin to climbing Everest; a hopeless negativity that makes it impossible to see beyond the world’s cruelty and horror to the love and beauty that exist alongside; a lasting despair that makes the idea of escaping through death seem appealing.

Anyone who’s experienced full-blown clinical depression will be nodding sagely at this point, while anyone who hasn’t may be thinking, ‘Suicidal over politics? How very self-indulgent/melodramatic/stupid,’ or something along those lines. So before I finally vent my thoughts on the fiasco of ‘Brexit,’ (the very word, that obnoxious little contraction, makes me want to run amok with an axe), I’d like to say a few words about the black dog that’s pursued me since childhood and still, on occasion, drags me down.

Endogenous depression, the type that comes from within, isn’t pretty. It isn’t languishing on a couch while silent tears roll with fetching pathos down one’s pallid cheek – it’s more like open-mouthed bawling, uncontrollable and inconsolable, with red eyes, red face and copious snot. It’s deeply complex; symptoms vary greatly between individuals, but may include a sense of being overwhelmed; a nerve-peeled hyper-sensitivity, a tendency to over-personalise, over-analyse and brood on the motivations of others, make negative assumptions about them – often wildly inaccurate – and act accordingly; bouts of hysterical frenzy alternating with long, silent withdrawals; and contempt for folk who can’t grasp just how bloody awful everything is, mingled with jealousy and resentment of their bovine, contented oblivion. The damaged self can be horribly selfish, narcissistic, paranoid, self-obsessed, unreasonable and blind to the feelings of others; the memory of some of my behaviour while ‘acting out’ my internal miseries and dramas still makes me cringe decades later. (Any non-depressives who want to get a handle on how this mind-set feels, try reading Sylvia Plath’s poems and journals; or the memoirs by Dido Merwin and Lucas Myers in Anne Stevenson’s Plath biography, Bitter Fame, to see how its manifestations impact on helpless bystanders). Depression is- well, depressingly common, affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide, and I lose count of the number of past or present sufferers I’ve personally known. It goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and guilt for being so pathetically unable to cope with everyday stuff that everyone else apparently takes in their stride; it is at the very least life-blighting, and at the very worst, life-ending – I’ve lost one dear friend and several acquaintances to suicide when they couldn’t take the pain any longer, and on occasion come perilously close to checking out myself.

So depression isn’t being feeble, something a person can simply ‘snap out of’ at will; it’s a serious, potentially fatal illness often (as in my case) resulting from unbalanced brain chemistry combined with unresolved early trauma. Luckily, an effective course of treatment in the 1990’s saved my life; and apart from episodes brought on by external circumstances or the hormonal mood-swings of advancing middle-age, since then I’ve been a pretty happy bunny – that is, until the referendum catapulted me back onto familiar dark mental pathways and made me want to opt out, not out of Europe but out of existence itself.

How am I coping? Avoiding the news, for a start – current affairs are too threatening to my mental health and the precarious equilibrium I’ve begun to claw back. Practising mindfulness, staying in the here and now, trying not to mourn over what’s passed or panic about what’s to come, concentrating on our unchanged immediate surroundings and shutting my eyes to the wider world until I’m strong enough to look at it again. Trying not to get too angry, hungry or tired, because then I’m more vulnerable to falling into the abyss. Hanging onto life primarily for the sake of the two beings who want and need me most, my husband and cat; hoping and trusting that I’ll regain the desire to live for myself and everyone else who cares about me; resolving that if it doesn’t happen soon, if a stable, usually happy state doesn’t return, I’ll seek medical treatment. And now publishing this to say to any fellow sufferers from ‘Brexit Blues’ or other forms of depression: you’re not alone. You’re not weak or pathetic. You do deserve help; I hope that you’ll seek and find it, and from my heart, I wish you every sort of well.

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Literature Matters: RIP, Sylvia Plath

At 4am today I was up drinking coffee, fussing the cat, planning my day and thinking. Thinking about the early hours of another February 11th fifty years ago, when one of the 20th century’s greatest poets was also up planning her day… and planning to make it her last.

Did Sylvia Plath really mean to kill herself on that freezing cold morning in 1963? Folk have argued the point ever since, speculating that she did not; that it was a horrible misadventure, a misfired attempt to stage a ‘Lady Lazarus’-style resurrection from which she would arise, purged and purified, to begin her life anew. But I think the evidence on which this assumption is based can be read in quite the opposite way to show that (alas) she did indeed mean to end her life.

For a start she did not take an overdose, as she did for her first suicide attempt in 1953, but chose instead the common and more reliably fatal method of asphyxiation by domestic gas. For this to have been a gamble surely implies knowledge and calculation which Plath may not have possessed, or which may have been beyond her in her terminally distressed state: knowledge of how long it took a person to die in this way, and calculation of the time she would therefore need to switch on the gas in order to stand some chance of rescue. Given the imprecise nature of time-of-death estimations, even in modern forensic science, we cannot know exactly what time Sylvia Plath did turn on her oven; only that it was not a last-minute gamble but long enough before 9am for sufficient gas to have seeped down and stupefied her neighbour Trevor Thomas in the flat below. (Her remark to him, ‘I am going to die and who will look after my babies?’ also suggests that the decision to suicide was a done deal by the night of February 10th).

And she took advantage of a perfect ‘window of opportunity’: she would not lie long undiscovered, expose her children to excessive risk, or traumatise a friend, neighbour or her husband Ted Hughes with the finding of her body, because she was expecting a new nanny to arrive at 9am – a stranger who could loosely be termed a health-care professional, someone Plath may have felt would be better equipped to cope with such a situation.

Finally there is her note, the instruction to call her GP, Doctor Horder. The doctor would not have come equipped with the emergency life-saving equipment an amblulance crew would carry, but he was equipped with an understanding of how severely his patient had been suffering in the last weeks of her life; maybe she viewed Doctor Horder as a living suicide note, a trusted medical man more capable of explaining her final act than was Plath herself, in the grip of her dreadful desperation.

Of course, we can’t know – the only person who could tell exactly what happened and why is Sylvia Plath herself. My hunch is that she had simply had enough of living with crushing bouts of depression, exacerbated in the winter of 1962-63 by general ill-health, atrocious weather and the misery of her marriage breakdown. I do so wish she could have toughed it out longer… gone back into therapy, found lasting relief from the condition that blighted her life – spared everyone who loved her, above all her children, the pain of her premature death, and survived to enjoy the great fame that instead she received posthumously.

So I remember you today, Sylvia Plath, and raise a glass to your memory. Rest in Peace – or perhaps I should say, ‘Rage in Perpetuity’, fill the afterlife with your magnificent verse. Perhaps you’d like that better.