Tuesday, 20 August 2013

If I weren't the way I am, I shouldn't write my symphonies. [Gustav Mahler] - PART FOUR



Following another prolonged absence, this time due to a period of ill health, I am returning to write probably the most difficult and carefully considered contribution to this personal journey.


MY LIFE WITH THE BLACK DOG





"There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds."

― Laurell K. HamiltonMistral's Kiss


Last year, after a long period of unexplained ill health, I was finally diagnosed with advanced Type 2 diabetes. Although it has done some permanent damage to my eyesight and nerve endings, the disease is manageable and, with care and daily medication, will not progress any further. It has, however, started a process that will, to a large extent, change how I live and think about life. As part of this process I have been forced to face up to and deal with another  very long standing problem that I have kept hidden, out of shame, for a very long time. I have agonised about talking publicly about this for quite some time and have decided that not speaking about it is what makes it worse for me and for others.


"When you're lost in those woods, it sometimes takes you a while to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you've just wandered off the path, that you'll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it's time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don't even know from which direction the sun rises any more.

― Elizabeth Gilbert


So, here it is. Along with the diabetes, I have now been diagnosed with clinical depression. Yes, DEPRESSION. I'll say it again, DEPRESSION, that illness that dare not speak its name. I have decided to speak out about it as it is an illness like any other and I've put up with it for far too long. Moreover, my mother suffered with depression for many years and it was made much worse by the shame that she felt and her inability to talk about it. In fact, her depression became so debilitating that the symptoms of the curable cancer that killed her were missed until it was too late.



“The sun stopped shining for me is all. The whole story is: I am sad. I am sad all the time and the sadness is so heavy that I can't get away from it. Not ever.”

― Nina LaCour, Hold Still


Ever since I was a small boy I have worried inordinately about almost everything. This, coupled with crippling shyness and a severe stammer made me a solitary little boy who found it hard to mix whilst longing to belong. When others passed their days in normal youthful pursuits, I found solace and a world that I could cope with in books, poetry and music - all of which made me appear even more odd to my contemporaries and caused a great deal of bullying. I'm sure, dear reader, that you can imagine how a 14 year-old boy who reads and writes poetry is viewed by his peers!


"Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness."

― Maya Angelou


Of course, it wasn't all bad; there were times when things were good. When I joined the BSC Brass Band, went into the sixth form at school and, most importantly, when I went to University, I had varying levels of feeling that I belonged. In fact, looking back, University was the happiest time of my life and I made good and life-lasting friends. Even in the good times, though, there was always something lurking in the background.







Looking back, it was when my Mum died in 1992 that the depression really started to take hold. Having been ill for some time with an unexplained illness which, as I've said, had been put down to her depression, Mum became bed-ridden just after Christmas of 1991 and wasn't diagnosed with cancer until the March. After two agonising weeks in hospital in Cardiff (with Dad and me at her bedside 24 hours a day) she passed away at 7am on the 21st April 1992, two months short of her 60th birthday, one month short of my 30th and less than five months before my already planned wedding. 


I really should have sought help after this but life just rolled on like a juggernaut and I thought I was just being a wimp. I spent the next 17 years working from home and avoiding people as much as possible. I developed a morbid fear of using the telephone, something which largely persists today (thank God for online chat, email and texting) and was unable to answer the door to anyone, even friends on occasion - I still check through the window before answering the door today.


All of my adult life I have spoken of the Black Dog that periodically visits me and has, perversely, become like an old friend. I have also become very good at hiding it and appearing relatively happy while the world was crumbling inside me. I've often referred to this as wearing my clown's mask and I've become quite adept at hiding behind it.




“If you are chronically down, it is a lifelong fight to keep from sinking ”

― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation


I've managed to get by for quite some time by being amiable, jovial, Chris in public and then collapsing into tears and despair when in private. It is all too easy to adopt a dual persona as the shame of having depression makes one want to bury it as deep as possible. Of course, this only makes matters worse as the "dark self" starts to hate the "bright" one and feels more of a failure for not having the guts to face up to it. Such is the insidious nature of depressive illness.


“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Serious, on-going, depression is debilitating, it sucks, vampire-like, the very life out of the sufferer, leaving a lethargic, direction-less, shell to drift through a half-world of mere existence where nothing ever feels good and the best that one can hope for is a brief respite where everything feels flat but the despair and crushing loneliness is kept at bay. Even then, one knows that it will not last and constantly fears the approach of the abyss and the inevitable plunge into the darkness.



“I waste at least an hour every day lying in bed. Then I waste time pacing. I waste time thinking. I waste time being quiet and not saying anything because I'm afraid I'll stutter.”

― Ned Vizzini, It's Kind of a Funny Story


At my lowest points I began to sleep, involuntarily, during the day as my mind found the way to cope with the world was to shut it out. If left alone, I could easily "sleep" all day, conscious of what was going on around me but unable to rouse myself to a level of consciousness to be able to function. It actually became so bad that I had to stop driving for a while, which further cut me off from friends and activities, as I couldn't trust myself not to shut down when I was at the wheel. Fortunately, that has now passed and I'm as "safe" as I ever was.



“I didn't want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that's really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you're so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”

― Ned Vizzini, It's Kind of a Funny Story






The irony of this was that in the night-time I suffered from insomnia, another one of depression's weapons for breaking one's spirit. At the one time when, if one had the courage to talk to someone and was able to persuade oneself that they didn't mind, the sufferer needs a sympathetic ear and calming voice, everyone is asleep and one is left alone in the dark. For several years I spent most nights sat either in an armchair or in my kitchen (unless I had the luxury of having work to do) through the night, not being able to face the thought of lying in the dark while my mind raced through all my imperfections and failings and told me just how useless I am. Then, as daylight came, I would crawl to bed and not want to get up to face the day; scared of what the post might bring, scared of leaving the house, of facing work, of seeing people, basically scared of life.



“I don't want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can't even see it, something that's drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”

― Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye


Clinical depression is not simply feeling sad or "a bit down", it is much more complicated than that. Well-meaning friends (I have done this myself) will tell the sufferer to "cheer up" or "It's not that bad" partly because they do not understand and partly because they can't think of anything else to say or do and are increasingly desperate to help. Sadly, there is nothing that they can say or do, just be there and listen, even if it is for the umpteenth time, to the often incoherent ramblings of the depressed person - it really helps just to tell someone, no matter how many times one has told them before; depression is a regenerative enemy, it is not defeated simply by being talked about once.


“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humourless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You're frightened, and you're frightening, and you're "not at all like yourself but will be soon," but you know you won't.”

― Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness


Everyone has worries, tragedies and problems in their lives, it's part of the human condition, but, for someone with depression it is different. If, under normal circumstances, one is sad, angry, hurt or lonely, it is a tangible feeling, with cause and effect, and there is the belief that it will pass; for the depressed person this is not so. There is no cause and effect, no light at the end of tunnel and no apparent route to healing or redemption.


It is also very hard to explain the loneliness that one feels. Many people will say that they like solitude, myself included, but this is different. Solitude is a choice and one knows that there are people out there if one wishes to engage with them. For me, there is nothing better than working in solitude but knowing that people I care about are only a few steps away and will be glad to see me.


Depressive loneliness is completely different to solitude. It cuts the victim off from sociable contact by convincing them that there is no one out there, that the people that they long to be with don't really want to connect with them, that they are so repulsive and boring that everyone wishes to keep away. The weight of this loneliness is unbearable and prevents the victim from doing anything to ameliorate it.  Friends will suggest "keep your self busy", "find an interest" or "immerse yourself in your work" but the loneliness is all pervasive and, like a gas, expands to fill the void completely, allowing no space for thought or respite. At my worst moments I have found that trying to compose, the one thing I enjoyed doing more than anything, became impossible as all I could think of was that the world was turning without me, everyone was getting on with their lives and that my existence was irrelevant.


It sounds pathetic but the one overarching desire is for someone to say "You are special, you make a difference, my life would be empty without you", regardless of how loved someone is by one's own family there is a need for confirmation of one's validity as a human being from outside. Depressive loneliness is not about needing to be with people, I can feel utterly alone in a roomful of people, it is about the longing to be with people (or even one person) who want to be with you, values you, even depends upon you in some way. The desperate thing about depression is that these people are already there, and probably have been all along, but the illness doesn't allow one to accept it.


“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it's a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

― J.K. Rowling


The inability to express one's hopelessness and the numbing effect of the depression upon one's senses and feelings can manifest itself in several physical ways. In my case it was first in a terrible stammer, the inability to walk into a room where there were people whom I didn't know without wanting to throw up, the development of quite severe stress asthma and, I am ashamed to say, self harm. I'm afraid that cutting my forearm with a razor blade, scalpel or even the blade of a scissors became a way of externalising the pain that I was feeling whilst making me feel that I deserved to suffer.


While on this subject I should say, too, that I have been VERY fortunate to have some compassionate family and friends who have come along at times when I may, ONLY may, have gone further and done something really stupid. It is so terribly sad that for some people, despite all the efforts of friends and family, they can only see one solution to the problem. True depression is such an evil, evil illness that it prevents the victim (yes, sufferers are victims) from thinking clearly and seeking the help that is there - unfortunately, no one can do this for them - unless and until a crisis point is reached and overcome.


“That's the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to ever see the end.”

― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation


Depression is VERY hard on friends and family and takes it's inevitable toll on relationships, thus making the depression worse. I know that I have been very trying to those around me for they experience a feeling of total helplessness as they are unable to make one "snap out of it" and not only have to watch one fall apart but also never know when and when not one will be able to function. There is nothing to be done except be there with reassurance and compassion until the sufferer can bring themselves to seek professional help - in my case it took the best part of 30 years to get to this point.


“Some friends don't understand this. They don't understand how desperate I am to have someone say, I love you and I support you just the way you are because you're wonderful just the way you are. They don't understand that I can't remember anyone ever saying that to me. I am so demanding and difficult for my friends because I want to crumble and fall apart before them so that they will love me even though I am no fun, lying in bed, crying all the time, not moving. Depression is all about If you loved me you would.”

― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation


The need for reassurance is constant; to feel valued, loved and necessary. Even when told these things, the sufferer does not believe them; depression is constantly telling them that they are useless, pointless, unloved and unwanted, that everyone is embarrassed to be with them, ashamed of them,  only spending time with them because they are too kind to say what they really think and walk away. Logic tells one that this is not true but depression is so strong that it swamps these thoughts and warps one's sense of reality.


“Choking with dry tears and raging, raging, raging at the absolute indifference of nature and the world to the death of love, the death of hope and the death of beauty, I remember sitting on the end of my bed, collecting these pills and capsules together and wondering why, why when I felt I had so much to offer, so much love, such outpourings of love and energy to spend on the world, I was incapable of being offered love, giving it or summoning the energy with which I knew I could transform myself and everything around me.”

― Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot


My sense of worthlessness and self-loathing will often prevent me from going in to have a meal at a pub or restaurant as I'm convinced that I'll be refused service (stupid but true) and as much as I love cinema, theatre and days out, I don't do these any more as I'm scared to do them on my own. I also have lost count of the number of interviews that I have missed simply because I was unable to walk into the building - not very good for career progression! Similarly, in my composition career, I've found it very difficult to network and to do PR for myself - I suppose one could argue that if I'd wanted it enough then I would have made myself do it, who knows? My GP told me to go back to the gym and I had a fantastic personal trainer but the depression won yet again as I felt that everyone was watching me and thinking "look at the state on him" - in reality, of course, they were probably too bothered about their own bodies to even notice mine.


Gym Workout as imagined by me



One's need to seek approval, praise and, indeed, love can affect one's responses to everyday events and random acts of kindness can take on a significance far greater than the good Samaritan intended. Likewise, simple slights, or even good-natured jokes, can become agonising heart wounding spears that take hours, days, weeks or even months to get over. I've lost count of the number of times that something fairly innocuous has been said to me which resulted, several hours later, in my crying for hours or sitting in my car or study over-analysing every word and nuance of the comment. The people around one tend to think that one is a good sport, a bit soppy, a little insecure (I have been called in the past, in a friendly and kind way, "Mr Paranoia" and "Insecuri-Bear"), very open (because of the continual need to explain oneself in the hope of being understood) but they don't see the trauma that goes on when no one is around.






The feeling of failure, of having let people down, of having cheated one's way through life is always there as a background to daily life. I constantly think that I've merely fooled people into thinking that I can do this or that and am always waiting to be found out for the fraud that the illness keeps telling me that I am. Although constantly wishing and craving for praise and approval, when it comes I simply think "What do they know" or "I've fooled them", regardless of how experienced or distinguished the person may be. 


“Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. They don't need to show me their badges. I know these guys very well.”

― Elizabeth Gilbert


I think I've become quite good at controlling my emotions in front of most people. I've always been easily moved to tears (I am, actually, quite soppy and an incurable Romantic which makes matters worse) and sad thoughts, stories, music and films can reduce me to a blubbering fool. Even so, there are times when I just have to get away as soon as possible or simply avoid people as I know I'm going to break down.


“I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”

― Sylvia Plath


This, for me, is the other great evil of depressive illness. Even though I crave companionship, want to belong and have a deep-seated and morbid fear of loneliness, I find it VERY difficult to be with people and try to avoid, where I can, large gatherings or social events. Again, the illness makes one stand apart and hate oneself for doing so. 


“When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone.”

― Fiona Apple


The depression made me retreat further and further inside myself and, luckily, I found that composition was an outlet through which I could not only express my emotions but could also engage with people without making myself vulnerable. If I felt that they couldn't love me, perhaps they could love the music instead and the image that I presented through it. Even though I hate being on my own and sometimes hate composition for the enforced solitude that it causes, I felt safe on my own where no one could upset me. It was comforting to know that I didn't have to put on the mask and be constantly afraid of letting my guard down and either embarrassing myself or upsetting someone.


“I'll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.”

― Henry Rollins, The Portable Henry Rollin


Music has become my life and although I'll joke about it in public (too embarrassed to let anyone other than a few very empathetic friends see just how important it is to me) it is central to my very existence and gives me both purpose and direction. I can honestly say, without wishing to be melodramatic, that without music (or possibly some other creative outlet) I would not be here now.


“It's not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

― Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot


If anyone wants to see inside my soul and to know who I really am, go no further than listening to my music, it is all in there. There is, of course, an element of attention seeking and narcissism too, as the American writer Elmore Leonard once said - "I have done nothing that wasn't for the love of, or to impress, a woman" - I can subscribe wholeheartedly to that!



The good, working class, Port Talbot boy inside me hates the pretentious talk that is sometimes uttered by artists in all genres and I find it hard to talk like this publicly but here, once and only, I can state categorically that my music speaks for me and is drawn, sometimes agonisingly, from my soul - that is cringingly nauseating but it is the truth.


“Perfume was first created to mask the stench of foul and offensive odours...
Spices and bold flavourings were created to mask the taste of putrid and rotting meat...
What then was music created for?
Was it to drown out the voices of others, or the voices within ourselves?
I think I know.”

― Emilie Autumn, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls


So, in a perverse way, depression has been my friend as well as my enemy. It has made me what I am and given me a mission in life. Again, one of the great problems in dealing with depression and initially seeking help is that it becomes one's closest friend, the rock upon which one builds one's life. It's very scary to face the prospect of living without it no matter how much distress it has caused.


“Because that’s the thing about depression. When I feel it deeply, I don’t want to let it go. It becomes a comfort. I want to cloak myself under its heavy weight and breathe it into my lungs. I want to nurture it, grow it, cultivate it. It’s mine. I want to check out with it, drift asleep wrapped in its arms and not wake up for a long, long time.”

― Stephanie Perkins, Lola and the Boy Next Door


“In a strange way, I had fallen in love with my depression. Dr. Sterling was right about that. I loved it because I thought it was all I had. I thought depression was the part of my character that made me worthwhile. I thought so little of myself, felt that I had such scant offerings to give to the world, that the one thing that justified my existence at all was my agony.”

― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation






After living with the Black Dog for almost 30 years it finally took a crisis in my life, and the onset of severe symptoms of the as yet undiagnosed diabetes, to make me seek help. When I realised that my health was actually deteriorating and it wasn't simply a case of my feeling "under the weather" I had to make myself go to the GP (something I've never liked doing).  I decided that I had to go and, to stop myself chickening out as I normally did, wrote all my symptoms down and completely filled TWO sheets of A4 paper. Extremely fortunately for me, there was a new, recently qualified, GP who, unlike my previous one, took my symptoms seriously and immediately sent me for a barrage of tests. 


Upon my return a week later I was told that I had advanced Type 2 diabetes and, without my saying anything more, that the GP was fairly certain that I had clinical depression. A few simple tests later he was sure of it and we discussed how I felt and the way forward. I was initially relieved, even euphoric, until I thought that if my old GP hadn't just told me that I was just "feeling down" and that my lethargy and nerve pain were just through lack of sleep then I might have avoided the worst of this. I was a little angry about this but never mind, we got there in the end and in time to prevent much permanent damage.


The GP started me on a course of anti-depressants and said that he recommended counselling but that the NHS counsellors were booked up for months in advance and could only offer me one half hour slot anyway. The other option was to go private but I decided against this. I am VERY lucky to have good friends both in work and outside and they have been a tremendous source of strength (if you are reading this, you know who you are!). 




“Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don't believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it's good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.”

― Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression


I am now eight months into my journey back from the "Isle of the Dead" and although it is a very slow progression I am slowly getting there. I have had to have my medication doubled recently (although it is still some way off the maximum dose) and it does interfere with the creative process - I sometimes have to choose between writing and taking my medication - but I can function much better for most of the time. The problem now is adjusting to the ups and downs of life and recognising when I am having normal feelings or when the Black Dog is biting at my heels. I am also trying, though not always succeeding, not too look back at things that I cannot change or relive and to move forward, that is not easy.


"Into my heart an air that kills
 From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
 What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
 I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
 And cannot come again."

A.E. Housman - The Land of Lost Content


I have had much help along the way from friends and family and have been touched by the understanding and compassion shown by many people. In addition to the medication, it is important to have something to focus on and I have been fortunate to have found this in my reborn interest in brass banding. I play with both TATA Brass Band [Port Talbot] and RAF St Athan Voluntary Band and both the social interaction and the absorption in the music has helped me to fill my free time and to keep my mind occupied. 


It's not all plain sailing and there are bad, black, days as well as good. I find the night-time very difficult, that's when the loneliness kicks in and the need to talk to someone is overwhelming - I spend a lot of time on social media but am trying to wean myself off it as I feel the need to bare my soul late at night and I'm sure that people are getting sick of it. Also, I'm tired of sitting for hour after hour watching names pop up on the chat list and waiting for someone to talk to me as I'm too scared to start up a conversation - pathetic. I still get occasional days when I stare into the abyss but at least now I recognise why and can deal with it.


I have now been diagnosed with sleep apnoea and have to wear a mask when I sleep. I turns out that untreated sleep apnoea can, amongst other things, cause Type 2 diabetes which, in turn, can cause or exacerbate depression. In view of this I have put my illnesses together and given them the name "Trevor" (an old Uni joke when we couldn't think of someone or something's name) as I figure that giving the illness a persona will make it easier to deal with. Trevor and I are moving along slowly and I'm learning to deal with everything by breaking it down into small steps and not beating myself up when I can't do things.


I hope that others who are afflicted with this vile illness will feel able to talk about it and will find the same support and compassion that I have. No one should be afraid to seek professional help - it is imperative that they do - as depression is an illness like any other, there should be no stigma attached to it. 


As for me, I hope to get Trevor permanently under control and  move on with the rest of my life. It's not going to be easy but I have to do it. I hope that eventually the only Black Dog in my life will be Ceri, my Black Labrador, who loves me unconditionally and who has comforted me through many a long, lonely night.






No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,        
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …        
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.


T.S. Eliot - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock