on depression and alienation

 There is no us, there is only I,

Dropped like a tear from my mother’s eye.

Mother do you know your son at all?

Looking for the things he’ll never find,

Talks too much about suicide,

Who can tell what’s on his mind?

The Wonder Stuff. 1991. Here Comes Everyone.

 

“Then the boy realised, the penguin wasn’t lost, he was just lonely.”

Oliver Jeffers. 2005. Lost and Found.

 

I wrote this whilst I listened to this Spotify playlist that I made for my Mom.

This post is dedicated to Jo and to Tracey. For everything.

It was inspired by Joss and Lucy, who point me towards life.

A note

I originally posted this on Wednesday 4 December. Then, 15 minutes later and in the middle of the worst panic attack I have had for a decade I took it down. And that’s the reality of this illness; that crippled by self-doubt and an utter feeling of dread, I would descend into an anxiety attack that would last for 24 hours. The reality was that I would be sitting in meetings wondering what excuse I could use for leaving: sickness, headache, whatever. Only if I did leave, then what? Go insane? Self-harm? Run until I dropped? So, as I sat in an interview with a PVC, another Professor and a member of senior management, I survived the rage in-between my temples. They would not have known how close I was to screaming.

And then I had a conversation with my wife, and my friends dropped into place.

Preamble

There is a story that is not for telling here. It is about a boy who was abandoned, and abandoned, and abandoned again. A boy who refused to let anyone else be abandoned in-turn. A boy who raged against the injustice of it all. A boy with a beautiful ferocity of purpose. A boy who was relentless, focused, militant. A boy who fought so hard that he forgot himself, and who broke his self, and who spent a lifetime trying to recover. But that story is for another day.

On depression

In February 2009, seven years after I had exited therapy for the second-time I picked-up the phone. Five months of battling, living with and being scarred by the deepest depression left me in the worst of places. Given that I had spent most of the preceding nine years recovering from a physical and emotional breakdown, and in trying to manage panic and anxiety and their cloying sibling depression, I knew this was the worst of places. Unforgivingly bleak.

The inability to think straight for more than a few minutes. The moments of time dragging on for ever. The effort it takes to get out of bed. To eat well. To think well. The tinnitus. The fucking tinnitus, scarifying my mind. The crippling fatigue punching its way into my psyche, and coating my muscles in lactic borne of exhaustion. My black core telling me that I am nothing; that I am pathetic; that I am worthless; that I am a fuck-up; that I am one hair-trigger from failure; that all my relationships are broken and it’s all my fault; and that when I stumble then everyone will know; and when I stumble then I am fucked.

“Give up or go on, doesn’t matter. Because sooner or later, they will see you for what you are and then you will be fucked.”

Because I had no self. No safe space inside. Just despair. And this time it was back with a vengeance.

And this had happened pretty constantly from 2000-05, and it was accompanied by chronic fatigue. Body and mind working in tandem. Failing in tandem. No respite.

And then I forgot about it for a while. And I kidded myself that I had worked through it. And that the blackness and the bleakness that infected every waking moment would pass.

Only I forgot. I forgot that we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. And in despair I searched the bacp website for person-centred/gestalt/integrative therapists. And then I picked-up the phone.

A failure to cope?

On Monday 25 October, in the wake of Jonathan Trott leaving the England party during the Ashes, Stan Collymore spoke to Mark Saggers about his debilitating battle with depression. He spoke of the need to be tested for a range of physical illnesses like ME and chronic fatigue, because mental health was poorly understood and taboo, and his fatigue could never be psychological, could it? He spoke of the need to support men and women in their access to mental health professionals. He spoke of how the club doctor at Aston Villa FC told him he would be okay if he just scored a couple of goals in the next game. He asked a man who had claimed that those with depression were just weak and should get on with life, whether he would like to compete in any physical or mental task with him, so we could see who was “stronger or fitter.”

And he spoke about humanity.

And he spoke about care.

And he spoke of the long and very painful road to recovery.

Then Stan Collymore wrote this.

And he spoke of the need for more people to have the courage to stand-up and speak about their on-going battles with their mental health.

And before I go on, you might want acquaint yourself with some myths about clinical depression. Or you might want to acquaint yourself with some stories from highly-functioning people coping with mental health problems. Or you might want to acquaint yourself with some stories of highly-functioning people attempting to recover. Or you might want to hear the voices from coalitions of service-users fighting for solidarity and to be heard. Because this is about points of solidarity.

So here we are. A failure to cope?

Since February 2009, I have spent over 450 hours in therapy. I have been in therapy three times a week for a year. Before that I was in therapy twice a week for two years. Before that once a week for two years. I have had countless extra phone-calls, in order to get me through specific days. My therapist is amazing. And only human.

I have been taking anti-depressants under the guidance of my GP since June 2011. My GP is a rock.

In November 2012, after helping care for my Mom for four months as she battled early-onset dementia, I was forced to leave work for six weeks with depression and anxiety. I had always battled to be at work, because if I could not be there I was a failure, right? Without my labour, what was I? What am I? What is my point? Alienated at and through capitalist work, which demands that we are resilient, efficient, productive, whatever.

Never underestimate the importance of admitting that you cannot cope alone. We are conditioned to rely on the rugged, resilient individual. To develop the rugged, resilient individual. And in the process we are all demeaned. In the process we are all alienated from our humanity. Recovery is imbued with sociability just as the history that brought us to this point is a social failure on some level.

During the next five months with my Dad and my sister I learned more about care pathways and the prognosis for dementia patients than I ever thought I would. I attended a carers’ course run by the wonderful CLASP the Carers’ Centre in Leicester. And then in April 2013, another singularity. My Mom died.

My Mom died. And she broke my heart.

And since then I have battled vertigo, recurrent respiratory tract viruses, and headaches. And I have not missed a day of work, except through strike action. And just like in 2000, I have to live with daemons running wild in my mind and a body that just shut-down. A body and a mind that shut-down to stop me running, and that forced me to think about courage and faith and just trying to be.

And this is what failure looks like, right? The lazy depressive. The guy who just couldn’t cope with a bit of pressure. I just want to man-up, right?

And since I went back into therapy some other things have happened.

In June 2009 I was awarded a UK National Teaching Fellowship.

In June 2010 I was awarded a Readership in Education and Technology.

In June 2011 I formed and lead a new Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology at De Montfort University.

In May 2013 I was made Professor of Education and Technology.

In September 2013 the digilit Leicester Project that I co-manage won an international award.

I have given 66 conference presentations, and had published 25 peer-reviewed papers since I went into therapy.

I have project-managed or worked on 13 HE projects. And I have mentored six Ph.D. candidates, and countless colleagues going for teacher/national teaching fellowships.

Since 2011, I’ve written 125 blog-posts consisting of around 150,000 words.

And I was a school governor/deputy-chair of governors; and a trustee of a homeless shelter; and a co-worker at a homeless shelter; and the Chair of a football club supporters’ trust; and a co-operator at a social science centre; and a trades union committee member; and a serial protestor on demonstrations; and a husband; and a friend; and a client; and a son; and a brother.

Always running; always busy; always a mess.

And I have thought about suicide more often than I care to remember.

And I have spent more nights awake drenched in panic-driven sweat than I care to remember.

And I have psychologically self-harmed more times than I care to remember.

And the jack-hammer in my head tells me that I am going insane more often than I care to remember.

And the visceral dread in my stomach as I sit in meetings from time-to-time, looking for the escape route. Wondering at what point in the meeting I will crack.

And sometimes the effort it takes to get out of bed rather than just wait for it all to end is suffocating.

And the jack-hammer in my head tells me that I am a fraud. That nothing I have ever achieved is worth anything. That nothing I have ever written has any point. That it is only a matter of time before I am found out when I speak. So I might as well shut-the-fuck-up.

Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

And yet…

The boy tells me that I need to write and that I need to speak, in order to be heard. Because we need to be heard. Because marginalised voices need to be heard.

And I speak for the boy who needs to be heard. Who was lost and who wants to be found. And we fight the fear that if we fail we will be abandoned. Again. And we fight the fear that we have nothing of interest to say, and that we are useless, pointless, nothing, alone, pathetic. Nothing. No thing at all.

And together we take courage and faith, and we fight to sit and to be. And to recognise our humanity.

So here we are

There is no neverland. There is no redemption or salvation. Except from the blackness and the bleakness. But there is the on-going search for solidarity with myself, and through that a solidarity with other people. The search for my own humanity. And the recognition that in getting-up and in going to work, and in managing a team, and in working co-operatively, and in writing, and in speaking, that I might recognise the courage it takes to stop doing stuff and just be. To stop and to find faith in me.

That my route away from crippling depression lies in my caring for me.

And this is an on-going battle that will end with my ability to cope with a few emotional problems. To learn to like and love and find faith in myself. And in you, too.

And right now this matters because yesterday Simon Hughes tried to rubbish Jonathan Trott on Twitter. And I remembered that Trott’s England Test career encompasses 49 tests at an average of 46 runs with a top-score of 226. And that Hughes’ England Test career was non-existent but that he has found a successful media voice. And that doesn’t make Trott better or worse than Hughes. It just makes him different. If only Hughes could have recognised that, and could have cared about the humanity in all of us.

Caring about our shared humanity.

#solidarity


15 Responses to on depression and alienation

  1. Had to leave something here Richard. This is so sad and so moving. What can anyone say? Let me know if at any time you fancy a walk, a bike ride, a drink, a camping trip, a road trip, a few days of banter, of communal whistling, or pissing, in the wind. In solidarity.

  2. It took me 40 years before I found out that what I experienced was depression; not moodiness, idleness, or lack of moral fibre. It still isn’t easy, but I can manage it, and now I can talk about it, sometimes. Thank you Richard.Good on you.

  3. Devastated and moved at your news. All I can think is, try to look after yourself as you try to look after others. Five months on from DMU, have landed in Scotland. Will look you up in January when back in Leicester if that’s ok.

    Martin

  4. I’m still feeling my way with ideas of courage, but what really strikes me on reading this is that self-care is a kind of agency that can operate even in the confined spaces that higher education places us in. It’s a “learning how to think” (David Foster Wallace) for very difficult times. Obviously, also, anything I can do. Your writing makes a big difference to me.

  5. This might come to you twice, but I just wanted to send a cheer and say that I hope Jonathan Trott gets a look at it too.

    I can’t imagine what you go through with this, but I’m really so impressed by the choice you’ve made to write this out and put it up. David Foster Wallace in his great commencement speech “This is Water” said that the key to surviving adult life is to choose what to think about. That seems like the most courageous thing some days.

    And of course, even though we’re too far away to go camping, anything else I can do. Your writing has been of immeasurable encouragement to me.

  6. I can’t think of anything I can say or do to help but just wanted to let you know we are thinking of you. There is always an open invitation for you and j here.

  7. Glad that you posted this, really important. I’m at a loss to know what to say. Hopefully with a better understanding of what you’re facing we might be able to help in some small way.
    S

  8. That was a powerful and solemn post. It touched me and I wasn’t expecting that at all today. Thank you Richard, your writing is poignant yet inspirational, don’t give up.

  9. Hate that you have gone through this but I think many higher education workers with depression will be helped. Courage, K

  10. Glad to see this and its really important. I’m at a loss to know what to say. Hope full with a better understanding good Veterinary Staff of what your’s facing we might be able to help in some small way.

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