Some years ago I got a birthday card from a friend. We had previously been in a relationship which had ended, I guess, because of my mental-health problems. After I had come out of my darkest place, we were back in touch, and the change in me was clear and palpable.
This friend wrote: “I’m so glad that you are doing so well, you sounded so cheerful – it made me very happy but sad that I haven’t been around to see this exciting change in you.” And as a post-script, added: “Do NOT wear black on your birthday.”
So today is my birthday, and I’m not going to reveal the colour of my clothes... although I must confess that I was on stage at my regular Monday night venue late last night and told this story before performing. As it turned midnight, I couldn’t hide the fact: I was dressed in customary black.
“It’s my birthday,” I told the audience: “I can wear what I want to – or cry if I want to.” Then I made further apology in advance of reading the poem. Most of my work is purely fictional; taking elements of my own experience and transposing this into art. But yesterday I read an extremely honest and personal poem. Here it is.
Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. – GRAHAM GREENE
Maybe it’s just me, but I find it best
not to speak out about being depressed.
This stuff about mental illness stigmatised...
it’s more it’s not adequately recognised
by so many in the ‘caring’ professions
who haplessly dole out fake medications:
I don’t want placebos or panaceas, I just
want someone to talk with whom I can trust.
And so, I forgo the eight-minute appointment
and deal with my illness with an assortment
of coping strategies – some work, some don’t –
if you want me to share them, sorry: I won’t.
Sometimes I find it best to stay at home
and tough it out (or deny it) by being alone;
or I force myself to attend an event...
afterwards, I’m pretty glad that I went.
But I’m sorry; I don’t want to talk about me
or my state of health while I’m in company.
I’m sure it must be pretty commonplace
for depressives to put on their ‘brave’ face.
If all they can do is a hypochondriac moan,
They might as well give up and stay at home –
after all, it’s properly British to say
when asked, how are you? “Oh: I’m okay!”
This is my problem – not, I’m afraid, yours,
but I’ll share it, at great risk of being a bore –
the de-stigmatisation of depression has meant
that, unlike other illness, disability, ailment,
you have to be ‘open’ and come out and say
(and yes, the same can be said if you’re gay)
“I’ve had depression since I was at school:
See Me, I’m a one-in-four statistic, that’s cool.”
If my depression’s called ‘high-functioning’
I guess it’s because I refuse to let a thing
essentially in the mind stop or prevent me
from living my life, such as it is, fully.
So I self-medicate with alcohol (sure, not ideal –
at least you don’t have to accept how you feel –
although next day, you’ll probably feel worse:
it’s a mixed blessing, or in other words, curse.)
And then there are days when no drugs work,
but a zero-hour contract means you can’t shirk;
when getting out of bed’s a genuine struggle,
and it’s more than just your head’s in a muddle:
your limbs are so heavy, it feels like you’re drowning;
your whole face, not just eyebrows, is frowning;
when you finally manage to put some clothes on,
it still doesn’t feel like you’re where you belong.
You could attempt what’s called a walking cure,
but can’t face opening your own front door.
Perhaps you could have something good to eat...
but the fridge has been empty for over a week.
When you finally drag yourself to the shops,
everyone keeps giving you dirty looks
(so it seems, anyway) but don’t stare back –
they’ll take offence if your demeanour is black.
Okay, yes, I don’t wear the brightest of clothes,
but the reason for this is... well, nobody knows
as I don’t air my private life publically,
and prefer to dress slightly less colourfully.
I also ‘suffer’ – if you’ll permit me to share this –
from high metabolism. Sure, it’s not an ‘illness’
but it does make life hard when you can’t face
eating, and end up fainting all over the place.
So you make yourself something healthy to eat,
then see it solidify in front of you on the plate –
after all, when you feel like a piece of shit,
what’s the point of eating: you don’t deserve it.
Your life’s in a mess – and so is your flat:
there’s junk-mail and un-opened post on the mat;
you’ve purposefully put off any sort of tidying –
that’s a word only two letters longer than dying.
But this is just morbidity, not depression,
and suicidal thought’s all passive-aggression:
you don’t want to die – ‘it’s a call for help’ –
oh come on, snap out of it: get over yourself.
There are plenty of other forms of self-harming
besides death, some which are quite alarming.
However, I won’t elaborate on my own path
to self-destruction or it’s catastrophic aftermath.
And why? Because I don’t like to talk openly
about it, or treat it in any way medically;
nor do I wish to use my wordsmithery
as a poor excuse for so-called therapy:
if that’s what I’m after, I go to my therapist –
it’s a bit more expensive than getting pissed,
but what’s wrong with being a little bit poor
in exchange for an efficacious talking-cure.
Well, that’s all I have to say on the matter,
except – perhaps – to say it’s true that a
good walk, jog, sing, swim, or bicycle-ride
is a far better a strategy that staying inside
with the curtains shut and houselights, low –
it’s as hard as hell, as well I know – but go
out and get some sunshine on your skin:
it’ll boost your endorphins with serotonin.
There’s a lot to be said for the power of laughter
(as long as you don’t find yourself crying after)
and friends, or loved ones, or good company
who make you smile, or for some, family,
are the best people to surround yourself with,
even though you’ve lost the will to live
or can’t face the world: it might be enough
to survive another day embraced by love.
I have a postcard that sits in front of me
when I write, produced by a mental health charity,
which reads, ‘my friends were great when I
wasn’t.’ A lesson I haven’t forgotten, not will I.
I’ve said enough, I don’t want to talk any more –
although, as I’ve said, talking is the best cure –
if you want to come to terms with mental health,
for your sake and others’ don’t keep it to yourself.
Despite this being predominantly a live music bar, the audience listened attentively to my poetry. Afterwards I told them about a time when I performed at another music venue where I also sang bits in between my poems. A man at the front seemed to be enjoying my work – he even sang along – but afterwards when I thanked the audience for listening, he said out loud: “Thank you for stopping.” What a dick-head.
The same didn’t happen last night; instead, the host of the event appeared on stage with a tray of muffins with lighted candles and a card that had been signed by everyone in the bar before I’d even arrived. I did not leave the stage with dry eyes!
This is why it’s so important to keep going. An act of great kindness goes a long way to diffuse the attitudes of those who would rather hurt than love. I still refuse to talk about my private life – my age, sexuality, or personal problems – in public because these are not things I wish to be judged on.
I don't intend to announce my past difficulties and, frankly, would be happy if others didn’t either. I punished myself enough in the past.
It’s my birthday today. I’m moving on.