Do No Harm


Robin Williams is dead, and lots of people are talking about depression at the moment. The darkness is different for everyone, but I’m going to have a really good go at describing depression from the inside, and I’m going to do this right now because I feel good and because I’m having a lot of happy days.

A few years ago, I started to feel like someone – or something – was following me. It wasn’t a feeling I had when I was with my wife, my kids or my friends and it wasn’t a feeling I had when I was working, writing or fixed on some determined task…

…but the feeling waited for me. It actually waited for me.

Imagine you have a stalker: one that’s causing you a lot of distress and one that has ceased to become funny or a point of conversation.

Now, imagine you’re on a vast, endless escalator (like the ones at Tesco). You’re going up the escalator: on the good days you’re running up and on the bad days you’re moving a lot more slowly….but you’re still moving. Your arch-enemy: the beast, the bastard, the demon (whatever) is on the escalator behind you. He/she/it is moving slowly and deliberately. There’s not a lot of chance of it catching you, but whereas you have fast and slow days your enemy never changes its pace: on the fast days it’s further away and on the slow days it’s nearer….but it’s always there.

I went to the doctor because I realised that my family had become a battery for my happiness. I worship my wife and kids, but every time they went to school, out for the day or (in my wife’s case) to work, the power drained out of me and I felt like I had turned on the escalator and was just waiting for the enemy to catch up with me. When it did, I felt terrible and overwhelmed….and completely worthless.

Good friends help, but you can't lean on them all the time and rely on them to keep you 'up'.
Good friends help, but you can’t lean on them all the time and rely on them to keep you ‘up’.

I was referred for counselling based on this, and because I abhor medication. I dreaded going because I actually started to train as a counsellor a few years back, and I’m familiar with the basic layout and format of the sessions. I stopped training as a counsellor because I didn’t feel comfortable in the role and I didn’t like the fact that I was basically being helped into a position where I could do tremendous damage to other people. In that situation, it’s incredibly difficult to ‘Do No Harm’. Counselling tends to be issued when it seems like you can largely solve your own problems (as opposed to psychiatric therapy, where a professional is trying to sort out any problems you have). It’s full of paraphrasing and reflection, techniques I immediately recognise and struggle to take seriously as helpful tools.

Patient: I feel worthless: I feel like nothing I do matters.

Counsellor: You said you feel worthless? Why is that?

Patient: (goes into greater depth)

…and so on. Counselling is a mirror with a different face that talks back to you. It can be incredibly helpful, as long as you try to focus on the bits that actually are poignant and beneficial.

The crux of my own therapy seemed to be that for some reason, growing up, I never felt that I was enough for my mum. This was news to me: I do remember my mum being incredibly disappointed when I failed my 11 plus, and I felt like I’d really let her down….but that aside I don’t ever recall feeling I wasn’t important or vital to her to life. It does explain why no amount of success or happiness is ever enough for me, and why I always see a bad or dark side looming in every great event. When it’s sunny, it’s sun before the rain: whenever I get another book deal, it’s going to be the last.

For this reason, meeting my wife, having two beautiful children, earning one of the largest advances in publishing history and travelling all over the world to promote my work are all things I’ve regularly felt that I don’t deserve….despite giving up ten years of my life, being incredibly lonely and working minimum wage jobs in order to make it all happen.

In order to justify or underline how unworthy I felt of being given all of the above, I was drinking quite heavily, relying on caffeine stimulants like coffee to get me through the day, binge eating and doing quite insane amounts of exercise to stay in shape.

I managed to give up most of the above, though I’m still succumbing to my daily glass of wine, my two coffees and my hour on the cross trainer.

Depression is a horrible thing.

Books can help: I’ve found a few (Beat Low Self-Esteem by Christine Wilding & Stephen Palmer and The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters, in particular) to be very good at helping you use lots of techniques to keep the bad stuff in abeyance.

The most important thing is to talk about it, and keep talking. It’s when people stop talking that the trouble really begins….

Robin Williams fought very hard for an extremely long time, but one day the escalator just stopped. If it seems to be slowing down rapidly for you, go to the doctor and get some help, maybe read a book or arrange to meet a friend who has some experience with what you’re going through. Make sure you do something.

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