Once a week, I visit my local hospital in north London, take a long stroll through perfect corridors, climb a few stairs and sit in a room to talk to a woman I don’t know. It’s not something I look forward to. Being a native of this island gives me that peculiar sense of shyness when confronted with strangers, so it’s taken a while for me to get used to this arrangement. I should say at this point that she’s lovely. She’s wise, intelligent and polite, but she has an unerring knack of guiding me into conversations that I don’t want to have. She is, of course, my therapist.
In January I was diagnosed with high functioning endogenous depression following a pretty bleak December. Despite writing on the subject for male health publications and charities such as insideMAN and CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) I always felt that my role when discussing depression was one of conductor rather than participant. I was keen to demonstrate how commonplace the illness is and how it should not be a stigma. Depression doesn’t mean weakness and once the world gets used to that fact it might help reduce the appalling number of suicides which destroy families daily. Anyway, I was asked to write about it and did so without realising that I too suffer from ‘the black dog’ as Churchill called it. True, I’ve had a few suspicions about my character and ‘way of looking at the world’, but simply put it down to my naturally grumpy cynicism. In January I was put straight about that in no uncertain terms.
It began a month earlier. I was talking to a close friend and explained that this current dark mood was proving difficult to shift and that I just felt awful about nothing in particular. She grew concerned (which made me feel worse) and asked me to visit my GP and tell them what I’d been telling her. I couldn’t really be bothered. It was a simple black phase and one I’d emerge from soon enough as I’d done time to time again, but she’s too smart for this and did something very clever. She told me to go. So I went. I do tend to do what others want as I can’t bear the idea of disappointing people. My therapist calls it ‘people pleasing’ and I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to it.
'I was a fraud, a coward, a cheat'
Anyway, I went along and spoke into my armpit for twenty minutes or so about ‘feeling quite down’ etc. but pointed out that this had been commonplace over the past decade and that I’d soon pull myself together. One thing, however, I was very keen to stress was that ‘this’ wasn’t depression. No chance. I knew the difference. I have friends who struggle with it and have an uncle who has suffered awfully from it since the year of my birth and I was nowhere near that category.
Of course, she said, there are many strains of depression and that just because I didn’t exhibit manic episodes it didn’t mean that I too wasn’t a victim to it. I agreed and waited to be released into the winter streets with a pep talk of some kind or other, but she pressed me further and asked me if there’d been one thing that triggered this current spell of melancholia. Well, yes, there was and I’m afraid it comes with a degree of ‘wow, look at me!’
I told her that in the last year I had left a job and career I actively despised, got a job I never thought I would get and makes me very happy indeed, began writing about football for national newspapers, released my first novel to some acclaim, taken on lots of other writing jobs such as those stated above, was working on a second novel which (I think) is better than the first and was working on a football book with another mate. That’s not a bad year. I’ll go further. It’s the year I’ve been waiting for since my name first appeared in a fanzine in 1993.
I may not have planted a flag in the minds of the nation but I was beginning to be taken a little more seriously.
A statement year.
But I felt awful.
I felt like nothing on earth. I was a fraud, a coward, a cheat and the worst type of human who lies and steals praise from his friends for his own twisted validation. I was kidding everyone but myself and I didn’t like it.
Karl, with his dad
When you’re in that state you can’t go out. You ignore emails and texts and wish the world would go away. Some people even take the final step and I can see why. I’m not suicidal –I’ve no interest in dying- but I’ve often wished that I could be taken out of time like I’ve never existed. I can live with being a disappointment to myself but no one else. Put me in a cave somewhere. Let my life fail to touch yours. No one will be hurt then.
I told my GP this and she smiled warmly and added ‘but you’re not depressed?’
I said that I objected to the term and maybe I had some of the undercard to that word –stress, anxiety, low self-esteem etc- but not the full blown kit and caboodle. Not the D-word.
She asked if I were able to write those words in a satellite around one enormous word, what would that word be? Then I was diagnosed. I have depression. Not bi-polar or anything similar, but a depression that isn’t focused on one life incident. I just have it. People do.
She gave me a list of medication options and asked me to go away and think about it. I’m very lucky here. My sister is a pharmacy lecturer so I called her (not an easy call to make) and went through a few options. A week later (and what a grim week that was) I signed up for a course of meds. I’m on a fairly low dosage which I’m happy with but I’ve been told that it’s hardly on the Junior Disprin level.
'Enlightening, harrowing and fascinating in equal measure'
Therapy (CBT) took longer to organise. The NHS being stretched as it is meant that I would have to look at group therapy more than one-to-one work. I laughed that off. There’s more chance of me giving birth than sitting in a room and talking about my week with people I didn’t know.
I started one-to-one sessions about six weeks ago and so far it’s been enlightening, harrowing and fascinating in equal measure. I’m told it isn’t going to always be a song and dance but it will work out eventually. My sister tells me I have a lack of something in my brain and I’m being topped up like a car engine. That’s all. The cranial version of a sprained ankle. Plenty of serotonin and vitamin D please.
So, anyway, this is where I am at the moment. So, why am I here?
Well, today isn’t a good day. I’ve been tense, anxious and have shrunk away from the world a bit. It’s been a busy day too and, with my walk completed (I’ve taken to walking 5-6 miles per day) I’ve had a long time to listen to my thoughts. They haven’t been pleasant. I’m restless too and that’s led me to the laptop, to Word Document 1, to vomiting words onto a page that will make little sense. Ordinarily I’d distract myself by writing about football but I’m on holiday as far as that goes so what else is there? I apologise for your part in all this.
One of the most interesting aspects about my particular dose of depression is the battle between logic and emotions. All day I’ve been worried about stupid things which I know cannot harm me in the long term. For example, I have to put my car through its MOT on Monday. It’s an old car and I’m sure it’ll pass with a bit of work on it but for some reason I’m convinced I won’t have a car at all by the end of the week. I need a car for my day job and without a job I will be destitute and the whole thing will spiral. Earlier this week I replaced two tyres as I thought they were on the turn (ho ho) so they can’t fail me on that. They’ll find something though, You watch.
'An internal feud between thought and feelings'
The corrective argument is, of course, what is the worst thing that can happen? The garage will be into my ribs for a few hundred quid which I can pay off on my flexible friend. I can’t see me wandering home like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life with just a set of car keys in my hand, but try telling my mind that. This is the emotional side of things. The doom process. The logic says ‘people go through MOTs, Karl. People fail them and then fix something and then pass them’ I have for one, but you might as well try to convince me that David Icke is really onto something…
Earlier today as I sat in the car in traffic I thought ‘all I do is let people down.’ The logical side took over and asked me, quite rightly, when was the last time I honestly let anyone down? Rarely, I’d say. I’m nice to people, too nice at times, and am alright really, but that argument holds no brook with what’s going on up here.
Logic always takes a back seat as it can’t stop your mind from racing. The sheer energy I waste in worry could fuel a small nuclear power plant. If I put that energy into writing, reading, learning, anything I might actually make something of my life. But in some ways, I have done something with my life, I suppose. Things are going pretty well, generally.
This whole illness is an internal feud between thought and feelings.
So, what do I do? Well, everyone is different and I’m quite fortunate with the manner in which I try to distract myself. Some resort to mania or self-abuse of one kind or another, but I’m lucky enough to be a bit dull in that respect. I have passions. Not manic as such, or at least not in the bipolar sense, but I latch onto things that no one is remotely arsed about. A couple of years ago I decided to read up on American presidents. Names, dates, Vice Presidents, running mates, age at time of death, heights (Abraham Lincoln was the tallest, James Madison easily the shortest) and anything and everything about the Commander-in-Chief.
This fast became an obsession. Biographies were consumed and irritating trivia was mined which served no one (Martin Van Buren, the 8th President, was the first to be born an American citizen yet English wasn’t his first language). I’d spend hours on Sporcle, answering quizzes, writing them out in under a minute, then doing it backwards. Test me, test me, test me. Then I got bored with them and tried something else. It’s the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the moment but it’s been the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Taekwondo patterns, Korean, Philip Larkin, David Bowie, chess (with openings taking centre stage), the works of PG Wodehouse and, a lifelong love, Sherlock Holmes. I’ve no idea what’s next but it’ll be something.
Some may read that and decide that I’m just curious about odd things, or that I’m just curious (I forgot astronomy. Jesus, I could bore people for weeks on that subject) but it’s probably just a way to get out of ‘this’ feeling. The question is, would I want to change that? Would I swap that thirst, that craving for knowledge and live a perfectly happy bland life if I could get rid of ‘the thing’? Well, today has been a bad day so probably, but tomorrow may give a different response.
In some ways, I like being like this. Not always, but sometimes. By this I mean the inquisitive side of my nature, not the dark hours when no room is dark enough and no space small enough to hide.
Today is over. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. Some tea and then bed. Let’s see what tomorrow’s mind wants.
By Karl Coppack
Karl is a former writer for Through The Wind and Rain and a whole host of others who are desperate for copy. Troubled with the modern world, grimaces at ball-playing centre halves and frowns at fancy-dan back heels. Apt to talk about the magnificence of Ray Kennedy wherever possible.