Writing The Noonday Demon turned me into a professional depressive, which is a weird thing to be. A class at the university I attended assigns the book and invited me to be a guest lecturer. As an undergraduate, I had dreamed of being a writer so accomplished that students there would study my work. But when I hatched that fantasy, I didnt envision the work as a memoir assigned in an Abnormal Psych course.
Any consideration of depression has become a matter of dialectics. On the one hand, my life is so much less affected by the condition than it once was that sometimes the darkness of those original episodes seems like a distant dream. On the other hand, feeling secure is almost always the prelude to one of my occasional relapses, and when depression hits, I feel all over again that I will never escape the darkness. On the one hand, Im more accustomed to such plunges than I used to be; I can feel depression hatching just as arthritics can feel imminent rain. On the other hand, its shocking every time; I forget how physical it is, how relentless it feels: the tightness in my chest, the sluggishness. I forget the crushing of my ego, the struggle not to believe that every distorted thought is an insight.
When Im not depressed, I draw strength and beauty from depression; when I am depressed, I find no such things. I cover for it better than I used to; I can function surprisingly well even when I feel as if Im dying or as if Id like to die. But anxiety remains my worst enemy, and I periodically wake up feeling that the day is more than I can possibly handle. A regimen of therapy and medication seems a small price to pay for relative equanimity, but I hate the time and management it all requires. I loathe having a fragile brain and knowing as I make any plan that I should provide for the possibility that my mind may betray me at short notice. I havent left depression behind; I only hold it at bay.
I have had great fortune over these past twenty years. Ive met and married my husband, John, the kindest person Ive ever known, and Ive had children who both demand and provide great happiness. Certain aspects of steadiness we can create for ourselves, but stability also comes from other people, and John has ballasted me. He is patient and gentle when Im down. I am no longer alone in depression, and that is a pivotal change. I can have the subjective feeling that life is intolerable, but I usually know intellectually that what I feel is inconsistent with what is true: I have a nice life. Ive found a brilliant psychopharmacologist who has fashioned a medication regimen that is effective most of the time, with relatively minor side effects. Weve worked out just how to tinker when trouble looms. For talk therapy I see a psychoanalyst who is both wise and funny. When I was once rather cavalier about some early warning signs of depression, he remarked, In this room, Andrew, we never forget that you are entirely capable of taking the express elevator to the bargain basement of mental health.
I regulate my life. I never miss a single day of my medication. With the input of my two doctors, I adjust dosages and attempt to modify my behaviour as soon as I recognize the slightest hint of a relapse. I am fanatical about sleep and am willing to put off almost anything to make sure I have enough of it; John is the one who gets up with our children in the night if getting up is required. I exercise regularly, as much for my mental as for my physical well-being. I consume little alcohol and even less caffeine (although I have a weakness for chocolate, which, sadly, I cant eat if Im feeling anxious).
At the same time, there are some concessions Im unwilling to make. I lead a stressful, fascinating life, and Im not going to curtail it. I go everywhere and am devoted to too many people; I have a crush on my own ideas and a thirst for other peoples ideas; I am a klutzy but enthusiastic juggler of family, friends and work. Id rather take my meds and inhabit the world than reduce them and close it off.