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dispatches from depression #2
the archive as a love letter to future you
Ello. I hope this finds you peaceful and if not quite peaceful, then able to imagine yourself curled up inside a future pocket of peace, or recall a past moment where peace caught you off guard and you were present enough to notice. (If peace isn’t what you’re after right now, please forgive me). I took a deep winter break from writing and while I did feel guilty to have abandoned you, I've honestly been shocked and disturbed to see how often other newsletters go out. I always knew I was inadequate by capitalist standards but this feels personal! I can’t even read them all, let alone write my own at the pace which seems standard. Every time I write something it takes such a lot out of me - feels like a little birth - and so part of my growth has been to learn to love and trust my pace, which is what it is. Anyway, deep thanks, particularly to my paid subscribers, for sticking with me as I plod.
I’ve decided to make dispatches from depression a series (the first one, about medicine, is here). Not cause I'm gonna be depressed forever *nervous laughter*, at least not in the kind of intensely painful and all-consuming way that renders everything else insignificant or out of reach. But because it’s gonna be forever part of my life, and, you know, yours - whether personally or through the continued group-suicide of humanity or whatever. And I just always seem to have one more thing to say about it?
Doesn’t it feel so reassuring, to have a little cave off the mouth of the abyss to store away rocks that sparkle when they’re wet, and post-it notes in sloppy handwriting and that slice of supermarket cake you went home with from a birthday party in 1999? A collection of ruminations, to run back to when the clouds won’t seem to clear, if you remember to. You may have noticed but I’m not a suffer in silence type of girlie.
To live on the brink of depression, for me, means time folding into itself like velvet cake mixture, like the sea. It means standing on the ferry, a big, bawdy, industrial fucker, knuckles tight against the thin iron railing, desperate to be wet with ocean spray / grateful for the solace of feeling the chipped paint dig into the flesh pads of my hands. My knees buckle under my own weight as the ship jumps waves beneath me. This is standing still. A long way of saying I can’t hold down a 9-5. A short way of saying l’m always fighting something.
I like my fight to be witnessed in some way or another, and through being seen, to leave a trail of soggy biscuit crumbs back to some kind of memory, moment, clarity, expression, truth. Something I’ve been experiencing recently is how those crumbs can lead forwards too, the nonlinearity of a crumb, the crumb cycle, a crumb waving to me from the shore.
Crumb by crumb I - we - build a cave - an archive to retreat into when we need to. The cave is man-made, by us! We are the man! We sit in the cave and look around. So many crumbs, parts we didn’t want, were repulsed by, forgot about, or meticulously stored away for this very moment. The cave can feel sad, or hopeless. It can feel lonely, but it lives! All around us, little lifes, an archive of a big life. The future is fake, the crumbs are real and the archive is alive.
I thought about changing the name. I’m not sure dispatches from depression is the one considering both words are quite unsatisfactory. ‘Dispatches’ elicits war doesn’t it? Or like a grainy, smug BBC 1 doc about the ‘war on drugs’. And while I chose to ignore the Gen Z who chastised me for still wearing camo, I’m not sure I need to be using war iconography to talk about depression. There is a nostalgia to the idea of a dispatch though. What did urgency in a pre-internet time feel like? I guess I started this newsletter to find out, or remember.
‘Depression’ is also weird! It’s just become such a normalised, catch-all term for so many emotional states that sometimes I feel gate-keepery about it and other times I want to throw it in the bin altogether. Is it depression or is it a completely rational and measured response to being alive at the height of capitalism? Is it both? Mental health language is so inept and colonisey and gross and thankfully I figured out pretty early that it’s all a scam and that I can pick and choose what feels good and when, and do not have to claim loyalty to any one way of trying to make sense of something as ephemeral as the soul. But still, I wish there was something better. I’ve never used “mentally ill” as a descriptor for myself or anyone else unless I notice them self-IDing that way. I just can’t bring myself to buy into the individualisation of oppression like that. Unless we’re gonna use the full title, something like, person-presenting-in-a-way-that-is-deemed-illness-as-a-distraction-from-the-horrific-cruelty-greed-and-sickness-that-has-been-normalised-among-us-through-centries-of-control-colonisation-displacement-and-other-forms-of-psychic-warfare-at-the-hands-of-those-with-power, I’m not interested.
It pains me to watch people cling for their lives onto diagnostic terms that were invented by white men in the 50s. To psychiatric systems that would have put each and every one of our gay asses into an asylum without hesitation, literally yesterday. But also, I understand what it’s like to find comfort in that system, and we have every right to find comfort wherever we damn please, do we not! When I received my bipolar diagnosis at 22, I felt like I was being knighted or some other atrocious but still somehow validating crap. The relief I felt, to have a reason, a name, a literal method to my madness. Ten years later, while I am pretty certain that I do not have bipolar disorder, and am not entirely convinced it even exists, I wouldn’t take away those years of feeling like I had some sort of answer.
It’s been a journey. From obsession with my label, to thinking all psychiatry is a scam, to thinking everyone experiences depression sometimes, to knowing without a shadow of a doubt that they do not. And now, settling into relationship with the idea that I experience chronic depression (or melancholia when I'm feeling cunty). We’re mentally reactive, mentally varied, mentally experiencing things most other people can’t, mentally wanting more for ourselves, mentally ungovernable, mentally honest, mentally here, there and everywhere!! It’s all uncomfortable but we find our resting places.
During my most recent depressive episode, at the end of 2022, I noticed a pattern. It wasn’t exactly the first time I’d noticed it so perhaps it was more of a remembering or a miracle of muscle memory. But basically, there’s this period during a depressive episode, where I know it will end soon, because I'm less heavy and joy begins to feel realistic. After a period of weeks or months of punishing depression, these days are holy. Holier even then your grandmother’s best dish is holy. I call this moment a rebirth every time it comes around, simply because that’s what it feels like. Disbelief that the depression didn’t kill me. Delight that I get to live again, even if it did. Everything is bright and beautiful during this time, and though I still may not be able to interact with life with the ease and vigour that I desire, I know it knows I’m back.
Something else that marks this time for me, is that after an inevitable period of 0 creative output during the depression, I start writing again, with a fervour reserved only for this moment. Leaving a depression to re-enter what we’ve come to accept as reality is a shape-shifting, transcendent experience. It’s a liminal space so juicy, so full of secrets, knowledge, gossip about what makes the world go round and how to take it all in and how to find peace in a billowing bed sheet. This is the pleasure in falling apart. This bit.
It was cute to see these sentiments echoed in this recent piece ‘The Upside of a Mental Breakdown’ by Evan Malmgren published by my favourite newsletter.
In Catch Them Before They Fall, British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas posits that breakdowns serve the unconscious function of confronting the self with the other, and that their embedded potential for radically positive self-transformation is often obscured by blunt measures such as hospitalization, intensive medication, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). He writes that these, “may help relieve the person in the immediate situation,” but ultimately negate meaning: “Discovery of the unconscious reason for the breakdown, and the opportunity for sentient understanding and tolerance of it within a human and therapeutic situation, are denied to the person.” These are instead recoverable by listening to the highly personal language of the breakdown itself. “A moment of self-fragmentation is, at the same time, a moment of coming together inside the self. In the end, it is formative more than it is fracturing.”
Recently I tasked myself with organising my shit. Harddrives full of shit and music and stuff and writing that I wrote and never looked back at. For over a decade I’ve been chronicling these breakdowns, these moments just before the light hits, and I’ve done it from a place of desperation - that I would be my own first witness, that next time I might have the key to save myself, that I would remember this raw and beautiful in-between place. And then I bury them, squirrel them away, the words and the moment, in the recesses of insanely large harddrives in folders called ‘sillybillyx’ and ‘hofw37ihtchker65ees’ and never look at them again, as if my mind doesn’t really have the luxury of exploring the past as a bridge to the future, only as a place to kind of escape from. Organising my shit has reminded me that moving forward isn’t always the best way to move forward, you know?
A few months ago, Soha took me on a surprise date to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, “the world’s largest collection of materials by and about [white cis] lesbians”, tucked away in a thin brownstone edging Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I wish this project was framed more as a private collection than a definitive archive because the look of abject devastation on Soha’s face after they ran to the ‘International’ section to find ‘Sweden’ and ‘Italy’ and not much else is now etched into my mind for eternity. It was cute though, and very tactile, with physical artefacts from the 60s onwards stored in little files, organised by category. After sadly failing to locate a ‘lesbians on boats’ category, I carefully extracted the meaty mental health file and poured over the random letters and magazine clippings that had found their way into the archive. You’ll find some of them accompanying this newsletter.
I cherished my time with that stuff so much. Despite its imperfections, all the things missing and all the ways in which I am different to the fragments of life I brushed my fingers over that day, I felt so held and seen by this ancestral legacy of resilience, truth to power and perfect, spectacular madness. I was reminded of my home within radical mental health activism and the deep, unmatched comfort I find in communities such as IDHA, Project Lets, NSUN, Fireweed Collective, Pieces 2 Pathways, misery and more. The radical, critical, curious, compassionate mental health community is my favourite. It sparks joy, even in the hardest moments.
We are all archivists in our own ways. The diary-writers, the instagrammers, the never throw anything awayers. We’re all somewhere in this web, sending love letters and community balms and protection spells forwards and backwards across time, even if by accident like me. I’m still in the process of nurturing a more feminist approach to my own ageing but I can’t help but find beauty in the way life seems to start lapping itself. What was a single voice becomes a chorus, effortlessly. How the same waves that made my knees buckle, deliver me messages washed up on the shore, perfectly still. Maybe I’m getting better at this depression thing, or maybe I'm just finally old enough for the past to seem like a legitimate map to the future.
To part, some gifts from my own personal archive which have surfaced during my aforementioned hard drive organisation project. Some snippets of writing made as a depression fades away and titled with sentiments akin to ‘things im learning or remembering during my most recent depression that might be helpful during the next one’. Crumbs, if you will:
There are gifts to this time. And sure, you can only feel or articulate them once you’ve started your meds again. That’s ok. Take the fucking pills. Play the little fucking watermelon game on your little fucking phone. Record your mood on that little fucking app that asks you how you are and then forget to do it once you feel half-decent. Brush half ur teeth once a day. Make them come to you. Wear velour, wear a balaclava indoors, everything soft for you at this time. go to the cinema alone if you can make it. Get off social media babe, I promise you, your career will not collapse. Do the abundance shower thing off of raveena arora’s tiktok. Don’t be afraid to be alone unless you should be afraid to be alone. You know the difference by now. Read other people’s accounts of depression, that always helps you. Do those corny visualisations, where u shoot arrows of kindness at people you hate and where u shatter beads of connection with those who do not belong in your life anymore and where you are a sun surrounded by so many other suns, all bursting with love. Look at baby photos of yourself and people you know, even people who have hurt you. We were all fucking babies once. Go back and watch the series of love island u been saving for this very moment. yyyyyikes it hurts, it hurts, baby, I know. just turn the radiator off, it’s not gonna stop making that sound.
there is no prescribed timeline in healing from trauma
the quicker you accept it’s happening and adjust the pace and expectations of your day to day life, the better
every depression has its own character and quirks around food / sleep / energy / communication, get to know them if you can, pay attn
every time feels a bit like the first time, it’s ok if you don’t remember these things or they seem alien, maybe they are
talking to other people who Are depressed / suicidal can be really helpful. not sad people or traumatized people, or people who use that word to describe transition or discomfort, but people who are bottomed out, without warning, who drown in their own feelings multiple times a year and know what it’s like to feel like the only escape is death
be open minded about who / where you might accept support from, many people you would expect to, won’t be around, many people you wouldn’t expect to, will. it’s the way of the world, don’t overthink it or take it too personally but don’t forget either
ppl will want to pretend this isn’t happening to you, or genuinely wont notice, make it known at the beginning of conversations, even if it doesn’t need to be brought up again
dressing up helps, don’t leave the house until you feel good in your body, it’s not worth it
the anger and hatred and disconnect you may feel about everyone and everything is an extension of your hopeless and critical inner voice, ur not a bad person (ty red) but are still responsible for the way this may affect the people around you
think about the thing that keeps you alive, focus on it, nourish it, even if it is a glowing orb behind a wall, you know it’s there, keep remembering it
baths are less effort than showers sometimes. crawl to the bath crawl into the bath
try to encourage ur support network to be honest with you about their capacity as this can save a lot of guilt and misunderstanding
there is relief in falling apart, find it
Ur mum luvs u
try to be as clear and directive as possible when talking to others about what you need but don’t beat urself up if you can’t
you don’t need to understand anything about what’s happening except how to survive to the next moment. some shit don’t make sense
when life starts to fill out again and the colours and smells come rushing back it’s ok to be sceptical, it’s ok to take your time. please take your time
celine dion singing in french might be a universal cure. test this theory
I haven’t written for some months, because for most of them, the ones furthest from now, I have been quite depressed. Very depressed. I have had to break it to myself gently that I am not a creative depressive. Well I am, but not while I’m depressed. Depression eats my creativity, it eats my brain, it eats my body.
I wasn’t sure if I’d keep writing. If once I’d clambered out of another episode of depression the best thing to do was tell everybody about it. If I wanted to continue to draw attention to this part of my existence. If I wanted to dwell on it. And then I thought about the pain of it all. How it hurts you and it hurts the people you have loved most in the world. How sometimes everyone hurts at the same time, and other times you're so lost inside your own body, your core is so disintegrated and unrecognisable that you aren't even capable of understanding the hurt that is going on until months or years later. And then you realise and it hurts all over again. I think writing is positivity from that pain.
I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, or if I’m going to regret disclosing all this personal information, or if I’ll keep it up, or who I’m talking to. But on the off chance that there’s someone there, and that person feels like they will never be happy again – like they have lost themselves and the person they have been trying to make decent for 15 or 25 or 55 years has dissolved and left just a shell – I promise you, you are still there. It doesn’t feel like it now, but one morning you will wake up and you will feel OK.
Depression will come back, and it will be disappointing and terrifying when it does. But next time u will see it coming, and that will make the difference. Be careful not to get too smug or complacent about feeling better, because you have felt better before. Lots of times. But celebrate the fuck out of moments of hope when u get them. Dream about the future. A future you’ve been too scared to think about for so long. A future u didn't think u deserved. Life.
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