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The darkness beyond language

A novelist's account of depression and the struggle to find words to describe it.

Sleeping Girl.
"I took to sleeping as much as I could". Photo: Getty Images.

I had heard people use the phrase “hard to put into words” before, but it had never carried much weight with me. I knew that if you thought about something long and hard, you could always find the right words. Even as a child, I defined myself through my relationship with language. I’d been writing stories since I was very young with a kind of self-aggrandizing fervour, and liked to tell people I was going to be a writer one day. Ostentatiously, I carried a notebook with me wherever I went. If something seemed difficult to describe, well then, I enjoyed the challenge.

When I was seventeen I began to get ill. Then words failed me. I couldn’t articulate what was wrong, so I couldn’t ask for help. By the time I turned eighteen, I was very unwell, in the grip of something I couldn’t name and couldn’t explain. Depression became, for me, the darkness beyond language.

I spent years after I was better trying to get a handle on what had happened. I wanted to find a way of describing the feeling of depression, as if in apology to my teenage self who had been rendered, to all intents and purposes, speechless by the experience. It’s not something that comes easily to me, even now.

It began as a strange kind of terror, a sense of dread that followed me wherever I went. Then it mutated, became a throb of agony. Until then, I’d assumed depression was about feeling flat or listless the whole time, losing interest in the world around you. But the illness that assailed me was nothing like that, not passive, not to do with a lack of interest or energy – not to do with a lack of anything.  It was an active, shocking pain. It was as vicious and unremitting as the most intense physical pain. What made it worse was that I couldn’t point to any part of my body and say, “This – this hurts”.

Being alive was unbearable, and yet I was forced to bear it. I remember feeling a kind of wonder from time to time – sheer disbelief that it was possible to feel this bad, and that I’d had no idea until then. But how could I have known? This wasn’t a normal kind of pain. The worst I’d experienced up until then, the most miserable I’d ever been, hadn’t contained within it the smallest flicker of this.

I took to sleeping as much as I could, because being awake hurt too much. I’d always been a poor sleeper, but suddenly I could sleep almost on demand. I’m grateful I was allowed that temporary relief, especially as for many people insomnia is the mean accomplice of depression. I went to bed earlier and earlier each evening, and whenever I could, I slept through the afternoons.

My parents took me to the doctor, who prescribed me medication and referred me to a psychotherapist. Once I had begun to recognise that this was an illness rather than a reflection of reality I began to believe that I might eventually get better. I gritted my teeth and endured. I took the medication. I tried yoga (grim). I went on long walks with my mum and briefly, hideously, managed to take up running. I even saw a hypnotherapist. And eventually, whether because of these things, or because the ever-mysterious illness had run its course, I did start to recover.

The feeling of coming back to life was extraordinary, but it was a frightening process too. I felt very fragile, and each moment of normality was almost painful because I knew so clearly what the flip side was, knew that the darkness was still there somewhere, perhaps hovering just out of sight. It was like walking along a tightrope, a thousand feet above the ground.

Language helped me out of this precarious state. I’d found hope before in learning to call depression by its name, to categorise the horror as an illness. Now I wondered if a similar approach could help to take the sting of fear out of what had happened – I would make myself look it full in the face, force myself to put it into words. I began to see language as a weapon. Tying something up with words, forcing it into the shape we’ve made for it, allows us to contain what might otherwise be vast, formless and threatening.

So the year after I graduated from university, I wrote a novel. I called it The View on the Way Down, in a cheery nod to my younger self. It’s not just a novel about depression – it’s also about silence and secrets, and the cost of loyalty. But the experience of depression is at its heart, and writing the novel was both difficult and wonderful in equal measure. It felt like a way of regaining control. It felt like a way of saying to the illness, I see you. If you come back, I’m ready for you. Next time will be bad, but it will also be better.

Rebecca Wait’s novel, The View on the Way Down, is out now (Picador, £14.99)