If you missed Part 1, Click Here. Approximately two years ago, I started this series of paintings to visually show how depression has affected me. This experience of mental illness is unique to me, but from reading around the subject there is a lot of crossover with other people who have suffered and who are suffering with depression. But before I launch into the meaning of the last painting let’s have a little recap on the story so far.
For my post on the meaning behind each individual painting just click on the relevant title.
Depression is something that I’ve suffered with on and off since I was in my late teens. I can be feeling perfectly well mentally, and then something, I don’t always know what, will trigger the illness and my mood will start to head downwards. This first painting in the series is a reminder to me to always be on guard and do my best to keep myself mentally healthy. (For some tips, Click Here.) I haven’t had an episode of depression in the last four years despite having some traumatic life events. Some of the thought patterns associated with the illness have crept in at times, but fortunately I’ve been able to counteract them. I know all too well that I will keep returning to the tree pictured above, and I know the consequences of allowing it to take a hold and drag me down. But what are those consequences?
One of the first subtle signs that something was wrong, was a desire to cut myself off, to isolate myself. When I am beginning to get depressed, it is a very seductive idea. I have always been able to justify this need to myself, and sadly, it has resulted in the end of many friendships. The illness uses this tactic to divide and conquer, to get me on my own so that it can continue to work on my thoughts without the chance of being disturbed.
It took me a long time to work out that my thoughts weren’t my own. The illness enlisted the helps of ‘The Whisperer’ who has an incredible knack of hiding and passing off unhelpful thoughts as perfectly natural. I was thinking the thoughts in my head, so they were my thoughts, obviously? I didn’t realise how my healthy thought patterns could be changed with the sole aim of making me feel worthless. But depression does this with alarming ease.
While ‘The Whisperer’ worked on my thoughts, the illness puts another safeguard in place to protect itself: the ability to put on a brave face. It didn’t want me telling people how I felt because that may get me the help that I sorely needed. So I smiled and hid my emotions. Over time I learned to let some people in and share what I was going through. But depression had got this covered too.
Telling people how I really felt just opened the floodgates. Because I was feeling so terrible, it led me to say and do hurtful things: destructive actions designed to wreck relationships. If you know that I’m suffering with depression, to say that I’m difficult to be around is an understatement. Breaking any ties that could potentially help me is the modus operandi of the illness.
Its arsenal of destructive weapons doesn’t stop there. The next step was to make me want to see just how low I could go. I actively wanted to become more depressed. Yet again, this was a seductive idea. It was a massive effort to get out of bed and even when I did, I spent a lot of time lying on the floor. My aim was to melt into it and achieve some kind of safety. I’m not sure how that would have worked, but that was my thought process. Lying on the floor was a way to escape the insufferable mental pain that I was in. But as the depression had correctly calculated, it just made me worse.
The Seventh Gate
And so we reach the final painting.
After all of the above, you may be thinking: I know where this is going. There is only one way this story ends. You attempted suicide.
But no. I didn’t.
The real end to the story is equally as dramatic but not in the way you’d expect. I’ll explain…
You would be partially correct: my thoughts certainly turned towards death. When you’re that far down, it’s pretty much the only way to go.
I’ve touched on vicious circles before because depression is a jumbled mass of vicious circles all spiralling down. Here’s one of them for your delectation:
I often had the thought that I wanted to die. I wasn’t going to commit suicide. I had made a promise not to. Even without the promise I’m not convinced that I would have done anything. But during periods of depression I tend towards obsessional thoughts, and this was one time it worked in my favour. I became obsessed with the promise, and that was the thing I held onto tightly.
And yet I wanted the pain to end. I spent hours in bed wishing that something would happen to me in the night, some bizarre medical incident resulting in me never waking up. My other fantasy was that a button would appear in my bed, a small red plastic button in a polished metal surround. The button would be set into the mattress. I knew if it appeared, I would press it without a second thought. The purpose of the button was to erase me completely from history as if I’d never been born. A cliché maybe, but thoughts don’t have to be original to be real and agonizing.
Before I carry on, I’ll point out that I don’t have this impulse now. The thoughts occasionally pop into my head, depression will always try to gain a foothold somehow, but I dismiss them instantly. The thoughts appeared natural when I was suffering from excruciating mental pain. But now I’m not under that level of pain, I can remove these thoughts easily. They are poor attempts at usurping my more positive mood that I’m not going to let creep back in.
But what about the vicious circle? Well, these thoughts of death preoccupied me. They were in my head so often that they became routine. They made me feel worse. They made me feel that death was my only way out. And as I felt worse, I thought about them even more. A vicious circle. This is the point where obsession conspired against me: I became obsessed with the idea of death. I think the reason why it comes back into my head even now is because being obsessed with these thoughts was a way of life for me.
Imagine this scenario: you are locked in a room and have no water. One of the walls of the room is made from thick unbreakable glass. On the other side of the glass is a two litre bottle of water, and you can’t get to it. As time went on and you became thirstier and thirstier what do you think your thoughts would turn to? Yes, you’d become obsessed with the one thing that is going to release you from the pain: the bottle of water. So it’s not really a surprise that I became obsessed with my perceived solution.
But aren’t these thoughts of death selfish? It is hard to describe the mental agony I was in. I could compare it to a 360 degree vice constantly crushing my head. Or a thick black fog surrounding me and only me that exerts a tremendous pressure on my psyche. Or living at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the murk, with disturbing creatures encroaching on my territory while everyone else is in the sunshine. But it doesn’t touch on how bad it was. And I just wanted it to stop. I don’t think that’s a selfish thought. Being selfish is nicking all of the best chocolates from the lower tray of a box of chocolate before the top layer has been finished. Wanting to escape extreme misery and pain is not selfish.
But eventually, I found a solution that didn’t involve an imaginary red button, and it was by accident: I left teaching. Gradually the depression started to lift and I was able to start helping myself to get out the negative thought patterns. I’d done some work on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in the past, and at the time it hadn’t work in the slightest. But in my new state of mind I was able to put some of the ideas into practice and climb out of my depression.
Now we get to the dramatic ending that is laced with a huge dollop of irony.
A couple of years after I’d been at my lowest point of my life, things were going really well. I was happy. I was enjoying my new job as a gardener; I’d always had a healthy lifestyle and working outdoors, getting loads of exercise really suited me. I loved being active. I was in my early forties and felt like I was starting a new life, one where I was physically and mentally fit.
Then I had a heart attack.
I only fitted into one of the risk categories, family history, and that was enough.
I had an angiogram that revealed I had a severe blockage in one of my arteries and also lurking around in that area was a blood clot. I knew it was pretty serious because that night I was rushed to another hospital ready for having a stent fitted the next morning. Then something happened that showed that the situation was probably even more serious than I’d originally thought. I was in one of the hospital beds opposite the nurses’ station. They were going over the patients’ notes in turn, discussing the care that each person needed to receive. Then it came to my name. And their voices dropped to hushed whispers.
Oh dear, I thought, or words to that effect.
So I came up with a plan. I’d read somewhere – and this may or may not be true – that a large percentage of people died in their sleep at about 4am. As this idea came into my head, I instantly decided not to sleep. There was no way I was going to die that night. I was going to stay awake and fight. Okay, it was more like stay awake, and desperately try to keep my eyes open, but you get the idea.
The phrase ‘dripping with irony’ perfectly sums up that last paragraph. Not long ago, I had spent a whole year of nights wishing that death would come for me. Two years later, when this could have become a reality I fought for life. I had been through a full year of hell and made it out the other side. There was no way I was dying that night.
So the plan worked and I made it through to the next morning.
The next morning I had a stent fitted and things were back to looking rosy. The consultant told me at a later date that she was worried about me and things could have been very different. I like to think that I managed to prevent that very different outcome from occuring. I probably just made myself tired. But it’s a good thought.
This little tale goes some way to illustrating that no matter how bleak things seem, it is possible to get through periods of severe depression. At my lowest, I couldn’t see how I would ever have any positive emotions again. I could only see one way out. If you’d told me then that two years later I would be fighting for my life – the exact opposite of how I felt at that time – I would have laughed in your face.
I’m not going to pretend that the entirety of my life consists of happy happenings, happily happening through every happy happiness filled day. Life isn’t like that despite what people would like you to think from their posts on social media.
Life is certainly a mixture of good and bad experiences, and now I feel more able to deal with it. My paintings have helped me deal with the unhelpful thought patterns that arise from depression. I catch myself thinking a particularly negative thought about myself and ‘The Insidious Whisper’ pops into my head. Or I think about becoming isolated, and ‘Welcome’ appears in my mind’s eye. Or perhaps, my mind drifts to thoughts of death. I remember that ‘The Seventh Gate’ is not perfectly symmetrical. There are other options to pressing the red button. Look for the asymmetry.
What is your interpretation of this painting? I’d be interested to read any comments you have.
If you are currently being affected by any of the issues above seek advice from your doctor.