A certain slant of light

My goodness me, it’s been nine whole months since I flew back to London from Japan. This was not my plan. I was supposed to be in Mexico by now. But as you’ll probably have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my life quite frequently deviates from the plans I make for it. Over the last two years I’ve become more and more firmly convinced that I don’t really need to plan anything at all (beyond visas and meals), because most of my richest experiences and fondest memories are the ones I didn’t script in advance.

Unfortunately, the last few months of my life have been rather short on rich experiences and fond memories. You’ll have been wondering, I’m sure, why I haven’t been blogging so diligently since I got home, and what the story was with this mysterious ‘health condition’ that’s kept me grounded for so long. The answer is, I’ve been depressed. Perhaps I should have just told everyone from the outset, but it’s rather a difficult thing to admit to. No one gives you ‘get well’ cards when you’re depressed.

Depression, in its several forms, is actually a fairly common aftermath to a journey like mine, and explorers are starting to relax their stiff upper lips and to be more frank about this hidden sting in the tale. Rob Lilwall writes that he feared falling into despair in the months after finishing his ride home from Siberia. Juliana Buhring admits to suffering from depression after her record-breaking circumnavigation last year. Several other people I’ve spoken to, on and off the record, tell me they’ve had similar experiences.

Somehow though, being in such illustrious company doesn’t make it any easier. The last few months have been extremely difficult, in ways that I still find it hard to explain or even articulate. Now that the tide’s finally going out, I look back at the way I’ve felt and behaved and I barely understand it myself. It’s what Emily Dickinson describes as “the Distance / On the look of Death” – the sense of something so awful (in all senses of the word) that it can only be understood when in the midst of it, yet only articulated from a safe distance.

But I don’t want to talk too much about all the details and symptoms of depression – partly because my recovery is still ongoing, and I want it to be a private rather than a public process; partly because there’s actually an awful lot to be said about depression, and I want to limit (or at least pace) myself, otherwise I’ll end up writing too much (you’ll have noticed I do that, when I get my teeth into an idea), and turning this into a mental health blog (and there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that, but I wanted to be a travel writer). I think one of the many reasons that I haven’t been able to write for the past few months has been my unwillingness to make this depression part of my story by talking about it. You’ll know, from previous posts, how eager I am always to tell a good story, and also how inherently suspicious I am of ‘good’ stories, and how I like to pull them apart in search of more interesting ones.

But there’s more to writing than just recording and reiterating. Writing doesn’t just document reality – it also changes it. Consider this beautiful passage:

Writing is alchemy. Dross becomes gold. Experience is transformed. Pain is changed. Suffering may become song. The ordinary or horrible is pushed by the will of the writer into grace or redemption, a prophetic wail, a screed for justice, an elegy of sadness or sorrow. It is the lone and lonesome human voice, naked, raw, crying out, but hidden too, muted, twisted and turned, knotted or fractured, by the writer’s love of form, or formal beauty: the aesthetic dimension, which is not necessarily familiar or friendly. Nor does form necessarily tame or simplify experience. There is always a tension between experience and the thing that finally carries it forward, bears its weight, holds it in.

(It was written by Andrea Dworkin, but I didn’t want to tell you that before you read it, because people are so often put off by her reputation.)

I was suspicious of trying to turn the raw and ugly horror of depression into prose, of combing it out into its constituent thoughts, of arranging it into polished sentences, coupling them neatly together with commas and semi-colons and garnishing my efforts with an aphorism or two – in short, of writing a redemption and a resolution that I couldn’t yet feel. Depression is a monster and a nightmare, and it can’t be tamed with words – or anything else for that matter. I was also, for a long time, simply unable to step far enough back from my depression to be able to look at it critically, and think about how I might express it. Some of that suspicion remains. After all, no one ever really solves depression – they just find a way out of it. I can’t make sense of it by writing about it.

Language has its limits – I know that now. But, as Dworkin observes, it also holds phenomenal transformative power. I discovered this three years ago, when I started telling people I was planning to leave on September the 1st to cycle round the world, and suddenly it became reality; a thing that was going to happen, rather than a daydream. So despite my scepticism that I could write my way out of this hole, and my deep reluctance to talk to the whole world about what’s been going on in my head, words are probably the way forward. I worry that writing about my depression will make it more real – will inscribe it as a part of myself and my story that I’d rather censor or ignore – but I’m also now sure that writing about something is my surest way of changing it, of turning suffering into song, of exploiting that very productive tension that Dworkin describes between experience and aesthetic form, of growing, of pushing and pulling myself forward, of becoming better.

You’ll know though, if you’ve experienced depression yourself (and a lot of people do these days) the deep ambivalence one feels in sharing it with the world. You know, somehow, that honesty is the best policy, but you’re also terrified of what people might think when you tell them. Afraid that they’ll consider you weak; that they’ll reject you; that they’ll tell you you should just cheer up (as if you hadn’t thought of that). This fear can be one of the major barriers to recovery.

I’m reading a book called Depressive Illness: The curse of the strong. (Written by psychiatrist Dr Tim Cantopher; it’s short, and designed to be readable even by people who are seriously ill. If you’d like to borrow it, and live anywhere in or near London, drop me a line, and I’ll deliver it in person.) It’s proving helpful in many ways, but its main argument, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is that depression is an illness that afflicts the strong, not the weak, and arises from the body’s limbic system (which normally regulates mood, among other things) breaking down as a result of repeated stress – and the stronger the person, the more stress they’ll take on, and the less willing they’ll be to back down and take a break when things get hard.

I refused to believe I was depressed for a very long time (most of the  past year), and even once I’d admitted it (someone sent me a checklist of symptoms, and I had all but one of them), I still foolishly thought that if I just kept going with everything, and refused to give it any attention, eventually I could conquer my depression through sheer strength of will, and make it go away. This didn’t work. I’m reminded of words I wrote myself, almost a year ago, and which apparently I still have yet to take fully to heart: “There are enough stories of triumph and bravery, and I’m disinclined to write another one. Let this one be a tale of failure and cowardice if it needs to.” Yes indeed.

Of course, there is a middle ground between triumph and failure, bravery and cowardice, and that’s where I am now. I am better – ‘better’ being a relative term: not as ill as I was; not as well as I will be, but moving steadily along from the former towards the latter.

So where now? Well, I’ll be staying in the UK for the next year or so, taking advantage of some opportunities that have come up here, and trying to take care of myself a bit better than I have been. I still plan to cycle the Americas – in fact, I really can’t wait – and I still have over half of the funds I started with (for some reason it’s very important to me that people don’t think I quit because of financial mismanagement), so that looks certain to happen, as soon as the moment’s right.

In the meantime, I have a lot of regrouping to do. Around the time I flew back from Japan I broke my nose, a tooth, my camera, my kindle, my headtorch and various other expensive, hard-to-replace things, and a few months later (deep breath), I crashed in London and wrote off my touring bike (proving my oft-repeated argument that couriering is more detrimental to bikes and kit than any other wheel-based activity). At the time, I felt dolefully as if the literal falling-apart of my life was mirroring what was going on psychologically. But now I’m almost back to normal, and remember that starting from scratch is something I’ve done before, and am unafraid of, and by now pretty good at. It’ll be fun putting it all back together again.

So, I’m back. I’ll start blogging again. (Now I’ve got this difficult post out of the way, I’ll hopefully find I have a lot to say again, and if nothing else, I don’t want this sitting on the front page for too long.) If you’ve sent me an email over the last few months, you can now expect a response in the not-too-distant future (sorry about that). And if you were wondering where I was – I was here all along.

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