How Writing Fiction Freed Me from a Deep Depression
Ross Patrick found that writing shifted him out of a deep depression, first writing about his own pain, and then finding solace in fiction
Note: this article contains some description of self-harm
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The parkway that cut through Peterborough was always gummed up, making me late for my appointment with my therapist, Neil. Tapping the steering wheel in impotent frustration; it was the guilt I could never cope with.
Neil was pale like a ghost; his hair prematurely white, he had pale blue eyes and a detached, distantly benign smile. In the upstairs front room of a non-descript terraced house where we met, the walls were a calming shade of mint green. There was a comfortable chair for me and on the table to my right was a box of tissues and a cactus plant. He took me back to my childhood to search in the clutter of memories for reasons. My fingers shredded a tissue as I wondered what I was searching for.
Dad liked numbers, there was a certainty to numbers. When Mum’s twitching anxieties spun into obsessive compulsion, Dad didn’t understand. He said words are easy and it’s a person’s actions that count. He couldn’t say the word ‘love’. It formed a knotted blockage in his throat. He’d search for ways to explain around the discomfort. People need to hear the word ‘love’ though, don’t they?
I remember the twitching time of my collapse. I was an imposter posing as nobody in particular and hoping not to be noticed, looking out from behind frightened eyes. I was a bug trapped in amber, forever frozen in a frenzied and futile struggle for escape.
You were large like the sun, Ellie, drawing my thoughts into your orbit. Now there is a universe between us. I abandoned you and tried to explain that the noise in my head meant nothing made sense. You hated me as though I was your parents again. You wished me dead, so I tried, then later you wrote how you doubted I’d want to hear from you when nothing was further from the truth.
The not-so-great escape
I couldn’t stop trembling. I wrapped my arms around myself, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t have anyone in the house the way it was, the way I was. The curtains stayed closed. I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t dress, I rarely ate, my stomach was a tightly balled fist and the noise in my head never ceased. I stubbed cigarettes out on the back of my hand. There was a knife with a serrated edge on the worktop. I grabbed the blade and squeezed.
Bubbles of black-red blood gathered and drops fell from the blade. It was such exquisite release, but still the noise in my head persisted and the endless questions and search for reasons, the accusations and resentments, the guilt, and the shame. But I had Diazepam and I had Zopiclone: I had my escape plan.
Discharged from A&E and invalided home, not my house with its piles of neglected life but the home of my childhood. The bedroom walls of my adolescence were no longer adorned with posters of Michael Stipe and Winona Ryder. My parents wore their worry and I blamed them because I couldn’t cope with the responsibility for their fear and pain.
I circled the garden until a circuit was formed, trodden into the lawn. I was a tortoise tethered to the past by a cord tied to a stake and a hole drilled through my shell. My hair and beard were long, I hid behind the overgrowth. Dad called me in. Mum said, “It breaks my heart to see you like this.”
Floating outside time and space
When I’d wake, I’d feel a drop, a moment into which memory flooded and I bobbed in the undertow, too far out and no longer waving. I withdrew from company, shedding friends like old skin, too stained and scarred to live in still.
I would sit on a white plastic chair, smoke cigarettes and nothing, until the nothing became all there was. A zephyr played with the leaves of a beech tree; in autumn they fell crumpled to the Earth. There was a stream I could hear, a tiny ribbon of water that always flowed: forever changing, forever the same, a fragment of eternity.
I saw a bird carve an arc of sky for heaven to leak through. I followed the bird and counted, wondering how long I could think only of the bird and nothing else. I counted ten, then fifteen, and as the bird disappeared from my view, I noticed a butterfly closer to. I followed it fluttering by, counting ten, fifteen and then a cat tiptoed along a wall, leapt down, and slinked between my legs and I counted. There was no anguish as I gave these tiny incidents of nature my attention.
Be here now
In the stillness I learnt about flow. There is no past and no future in the ever-changing flow of NOW. It is in the past where pain and remorse resides, and the future where fear and anxiety dwell. In the NOW there is nothing but living experience and one is free.
But how to stay in the NOW when ghosts stalk the shadows of your thoughts. New routines provided structure to my days. There was a desk beneath the window of the front room with a laptop open and I wrote incessantly. Gradually a purpose beyond relief emerged, something about capturing my broken humanity. And gradually structure came to the writing that defied the lack of structure to my life. And eventually a kind of beauty emerged in fragments like the jigsaw pieces of a personality being laid out prior to being reassembled.
The low winter sun felt warm through glass. In the pauses as I wrote I noticed snowdrops in the verge outside and soon after early crocuses. There was a blackbird hopping over the front lawn, preparing to fly again, remembering how. The Post Lady started to recognise me at my desk. I smiled and learnt to set it free rather than banish it to preserve the meaning of my pain.
I wrote the pain out of me. I became more engaged by the expression than the content. By writing I didn’t dwell, I recorded and moved on, and, when I broke from writing I closed the laptop as a ceremony of separation and engaged in the moment I was in. I came to see that happiness does not exist out there, to be found, but comes from within and is released.
I no longer write about myself, but I breathe through the characters: Esme running away from her claustrophobic hometown and her trauma, or Angharad and Owain, and their lives spent ceaselessly pursuing reconciliation with the past. My collapsed world became the collapsed world I imagined for A New Dark Age.
I put my darkness into my fiction and stepped free, and whilst I’m not running, my steps are assured. My writing no longer has to be bordered by my melancholia. I can also reflect the quiet and profound love that is all there is and all it means to be human.
Ross Patrick is the author of dystopian fiction A New Dark Age