There is a depth of depression which is so bleak, so icily unbearable, that when you hit it, you sort of bounce. It’s a recognised part of the progress of the disease. What happens is, you hit the lowest bedrock, the unliveable layer, and at that point your very being simply rejects its own malfunctioning existence; and, somehow, as if stretched to elastic breaking point, the pressure is released, and it pings back, wildly, upon itself.
When this happens, the normal rules of behaviour are torn down and flung aside. Like a maddened rat in a trap, you scrabble with the desperate fury of the survival urge to find another way, any way, out. The safety nets and coping mechanisms you have painstakingly built around yourself over the years with the twisting constriction of a conch shell are finally burst apart, as like the frantic last act of a wild animal in immense pain, in a kind of beautiful and flailing explosion of the soul, your consciousness races forward, in a terrified rage, tearing and biting at friends and foe alike. And as it flies it roars the message against the wall of your skull and out, finally, out into the world:
I am not going down this time without a fight.
It’s a pretty impressive bounce. This event is often referred to as a ‘breakdown’. This is possibly because people don’t understand the difference between what it looks like, which is a person ceasing to function properly, and what it actually is – which is that the person has finally started to function properly for the first time in a long time. If you have depression, and it has reached the moment when you can no longer cope with it alone, then screaming, crying, acting out at work, doing things to draw attention to yourself and doing everything you can to rebel against it and your own miserable situation and, essentially, to save yourself, is exactly the right way to behave. It’s completely logical. It is what someone does who wants to live.
I wanted to live. Oh, so much. I was 25, when it happened to me, and that is when I started writing. After black days, like walking in dark glasses through a mad colourless world, and white, aching, endless nights in a wide-eyed fury of sleeplessness, staring at ceilings and the dawn light from the wrong side, I opened a switch one day, and words came out. Thousands and thousands of them. I wrote about the things I’d done, the people I’d met, the places I had been. It took no effort, because it was real, it was all there, in my memories. All it took was the writing down. It was easy to do, easy to finish. And once you’ve written something, you might as well have someone read it. So that was why I started blogging. It was a direct product of that moment – the flailing explosion of my soul.
I’m not unusual. I think you have to talk about depression, sooner or later, if you have it. Otherwise you’ll end up going insane – or, as some rather unkind people might say, more insane. Although in my experience depression is nothing like insanity, which is usually portrayed as a kind of surreal-ness, or fuzzing of reality. Depression is more like the opposite: a horrible, morbid clarity about everything; and therefore an experience of raw, unrelenting exposure, to all the bitterness of the world. (It isn’t much fun).
10 years ago, during such a period of unrelenting exposure, I didn’t talk about it. I probably should have. But instead, I did a thing. I was going down one path, then I changed my mind, and took another. After graduating from university with a degree in English Literature, I decided to jack in my life plans, such as they were, and start sewing for a living instead. So I ditched Chaucer, Keats and Heidegger, and became a local dressmaker.
It was a bit of an odd thing to do. And sometimes people ask me why I did it, but there isn’t a proper answer – morbid clarity or not. Because we are talking about a time when I wasn’t me, at least, not the me I am now. After all, I had depression. I was hardly even a person at the time; just a shell, walking around, full of pain. Any decision I might have made was just a nonsense, a panacea. I had no real plans, just a life of grief with a future that was unimaginable, un-see-able, like a fog: because the disease I was playing host to didn’t want me to have one.
But that all sounds a bit grim. So what I tell people is: I followed my heart.
Well … it sounds good. It keeps them happy, and it is actually pretty close to the truth; after all, something must have been shepherding me. Some part of myself, untouched by the rot, must have survived underneath through those years; because that is what the person I am now developed from. Perhaps it was my heart; or something like it. A raw little sliver of soul, perhaps. A heart’s core. A pulse: one quiet note beating a hidden rhythm, beneath the cacophony of grey rage above. And perhaps it was that which guided my feet to where I ended up.
Because, well, where I ended up was pretty brilliant. Have you ever done it? Closed the door on what was expected of you, flung away all pretence at sense and care, and just marched off to do exactly what you wanted to do? As hard as you could, for as long as fate would let you get away with it? Because I have to tell you, it feels pretty bloody good.
I realise these might sound like strong words for someone who is talking, when you get right down to it, not about becoming a rock star or running to Gretna Green with their forbidden lover, but about spending quite a lot of time sitting quietly with a sewing machine. (Yeah! And screw the world if it wants to stop me! Fight the power!) But I love making clothes. I would happily choose making clothes over being a rock star any day. (For one thing, it’s less sweaty. That probably applies to the forbidden love thing too). I love sewing, I love designing, I love draping patterns, I love doing embroidery, beadwork, fabric painting, printing, tailoring, stitching, cutting and fitting. I love making clothes for myself, for other people, for children, dolls, animals, fictional characters, charities, theatres, fashion shows, the sake of it, the joy of it, posterity, fun and forever.
And over the years making clothes has taken me to some interesting places; like working for some high-end fashion labels in the run-up to London Fashion Week, and even seeing my design work on TV, (although not in the way you might think). I didn’t become anyone famous or special. But I did get to do some great fun stuff, which was completely unrelated to English Literature. (Quite a lot of fun things in life are completely unrelated to English Literature). And I have learnt a lot. Perhaps the most interesting thing I found out is just how far it is possible to get in life – well, the fashion industry at any rate – armed with nothing more than a belligerent personality and a GCSE in textiles.
I probably shouldn’t have done it, any of it. I was a shell of pain. I don’t know what possessed me, or how I knew what to do. But I did do it, and in the end, changing my mind like that was what began the journey that eventually helped that little sliver of soul of mine, that diminished heart, lying there under the rot, to grow. Because, now things are different. Now, I’ve got heart coming out of my ears, (although I realise this sounds anatomically unlikely). And my head has changed too. It is a completely different place to live in. A much nicer one.
So I guess the message there would be, that sometimes it is ok to change your mind. Sometimes, in fact, the best thing you can do is change it completely. And if you do make a change, people might ask you why. (People do this). But just tell them: you’re following your heart.
By Natalie Bramwell-Booth
First published on The Dressmaker Diaries, September 2015