Two and a half years ago, when my depression was at its height, I read an article in, of all places, Oprah magazine. It was by a therapist and it was about the process of change. She wrote about the chrysalis metaphor and how most people use it thinking that when the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis, it becomes a butterfly by growing legs and wings without having to stop being a caterpillar. Not so, she said. When the caterpillar seals itself into its cocoon, the first thing that happens is that it breaks down completely, to become liquid; it turns into bug soup. It is from this soup that a completely transformed insect is created. The article used this image to elucidate the process of radical change, and to explain why it’s so painful, because real change often involves a process of breaking down before the work of remaking can begin.
At that point in my life this made perfect sense. I felt exactly like bug soup. It’s profoundly scary to discover that things you thought were indissoluble parts of your personality, things like confidence, energy, the ability to focus, are merely the products of circumstance. This is not true; it’s more that their absence is a symptom of illness, but it’s how it feels at the time.
There is a theory that depression is a way for the subconscious to force change upon the conscious mind when outmoded ways of being have ceased to serve, by making mere existence so painful that change becomes inevitable. There are other theories of depression as well, but in the autumn of 2011 that one made sense to me. The ways of being that had served me in my previous role no longer worked and I had to find new ways, but, my god, it was painful. I kept telling myself it would work out in the end, but I didn’t really believe it.
However, as you know, things got better. In my changed role I have had to learn an enormous amount, very fast. In other areas too – when Tigger was ill I had to learn to give her subcutaneous fluids and it became just another part of our daily routine. This, and the changes in my swimming, have given me confidence that I can, if I have to, learn to do new things that previously I would have thought impossible.
I also have a changed attitude to work. In my old role I was chugging along quite happily, having fun, and had just assumed I would go on until my normal retirement date of 62. It hadn’t occurred to me that, if I retired on my 62nd birthday, I would be stopping work having not had more than two weeks off at any one time since leaving university. It would probably have killed me. When I was depressed I was desperate to get away from work, and looked enviously at people who were working part-time or for hours which suited them. Because I hated going into the office, things outside work started to take on much greater importance. Even though I’m much happier in my job now, I haven’t lost that feeling that there is a lot more to life than work and that it would be good to work part-time, maybe for longer. It can’t happen yet, but I have a plan, and that feels like a healthier place to be.
So, how do I feel now about my depression? Would I have chosen to go through it? Hell, no. Was it dreadful? Yes, it was probably one of the worst things that’s happened to me. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Well, weirdly, no.
You know I said this was going to be the last part? I lied. More tomorrow.