Purple Ronnie creator on depression: ‘I lost the gift of joy for a while’
The man behind the Purple Ronnie cards was hit by a violent and unexpected illness: depression. He gives a searing account of the illness
I am, in many respects, one of the most fortunate people I know. . I survived lymphatic cancer at the age of 22. I am now 43. I have a kind, beautiful and loving wife. Together we have four fantastic, healthy children through successful IVF treatment. Every year of my working life I have earned more money than I have spent. I do something productive that I enjoy and of which I am proud. We live in a lovely home in Central London and spend all our holidays in a magical Cornish seaside retreat. I mean . . . how good can it get?
And yet, late last year, something happened to me that was so violent, dark and unexpected that it is still hard to find adequate words to describe it. That thing was what is known as an episode of “major clinical depression”. Depression — for God’s sake! Have you been depressed? I have been depressed and I can tell you that it is nothing, nothing at all, like depression. It must be the most misleading term for an illness in the entire medical lexicon.
So what does it feel like?
Imagine you’re in charge of one of those giant computers — the kind that you see in movies. The computer contains billions of items of data that together somehow keep the Western world from falling into chaos. One day, as you watch the screen in horrified disbelief, the data begins to disappear. The world’s most virulent superbug has infected the hard drive and every fragment of information is slowly and methodically destroyed until all that is left is a blank, blinking screen.
With depression, that database is every particle of your personality. Every fragment of knowledge and experience that have provided the anchors and co-ordinates from which you are progressively able to address the world with a measure of safety and confidence, with a growing sense of who “me” is, has suddenly been completely voided. Dramatic? Yes. Terrifying? Absolutely.
If a computer analogy doesn’t resonate with you, try this: you are a space explorer. You land on the Moon and bounce from step to 12ft step in your giant gravity boots. What a sensation of freedom and excitement! But then, too late, you notice that you forgot to lace the boots up. They slip off your feet and you spiral upwards and outwards, away from the Moon. With a sudden surge of hyper-vertigo, you realise that the rest of your life will be spent spinning alone, weightless, through the dark emptiness of space.
One last image: I remember once as a child peeling carrots for a family meal and I found myself wondering what it must feel like to be one of those carrots. Yes, now I know. When you have depression you feel as violated as if you have just been peeled — and you’re standing naked in the wind. It is as visceral and as peculiar as that. You wake every morning with a rush of adrenalin, a physical pumping of fear and panic and more often than not, with tears running down your cheeks. It is exhausting from the moment you open your eyes.
So why do I want you to know this? Well, first because before I had depression I had no idea what it might be like. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that I rather suspected it was for people with a bit too much time on their hands and not enough to do. Right? Wrong. Very wrong.
Depression is a medical condition just like any other. It is triggered by a chemical change in the brain, which itself is often triggered by stress. Psychiatrists are fond of explaining it this way: “You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken neck to just get a grip, would you?” But the lack of any physical manifestation of the condition (beyond crying, shaking and doom-mongering) makes it very hard to understand and to empathise with.
My psychiatrist (I never thought I would use those two words together) recently told me that he has seen a threefold increase in the number of men seeking treatment for depression in the past year. This increase is directly related to the effects of the recession, and understandably so. Most of us know at least one person who suffers from this . We may even know people who have killed themselves as a result of it. Now that I know what it’s like, all I can say is this: be very, very gentle. It is big. It is serious. It is frightening. And it requires tireless patience, understanding and compassion.
I haven’t yet told you why it happened to me. Looking back now, I see how strange and disproportionate my concerns must have seemed to others. But that’s exactly the point. When you have this illness you lose all sense of proportion. You chant an endless, repetitive mantra of personal nihilism. And that’s a very hard and frustrating thing for those around you to cope with.
As a writer, my income is directly dependent on people buying copies of what I produce. We have chosen to educate our four children privately. It delights me daily to see the results of such a fortunate education but, like many others, I am now in the self-imposed purgatory of having subscribed to the most colossal and long-term financial commitment.
For me, earning money since having a family has meant only one thing: buying security. However, earning money in the way that I do, with no corporate infrastructure, no support, no colleagues, no regular salary — just my head, a pen and a laptop — began to feel increasingly fragile. The tightrope on which my professional life was balanced had only a fine layer of gauze beneath it. Fear began to creep in.
Then, in August last year, a couple of things happened simultaneously. The value of the financial nestegg that I had built up over 20 years of successful writing plummeted — and we decided to move out of London, away from the home in which we had brought up our family for the previous ten years. Now, I am well aware that anyone who had any investments in 2008 saw them plunge in value and that it’s not exactly uncommon to move house. However, two major elements in my life from which I derived a sense of security had ceased to represent security. And I am very, very bad with change. The platform on which I had been standing had disappeared. Beneath it was simply an abyss.
One Saturday morning I started shaking and crying uncontrollably. Nothing big or sudden had happened, but the weight of my worries, however ill-founded they may have been, had simply become too heavy. My wife took me to see an emergency doctor. He prescribed Valium and sleeping pills and sent me to see a psychiatrist on Monday morning. I was immediately put on a large dose of antidepressants and anti-anxiety tablets. Despite all the controversies surrounding chemical control of psychiatric conditions, I couldn’t imagine that this feeling could be overcome by anything other than extremely strong medication. I managed (just) to stay out of psychiatric in-care. After a while, I began searching for a psychotherapist as well, on the recommendation of pretty much everyone who has had any contact with this illness. Eventually, I found someone with the most extraordinary reserves of compassion, intelligence, knowledge, patience and wisdom.
After about four months of knowing (and, my goodness, do you know) that this could never get better, I began to feel the sunshine again. Slowly, I emerged from the darkness, gingerly, quietly, but I felt it happening . . . and it was quite extraordinary.
I have now fully recovered, though even to write that feels dangerous and overly absolute. I am still on antidepressants (albeit a significantly reduced dose) and I am still seeing my psychotherapist. I am, of course, mindful that this may happen again. Next time, though, I will recognise the signs and be able to act earlier, and with more knowledge and confidence, to try to prevent another implosion.
As I look back on my time with depression now, I am struck by two unexpected thoughts. First, I have been writing about madness for seven years. In 2002, I took on a new persona: a character called Edward Monkton. As Edward Monkton, I write and draw bizarre, playful, philosophical thoughts about everything from The Meaning of Life to The Penguin of Death. Here are some other titles of my drawings: We Must Take Our Tablets or Else We Will Go Mad, Are You Normal? The Madness Hamsters, The Goblet of the Crazies. Had this illness always been latent in me? Did I know that it was coming? I think that, subconsciously, I must have done.
Second, what a rare and beautiful treasure is the simple human gift of joy. I lost it so completely for a while. Despite the love and reassurance of my wife and family, and an extraordinarily patient band of friends, my anchors to the world had been cut and I had gone spinning into the void of space. I had lost any understanding of the reason to exist. But joy — our capacity to delight in one another and the world — makes sense to me now of the biggest question of all. To me, it is why we are here — and that is quite a question to find the answer to.
Now, I am back at my desk, writing as busily as ever. The ideas are flowing and I am happy. And all I want to write about is joy. I want to preach it from the rooftops. I want to tell everyone how absurdly lucky we are to be able to enjoy each other — and to enjoy even little moments of our lives. I have started. My short animation, The Pig of Happiness, has recently gone live on YouTube. It’s free. And people seem to be watching it. Lots of people.
There are those who have suffered tragedy and disaster, illness and bereavement that is far worse than a six-month episode of depression. But it’s not a competition. For this stable, sheltered, fortunate, middle-class, middle-aged, Middle-England man it was absolutely horrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought of Edward Monkton’s. It’s a drawing for a greetings card, which is drying on my desk as I write. There’s a silhouette of a little fellow dancing with abandon beneath a rain cloud. It says this:
A HAPPINESS BLESSING
May you dance forever JOYFUL
In the sweet WARM rain of life.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have written that a year ago.