The following article was first written for Young Minds, so apologies if you read it back in December. I lightly edited it for re-publishing here. I felt that the photos taken of me by the multi-talented and rather gorgeous Lucy Feng (who I put in front of the lens here) last Autumn were appropriate on two counts - not only in the general energy and joy of the shots, but also in my proximity to a body of water. Everything worn is second hand.
Dad went swimming recently – a brief, mad dash in and out of the freezing hillside pool. I crouched on the rocks above with my camera in hand trying to frame the moment, to capture him in the green cocoon of running water. I squinted through the eyepiece as he squealed. The winter stream was bitterly chilly, but I forced him to stay until I could focus and click. As he jumped out and reached for the towel I had a brief snatch of elation, of realizing quite how special these small moments still are.
Little over a year ago my dad wasn’t dipping as much as a toe into cold water. This was unusual for a man who usually celebrated the delights of mountain streams and plunge pools regardless of season or temperature. The other three of us often watched as he slid in and out of lakes or rivers, his long legs kicking up as he laughed with the adrenaline rush. Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ was his guiding text, the outdoors his cathedral. The swimming stopped at the beginning of autumn 2011. Long walks, days out and that fascination with the beating heart of forests and hills gradually disappeared too.
Depression was the diagnosis – the word he was given to explain why he could no longer function; the word that was offered to my brother and me to justify why our dad would be moving temporarily out of our home and into hospital; the word handed to my mum to help her understand why her husband’s eyes were empty. That word has become misappropriated and misunderstood in every day language. It is a clinical term, describing an illness that debilitates both mind and body. It is not interchangeable with sadness, despondency or any of the other more easily defined emotions. ‘Sadness’ doesn’t hang like fog in the living room for six months. It doesn’t give justice to the man whose head was full of terror, hands trembling as he ate, speech devoted only to paranoia and apologies. ‘Sadness’ wasn’t what created an impassable void between our father and the figure that sat on the sofa all day. This shape looked like dad, but had none of his curiosity or humour. It huddled reading trashy books and filling out sudokos day after day as we tried to coax him out. I imagined the real man outside somewhere, sculling up and down a river or strolling through a field at twilight, as he used to do. The outdoors scared this replacement. When we went away to visit friends he pleaded with us to let him out of the car, to leave him behind, to let him walk back home. Our house was a cave, with everything beyond the walls and windows threatening.
It’s very easy if you're on the outside looking in on depression to use blithe instructions like ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘stop moping’ or ‘use your willpower.’ But this is as impossible and insensitive as suggesting to someone with two broken legs that they should simply pull themselves together, get up, go for a run and then do something useful. The impact is as physical as it is mental and emotional – and it radiates out from the individual to affect all who surround them.
Severe depression took all that my dad loved and lived for, and warped it. The chemical imbalance in his brain made literature unreadable and the landscape unreachable and terrifying. For him each stretch of water was no longer an embrace, but a place filled with possible dangers: broken glass and barbed wire waiting at the bottom or hidden currents that might pull us under. He didn’t need the adrenaline from jumping in the sea, his system already full of it from the constant horror and panic of ‘fight or flight’ as he sat on the sofa. He tried to fold himself away there, but couldn't curl small enough to pass unseen. We saw, and it hurt.
Depression is a wound of sorts. It can eventually heal – although the process of recovery may be one of complications and setbacks. Getting better is also a different process for everyone. The possibility of my dad’s return became clear on the afternoon he agreed to join me for a walk. Our conversation was stilted, but the steps were progress. Like a tide, the extent of the following revival varied from day to day. He moved from activity to monosyllables as moods shifted. But if the stroll was a first sign, then the revisiting of a favourite river was a decisive signal. It’s not melodramatic to say that when he was so ill, neither my mum nor I could imagine him ever swimming again. The idea was incompatible with the reality we had all coped with for months. Nonetheless, there he was – hollering with as much energy as remembered, lips grinning beneath a striped beanie hat.
His depression officially lifted in late spring of last year, after much trial and error and ongoing combinations of approaches for managing and treating it. It now strikes me that his illness left him stuck at the bottom of a silted lake. We wanted, desperately, to catch him with hooks, suddenly yank him from the depths – dredge him up in an instant. Instead it was an agonizing process of waiting for the dark liquid to drain away, drop by drop.
That liquid is now not dark, but clear. The riverbed is sandy and covered in stones. Dad made up for lost time through cycling, writing and taking me on six-mile walks. Although it is now cold, he still retains this spark – a desire to fill himself up with life and the joy of being here. Whenever he now steps into a mountain plunge-pool, with breeze ruffling leaves, it is an act of celebration. A celebration of swimming; of the human ability to suffer and recover; of the wonder to be found in days out and other activities; of the bonds between family; and of the relationship with the outdoors.
We all push forward, taking it one stroke at a time.