On my way to kill myself one hot day in July 1991, I stopped to fill up with the petrol necessary to see the job through. An old woman with heavy shopping bags was trying to cross the road. She was staggering and in danger of being run down. I offered help. She asked me to call a taxi to take her home. There was no phone so I offered to take her myself. With difficulty I got her into the car. She put the hosepipe on her lap. Half a mile up the road she said: ‘The shops were so crowded, but then there’s only four days to go. Still, I’ve got all my shopping done now.’
‘Four days to go to what?’ I asked.
‘Christmas,’ she replied.
As I drove I could feel her scrutinising me suspiciously: ‘I hope you’re not on drugs, young man.’
I asked her again where she lived. She directed me, with great confidence, into a cul-de-sac, only to declare that this, obviously, wasn’t where she lived. We tried again, with the same result. Impatiently and desperately, I told her I couldn’t take her home if she couldn’t tell me where she lived. I felt that the terrible resolve I’d screwed up for this second suicide attempt was dissipating. She replied with equal impatience: ‘Are you a complete stranger to this area?’
‘Yes,’ I replied weakly, now wishing I’d left her to her own devices. Without a moment’s pause, she said, ‘Well you can’t be a complete stranger, because you’re here now,’ and laughed. After a while we happened on the road where she lived. She offered me a ten pound note, which I had to decline several times. Realising I wasn’t going to take it, she said brightly: ‘Oh well, never mind – I’ll see you again.’
See me again? I resumed my journey wondering if she’d been sent to save me. No: my resolve to die was the greater for having met her. I didn’t want to end up like her. Depression is like that – it attaches to the negative in anything. Still, I had wanted to help her; something resembling sympathy was still alive in me. So what is the answer to the question increasingly asked of depression today: is there anything ‘positive’ to be gained from it? A question which only arises if you survive it.
In periods of depression I’ve certainly had a keener sense of the misery of others. I would often wake to wish I hadn’t, and then weep when hearing the morning news – nothing exceptional, just the usual catalogue of misery and violence. If this was empathy it was subordinate to a powerful overflow of self-pity, and present when I was at my most incapable. So one shouldn’t sentimentalise it: empathy that derives from the chronic impotence of depression doesn’t add up to much. Later, when I’d more or less recovered, I was, like most ‘together’ people, capable of absorbing news as background information while eating breakfast, driving to work, or performing any number of ordinary tasks which had previously defeated me – academic administration is one that sticks in the mind. And with such pressing tasks to complete, elderly people would be left to the traffic. If there is a selfishness in ‘mental health’ it has less to do with conscious callousness than with defending oneself against reality. To be without the defences of sanity and psychic health is not necessarily a gain, although some would claim that it is and those who have written most eloquently about depression impute an almost spiritual dimension to it. On the one hand, depressives are seen to suffer from an illness treatable by medication, no different in principle from asthma or kidney disease: on the other, the experience of depression has once again become the stimulus for self-scrutiny and social critique, in the best tradition of Renaissance melancholy. There’s a dark night of the soul aspect to it – a sense that if we can survive it, spiritual gain will follow.
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[*] Chatto, 560 pp., £20, 3 May 2001, 0 701 16819 6.