“You’re depressed” my psychiatrist said to me. I was completely stunned. After all, I was supposed to be the one who wrote about serial killers and sociopaths; who had learned the DSM-IV off by heart; who fervently studied everything about the human brain. How come I hadn’t realized something so obvious? So it wasn’t stress that made me regularly turn into a gorilla yearning to wreck the world around me and then dance on the rubble, a ferocious creature ready to kick the ass of friends and colleagues for their slightest blunder. And the panic attacks that kept me awake at night (convinced my every breath was the last, because when you have a panic attack, you know you’re about to die) did not depend on how worried I was about something or other.
Along with the astonishment, I also felt a strange and unexpected sense of relief. I was not completely to blame for having hurt people and screwed things up. Though far from exhaustive, my research has taught me that depression is an illness and not an intentional state of mind. You cannot just command depressed people to cheer up or have a laugh once in a while. It is not like they are faking it. The brain messes things up. There is a shortage of endorphins; neurons wade through fog.
On my way home after that session, I had a satori, a moment of absolute clarity during which my life flashed before my eyes.
When was the last time I had truly had fun? Not the parties where I would get so drunk or stoned I just slipped into oblivion. And I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed myself. Quite the contrary, all that came to mind was a good friend’s wedding where I struggled not to sneak away and go home to write. Or at least pretend to write, as was more often the case.
I have been publishing work since 1998 and my first two novels unfolded easily and smoothly. On my third novel, however, things changed. I would sit in front of the keyboard for hours, barely having the courage to touch it. And, when I did, I was capable of deleting every single word the following day. Sometimes it took me months to write a single decent page. Sometimes even years.
The gorilla inside me seemed to block my hands, insulting me for daring, mocking me repeatedly and telling me I should go back to being a cook, or kill myself. I turned this creature into a character in my novels, trying – unsuccessfully – to exorcise it. Most of the time the gorilla won, I felt ashamed and told no one about it. I made random excuses, ranging from the classic “I’m almost done” to the “there’s been a death in the family”; often I would steer clear of colleagues who I had promised some work to. I remember slipping away from the Frankfurt Book Fair or out of the Mondadori offices, to avoid bumping into my editor. Or trying not to walk past the desks of people who were waiting for a manuscript, for fear of being reprimanded. I even wrote a story about it. A story in which my alter ego kills his agent in order to get a deadline extension, after blowing his entire down payment on drugs.
Session after session, I started to focus on other signs I have neglected over the years: first and foremost my inability to control anger, often letting it border on self-harm. I was very argumentative; I insulted editorial directors and producers, I risked coming to blows, I did come to blows, I lost friends, money and jobs.
And then there was the fucking isolation. I had become a loner, locked away at home and frightened of going out. I spent at least a hundred nights a year in some hotel or other, but none of those trips were for personal pleasure. Work meetings and book launches made me feel like I was facing a firing squad; I spent my sporadic holidays sitting in hotel lobbies with my computer on my knees, sickened by the mere thought of setting foot outdoors.
Aside from my own home the only place I felt at ease was at the movies because I didn’t have to talk to anyone, not even to those whose company I was in. The only problem was always crying at the sad scenes.
When I asked my psychiatrist why I was depressed – and have been for as long as I can remember – she didn’t give me a straight answer. Instead she gently told me that it was connected to issues that fall within the “autistic sphere”.
There I was, well into my late forties, being told not only that I had suffered from depression since puberty, but that I also had autism?
I began medical treatment for the symptoms. My brain had too few endorphins; I needed to ensure more endorphins were released and remained in the system.
I was prescribed Sertraline. Initially it made me feel a bit nauseous and drowsy. But within three weeks something changed, something I can only describe as an absence.
Have you ever lived close to a railway or a waterfall? Or somewhere with a constant background noise that you eventually no longer notice. Until it stops.
That’s what happened.
One morning I realized that although the gorilla’s voice was still somewhere in my head, it was no longer enraged or constantly goading me. Its arms had stopped grabbing and choking me every time I looked into the future. It had become more of a gloomy cynical murmur that, depending on my stress level, I could mostly keep at bay.
Little by little discussions at work have turned into conversations, with no shouting or insults. I am far less anxious than I was before, when I took endless tranquilizers and anti anxiety medications. When my bank calls to tell me I am overdrawn, instead of hiding my phone under a cushion wishing for a comet strike the earth, I pick up the phone and arrange a loan. I still argue (I am no saint) but far less often. And, most importantly, I can stop; I do not go on all night, on a loop. When the gorilla breaks out, I put it back in its cage.
Stressful and worrying things are far fewer. I can shrug things off that once caused me sleepless nights and cold sweats. Screw that. And that is the name I’ve given the pill.
The screw-that pill.
And I’ve kept on writing. I still get moments in which I feel constrained or depressed. Moments with challenging problems or things to deal with. But they are within the realms of normality (if anything in this profession or indeed in this world can be considered normal). I still re-write much of my work and am often unsatisfied with the end result. But it’s okay, I am fine with that, it pushes me to want to improve and not just make do. Most importantly, I now enjoy creating stories to feed to readers and I live without guilt.
Writing feels good and that is something I had forgotten.
I don’t know how things will pan out from now on. For the time being, given that I have written and published a thousand pages over the last two years, I would say pretty well. But some things have no cure and depression is one of these, not to mention autism (before you ask I am not a mathematical genius and my memory is crap). So there will probably be some relapses and shitty times. But you know what?