Make A List
Award winning musician, actor and writer Nakhane, on surviving anxiety and depression, even when they were tempted to give in under lockdown.
It was a boozy day that turned into a boozy night.
It’s difficult now to recall the precise time I had started drinking, but I do have a clearer recollection of when the suicidal ideation began. It had been blinking at me for weeks like a star in a sky that clouded over intermittently.
The evening was spent in the room I usually work in. This means I either skipped supper - not good for a person who had been drinking for hours - or I had it quickly and then returned to my work. The memory is unclear.
By the time I felt I could not sustain whatever drunken intensity of emotion I had been hanging on throughout the day, it was way past midnight. With the lights off in the rest of the apartment and my partner fast asleep in our bedroom; the apartment was quiet and dark. Every time I went to the toilet I had to feel my way by pressing my palms flat against the walls. The Compass-like as the walls were, they also served as steadying devices when I felt, even though I probably denied it to myself, that my legs were being wobblier with each visit.
It was after one of these trips to the bathroom that I decided to take my ex-therapist’s advice:
‘Ex’ because I could no longer afford to pay his rates. ‘Ex’ because since the COVID-19 outbreak, people who worked in the live music sector, amongst other performative mediums, found themselves with no channels of income.
I called the Samaritans: A suicide line.
A 'I’m hanging on to my mind - to my place in this world- by the skin of my teeth' line.
Thankfully this line was free, even though making the call still carried with it a sense of guilt and shame. That if I was truly suicidal I wouldn’t be wasting time calling anonymous help lines to talk about it. I would just do it. And that I was just performing this depression and its severity. That if I hadn’t started drinking to begin with, I wouldn’t have opened the Pandora’s Box of a depression I knew well enough was waiting to wreak havoc at any given opportunity.
And yet I stayed on the line for what felt like an hour an then quietly crawled into bed.
I would hang on for at least another day, I thought to myself as I quickly drifted to sleep. Perhaps until the day after tomorrow, because tomorrow I would be painfully hungover.
This was towards the end of the first lockdown. Not unlike a few artists I saw posting on social media when the lockdown measures were implemented and we were told to stay at home; I boasted that being stuck at home would be no different to how I lived my life anyway. If anything, this would be a good opportunity for me to get focused and begin or continue work on projects I had left idling at the back of my mind.
When I speak of depression I am speaking of an experience so devoid of hope that it shrouds every single aspect of your life.
And so, like the majority of the middle class I divided my time between Zoom calls, and online HIIT sessions. I had ambitions to improve my skills as a musician and writer. I bought books to brush up on the music theory I had all but abandoned and then forgotten since my days in school bands. I also had plans to read voraciously and sharpen my cinema knowledge.
By the time this pandemic was over, I planned, I would be brimming with knowledge; erudite, wise and a master artist.
What was as an earnest exercise (carving off time in my days to practice piano, watch a film, read pages from a book) began to slacken almost as soon as it began. In its stead were a myriad trips to the fridge and the corner shop where they sold miniature bottles of wine. I began eating out of boredom, hours spent watching nonsense on YouTube and other activities that seemed to push the days to end as soon as they began.
With all these plans and an ever narrowing capacity to exercise my will, and my body, I felt the heaviness of mind that I usually feel before an episode of severe depression begins.
I was irritable and snappy. I was hyper-active and manic. I was impulsive, filling the bare spaces of our apartment with books I bought online, even though I had barely the attention span to read them. I loaded up films on my laptop and just as the credits were starting to roll, my eyes glazed over, blurring the images. It seemed I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything unless I broke it up into 5 minute spells.
Unlike the time prior the pandemic when I had outlets; seeing friends, going for long aimless walks, touring my albums, visiting galleries and museums, this time I was stuck inside my small apartment drinking more and more each day.
I felt stuck.
Depression is a difficult illness to describe to people who are not afflicted with it. When I speak of it I am not speaking about sadness or melancholy that all human beings feel, whether it be rational reactions and responses to events like grief, breakups and general disappointments. As much as I don’t make light of those moments and what is felt; when I speak of depression I am speaking of an experience so devoid of hope that it shrouds every single aspect of your life.
Suddenly - sometimes not suddenly at all as the illness can often stalk its way into your life, intensifying its saturation and contrast slowly - your waking moments are weighed down by an ever-present gloom. The joy you used to experience from certain things begins to vanish. This is called anhedonia. You are dizzy, each step that you take feels momentous as you try to ward off what you imagine are the precursors of a faint. You either can’t sleep or your body seems attached to the mattress. You wonder - even though your faculties of thought have been dulled and smudged, losing their sharpness and speed - what this thing is that has fallen on your head, out of the blue, like an engine of a plane from the sky.
You may be catatonic - which means you are unable to speak or move - or you may be functional. The latter is particularly harrowing. Unlike catatonia where spectators see its results in the unmoving mass that your body has become, people who are suffering from Functional Depression will flash smiles while they compartmentalise when they can actually face what is happening to them. As helpful as this high-functionality can be when it comes to getting things done, it can also be severely dangerous.
At school we were taught that one of the jobs of your nerve endings is to send signals to your brain to warn it that trauma is being administered to your body; such as a burning sensation.
Ouch! You pull your finger away from the hot plate and go about trying to get it healed.
I remember saying to a teacher that I wished that I had no nerve endings so I wouldn’t feel any pain. She explained to me how she understood my wish, but wondered if I could imagine how much more terrible the trauma and damage would be if I couldn’t feel it happening. If I didn't know to pull the finger away from the hot plate, I could end up with my entire finger burnt off.
I laughed and understood.
Functional depression is somewhat similar to that. Selective and very well-practiced numbing is enacted by the suffering person so that they can get on in the world. As soon as that steely willpower - and the things that harden it: friends, museums, tour buses etc. - is gone, the depression sharpens its focus so severely that one is left feeling blindsided, not knowing what to do with this engine that has fallen on their head.
Where I used to walk with my earphones deafening my ears from the world, I have begun increasingly, with each passing day, to learn to enjoy the sound of my footsteps and birdsong
A second lockdown came and went. We are now cautiously easing out of a third. In the year that has passed I’ve begun, aborted, committed to different ways of living in these times.
My partner and I have moved out of the city to the countryside, where it seems to never stop raining. We also have a dog.
To me the addition of the dog has seemed to be the most beneficial. After those first few weeks of panic and slight regret, notwithstanding the initial house-training which can be difficult, you and the dog begin to settle on a routine and schedule.
This schedule: waking up in the morning to take him on his walk, whether you feel like it or not, is great for helping a depressed person not only get out of bed, but to get some form of exercise as well.
Dogs are hilarious and their curiosity is contagious. Having one can help draw your mind from its obsession with rumination to the immediate and external; what is right in front of you. Watching my dog sniffing around brings back my own curiosity of the world.
Where I used to walk with my earphones deafening my ears from the world, I have begun increasingly, with each passing day, to learn to enjoy the sound of my footsteps and birdsong. As a result this opens up my other senses as well, particularly sight:
Flowers. Trees. How my dog breathes. How nature works.
This porousness seeps into my art. I become curious in how I can create differently.
There are times when I believe I can draw on the dependability of my discipline and willpower. These are the days when I feel as if I am floating above all this difficulty; aware of its enormity, yet calm in performing my daily tasks.
I make lists.
I make sure that the lists are kind to me.
Where in the first lockdown I set up goals for myself that were too big to accomplish, for example: this week you must write and produce a song everyday, you must also continue work on your novel, read more etc., I am now more concerned with surviving each day.
Sometimes the lists are simple and ‘small’:
Brush your teeth.
Eat a healthy breakfast.
Call your mother.
Scratching off these items one by one can be enough for me to feel bolstered to try live another day, and add weightier items on my list, with each successive day.