Updated: Jun 16, 2021
“Put them in my shoes Jenny, the stones will hurt your feet”. Nice neighbours. Irish.
It’s a beautiful early June day, an indication that summer is finally settling in. I haven’t felt this kind of depression since I was a teenager.
It’s not that clear cut, distinct, crisp, sorrow - a full on expression of misery - more a lack of something. There’s a nothing, taking up a lot of space. Not a heavy sensation but the absence of sensation. It’s numbness basically. I feel numb.
The joy I’ve been trying to cultivate these past few years has been muzzled.
The fly netting’s not covering the back door and a desperate fly just made a crazed dash for the kitchen. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.
I had a realisation in my early 20’s. Not a moment of clarity, just a train of thought I kept returning to. Having always held some kind of pain, depression, anxiety, low self esteem, numbness & purposelessness, I just thought: Why bother being here and just accepting this? This feeling of constant sadness. Sure, happiness feels near impossible, but what else am I gonna do? If it’s gonna be hard either way, then why not find a route that might offer me some peace?
The sun’s beating off the ground, reflecting back up into my face. The heat carries the scent of warm turds - dog’s turds, twinkling in the light.
Since the age of 18, I’d been a pretty committed atheist. Having previously never had a solid philosophy, a way of processing life, an understanding of the world around me and my place within it, atheism gave me a sense of purpose. I felt invigorated and truly connected to my surroundings. The world made sense.
At university I shared a range of perplexing, sentimental, thought provoking and defensive conversations, although I should probably add to that list unnecessarily standoffish debates. I felt like during that time I was kind, considerate, sensitive and genuinely interested. I gave people room to talk, I was respectful but direct with my response and I wanted to hear what they had to say in return. At least that’s what it felt like. In reality, this was more the projected image of the person I was trying to be.
I’ve never painted a fence before. Don’t know what colour I’d choose. I’m not really a colour person.
I felt I had something to defend and I wanted to win people over. I was sharing, but I wasn’t properly listening in return. I was never truly engaged because I was too busy planning my response, staying one step ahead. Losing wasn’t an option. I was okay with a pleasant stalemate but I wouldn’t have been okay with ‘losing’.
I remember one conversation with a Christian housemate where I said “that’s a good point, I hadn’t considered that before. That’s something I’m really going to think about”. The thing is, I can’t remember what they actually said. I can only remember what I said. The focus is on how graciously I conceded, proof of my inherent open mindedness, but when it came to critically analysing what he’d said, I couldn’t. I couldn’t make my worldview vulnerable, I couldn’t properly listen.
Just to clarify, I don’t mean intentionally not listening. At that time, I couldn’t connect to the people around me. I was too lost in my own head. It relates back to this current teenage numbness. This anaesthetised state was a necessary learnt reaction, to cope with a set of circumstances a previous me couldn’t deal with. A defence mechanism to avoid the unmanageable pain that, at the time, worked. The thing is, pain doesn’t get filtered out exclusively, all emotion goes with it - joy, fear, jealously, awe, an ability to be vulnerable and connect to other people - every sense becomes the victim of that dumbing down. This created a disconnect between myself and everything else, and cemented that struggle to be present.
The tunnel we got our dog is blowing in the wind. It’s about time we got rid of it really - she's ripped massive holes in it. How do you recycle a thing like that though?
Atheism was crucial to me, but I misunderstood the impact discussions might have on others. Well, maybe that’s not fair, but I certainly wasn’t as interested in healthy debate as I believed I was. My conviction was unflinching but I never saw that as a negative troupe.
It just held such importance in my life. When my dad died, I took great comfort in knowing that after death there was nothing. That once he’d died, that was it. There was no consciousness beyond life, no one there, nothing present to feel anything. All that pain he felt, all that suffering that drove his self destructive habits, they weren’t there anymore. The sadness, the heartache, the uncontainable pain and the trauma buried deep within his muscle - all of that didn’t exist anymore. Death gave him that freedom. It granted him that peace. I knew he couldn’t be in pain and that thought, to this day, gives me some degree of comfort.
My hair’s puffing out again. I keep catching a glimpse of it in the window. Always the way, just how it dries out of the shower. Takes time to let the grease settle back in. Course, then it’ll only need washing again. Wish I was bald.
Here’s something though, atheism wasn’t a cure for my depression. Having a construct in which to understand the world didn’t make the lowest moments anymore palatable. If anything it romanticised it. Here I am, stuck on this lonely planet, hurling towards the grave, spiralling ever quicker down the plughole, soon to be rinsed away with the rest of the filth.
Actually, I’m being somewhat flippant. Truly understanding that my time is finite, there is an end to all of this, death is inevitable. Making the most of every second that passes was an equally powerful force in my life. Both these things are true.
Rather than aiding or abetting my mental states, all it did was inhabit and compliment the deeper, preexisting philosophies I already had.
Why are there so many ants cramped together on that daffodil stalk? Are they looking for shade? Is there some aroma that plants give off? Is that even a daffodil? Maybe they’re just bloody nutters.
Watching Simon Amstell’s ‘Do Nothing’ stand up show - an environment where I felt my atheistic tendencies weren’t going to be challenged - was probably my introduction to Buddhist concepts like acceptance and presence. It’s where the tectonic plates of my core first started delicately shifting. Reshaping the surface landscape so subtly, as to not even be registered by the beast that hosts it.
About a year ago I was talking to a work colleague, initially intrigued by his meditation, and the conversation soon became focused on his shamanic soul retrievals. I do believe that a younger me would’ve also been interested but I felt a fundamental shift in my motivation for this intrigue. I would’ve felt his position was delusional, fishing for inconsistencies, searching for a snappy retort - where as now, I really wanted to hear him. To know how it felt, what his experiences were, how one would practise it. I wanted to understand.
That bird wants to eat our strawberries. Go on then, you sneaky bugger, just you try.
I’m less interested now in asking people ‘is there a God?’ more, what gets you through the day? What are your beautiful, cliched, unique, inspirational philosophies on life? I don’t serve this desire to win you over to my side, I’d rather find the universal truths that connect us all so we can focus on our similarities, not our differences.
I understand terms like spirituality come with a lot of preconceived notions (as does, to be fair, atheism) but I don’t think any of us want to be defined by the limited parameters of what a words definition is.
Unifying people under one truth was my previous aim, but I failed to notice that we were discussing the same base concepts, explained through a different story. Our ideas around kindness, love and community sync up, just expressed through different characters, and to have those conversations, to share these ideas, and reconnect is my new hope. To really listen, in the moment, undistracted.
So I want to be undistracted do I? Like when you missed the last scene of A Dangerous Method. To be fair, that was a coughing fit. Good film. A bit long. Fassbender. Knightley. Aragon. I should watch Lord Of The Rings again.
Erm… There’s a lot of practical, and vital, wisdom in these ideas that once I would’ve rejected, and it’s through these notions that I’ve found some kind of liberation.
It’s not exactly true that this depression is the same as my teenage years. Back then, this headspace kept me separate from the world, kept me numb and disconnected from my friends, my family, myself. I’d be completely lost, simply drifting off, hoping the tide would wash me back up on shore.
But now that’s different. The same feelings are present, but there's space to manoeuvre. I might feel adrift, but I know where the shore is. The time between each depression is dramatically increasing. It rarely happens like this anymore.
You cheeky squirrel. Come on, focus. Fo-cus. Faux cus, like a fake swearword. Funt. Shin. Puck.
Right! I have daily routines - yoga, meditation, motivation and intention setting. I follow advice from the Dalia Lama’s book. I’m actively kinder to myself and comforted when remembering that I don’t need to have all the answers right now.
We are all capable of change - how we act, how we behave, our desires, our philosophies, how we feel - there is potential for growth. Life is not static. Static water goes stagnant and poisonous. We bathe and drink from water that flows.
Even when feeling this depression, recognising that pain carries a message, and if we pay attention to it, rather than distance ourselves from it, we can find the pathways out of it. Our pain makes sense. That’s why I want to keep returning to the present. No matter how distracted I get - always returning, even when it’s painful.
It could even be a sign that I’m getting closer to the source of my pain, the reason I needed to shut down in the first place, to cope with whatever message I internalised. Wouldn’t that be nice.
But for now, when it returns, and I feel lost, I’ll know I won’t drown. I might even find gratitude as I stand in front of the potential pathway to a more authentic, meaningful life.
I just have to stay focused.
Sun’s back out. There’s that hot turd smell again. Time to grab the spatula.
Now, where was I?
The Savage Balance Podcast is a weekly podcast offering a new story, essay, interview, thought or leftover scribble from the back of a napkin.