Clarence

[WARNING! SERIOUS POST KLAXON!]

It being very, very nearly Christmas, I’ve done what a lot of people do at some point in December.

I’ve just watched It’s A Wonderful Life.

I’ve not seen it that many times – twice, I think – but I have a huge degree of fondness for it… partly because it’s surprisingly dark for what’s usually called a “feel-good” film – after all, any film where a potential suicide attempt is crucial to the plot would be a hard sell as “fluffy”. Maybe it’s not really that surprising: December is the Beachy Head chaplaincy team‘s peak time of the year.

The genius of Frank Capra’s film is that just for a short while, George Bailey gets to see the world as it would be if he had never been a part of it. It’s the ultimate answer to the question: “Wouldn’t they all be better off without me?”

 

It’s an answer that anyone who takes their own life never gets.

Mental health has, rightly or wrongly, been brought into the news lately too. Rightly because there should be conversations about mental health and they should happen regularly; conversations about supporting people who are struggling and about seeking to dismantle the stigma which surrounds mental health issues. (Wrongly because, well, bullets do have a habit of killing people and it’s very difficult to walk around with a semi-automatic depressive episode in your pocket.)

So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you about my very own Clarence.

His name was Sanjay. He was my therapist, and I’m certain that without his intervention my life would be very different. Or would have been very different.

Between my second year as an undergraduate and now, I’ve suffered several massively debilitating depressions, each of which has, in its own way, completely and utterly destroyed me. It’s only thanks to the extreme understanding and support of people around me (my family, my various doctors and in that initial instance, my lecturers and the English department at UCL) that each time I have been able to put myself back together.

I’ve taken anti-depressants in varying doses for varying periods of time (Citalopram ftw, kids) and enjoyed their delightful side effects as well as some superbly trippy withdrawal (my particular favourite was the auditory hallucinations: for about 3 days, I was followed everywhere by echoing footsteps. It was incredibly creepy to begin with, but after a while it just got silly. Phantom footsteps don’t follow you to the compost bin on a Tuesday morning. They just… don’t).

I’ve never enjoyed taking them because I feel less like myself on them: they change the way your brain functions, after all, and our brains – our minds – make us what we are. But I’ve taken them because I’ve known that I needed them. And they’ve done their job each and every time – they’ve given me the start I need to pick up the pieces and glue them back together. (There’s almost certainly a “crazy glue” joke to be made there, but it’s just too easy.)

Sanjay, however, changed everything. I was fortunate to have an engaged and understanding NHS GP, and a surgery with a cognitive behavioural therapy teaching programme. I was assigned to Sanjay, overseen by his supervisor, and I saw him once a week for most of a year. That was almost 6 years ago, and since then I’ve not needed medication or further treatment (although that’s not to say I might not need either or both again at some point.)

Sanjay was my Clarence. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that he was there.

And that’s the thing about It’s A Wonderful Life. In its own way, it shows you the truth about depression, about despair: that they distort. Depression isn’t a black dog. It’s a radiation suit that’s inside out and stitched to your skin, trapping you inside while it slowly poisons you.

Unpicking the stitches is hard.

Realising they’re there in the first place is harder.

I’ve watched several of my friends deal with depression in the last few years, and I’m so proud of them. I’m proud because I know how hard it is, and how it’s so much easier just to give up. I’m thankful they didn’t.

And I suppose that’s why I’m putting this blog up now – while everyone’s doing their “Best of 2012” lists, I’m here nattering away about pretty much the bleakest things imaginable. Because I’m thankful.

I’m thankful for Sanjay. I’m thankful for my family, and my husband especially. I’m thankful for my friends – many of whom have seen the worst of me, and somehow are still here.

I’m thankful for the extraordinary difference that modern medicine, psychology and the NHS have made to my life. Without them… well.

On Twitter, the Samaritans are running a “Stand Up, Speak Out” campaign, raising awareness of the fact they’re there, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their phone number is 08457 909090. You might not need it, but someone you know might.

We can’t all be George Bailey… but maybe, just maybe, we can be somebody’s Clarence.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. It made my morning. Depression is a terrible thing, but it is a thing that can be overcome. I’m glad you found your Clarence and gave others hope that they can find theirs. 🙂

  2. I’ve never watched “It’s A Wonderful Life”, though it’s been on my to-watch list since last Christmas. After this post, I watched it today, and was rewarded by one of the best portrayals of depression I’ve seen in a while: as something long and lingering, something that has roots in your most central insecurities, and builds and builds as time goes on.

    I was diagnosed as depression when I was 15, though my guts knows it was around for at least a year before I finally spoke out. Back then, nobody wanted me to go the doctor, and nobody wanted to hear the diagnosis when I got it.

    Years later (and much healthier) I often see other people run into the same old stigma: they don’t want to go the doctor, or the doctor doesn’t want to say the dreaded d-word. People still seem afraid to acknowledge that depression exists and it’s a huge problem.

    I’m thankful I got through it. I’m thankful that the perception of depression is changing, even if the change is slow. I’m thankful there are people out there like you who’re willing to speak up.

    Thank you Lou, and happy holidays.

  3. I love this post. (I linked to it in my 2012 review post) I love this film, there’s always something to learn from it. I suspect I have depression or something similar, and I have struggled a bit this year especially… I still have to muster up courage to do something about it.

    Inspiring and honest and wonderful. Brought a tear to my eye and will inspire an angel army of Clarences. x

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