On the Monday before Christmas, the black dog came around again and I couldn’t get out of bed. I lay all day staring at the wall. Depression has little to do with sadness, I think. It’s blankness. The same thing happened to me about 15 years ago. I was like a prize gonk for the four or five weeks it took for the Prozac to work, which it did, and since then I’ve managed to foster and sustain all the illusions I need to keep me buoyant.
I couldn’t get out of bed on the Tuesday either. I was adrift in outer space. But I knew I must pick up the phone and make an appointment to see someone with a prescribing pad. It’s easier said than done, though, getting an appointment to see a doctor during the festive period. I got through to a doctor’s receptionist eventually. ‘How can I help?’ she said. ‘I can’t get out of bed,’ I said, too ashamed to say the word ‘depressed’, and hoping I wouldn’t need to elaborate. ‘You can’t get out of bed?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why can’t you get out of bed?’ ‘I think I’m depressed and would like to talk to a doctor. And I’ve got a chest infection.’ I added the chest infection to add weight to my application to take up a doctor’s time with something as insubstantial as a frame of mind.
The best she could offer me, she said, was a phone call from the duty doctor. I expressed infinite gratitude. An hour later the phone rang. A young male introduced himself as a nurse. ‘How can I help?’ he said. ‘I can’t get out of bed. I think I’m depressed,’ I said. ‘And you think you have a chest infection?’ he said, looking, I imagined, at his list. We discussed my cough and whether it was productive. The inside of my chest sounded like a saucepan of chicken soup coming to the boil, I said, but nothing tangible had been produced so far. He said that because anti-biotic drugs are ineffective against viruses, the best thing I could do was dose myself with paracetamol and/or ibuprofen and see what happens. If there was no improvement in a week’s time I should try again for a doctor’s appointment. I waited in vain for him to move on from my cough to my being depressed, but he didn’t seem to want to discuss it. I didn’t raise the subject again. So by a sort of tacit agreement we wished one another a very merry Christmas and ended the call.
I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t eat. On Tuesday afternoon I went downstairs and made myself a pot of tea and took it back to bed. Instead of staring at the wall, I tried to read some science fiction. Why science fiction and why now I don’t know. I haven’t read science fiction for years. I went online and found a novella by a young rising star of the sci-fi genre called Ted Chiang. (The recent film Arrival is based on a short story of his.) The novella, called ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’, is about a group of commercially manufactured digital organisms called digients, which are marketed as a sort of a cross between a pet and a child. They are capable of speech, receptive to education, and gradually mature into adult individuals. If the owner becomes bored with them, or the digients become wilful, they can be switched off. Ted Chiang pulls off his fantastic story with control and aplomb. Not the least horrifying thing about it to me was that Chiang’s digital organisms are more alive and characterful than I am.
On Christmas Eve, I got up, washed, dressed, and drove to the station to pick up a house guest. On Christmas Day other guests arrived and once again I was up and dressed all day, unwrapping presents, pulling crackers, washing up, and communicating amiably with the guests like a well-brought-up digient. On Boxing Day the number of guests dramatically increased and I did more of the same, this time wearing a matching shirt and tie of a mauve paisley pattern. In the evening I went to dinner at a neighbour’s house and knocked back about a pint of his gin. After dinner he plied me with shots of ouzo, vodka and arak to try to animate me, and when that failed, shots of 98 per cent alcohol poured from a gallon plastic container and ameliorated slightly with lemon juice. And when that failed his partner let off a French firecracker under my chair. That failed too. Then I came home and went back to bed. Today (New Year’s Day) I wrote this column in bed, tapping away on the iPad like a digital organism. I’ll try again to get to see a doctor tomorrow. Happy New Year.