One day when I was about ten years old, I believed I was dead. It was a bright, warm day, the sun beating down. It might have been a Sunday, but am not sure. I have few details to go with this memory, other than that cold, numb sensation that at the time, I thought, could only be death.
I’m reading about the writing of memoir lately. Ever since my experience last year in hospital, I’ve been nursing the thought of trying to write down the story, if I call it a story, of my life with mental illness. But the more I think about the prospect of sitting down to work on it, it seems to recede in my mind, as in the sort of dream where you run towards a point up ahead, but that point telescopes out in front of you, a sarcastic version of Zeno’s Paradox, where not only can you never beat the tortoise to your destination, the destination gives you the finger and runs away.
So, writing a memoir about my life living, as if with a terrible house-guest, with mental illness, bipolar disorder, in my case. Where to begin? The memoir-writing book I’m reading at the moment, Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: on the Writing of Memoir, suggests, before you very seriously sit down to Begin the Memoir, perhaps instead you should, sort of, ease your way into it, as if perhaps it’s a party and you don’t know anyone there, with journalling. Which is why I’ve been using my website lately. This is me working my way up to writing a book about my life with a terrible house-guest sharing my head, and messing me up.
Kephart suggests lots of exercises to limber up your writing muscles, to start thinking like someone writing memoir, and I’ll be trying some of them here in the near-future. But the one I’m doing today is the recommended exercise of trying to write down your first memory.
My first memories are elusive and fragmentary. I hardly know where to begin with them, other than perhaps as random blurry snapshots not to be taken at all seriously. But considering my overall goal, I thought it would be good to try to describe my first remembered experience with depression.
Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, I can see things from my pre-diagnosis past that look like episodes, or instances, of depression. The first that I can think of was this one where one Sunday when I was about ten years old I suddenly realised, as I lay in my bed that day, a feeling upon me of being far away from my life as I had so far understood it. I was just a kid, and I was used to odd things happening–that was life: practically everything that happens is new to you. And this feeling was new. New and strange.
I felt as if I had died, that I was in fact dead, but because I was already lying down on my bed hadn’t fallen over. That I was awake and conscious seemed weird, but not overly so.
What was I doing before that? I have no true idea. The memory consists of only the details I’ve described. I don’t even know what happened after that. I have a vague and therefore unreliable recollection, possible fabrication, that my mum appeared in the doorway and asking her if I was dead, but I don’t know. I felt numb and, as they would say today, disassociated. Separate from myself. As if looking at me from the outside. Not sad, either. It was like a freedom from feeling. Numbness. Blankness.
I’ve experienced that again many times over the course of my life, up to and including this past week. Depression is like this, like your heart has been removed. Like you’re a lump of something inert and lifeless. And like you’re far from home, perhaps on the Moon, and made of the same arid grey stuff.