The Godfather: Peter Corris on depression
Listening to Stephen Fry’s autobiography (The Fry Chronicles, 2010) with its accounts of his black depressions, it dawned on me that, at the risk of sounding smug and not sufficiently empathetic towards sufferers, I’ve never experienced anything that could be called depression. This is not a matter for self-congratulation – obviously it is to do with genetics and brain wiring, internal chemistry and luck.
When, at age 16, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and obliged to inject insulin and follow a diet for the rest of my life if I were to survive, I don’t remember that I was even very unhappy. As I was young, the doctors issued no stern warnings about impotence or blindness. Instead all was reassurance – follow the regimen, test the urine, inject the insulin, stay off the sweet stuff and all would be well. I suppose I felt rather special and was pleased to be given an honourable discharge from the school cadet unit and to be excused from the cross-country run, which I’d hated.
I’ve certainly experienced unhappiness. I was unhappy when my first marriage failed but then I had friends about me, I had a doctoral thesis to write and I was able to put in a word for my wife to secure her a job at Monash University. Too busy to mope, and I soon found a couple of women to comfort me.
Things went on more or less swimmingly from there; I got my PhD, a travelling post-doctoral fellowship and a post at the ANU. I met Jean and had children.
Again, when Jean and I separated I was unhappy, but fairly briefly, because I had full access to my kids, an interesting partner and was launched as a writer getting film offers and good payments for short stories
Unlike Stephen Fry, who describes writing as a torture, I found it the greatest balm, the most soothing and comforting activity ever. Although there was occasional friction in my relationships, familial and otherwise, I was happy in my work. Work! I never thought of it as work. Those aphorisms – the longest journey a writer makes is from the armchair to the typewriter; writing is the loneliest job in the world, etc, had no application to me. So it stayed throughout my writing career. I enjoyed every aspect of it and with that as a constant background, how could other things – money troubles, health setbacks, even the death of friends – cast me very far down?
In later years health problems came thick and fast – pneumonia, heart attacks, broken bones, increased poor vision. But the comfort generated by a loving family, an enjoyable occupation and, I think, lucky wiring and chemistry – were a bastion against feelings of doom. When I was facing my bypass operation, I was warned that feelings of depression often followed as a somewhat mysterious result of being kept alive artificially for hours. Not with me.
I came to what I now call a ‘slump’ when it became clear that I had to have a toe amputated. The thought of something being lopped off rather than inserted or hooked up (intraocular lenses, the bypass) struck hard. But I wrote a cheerful limerick about it and got on with things.
That is probably part of the secret – to have something useful or amusing to do is an antidote to self-fixation, which is probably a step along the depression road. With family about, friends to joke with and (let’s face it) the ameliorating affects of alcohol, in moderation of course, along with AFL games, TV documentaries, these columns and any other minor commissions to write, I don’t expect to hear the black dog scratching at the door any time soon.