From the Latin sperare: hope. De-sperare: without hope.
It’s a word I’ve been thinking a lot about the past couple of weeks. We were affected by a suicide in our family shortly before Robin Williams took his own life. The circumstances of the death had vague similarities and neither man left a note explaining his actions. A friend of Williams said that his suicide was a “spontaneous” act, as he had been talking to him only the day before about future projects. Yes, Williams had a history of depression, but what was this? A moment without hope? Despair. De-sperare.
Readers familiar with my writing in the UK will know that I have never made any secret of my struggles with depression. I was a happy, although often melancholy child who, in my late teens, started to suffer from crippling migraines and overwhelming blackness of spirit. It continued for many years until, about eight years ago, I had terrific NLP therapy that helped enormously. For reasons I won’t go into (not least because “reasons” lends the condition a logic I can’t even begin to understand), I fell back into a dark place around four years ago and have been there off and on for some time.
The view from the outside is that I have a wonderful life. I have a great family and many fantastic friends, I am well travelled, I love my work and am in good health. What’s not to love?
That’s the logical part of the brain speaking. Sperare. On paper, it is a life filled with optimism and hope. So where does the “de” aspect begin? The undoing of hope?
There are many practical reasons I could list that I know have caused me great stress and anxiety over the past few years. Financial worries hit when I lost a lucrative job after my newspaper dropped their TV coverage. That, in itself, although logically knowing that this was beyond my control, resulted in a massive loss of confidence and self-esteem that continues to this day.
As a woman hitting 50, I also felt on the scrapheap of life. Single women of advancing age are never that popular, either professionally or socially. In the States, I find that they respect experience far more than they do in Britain. While I had a very easy menopause, the sidelining of women seen to be past their sell-by date is something that screams out in so many areas of British life.
But despair goes beyond practicalities. And, in the weeks I’ve been off social networking sites to which I am somewhat addicted - trying to “sort stuff”, as I described it - the best I can come up with is that de-spair, is to feel de-loved. Sorry that is not something more monumental, but it’s the best I can do.
I know that I am hugely loved by the people around me and, in turn, I love them. I try to do as much as I can for others, and I have in my close circle several people I can call at any time, day or night, for support.
But despair is a cruel thief that creeps up on you unannounced. In an instant, you feel robbed of love: gazing on the happiness of others, while being emptied of the hope of ever finding it yourself. A couple, holding hands, can induce resentment; a group of people laughing can feel like a door being slammed in your face; overhearing a telephone conversation ending with the words “I love you” can stab at your heart. It’s the feeling of being on the other side of everything that is real, and not having the first clue of how to get back to the other side. It’s probably in that moment that the option of backing away and closing the door forever feels easier than going forward.
I am not about to do anything drastic and, for me, trying to make sense of life in writing will always be my salvation. But, as a society, we really need to address depression for the illness that it undoubtedly is, and those who talk of suicide as a “selfish” act really do not have the first idea of how the love thief operates.
In despair, there is no emotion: no ability to rationalise one’s state of being. The best you can hope for is memory: the surfacing of something you remember as love and, while temporarily suffering the inability to experience it, knowing that it is still there and will, at some point, return.
Stephen Fry, who has suffered from depression his whole life, and who has done so much to raise public awareness of the condition, has been a good friend to me in my moments of despair, as have countless other people. But keeping silent – out of shame, guilt, embarrassment, general lack of sympathy – is, sadly, a major component of the condition.
If the death of Robin Williams can teach us anything, it is that we need to be more aware, to tune our ears to the tiny voice that is actually screaming for help.
Some of Williams’s friends expressed astonishment, saying that they had not realised he was in so much pain. Without hope. But there is help out there.
While there is breath, there is hope.