On the edge of an abyss

Last updated 14:01 19/12/2011
Guthrie
Find something that grabs you: Sketching, painting and writing has helped Noel Guthrie battle depression.

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Noel Guthrie's sketches and books are well-known in South Canterbury and further afield. What hasn't been so well-known has been his decades-long battle with depression.

It has been, Guthrie says, a long journey, and depression is something he will likely carry to his grave. Here, for the first time, Guthrie writes about his experiences. It is something he has always wanted to do, but says he never had the courage to do so. Now, he says, at nearly 75, he is too old to worry about what people think, and if, by sharing his experiences, he is able to help just one person, then it is worthwhile.

What is it about suicide that makes people clam up? I certainly don't profess to know the answer to that, but what I do know is, that those people who do suffer depression, whether it be mild or more serious, most want to talk about it.

However, apart from the mental health professional, who is there to really talk to?

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about depression, someone you thought was a friend and was understanding?

No, well try it sometime, and watch them fidget and feel uncomfortable, and even embarrassed before eventually moving away in haste. They just don't want to know. The fact is, they don't know how to handle the subject.

Oh yes, we hear all these stories of how we should talk about it, get it off our chest, but it is not all that simple. Think what you like, but the stigma still survives out there, regardless of the official line.

True, it is a lot better than it used to be 30 years ago. There are not as many who tend to scoff and say, "Get your bloody act together!"

Perhaps in a way, the sufferer is to blame for this particular mindset, and this has become their undoing. They don't help themselves in the way they dress, or their perspective on life. They just cannot be bothered any more. They are sometimes referred to as dropouts, lazy, and so on it goes.

But really, for those who have never been afflicted, they have no idea how terrifying or painful it is. You can't be bothered getting out of bed in the morning, so you are lazy. You can't be bothered being tidy in your dress, so you are a deadbeat, scruffy. Society immediately categorises you. So, what's the point?

Just ask the family of those who suffer terribly what it is like. In some cases the family is put though pure hell. Many can't take it any more and move out. With that support gone, the sufferer is lost, while in some cases his or her health continues to decline and they wander aimlessly through life.

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Health professionals, and those who volunteer in providing a sanctuary and support for those who need a bit of space when the going gets tough, are doing great work, but even they can do only so much; it needs a willingness by the sufferer to move on in life. It also needs willingness by the public at large to accept that the problem does exist, and I guess unless the general populace accept there is this problem; the sufferer will forever be stuck in this rut.

We certainly don't want sympathy. All we need is an understanding, and not to be referred to as nutcases, society dropouts or worse. When you think about it, it is no worse than breaking a leg, it is just the mind has become overloaded and the wheels fall off.

Unfortunately, those who suffer tend to move at a slower pace than is usually the norm. Just making a decision is depressing in itself, and agonisingly slow.

While there is this alarming increase as the merry-go-round of life spins faster by the year, those who suffer have to hang on, just to survive. In our day-to-day dealings with some of those in the commercial world, many officials and so on, perhaps unwittingly, make us feel guilty, as we stutter, and hesitate and wring our hands, trying to get our point across. This ends up with some officials losing patience. We go away feeling totally lost, and withdraw from society.

I can only speak for myself, but many men, probably women, too, who find that they are losing their marbles just can't bring themselves to talk about it, for fear of being ridiculed. We, in many cases, just suffer in silence.

I could go on about the black hole, how it looks so inviting, so soft and warm and cosy, a place where all one's troubles will just disappear forever. But until one has stood on the very edge of that hole, most people haven't got any idea of what I am going on about. Oh yes, there will be many out there who will say, "what a load of shit!"

The professionals say there is a new understanding today. Well, maybe there is, as John Kirwan fronts for the TV programme on depression, he says there is a way through it. I am not putting John or any other body down, but yes, there is a way through it, but believe me, it is a long journey, and at times, one feels likened to running the gauntlet, through a line of faceless individuals who want nothing more than to bring you down. Sadly, some don't make it through to journey's end, it is just beyond reach, but at least they gave it all they had.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have a supportive family who have stuck by me through every step of that painful journey. I am aware I was probably a bastard to live with some of that time, but they still stuck like glue.

For 20 or more years I fought, and I fought bloody hard to come out the other side. Yes, there were times when I wanted to give up and step off the edge. Then I found a hobby, something I had never attempted before in my life,

I started to sketch and to paint and to write. At the age of 50, I had never picked up a paintbrush or a pencil in my life. I did not know how to write or use a typewriter, or a computer. I didn't think I was very good at what I did, I still don't, but readers and viewers supported me, even though most never knew of my pain. It was with the help of a lot of those good people out there who unwittingly pushed me on, to never give up the struggle, and to eventually come out the other side.

During that time when I wrestled with my pain, I started painting and sketching a little more seriously each year. Painting became a therapy, bringing me back from the brink and into a world of reality. Over the years I produced several hundred paintings and sketches. I sold some, and I gave many away. Yes, I could have sold a lot more perhaps, but what is money, if you have not got your health?

Whether those that I gave away were worth something was not the point. The point was, each one of those paintings gave me a chance of a new start in life, where one day I could be free of that bloody awful pain.

Then I got the urge to write, my column was read in several newspapers weekly for many years, then came the books.

I don't care what other people think now, I'm too old to worry about that any more, but those who I do feel sorry for are those who think depression is catching. When I had my heart attack, many came to see me or sent messages of support.

However, when my wheels fell off and I slipped into the depth of depression 30 years before, many shied away, they did not know how to handle it. Many crossed the street rather than speak to me.

I guess they thought it was catching. That in itself does a hell of a lot for one's ego; it really does make one feel inferior and one withdraws from society. How does anyone explain that? I certainly can't.

All I can say to those who suffer from depression: you can get through it. It may look black and you are in total despair, but don't give up, you must not give up, you can do it. I did it, so if I can, so can you. I am nothing special.

Oh sure, I still have my moments, the odd day or night when tears come for no reason, but I can handle it now, it is nothing to be ashamed of, trust me. Those days are gone when it was considered a sign of weakness if a man cried, well many times I bawled my bloody eyes out and lay awake for nights on end, sleep just would not come. It takes guts for a man to cry. It's when you can't cry, that is when everything turns to custard. And just because you have to take a couple of pills at night, doesn't make you less of a person.

Yes, there were a couple of times I chose the ultimate, but the family would not let me go, and looking back, I suppose I was being totally selfish. But you don't think that at the time.

All you can think about is your failure in life. You are ashamed to show your face. In my case, I looked at what I had done to my family, I made one bad decision in business, and the bottom fell out. They had to start life again with absolutely nothing, so to my way of thinking, they would be far better off without a deadbeat, a failure like me. But, if I had succeeded in what I was about to do, what I was doing to my family was far worse, but then you don't see it at the time.

If I had succeeded, I would not have experienced the joy of creating a sketch, or a painting from nothing, I would not have experienced the joy of writing my books, I would not be experiencing life as it is today.

Of course life is not perfect, nothing ever is. It is what you can make of it that counts. So if I can come through that tunnel, so can you. C'mon, give it a go. You can do it; it just takes courage to take that first step.

- South Canterbury

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