The night my daughter was born, I felt so happy I wanted to throw my antidepressants out of the hospital window. Euphoric, up for a day and a bit without a wink of sleep, I was resolute. No more taking pills. No more covering crying eyes with embarrassed hands. No more Sunday evenings feeling blue. For this little person, I wanted to slip a skin, casually abandon the sickly part of myself the way people leave umbrellas and half-read paperbacks in the backs of taxis.
But then, her first night home, holding her in my arms, the two of us watching the sun rise, her beautiful blue unblinking eyes staring into mine, I knew I already loved her far too much to ever drag her into one of my reckless anti-depressant experiments. I'm done with being reckless. Sometime during my wife's labour at hospital, I found myself thinking about the day I stopped drinking. I turned up at my GP's surgery with symptoms of internal bleeding. He told me to hurry to the nearest accident and emergency ward. "Don't, whatever you do, drive yourself. The bleeding could become quite profuse and you might black out." I'd explained that I had driven myself to see him. He made me promise that I'd get my mother to take me to hospital.
Out in the car park, I didn't think twice about getting into my car. All the way there, drifting in and out of consciousness, biting my arm to stay awake, I was face to face with depression in its purest, most evil form.
Almost 10 years later, once more in hospital, this time for the birth of my daughter, not the rebirth of me, I closed my eyes, prayed that I would never do anything that reckless again. I know that side of me is always lurking, though. The temptation to turn everything upside down is one of my oldest self-destructive impulses. It usually rises when I'm too happy. Happiness scares me. I start feeling giddy, like a tightrope walker, painfully aware that there's only one way to go. Down. Afraid of the inevitable plunge, I usually take a premature tumble.
Yesterday afternoon, bathing my daughter, it dawned on me that I will probably never be able to come off antidepressants. It wasn't a moment of resignation. It was a happy moment of self-acceptance. I want to be the best father possible and to do that, I need papa's little helper, a pink baguette-shaped pill, taken once a day, after dinner. I don't want to be an absent dad, unreachable in my morbid igloo. I want to be there for her, forever and always.
There's a reality here, though. Who am I kidding? I have an illness that will always need containing. The other day I was reading a Maira Kalman book to her, when it hit me that one day I will die, I won't be here for her. The thought was unbearable. I started trembling, on came the black sweep of a teeth-chattering panic attack. Then I thought of losing my own parents. That did it. I put down the book, hit the carpet, hammered shakily through 200 sit-ups, mentally repeating, "This too will pass."
After the attack passed, I sat cuddling her, trying to explain what had just happened. I was mid-sentence when she reached a tiny hand up and touched me on the nose. Hush, dad. Don't risk coming off antidepressants and turning into a basket case again. Let things be. Stop giving yourself such a hard time. I love you.
I hope she'll grow up untouched by this stuff. I learned recently that there are three suicides in my family tree. We're a screwy bunch. A shooting, a drowning and a hanging: all at roughly the same time, 100 years ago. Did these genes lie dormant for a century and resurface with me?
The cards appear to be marked; I suppose I'm meant to be family suicide number four. No way, gene genie. I'll keep fighting this until they cart my bones off. If that means 1,000 sit-ups a week (for good measure, I've now added 500 ab crunches too), four pilates workouts, yoga, meditation, chanting, lavender oil baths, mood-pepping nocturnal chocolate binges, daily supplements of zinc, magnesium, valerian root and God knows what else, then so be it. To paraphrase Nietzsche, that which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger. Staying on top of depression, anxiety and panic attacks is hard work and like all hard work, it has its beautiful rewards. Last night, shortly after taking my habitual 75mg dose of Efexor XL, I was changing my daughter's nappy when she smiled at me. When I'm a hundred years old, white-haired and toothless, I plan to still be seeing that smile.