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How to Tell Depression (and Bindweed) to Piss Off

The allotment

During the twelve months I wasn’t employed because my depression was so bad, I decided to volunteer for a community allotment. The theory went that I would plant some seeds, see how new life could grow from some dirty soil and then become all inspired and my depression would magically go away because of a flimsy metaphor.

Firstly, there is a whole method and science behind planting seeds and getting things to grow. Who knew? Apparently, you can’t just dump a whole packet into the ground and expect prize winning Red-Cored Chantenay carrots to appear. I did this, and the kind allotment leader said, ‘Oh, right, so you really used the whole packet? Well, let’s just hope for the best, shall we? Do you want to . . . I mean maybe your skills might be better redeployed, I mean . . . how about you do some weeding instead? I’m sure you’ll be really good at that, James, we have a lot of bindweed.’

All that happened with my carrot seeds was that three feeble green stalks appeared above the soil and as soon as they pushed through the effort was too much and they immediately died from exhaustion. So, I did the weeding.

Bindweed gets everywhere, it grows fast and strangles other plants to death. Nice, eh? It may have pretty flowers, but that doesn’t really make up for it being a serial killer. It’s like people saying, ‘Ted Bundy may have killed more than thirty women, but by George what a handsome fella he was.’

It’s not especially easy to get bindweed up and there is so much of it – it spreads faster than juicy celebrity gossip and the roots are deep. Still, before long I was able to rescue a poor young pear tree gasping for air and it was very satisfying when you get a huge long section of it out of the ground. Basically, I turned into a horticultural superhero, going from one bindweed emergency to another. I saved choking runner bean plants, gave new life to wheezing fig trees and flew in when a struggling gooseberry bush had almost given in.

I was amazing at weeding and loved it. The relish of seeing more and more bindweed being burnt in the fire was glorious and I would cackle with glee. ‘Ha ha, evil weed! You think you can take over the earth with your Beelzebub-like tendrils, but you never reckoned on meeting me!’

The more I dug, the more I realised that bindweed is like depression itself, and digging bindweed is the perfect metaphor for how to manage depression. Depression is as pernicious as bindweed, do nothing and it will happily grow, take over you and plants its roots firmly into you. You have to keep at it, hacking and pulling; it’s bloody tiring at times but if you don’t put in the work it easily grows back. I realised I was never going to get rid of the all the bindweed in the allotment, but by keeping going and using different tools you can save lives, my own in this case.

I spent many years hoping that depression would just go away by itself, magically disappear and I would be back to the person I was before. This is the equivalent of shouting at the bindweed to just jolly well go away and stop being so tiresomely beastly. So, I realised I needed to arm myself with tools and techniques to tackle the dark beast.

It was a case of trial and error. Some things worked so I kept using them; other things, like learning to play the cornet, are best left to my, and my neighbours’, nightmares. But the things that don’t work teach you about how to manage depression. So, the hoe doesn’t work to dig up the bindweed but the spade does. Jogging doesn’t work for you but a cycle by the sea seems to make you feel better. The process of elimination is just as important as continuing with the ways that do work.

I realised that small steps are actually huge with depression, so remembering someone’s birthday, buying a card and getting to the post office was a huge achievement compared to the day before when I couldn’t get out of bed. I started not to listen to the lies that depression was telling me; I started to recognise that the vile voice in my head was the illness and not me; I started to talk back to depression and imagined it as a cuckoo, and then whack it in the beak. I realised that, just like the bindweed, I had to throw everything at it and keep going.