Not Wong: Depression

Brian Wong offers a thoughtful meditation on the burden of depression in the Oxford community

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend.
I’ve come to talk with you again –

You wake up to the worn midday sunlight, whose rays are juxtaposed against your fumbled mental state. You reach for the alarm clock next to your bed, before realising that it has fallen into a corner of your room: two steps away and yet too far for you to reach. Your body has had 12 hours of intermittent sleep—and yet you feel as if your mind has been running non-stop on half-emptied cans of Red Bull and endless cups of coffee for the past 60 hours.

Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping.

Lying on your bed, you ponder the tasks that confront you for the day. Two essays. Two reading lists. Titles and authors and names and terms you find too daunting to recall and yet too important to forget. A voice nags within you, reminding you of the fact that you are an impostor who only faked their way into Oxford by sheer luck and the interviewer’s incompetence; you experience a complex mixture of expectation and self-rejection—one second, you are energised, with hopes that you will be able to finish off your work (for once) on time; the next, you are desolate and drained, before barriers which feel insurmountable. You are inadequate. You are incompetent. You are not good enough.

And the vision that was planted in my brain,
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

You stare into the mirror. Like the soldier in Owen’s Disabled, you find yourself a shell – on the surface, save for your unkempt hair and slightly blackened eye rings, you appear normal. You get dressed, you shower, you perform the daily rituals that induce some sense of control into a life of disarray—techniques that make you “healthy” and “freshened up” for the day. You cheer yourself up: today will be different. Or will it?

In restless dreams I walked alone,
Narrow streets of cobblestone.

And then you don your mask—you put on your clothes; then a lopsided smile, adjusted for public consumption; you become the performer and audience at once—the individual viewing themselves through the Panopticon. You make small talk with your neighbours and people who pass you by; you attend your tutorials and adhere to the mathematical order of your timetable; you feign understanding in dreary lectures. You wander in some gardens aimlessly, hearing and seeing nothing but a haze of greyness. It begins to rain, and you hear your footsteps echoing down the lonely path and splashing through murky puddles. You have become lost.

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‘Neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp.

You are told to toughen up, to lighten up, to check your privilege as an Oxford student. You are told that it is best not to treat emotional characteristics as diseases, to evaluate mental illnesses through the lens of science. You find it curious that the one thing that draws your peers and Foucault together is their willingness to dismiss the medicalisation of depression. You begin to question how much those around you actually know about you. You realise that you know—in fact—very little about yourself.

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light,
That split the night,
And touched the sound of silence. 

You hear stories about others. About someone “sent down” by their college, that odd preposition embedded with admonishment and shame. About the Others, who failed collections as they found it hard to breathe during a panic attack. About individuals who were not good enough to “hold it out”, about people who “couldn’t hold it together”, about voices that were hushed as they tried calling for help—and realised that the only help they had was in themselves.

And in the naked light I saw 
Ten thousand people maybe more.

And you start to question your life choices. You seek refuge: in speaking and debating, in painkillers, even in the white walls next to your bed. And yet you live in silence, an imagined member of an imaginary community: a community that is united in its difference, its separation. You become one of them. They are you, and you are them.

People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never shared,
No one dare disturb the sound of silence.