The Importance of Keeping Busy

I think I am lucky that my mum suffered from Depression.

No. Really, I do.

This isn’t a new realization.

I minded that Mum got sick. Certainly. I still do. But the minding (how ironic, how appropriate that I should find fit to use the prefix mind here) was for her. Not for me.

And now, at an age my mother was when she had already endured numerous crippling episodes and a couple of hospital admissions accompanied by several thousand volts of electricity (though even that failed to shift a monster which was clearly wearing rubber soled shoes) I am struck again by my fortune.

Mum says Depression is the result of Loss. She says Depression is not the opposite of Happiness. It is, instead, the antithesis of vitality. I am inert, she once told me, as the spiraling vortex which thrust her downwards lost its impetus and she was left floundering about in the gloom at the bottom of a familiar hole. That’s what Depression does: drags her down, where it is so dark she cannot see which way is up, and holds her there where oxygen is so scarce she can hardly breathe and scarcely function. And then suddenly, and it’s always suddenly, lets her go so that she pops, cork-like, back to bright surfaces.

Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, warned Be Not Solitary; Be Not Idle.

Too late: I am. Solitary. Like it or not (and I don’t – in case you had not gathered – like it. Much).

But the idle (imposing, rattling around redundancy born of Loss of definition, erosion of a role, not couch potato slothfulness; my mum has never been lazy) – that is where my luck lies. I know the dangers that lurk behind an apparently benign little four lettered word, one that rolls benevolently and easily and kindly off the tongue – like a purr – giving no hint as to its acidic hazards, and so it is a state I labour to avoid.

If I remain busy, I reason, the Solitary will feel less overwhelming. If I am occupied, I will notice less the swallowing silence.

My mother had a kitchen soap dish once; it read ‘Happiness is Busyness’.

Trite. But true. I wonder, now, who gave it to her?

I tick the long, lonely hours of my days off in tiny, tiny achievements. Like stepping stones across a quagmire in which I might drown without a trace, not even a single bubble, were I to slip and fall in. I tread carefully upon each one from the time I get up in the morning to the time when the sun begins to sink and I can crack open a cold beer in brief self-congratulatory praise at having got from one end of my day to the other.

So I gather 18 baby tomatoes from the vines which have flourished in the rains. I drop them into a white dish as I count them … one, two, three … and I note their plum rose full cheeked redness against the pallor of pale china. And I hear them fall, one by one: small, slow applause. Clever old you, they murmur. I harvest five maize cobs. I will, I tell myself, strip the kernels and serve them in a cheese sauce, bubbling brown, for Hat and I for lunch. I will tell Hat, ‘My mum used to make this for me, when I was little’. And it will taste good for the memory and the comfort that comes with warm, salty, nursery foods.

I trail about the garden with a bored Sylvester in my rather uncertain wake. We establish what needs weeding and where we should plant parsley and rocket. I make a batch of muesli, tipping floury oats into a basin and stirring in softsage green pumpkin seeds and glossy ivory sunflower pips with my hands and I add molasses-black raisins, like fat little ladies who have spent too much time in the sun. Tomorrow – at breakfast – my husband will say, as he helps himself to a bowlful, ‘Oh great, muesli’. Later I will make the telephone call I have been avoiding, I will load the washing machine, I will sort out the ironing. I will think about what to feed everybody for supper.

Mundane, banal, some of it smacks of 1950s stereotypes in white pinnies (note to reader: I never wear an apron). And most of it could wait.

But I, you see, cannot.

Despite all the time in the world, I cannot wait to fold fresh linen into piles: Hat’s, Husband’s, Mine.

For it is in the waiting, in the hiatus between being occupied and being idle, that Depression is wont to slink in. If I keep my bodyweight pressed firmly against my front door shouting, loudly and rudely and determinedly, ‘Go Away! I’m busy! Can’t you see?’ perhaps I shall be safe. It is no guarantee, of course; I am sufficiently well acquainted with Depression to know that there is no surefirequickfixcure just as there is no warranty any one of us will never succumb. For therein lie’s Depression’s greatest skill: its cunning.

And that is why. That is why I am lucky. Because I know the nooks and crannies and tiny gaps through which chilly Depression can squeeze.

And I know how important it is to try to fit draught excluders into every single one.

39 Responses to “The Importance of Keeping Busy”

  1. The Finely Tuned Woman Says:

    The act of feeling lonely is the greatest danger. The absolute knowledge that you are alone and that there is no one you can share your inner feelings with and who can make you laugh and forget things that seem dire. The total silence of being alone with yourself and only a little child to have as a companion, who takes and takes and is too little to give. The misunderstanding who is your husband, who wants you to be a trooper and doesn’t understand your crazy making loneliness. This happened in the suburbs. You don’t have to live in Africa to feel disconnected from humanity and he liveliness of your fellow human beings. There is loneliness everywhere and deathly silences too.

  2. carol Says:

    Keep busy! I think the fact that we are aware of depression does in some way protect us from it – or that’s what I hope anyway. Take care

  3. rosiero Says:

    I agree. Keeping busy helps many a problem, not just depression. I have found keeping busy has kept me going these last few nightmare years. Too much time to think can be dangerous thing.

  4. French Fancy Says:

    I know this sounds like all that psycho babble one reads about, but when I feel low – and I do occasionally – I go for an extremely brisk walk with the dogs – it does not shut out bleak thought but it does make me breathe so fast that I seem to become more buoyant.

  5. Heidi Says:

    I am quite the opposite – of course depression rears its head in different forms in us all. I have to be careful not to be TOO busy, not to find myself fully engaged all the time. The problem with no trace of idleness is that I can push toward manic, and I will always be snapped to depression eventually then. Sometimes I can run very fast and depression can’t catch up, but eventually I have to slow down and then it tackles me to the ground and really beats me up.

    I have to force myself to have regular quiet alone time, to not be doing every moment, to keep a balance. Then depression just kicks me a little, doesn’t cripple me.

    Depression can be a nasty little beast or a huge monster, but sometimes it’s almost comforting as a constant.

  6. Yvonne Says:

    The low level depression thing gets to me sometimes. It`s usually when everything seems to be going ok. Is it that I am not fully appreciative of the fact that we are ok financially, the kids are ok, we are well fed etc? I try to tell myself that I`m not in a war zone, bankrupt, dying etc, doesn`t work. I think sometimes we all suffer from paradise syndrome. Nothing you can put your finger on exactly, but it`s there, a lethargy which we counter by hobbies, crafts, cooking, ancestry projects…blogging. We all need to feel a sense of achievement, a challenge, but the danger is to dip into lots of things at once. I know that I am an obsessive person and that irritates me too. Good on you that you can express your feelings with others and try to take a step back from things that start you off. Take a bit of you time to walk around in your high heels and sing Sisters are Doing it for themselves. xx

  7. Expat Mum Says:

    Gosh isn’t it ironic that I, with kids of all ages rushing around and wanting stuff, would kill for a bit of solitude. I realise that solitude and loneliness are two completely different things, but sometimes, when I’m whirling around like the proverbial Dervish, it gets quite lonely.

  8. Iota Says:

    How’s the jam these days?

  9. tuesday's bread Says:

    Hello RM, I have been reading your blog for a while now (your situation reminds me of when my parents lived in Libya and I was in boarding school in the UK) and suddenly feel the urge to comment…
    As Iota says, keep up with the jam… however, have a look here: I am training to be a Nutritional Therapist, and while food cannot claim to cure depression, it can help mount a hell of a fight!

  10. Tara@Sticky Fingers Says:

    Wow. So beautifully written.
    I never have those feelings. I love been around people, I love being alone. I suppose I have never had either enforced on me to know whether it would trouble me.
    I do know that if you have never experienced depression it is very hard to understand. I have a friend who hit rock bottom when her husband left her with two small children and I did everything I could to support her and be there when she needed me (and when she didn’t) but I could never really empathise because I didn’t understand it’s impact.

  11. Lisa Lawrence Says:

    Your insight is what is helping you most I think. (I’m a sufferer of depression…and I know a thing or one hundred about outpost living !….That lifestyle can be overwhelming in its solitude. How many people do you have nearby, or ‘in’ the outpost? Is there a store? Somewhere to eat? Or just a bunch of houses and a governmental office of some kind? I would love to hear about your area! (((hugs)))

  12. Potty Mummy Says:

    RM, when is someone going to collect these fantastic posts and turn them into a handbook for those of us who need it?

  13. QldDeb Says:

    I don’t mean to belittle your post or your solitude, but it sounds like heaven to me.

    I loved it when I was at home with the kids when we lived in the mountains. Gardening, reading, cooking, being the little 50’s housewife was just heaven to me. I know, I know, I’m setting the women’s movement back 50 years, but I was content.

    It wasn’t until the relationship started to break down that this life didn’t bring me happiness anymore. And I think that had more to do with my partner not seeing or appreciating what it was that I tried to achieve for the family.

    Maybe you arn’t seeing what you do for the family, even the kids that are in boarding school. They have love & support & the ability to make informed decisions etc because of the unconditional love and support and the home base that you create. Your husband is a large financial contributor to the family, but you are the glue that holds it together. If you live in civilisation or in the bush, please remember that everything that you do is valuable and cherished, even if they don’t always tell you.

    And I am jealous, having love surround you from your family and the ability to make a home for them, you lucky thing!

  14. paradise lost in translation Says:

    Yup. draught excluders absolutely vital.

  15. Tattie Weasle Says:

    So eloquently put, one would wish you could do the same with depression. For me or rather for my sons 5 and 2 it is the Black Dog and when it is near it makes Mummy sad and cross and angry – my eldest says when he is grown up he will kill it. He’s such a hero and perhaps he will.
    Being busy is a good way of keeping it at bay but sometimes I don’t even realise that I’ve stopped!

  16. More than Just a Mother Says:

    It is so very true that depression has nothing to do with happiness – or the absence of it. When it hit me I was so totally unprepared for it, and it went unnoticed for so many months. Depression isn’t crying all the time; weeping uncontrollably or even simply feeling blue. It’s an all-consuming black cloud of inertia, weighing heavily round your ankles till you walk though treacle all day, every day. I felt as though I was outside, looking in; functioning on auto-pilot with an all-pervading sense of numbness spreading though my body. I felt neither happy, nor sad. I felt nothing. The day I felt like not living, was the day I asked for help.

  17. R. Sherman Says:

    Having gone through it, I found that connecting with people via blogging was a good thing. Sometimes I question the disconnectedness which our technology enables, but on the other hand, we can now connect with others of like mind all over the world. It does make us all closer somehow, I think.

    Anyway, my thoughts and prayers with you.


  18. daisyfae Says:

    i plan to share this with a friend who is waging war with depression. thank you for putting it together so coherently. it helps me understand…

    oh, and “fat little ladies who have spent too much time in the sun” made me smile broadly! love your words…

  19. kitschen pink Says:

    You need a brisk walk, you need a hobby, you need to get out and do something for someone else, you need a nice hot cup of tea and a sugary biscuit (my favourite)… all these sayings I grew up with from brisk men and women too busy to stop and wonder if they were happy or indeed if they had a right to be. All good advice. All so hard to take when it’s just you and the draught creeping in through the gaps. I think I’d start by embroidering a pretty draught excluder! t.xx

  20. Janelle Says:

    god anthea…a BRILLIANT piece of writing and SO TRUE….indeed. one must be cunning and watch one’s back at all times. indeed. heaps of love always xxx j

  21. Retired Memsahib Says:

    Yet again you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve never heard so perfect a description of my own low periods. The feeling of inertia is not simply having nothing to do, it’s feeling that you have nothing meaningful to do.

    Having changed from busy primary school teacher to expat new mum in the space of 3 months I felt totally lost. I realise now that there must have been a touch of the old post natals in there too. The silliest things helped me at that time, like keeping a small appointment diary and making sure that I had at least one entry for most of the days in the forthcoming weeks. Even if the entry was only grocery shopping.

    Reading the other comments, too, I see how many of us feel much the same, no matter where we live. I don’t think it’s the physical isolation as such, it’s the feeling that nothing we do is meaningful. As wives, daughters and mothers we’re trained to put the needs of others first. Happy, literally, is the woman who can feel comfortable and fulfilled doing what she wants to do because she wants to do it!

    Reluctant Mem, all of you, you know in your heads that you’re doing a great job. Let’s all try to believe it in our hearts.

  22. mothership Says:

    The beauty of your words has a kind of echoing loneliness all of its own. Draught excluders are all well and good, but there is something very hard about constantly using one’s energy as defence rather than growth.
    I believe there is something fundamentally human about the need for having one’s identity reflected by other people and when one is isolated and furthermore functioning primarily as a nurturer and provider of succour for others (especially if they are scant few) it is hard not to lose a sense of self, and without that, how hard to keep a grip on a firm sense in a joy of being.
    And yes, in the bush, in the ‘burbs, married, single, with small ones or empty-nested, these same challenges appear in different guises again and again. Solution? I don’t know. Camaraderie, self-knowledge/acceptance, willingness to change? Still learning..

  23. Roberta Says:

    It’s taken me a while to respond to this bacause I felt so disheartened as I read it. You are in the fight of your life, my dear. You know all of the signs of the dreaded depression…and you write a good fight. I understand you know all of the signs.

    I understand you are staying very busy.

    Might you be becoming overtaken? I hope not! One can not easily seal up all of the cracks at times. But if you will re-read this, you might want to re-evaluate things and speak to husband about taking a trip to England for some help. Someone to speak with? I understand that writing about it can be very theraputic, but sometimes…you need someone that is there to bounce things off of.

    I do not in any way mean to be harsh. Not in any way. Your writing about this is so absolutely gorgeous! Your solitude is overwhelming. I adore you. This is why I feel I can speak so frankly.

    Go back and re-read the last few posts and give it a sit and think about over a cup of tea. I would hate to lose you as one of my finest forums.

  24. Roberta Says:

    …and please take my advice as I know of from which I speak.

  25. A Perfect Day « Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] Reluctant Memsahib the diary of wife, mother and failed domestic goddess in Africa « The Importance of Keeping Busy […]

  26. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you all.

    Finely: you’re right, of course, and such swallowing loneliness in the suburbs is much more isolating. Much more marked. Much more personal, somehow. Mine is mostly geography. and that is sometimes more easily navigable. x

    rosiero, Carol: you’re right: keeping busy fills head and hearts and hands. and leaves too little space for unwanted thougths and emotions to take up unwelcome residence.

    French – or a swim. I quite agree. Nothing like the winded post exertion exhiliration that comes with exercise to make a person feel better. Touted by the experts as valuable in warding off Depression.

    Heidi: you are quite right. There’s a balance to be sought. My mum was first susceptible for the redudancy born of emptying nests. Now she has to be careful not to get too tired, too overwrought, too stressed.

  27. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Yvonne: my heels are going for an outing this week; thank you.

    Expat Mum: i think you’re right: i think in the whirl of busy lives we can create lonely vacuums; we all need to put our heads up for air every now and again.

    Iota, I am still gathering ingredients. Hat offered huge insight this week. She said that outpost for her is easier now that she goes to virtual school as opposed to ”mummy’s schoo”. not only because she hears real voices and can have real conversations, not just because she can connect with kids in similar positions but because she has proper teachers who don’t make allowances for late homework. (I was rather more lenient). The structure is positive. With that insight i began to trawl the internet for a course that interested me but which offered similar online contact, voices across the ether. I think I may have found just the thing …

    Tuesday’s Bread: i think you’re right. We are, after all, supposed to be what we eat. And logic dictates we must be. Thank you for reading and good luck with your course.

  28. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Tara, thanks for reading. It is: an impossibly difficult illness to fathom in somebody else. It’s why it remains so horribly stigmatized, even amongst the medical profession; one in 8 psychiatric posts in the UK remain empty. Not enough interest. and not enough, therefore, to go around. I think understanding it’s a real illness is a hugely positive first step. For the sufferers as much as for those on the outside.

    Thank you Lisa; and your questions have given me marvellous blog fodder for the future. I shall write a description of my outpost so that you can see it in your mind’s eye.

    Ah. Potty. you are too kind xx thank you.

    QldDeb: i think too much of anything is exhaustting! getting away from it – getting this far away from it – and for this long … it loses the romance, believe me! But i do know that a little solitude is a healthy, soul restoring, thought collecting thing. I just wish i didn’t have QUITE so much time to thought gather!

  29. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Paradise: expect you might have a few bunged under doors that let the chill in. x

    Tattie: what a brave, beautiful boy. And kill it, he will. He won’t cart burdensome stigmas around. He will grow up broad minded and empathetic and that will be your gift to him. As one who grew up with a black dog snapping at my own mum’s heels, I promsie you there are worse things a child can witness. i promise you. x

    More Than: beautifully put. Thank you. Mum describes it similarly: like standing on the wrong side of a window and looking out. You can see life happening all around you. But you can’t hear it. And you can’t join in.

  30. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mr Sherman: i quite agree. Connection. My blogging habit is no accident …

    I am glad it was daisy. I’m not that dissimilar to raisins myself: too much time under an African sun, alas. Or perhaps not …?

    You would Kitschen. And it would be the most beautiful and hugely coveted draught excluder too.

    Thank you Janelle xo

    Retired Mem: thank you for that. For your story. I think that’s just: women are wont to fall into a universal gap. Some just fall deeper and darker. And thank you for encouragment too.

  31. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    mothership. That’s beautiful. and true. the univerality of the feminine condition … still learning? I think that’s probably a good way to be. always. learning is growing. and being busy. and gap filling.

    Roberta. You are the dearest person. But I am OK. I am truly OK. I have bad – terrible – days, crippling in their isolation and i flail about and gnash my teeth and do not know what to to with myself. but deep down, somewhere deep, deep down, i know that this is all about growth and challenge and change. I write it out because it helps. as my blog does – hugely – for the connection it lends. But beause my position leaves me open to certain vunlerabilities, Depression, for example, I am glad I have some tiny, tiny understanding of what it looks like. I hope I can keep running x

  32. paula Says:

    “There is a crack, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…” Leonard Cohen – heart wrenching lyrics that help me to soothe the loneiness and treat the cracks with care.

  33. thamesvalleymums Says:

    Having a veg patch is a very good way to keep busy. I do it too.

  34. Jo Beaufoix Says:

    Blimey that was brilliant, completely brilliant. My mum had depression and I too struggle with it, but you’re right, business can help, and your description of happiness popping back up like a cork is perfect. Wow.

  35. Sally Says:

    wow, you have put into words everything I knew to be true and feel.

    you have described a day of my life repeated over and over and when I really have run out of things to be busy at I blog too.

    Thank you so much for this post


  36. Catharine Says:

    I identify with much of this – my mother also suffered from depression, but thankfully not to such a state as yours. But I am constantly on the alert for feeling low and melancholy myself, trying not to be overwhelmed by things that are happening to me, keeping busy – but not so busy that it feels oppressive.

    Thank you for writing about this.

  37. Polly Says:

    What a wonderful discovery your blog is. This is the first time I’ve ever written anything on a blog! I googled “depression+importance of keeping busy” because that was how I was feeling and to my delight, came up with you. I live in Northern Europe after growing up in Southern Africa and have never lost the feeling – even after almost thirty years here – of being in voluntary exile. Now that my children are both on their way and my marriage is over, I am often challenged by lonliness and depression although I am by nature energetic, industrious and foreward-looking.

    Your writing is a pleasure to read and I’m assuming you must be an avid reader to write as well as you do – so I’m going to recommend a book which I find inspirational in dealing with depression, loss, lonliness or all of the other harpies which at times move in with us and take over our lives : “The Second Half of Life” by James Hollis. He is a Jungian analyst and former professor of literature who writes with enormous empathy and insight into the human condition and who supports his views by drawing on literature, philosophy and his training as an analyst. It has become my bedside comfort and I have often found myself turning to it in the middle of the night. I hope it it helpful to you and to the others on the blog. Polly

  38. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    perfect Paula. Just perfect; thank you.

    Thamesvalley: i agree. I’d quite like chickens too. For their silliness and senseless chatter and the funny way they run. But alas all my attempts have ended in tears …

    thank you very much Jo. Funny that though isn’t it: the way happiness pops back up so … determinedly?

    Thank you Sally. What’s your blog address though I wonder? I’d love to visit.

    Catharine: that’s the key though isn’t it: the balance between remembering to be busy and remembering to drop a gear.

    Polly. How lovely. And how generous. Thank you for reading and for commenting. I think that’s the thing about Depression – i think that’s the whole cruel unexpected thing: no matter the nature of a person – strong, solid, happy, possessed of direction and humour – Depression is wont to find its way in when we let our guards down. Or when life drops them. I look forward very much to reading the Second Half of Life, on order at x

  39. The Genie and the Lamp | Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] the years had nibbled away. And in the aloneness of my morning I grew happily busy. Just like Mr Burton warned I […]

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