Earlier this year I started a bumpy recovery process from depression. Once I had the energy to read, it became one of the first pleasurable activities I took part in. I wanted to learn as much as possible. I also wanted to better understand what I had been through. My next step was to sign up for online courses again, something I’d enjoyed before I was ill.
I saw a course offered by the University of Warwick entitled Literature and Mental Health. I didn’t have to think about signing up. Literature is something I love and mental health is something I was dealing with. The course included lessons about various mental health issues including PTSD, dementia, and bereavement. My interest lied particularly in Week 5 so I ended up skipping ahead to learn about depression. The course materials included an extract from Black Rainbow and an interview with Rachel Kelly.
It was chilling to watch Rachel’s interview. Her descriptions so accurately described what I had been through. The people I’d spoken to with experiences of depression hadn’t suffered from the physical symptoms that I had felt, and I hadn’t seen much about it online. I now felt less mad for having gone through what I did, and I knew I had to find out more. So I went to Rachel’s blog and started reading the posts. Through this and more research I realised that people aren’t talking about this enough. There is still so much stigma attached to mental illness and so many of us are left feeling very alone at the worst of times. My natural reaction was to continue reading about it, writing about it, and sharing my experiences with others.
I ordered Black Rainbow, but when it arrived my outlook had changed. I was doing much better. I was taking walks to the beach, growing plants, entertaining guests, reading, writing, and working. I no longer felt a need to learn or talk about depression, unless it was describing how I’d overcome it and was now fine. Why would I want to invite that dark period that I’d just managed to get through back into my life? So I placed the book on top of my To-Read pile, and there it sat unopened for weeks, as I pulled other books from beneath it.
Then the unexpected happened. I relapsed. It was surreal at first. For months I’d gotten up early, walked the dog, talked to people, travelled and done the normal things of everyday life without too much stress. Then one morning I battled to get out of bed. I got up, but I was in pain. It felt like every muscle and joint hurt as I moved. I still pushed myself and went for walks for the first two days. After two short walks that left me exhausted, shivering and nauseous, I gave up. The black dog was back.
A six week battle followed. My days varied between deep anguish and glimpses of normality. On the semi-normal days I used whatever energy reserves I had to work, communicate, and try to solve this problem I was facing. When I found myself awake in the early hours of the morning, if I wasn’t in too much pain I used that time to be as productive as I could. One thing I could still do was read. So I finally grabbed Black Rainbow because I wanted to feel less alone and insane. I wanted the promise of a “happy ending”, or rather a manageable life, at a time when I felt I was losing control. Over the next month I read Rachel’s story.
One of the last things to leave me when I suffer depression is literature - even when I can no longer focus on books, I try taking in snippets of articles, songs, poems, and quotes. Starting to read after a depressive episode is also one of the first signs that I’m getting better. Reading is and has been a lifeline that I cling onto for as long as possible. Rachel writes about how words helped heal her. I read her story and enjoyed the poetry in between. I could also relate to her knowledge of prayer and the poetry in the bible. Admittedly I’ve lived most of my adult life in a secular manner. I let go of learned Catholic traditions and beliefs that I felt were irrelevant or outdated for my way of life. However, in times of peril, all those prayers and verses from my childhood come rushing back and give me something to cling to.
I also gained some valuable life lessons from Rachel’s book. I’ll quote two of them directly.
“Any major life change makes you vulnerable to depression.”
This allowed me to better understand what had happened last year. I went through many life changes – my work routine drastically changed, I got married, and we moved to another continent to begin a new life. All these things were positive, but they were major life changes and I hadn’t allowed myself enough time to adjust to them.
“I had to accept that on some level my very being and identity, in particular my anxious, striving character and desire to achieve, whether at home or at work, had in part caused the illness. I think that’s why mental illness remains so challenging for sufferers and witnesses to accept: it’s because we feel it’s partly the fault of the individual. We can’t simply say we are victims of depression, as we can say we are victims of cancer or diabetes, thereby relieving us of any responsibility. A victim must have an attacker, some angry rogue cells or dodgy insulin suppliers. Depression is different. It is our fault. We should be better able to control ourselves, and all those feelings that accompany searing anxiety and depression. But we can’t. And we feel shame and a sense of failure because of it and because of the self-absorption that ensues.”
Depression is an illness like any other. However, I do believe that we can take full responsibility for our lives and some of the challenges we face. The choices we make contribute directly to our well-being. Just like smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise add to the risk of cancer and heart disease, certain behaviours contribute to the risk of depression. I allowed my worries to run wild in my mind, bottled up emotions, and I worked too hard to the point of burnt out. That’s how it started and now it’s up to me to manage this thing in order to prevent another relapse.
I’ve learnt that there are no perfect solutions. We can only do the best we can with what we know and work to gain other skills to help us heal and progress. It is my hope that as perceptions change there will be greater interventions to prevent and manage mental illness.
Rachel’s book references The Wizard of Oz, and I think the movie provides a perfect metaphor for depression. The world is grey and dull, and sometimes this hazy feeling culminates in a tornado of anxiety - thoughts and images whiz past, and you wonder if you'll ever get out of this horror, or even survive it. Then, suddenly, one day you realise that the swirling has stopped, and you take that first step outside the house (or perhaps your mind). You discover that the bleak black-and-white world has turned into a bright Technicolor! It's also alive with interesting features, people, and songs. Wow! I have never felt more alive than I did after recovering from a depressive episode. Thank God I'm alive! And thank you to Rachel Kelly for writing and publishing her book.
Judy Garland - Somewhere Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz)
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.
Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can't I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?
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