Book Review: The Light in the Dark

“It is like being stalked by a ghoul. Turn your gaze outwards, I keep telling myself. You do not matter; other people matter, the land matters, the sky and the world. If only you could get out of the way of your own view!”

The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Clare, is a series of journal entries written over the course of a harsh, Pennine winter. In recent years the author has come to fear the season as it brings with it debilitating depression. Determined to face up to the issue, he agrees to write down his thoughts and experiences. The prologue is written at the end of a summer as he embarks on this writing journey.

“I will embrace this winter like a summer. I will try to see this little shard of the North as I would an unknown country. I will pay attention.”

Entries cover the period from mid October to mid March. The journal format offers an immediacy that other books – written with hindsight about an author’s depression – cannot capture. Clare is self-aware but this makes his suffering worse. He observes the effect his illness has on his beloved family thereby increasing his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. He understands that there is joy to be found – to be embraced and shared – in the present moment, but as the season deepens and darkens so does his introspection.

The prose is evocative and often poetic, particularly in his descriptions of nature. When possible Clare goes outside, on walks or to social events. He writes down his observations.

“Now the power cuts. I dash out to see if it is just us – but it is the world transformed, released into darkness, moonlight, stars and frost. It is the first time I have ever seen our valley as it is in itself at night.”

Clare was raised with his brother on a farm in Wales, his father largely absent. He lived in Italy for a time before moving to a village in Yorkshire – that his wife’s elder child may live closer to his father. The couple also have a young son and the narrative offers snippets of their family life.

Clare’s mother, now in her seventies, still runs the Welsh hill farm. Early in the book deeply distressing journal entries describe the sickening activities of badger baiters. I pondered how such monsters can exist.

The journal is not a complete account of the season but rather an ongoing reflection of the many facets of seasonal depression.

“I have not written down all the rows, the despairs, the heaviness of spirit; no reader could have enjoyed them.”

What is included are moments of light and reflection – found in nature or time spent with family – and the increasing difficulty Clare has rising to be warmed by them as winter slowly progresses. He knows that time will pass and spring will bring relief but surviving the present darkness is a growing challenge. The winter is a harsh one – weather wise and emotionally.

Despite the subject matter this is a hopeful read. Issues are confronted and the impairment created by Clare’s illness vividly conveyed. What shines through is the author’s humanity – his appreciation of the natural world and his family. The beauty of the writing carries the reader on a journey offering insights that may increase understanding of the difficulties and fears felt by those suffering mental illness.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Mad Girl

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Mad Girl, by Bryony Gordon, is a darkly humourous account of living with mental illness. Since she was a child the author has suffered periods of debilitating OCD and clinical depression. As a young adult she developed eating disorders. She turned to alcohol and cocaine in an attempt to cope with her demons. Now she has decided to talk openly about these issues. Her aim is to out the prevalence of mental illness, to challenge the stigma society attaches to maladies that are ‘all in the head’, and to build understanding of the blight misconceptions can cause.

Bryony is the first to admit that she had a privileged upbringing. Privately educated and from a stable, supportive, middle class family she nevertheless developed anxieties at a young age. She recalls at age twelve fearing she may have AIDS despite never having indulged in risky activities. In an attempt to save her family from infection she washed her hands so frequently they cracked and avoided touching her parents and siblings. And then as suddenly as her acute fears had arrived they passed, until returning with a vengeance, in new and damaging forms, when she was in her late teens.

As Bryony recounts the hedonism of her twenties, how she acquired her dream job in journalism and travelled the world on glamourous assignments, she shares the self esteem problems that resulted in abusive relationships and her self-abusing lifestyle. None of this is to court sympathy but rather to demonstrate how adept people are at hiding what they do not wish others to see. She dreamed up happy scenarios, shared only the edited highlights of her life, and was reluctant to admit all was not as it seemed, even to herself.

Bryony lived what looked to be a normal and successful life, joking about many of her wilder exploits and using them as fodder for her writing career. Now what she wishes to do, in talking openly about what was actually going on during this time, is to demonstrate that mental illness is not shameful. She wishes to engender a wider acceptance that sufferers are not somehow to blame.

It is believed that one in four people experience mental health problems yet still the default is not to admit to such suffering. The cause is unknown, there is as yet no cure, and treatments are limited. This is before the woeful underfunding of mental health provision within the NHS is taken into account. Bryony eventually found help through CBT but only because she had the resources to fund it.

The raw honesty and self deprecating humour with which this account is written makes it a touching, sometimes shocking, yet continually entertaining read. The misery described is never gratuitous. As a social anxiety sufferer I found it uplifting. My hope is that those who do not have to endure such afflictions may gain a better understanding from this highly readable account. Those who do suffer may take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. They too are one of ‘The We’, and we are to be found everywhere.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Reasons to Stay Alive

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Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig, chronicles the author’s experience of crippling anxiety and depression, and how he emerged from his worst period of disintegration changed but better equipped to cope with these debilitating conditions when they recur. Although he had the good fortune to have a loving partner and family to support him throughout, the feelings he shares and the advice he gives are sound even for those who do not have such privileges. He acknowledges their worth but still had to deal with this himself.

Starting with the onset of his illness, in Ibiza in 1999, he takes the reader through why he did not commit suicide but instead went back to his parents’ home in Nottinghamshire where he was barely capable of leaving the house for months. He talks of how others view the depressed, and how the sufferer views himself. There is the fear of madness, the monstrous scenarios imagined and how real they feel, the slowness of time as he battled to get through each hour of each day.

The author did not find that medication helped but gradually built up an arsenal of weapons to enable him to fight in a way that better suited him. He eschewed all drugs, including alcohol. He took up running, yoga and meditation. He read voraciously and started to write. He gradually faced his demons, sometimes retreating but then returning a little stronger to try again.

Although this is a dark and difficult subject it is presented in a way that gives hope. He survived. He can now see that the worst periods do end and that there is the possibility of good times in a future that itself once appeared an impossibility.

“Depression is also… Smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it.”

In looking back he believes that he is richer for the experience, however high the toll of his suffering. What he describes as his thin skin enables him to feel the good in life as well as the bad. He appreciates what he has and knows that, when the black feelings return they will pass.

Mental illness is prevalent yet still carries stigma. Books such as this serve to remind sufferers that they are not alone, that many have suffered and gone on to live lives containing many worthwhile moments. It suggests things that may help but more than that it reminds us that all things must end, that we should sip and savour the bottle of wine that is our allotted time.

“We are alone, but not alone. We are trapped by time, but also infinite. Made of flesh, but also stars.”

Highly recommended to anyone who suffers mental illness or who knows a sufferer. I suspect that covers just about everyone.

 

Book Review: Adult Onset

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Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre. 

 

 

Random Musings: Mental health and genetics

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‘What have you got to feel miserable about?’

‘No point in wallowing in self-pity, why can’t you just snap out of it?’

One of my good friends has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When she first told me this news she mentioned that her mother had the illness too. She was seeing first hand what her future may be if medical research does not advance. I mentioned genetics. It was absolutely the wrong thing to say. My friend has children and reacted with horror at the thought that this previously unknown flaw in her makeup could be passed on to them.

When I first started suffering from anxiety I wrote about it in my blog. One of my cousins responded that her mother, my mother’s sister, had also been anxious. It made me think about a possible genetic link. It caused me concern that I may pass on a propensity for this miserable malady to my children.

In my younger days I self harmed. Not often and never life threateningly but cutting myself provided relief from the very real pain that my dark thoughts triggered. I often considered suicide. I made one attempt with pills in my twenties but regretted it before I had swallowed enough to do damage. The body’s demand for survival is strong.

I did not speak of this to anyone. I felt ashamed. I believed that I would be regarded as an attention seeker. In my head I could hear the voices of the many who opined that those who truly wish to commit suicide succeed.

When my babies were born, three children in three and a half years, my life became too exhausting for me to think about much other than our day to day survival. I realised how alone I was. All around me other mothers appeared to be coping. I observed their social lives, the cakes they baked, the committees they sat on, the crafts they made. I felt a failure. I put on my outside face and tried hard not to complain. Always there would be someone worse off than me, those with money worries or a sick child. I took every implied criticism of my parenting choices personally, storing it all away to berate myself with later.

I still feel my stomach clench and nausea rise when I remember a situation where I said or did something that I subsequently construed as foolish. As a child, a teenager, throughout my adult life there are decades of foolishness that I struggle to set aside. I suffer palpitations, cold sweats, occasional panic attacks when asked to face certain, very ordinary, situations. There is no sense to any of this. Mountains made out of molehills still have to be climbed. Sometimes the energy to do so cannot be found.

I have never sought medical help. Although I have suicidal thoughts from time to time I would not do that to my children. No matter how utterly worthless I may feel at times I accept my duty as their mother.

My worry is that I have passed this on to them. What if my genetic legacy includes a switch that will one day cause my offspring to feel as I do? There is love in this house but will that be enough to ward off the worst effects of this imbalance?

There are those who are working hard to raise awareness of mental health issues and to challenge the stigma that it carries. So many have notions of justification and blame. They judge and find the mentally unwell guilty, although rarely as guilty as the sufferers find themselves.

I know that I am lucky. My issues are mild and generally manageable. I recognise my problems and many of their triggers. I avoid adverse situations where I can and have strategies for self help. It is only in my darkest moments that I feel overwhelmed.

My children’s genetic heritage includes a familial propensity for heart disease, stroke and various cancers. I feel no particular guilt for these as we must all die of something eventually. There are many in the family who have lived well into old age. I hope and pray that my children may be amongst this number.

I suspect that my fears for their mental health stem more from the issues surrounding quality of life. Parents wish to see their children happy. Anxiety and depression can kill, but for most sufferers it is the living that is the challenge.

Beauty

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I have a very beautiful friend. She has it all: small frame; slim, shapely body; fabulous poise and posture; long, straight, jet black hair; smooth skin; good teeth; an open, friendly smile; brown eyes you could drown in. She is married with a kid and a part time job, she and her handsome husband own their own home. She also suffers from severe depression.

People ask her all the time, ‘How can you be depressed when you look so gorgeous, when you have so much?’ Society appears to equate beauty to happiness, with a lack of understanding that more may be required. On the other side of the same coin, when a person has an obvious disfigurement it is assumed that they deserve to be pitied.

When I read of a person suffering facial burn wounds commentators will look on the outcome differently depending on gender and age. If it happens to a young girl it is considered a tragedy that she has ‘lost her looks’. There is little discussion about the potential infections or future pain that a serious burn wound can cause. The discussion centres around the potential for cosmetic surgery, how she will feel when she looks in a mirror, how society will treat her.

None of this is new of course. We notice beauty and are initially drawn to a person based on outward perception, although this view is quickly coloured by actions and conversation. Still though, health appears to be undervalued except by those whose quality of life is adversely affected by a condition. When the illness is unseen there is a tendency to assume that the sufferer could get over it if they really tried.

In recent years there has been more open discussion about mental illness, yet still it is assumed that the young and beautiful have no cause, no right to feel down. Outsiders, sometimes even supposed friends, will look at a person and judge if they have an acceptable reason to feel the way they do. Years of suffering and self hatred are swept aside as well meaning passers by suggest losing weight, getting out more, a change in attitude as a cure. Become a different person and all will be well, just do it.

When the sufferer already looks perfect there is incomprehension that they could want more than they already have, as if beauty were the pinnacle of achievement. Could this be why, as an older woman, I hear certain peers talking with concern about losing their looks?

There are many older people who look fabulous, but even highlighting this is to give credence to the idea that beauty is so important. At what cost has this look been achieved, how does the person feel, what else have they achieved? When we read of mental health issues amongst the rich and famous does it help us to empathise if we can see something about them that we consider could be improved?

Nobody chooses to suffer a mental illness, and there is no treatment that can yet cure it. The best that can be hoped for is a strategy for management, improvement to allow for survival.

There is no doubt that achieving a healthy weight can improve physical health and thereby quality of life. An attractive haircut or a flattering outfit can give a temporary lift. What an ill person needs though is not a demand to change, but support and acceptance for where they are now, however they happen to look. Well people would benefit from that too.

 

 

 

 

Understanding Ithaka

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I start each week with a fierce determination to make it better than the last. I rarely feel satisfied with my accomplishments, although I am not sure why this should be. I am trying to get to some place that even I cannot fully picture, let alone actualise. The best I can do is to take small steps that feel like a move in the right direction, that give me a feeling of satisfaction rather than despair.

Last week I had four good days in a row. I put down a lot of writing, ate sensibly, met up with a friend for a walk and kept on top of my duties to my family. I wasn’t demanding too much of myself and I was feeling good. Then, on Friday, it all started to slip. Over the weekend I had a major slide and yesterday my mood totally crashed. I cannot explain why any of this happened, there were no specific triggers. I knew that I had to get myself out of the pit so I did what usually works: I immersed myself in a book.

A good book is such an amazing piece of portable magic. Curled up on my sofa, ensconced from the demons that whisper insidiously inside my head, I travelled back in time and across an ocean to live alongside a twelve year old girl whose family had messed up due to the death of her sibling when she was a baby. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Little Friend’ is a rich and engrossing read. It has it’s flaws, which I may cover elsewhere, but it gave me enough food for thought to enable me to process my own issues. It did it’s job for me.

I considered writing a post about how I was feeling on Sunday, but decided against. I was feeling depressed, but I do not consider that I suffer from depression. I have friends who do and I am in a much better place mentally. That I can pick myself up so quickly suggests mood swings more than illness.

Many years ago, when I was being treated by my doctor for ME, it was suggested that I might benefit from counselling as mental issues were a possible factor in this recently recognised malaise. I was granted six sessions under the NHS and went along because I wanted to talk to somebody, anybody, about how I was feeling, the storm in my head. I had been living in England for some time and was struggling to make friends. Although I had a lively social life, I found the English distant compared to my native Irish.

Growing up in Belfast it was common to call in on friends or family unannounced. When I first moved to England and started to get to know people from my place of work I would do this, and soon picked up that my behaviour was considered odd. I learned to phone ahead, to check that it was convenient before visiting. It made me feel that I was not welcome.

What I needed back then was a close friend, a confidante. I had plenty of acquaintances, but none who I could talk to about how I was feeling. Thus, when my doctor suggested the councillor I swallowed what scepticism I had and agreed to give the proposed treatment a try. It proved to be an interesting experience.

From my personal study of psychology and sociology I knew how counselling was supposed to work. It was unfortunate that the counsellor assigned had serious issues of her own. By the fourth and final session (I cancelled after this) she had unburdened herself and I realised that I could be a sympathetic listener, drawing her out, encouraging her to share. When we parted company I knew more about her than I wished, whereas she knew next to nothing about me. Perhaps I should have considered a change in career.

I found strategies for dealing with my own issues independently and life moved on. Now that I am, once again, having to deal with my demons I yearn for that still elusive confidante. My sister remains the only person who seems to understand what goes on in my head, but she lives in another country and has her own life to lead.

My mood swings may well be to do with age and the stage my family is at. Although the manifestation of my social awkwardness may be atypical, I do not believe that my neurosis is unusual. I wonder do most people simply have someone that they can talk to, or is the world filled with people struggling alone. Am I simply less concerned than most about admitting that sometimes I find the act of living tough?

Having spent the last three days getting through my latest storm I am now behind on a great many tasks. My house is a mess, I have stories unwritten and my urgent ‘do’ list grows ever longer. In three days time my children break up from school for Easter which will throw my everyday schedule into disarray. With important exams approaching stress levels are high and finding the balance between offering personal space and support tricky.

Life is the journey not the destination. I appear to be travelling without a map or a compass. I never did like surprises.

Ithaka (C.P. Cavafy)