When depression came for me, it came as a tsunami hitting a person in a deep valley in the middle of a land mass. Wholly unexpected. I considered myself to be so confident, so put together, that I could handle anything. Yet suddenly I could handle nothing.
There are many books I read to help me battle the static eternal present during my depression. Perhaps most worthy of note is ‘Everything You Need You Have’ written by psychotherapist Gerard Kite, who offers both practical strategies and enlightening perspectives, helping me to reconnect with what I care about.
However, there are some books I wish I’d read much earlier. Books which helped me to form a bridge between the before and the after. Books which taught me I am not alone, or offered me insight into what I’d experienced. The first, and my main reason for writing this blog is –
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I cannot begin to explain how much it could have benefited me to read this a year ago. Never before have I written the word YES! so much in the margin of a book. My brain became so habituated to my internal exclamation it became a sub-conscious action. I sat in Costa coffee reading Estha’s description of the Fig Tree, a metaphor for all life’s choices which, as she remains paralysed with indecision, slowly wither and die, and I know that was me. I know, more importantly, that it isn’t just me.
The static air inside the Bell Jar: ‘I couldn’t feel a thing’. I wanted to package the line, brand it, and send it out to everyone who’d tried to help me.
The guilt I’d felt about not being able to conduct housework; the two-hour process of forcing myself to shower was presented back to me in a more understanding way: ‘I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.’ In the wider context, it no longer seems lazy, pathetic or ridiculous. That Plath’s work blends fiction and non-fiction makes it all the more medicinal. Its reality mixed with a hint of poetic beauty made it, for me, the perfect friend to bridge the gap between then and now.
- Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig (@matthaig1)
Again, I could have read this a lot earlier than I did, but something stopped me. Part of me, I think, was keen to jump ahead. I didn’t want to read books about depression anymore; I wanted to read ‘normal books’. Books which would help me convince myself I am perfectly okay. When I went to a wedding in Malaysia last summer, my friend placed it down in front of me at the airport. Read this. I feel I learnt more from reading this book than I did from any of my doctors or counsellors.
Matt describes a traumatic journey to a corner shop ‘Being relieved about surviving a trip to the corner shop was another confirmation of sickness’ and I realised: this is why climbing out of it takes such a long time. When you’re alone in your bed, you’re protected. Relatively, the early stages of my depression were much easier. I didn’t have to do anything. I was allowed to sit under my bell jar and decay like Havisham. Once I started to come out of it, however, there was the constant realisation that I wasn’t okay: that there was still so far to go. A trip to the cinema goes badly and is then further crippling by the very knowledge that you’re so abnormal you can’t even go to the cinema.
I wished I could reverse the clock, read it the day before I started taking my pills, and then send a copy of it to everyone around me: especially the people who had no idea what to say or do. Matt made me feel like the symptoms I’d thought were my personal failures were simply universal responses. Above all else, he helped me to forgive myself for letting others down, my self down, and my life down.
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (@GilbertLiz)
‘If I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something’. That’s a good piece of insight right there. While Haig’s book was an overt lesson, ‘Big Magic’ snuck up on me from behind. I read it because I’d heard Liz speaking about it on Krista Tippet’s podcast ‘On Being’ and thought it was an interesting take on ideas and creativity. One day, I rode my bike over to a neighbouring town and stopped off at the Starbucks there. It was a glorious day so I sat outside and read about the benefits of following creative desires. ‘We all need an activity that is beyond the mundane and that takes us out of our established and limiting roles in society’. By the time I rode home, I felt glimmers of my old self returning, not necessarily because of anything I’d read, but because of how I’d responded to it. Even that I had responded to it. I wanted to create again!
Another reason this book makes the list is because it was the start of me building a network of women who I could trust; who I could turn to the work of and feel reassured that life is bigger than me, and us, and this present moment. I can’t remember how I found Krista Tippet’s superb podcast but through her I re-found Liz (I’d already read Eat, Pray, Love of course). Through Liz’s Facebook I found Glennon Doyle Melton ‘The only way to survive is…to get comfortable with discomfort’ and, on that sunny day outside Starbucks I found Joan Didion, ‘I don’t know what I think until I write about it’.
- ‘Play it as it Lays’ by Joan Didion
When I read that line in ‘Big Magic’, I could have just nodded and carried on reading. But I didn’t. I stopped, picked up my phone and Googled this new woman: Joan Didion. Since then I have read four of her books and, during a particularly weak day, covered a wall memes of her quotations. ‘Play it as it Lays’ stands out, like ‘The Bell Jar’ as a book which makes depression, madness, a feeling of disconnect seem both normal and poetically real. ‘I know what nothing means, and I keep on playing’, the protagonist Maria says at the end of the book. And for the first time, I felt a strength from the journey I’d been on. Throughout the story, Didion puts a microscope under daily experiences, ‘thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began’, ‘Don’t forget my dark glasses’, ‘I haven’t wanted to see you because I don’t feel good’, ‘I am burdened by the particular’, ‘You are all making me sick’, ‘Everything Maria could think to do in the town she had already done.’ The world she captures is so mad and so very real, it’s a wonder any of us stay sane. Most importantly, she does all this without romanticising misery.
- ‘Brazzaville Beach’ by William Boyd
‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. Well, I considered after finishing this book, at least I can claim I’ve lived. William Boyd has always been someone who offers the bittersweet realities of life. ‘Any Human Heart’ made me acutely aware of the impact a time period can have on the twilight of your life. In ‘Brazzaville Beach’, Hope spends her time in Africa working with Chimpanzees in a plotline inspired by Jane Goodall’s work. I was fascinated by the animals, and the book spilled over into the rest of my life as I researched more about them. I was reminded that there are still many wonders of life I haven’t explored.
Boyd tells us ‘Life [is] all a matter of contrasts…you can’t enjoy anything without a contrast to it.’ Accepting this became my primary goal. ‘Hope, my dear,’ her professor tells her, ‘the tide is either coming in or going out’. And whichever one is best depends entirely on where you choose to stand.