Depression awareness week

This newspaper article alerted me to the fact that this is depression awareness week,  so I felt it would be an appropriate time to do my bit and share my own experience of this illness.

I was in my early forties when an episode of debilitating stress -induced depression lead me to seek help. A colleague noticed I was frantically cleaning the office and said, with her typically northern directness, ‘Oh no, you’re not going nutty are you. My friend  did that frantic cleaning thing before she went nutty.’  I certainly didn’t feel ‘nutty’. Cleaning the keyboard enabled me to have some measure of control over my unfocused energy. I did, however,  feel like I was watching myself, an actor in a nightmare struggling to cope. At that time I was simultaneously detached and deeply engaged with my job, not wanting to let anyone down but feeling unable to handle the nature and quantity of my work. I was losing a grip on the numerous projects under my care.  Some weeks before I’d had my first ever migraine, getting double vision in the corridor and stopping a passing Dr who checked me out. Now I was starting to stutter, something that had never affected me before. My thought processes were disconnected and alternately syrup-slow or manic. Several times I had tried to flag up my difficulty in dealing with the amount of work I had with my manager, ironically a medical consultant. He believed that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, and although a brilliant man, I later realised he had no concept of the amount of work our clinical trials were generating.  I’d get a certain way into a task only to find I had no idea how to continue. For some time I felt I’d been running up an endless sand dune, sometimes making good progress but inevitably sliding back. I could explain further but ultimately, the exact circumstances are not important. Suffice it to say that it is recognised that stress overload can make humans ill. I don’t have a very clear recollection of the events that lead up to me being sent home by a caring colleague, but I know I went to see my GP who asked me to fill out a questionnaire  that indicated I was severely depressed.  Anyone who has filled in one of these forms will know that it is difficult to be objective and that it is frightening and perhaps shaming to confront the truth of the situation. There is the temptation to underplay the symptoms in an attempt to appear ‘normal’. Some might suffer from’imposter syndrome’,  and, for various reasons, be incapable of admitting that they are really unwell.  Many people who suffer depression will have become ill after denying that there is anything wrong. I suspect that those people of my generation will also be prone to the stigma surrounding mental un-wellness and so avoid admitting that they are unwell for as long as possible, thus worsening the situation for themselves.

Signed off as sick and desperately worried and guilty about my workload (I believed I was the only person in the world who could conduct the clinical drug trials I was running, and since I had no team to take over and the administration was incredibly complicated, in a way I was) I  initially refused the GP’ s suggestion of medication, frightened perhaps of what drugs might do to me in my fragile state.  I sought counselling from the organisation Mind, which was incredibly helpful, and, after realising that I had suffered on and off with very degrees of severity or most of my adult life, I began an undulating journey to recovery. Swimming helped. Cycling helped. Writing helped- a lot. There were many days when nothing helped. Time helped. Talking to a counselor helped. A change in work patterns and lifestyle helped. Walking across the fields helped. Talking to friends helped. Understanding my illness and knowing that others also suffered helped. Being able to identify symptoms and recognise their onset helped. Letting go of the shame at being ill with an invisible illness helped. No two people’s circumstances are the same, so there is no set prescription for depression. But I was fortunate to find a few ways back to strength and health.

A friend asked me how I felt during my darkest days. I said I felt as if I was trapped at the bottom of a black well with sheer sides. Even this doesn’t really come close. It is very difficult to explain depression to those who haven’t experienced it. But I’ve tried. I suppose in talking about this subject the worry of stigmatization lingers, as do old fears of stirring up memories of dark times that might shadow the light of the present. But to those who are experiencing depression I want to say that after seeking help and entering a period of healing, I am well and not afraid to talk about my own experience. Here is a poem I wrote after getting a little better. I’ve never sent it out for publication but I’m publishing it here in the hope that it may help in a small way. It is not a poem of hope unless it is viewed in the context of the fact that this is where I have been, not where I am now.

Year of the Black Dog

Neither love earthly or divine
will chase this dog out.

Reach for any medicine
it will curdle in the mouth,

drip through skin,
turn to metal in the bowel.

Look for the strength
to grasp its neck.

The vibrato of a snarl
trembles in your chest





The Healthy Writer

I was lucky to attend a talk on writing today by Sherry Ashworth. Sherry talked about her career and how attitude to her writing has evolved. One of the many interesting aspects she touched upon was the idea of how to be and stay a ‘Healthy Writer.’

Sherry pointed out that being published can ‘mess with your ego.’ The published writer can become ‘an honorary teenager,’ hypersensitive to both criticism and praise. The highs and lows of the writing life can become extreme. If you are thinking about your writing in an unhealthy way, you will have an emotional rather than a practical response.

I was somewhat embarrassed to recognise myself at this point in Sherry’s lecture. I have been very lucky to receive some lovely reviews for my pamphlet, but managed to wind myself up over one where the reviewer in question wrote very poorly, misquoting from one of the pamphlets he was reviewing and expressing his forthright views on what poetry ‘should be’ in a badly written piece. But the part that really got to me was this guy’s description of me as ‘an able writer.’ How dare this amateur describe me as able!  I stormed around being indignant for considerably longer than was strictly necessary. Teenagers are meant to be hypersensitive; writers should have some sensitivity, I suppose, but this is really no excuse for not being a grown up when you are.

Here are some of the points Sherry made about avoiding the excesses of ‘Teen-head’

Don’t over-react to praise and criticism. Try to keep calm.
Don’t follow the crowd; only wear a fashion if it suits you.
Don’t post airbrushed pictures (literal and metaphorical) on Facebook- avoid boasting.
Choose your friends carefully. Every so often you meet a fellow writer who’s a bit like a character from the film  ‘Mean Girls.’ They are apparently in the cool clique, but when you have left their company you somehow feel smaller. Avoid these people. There are plenty of lovely writers out there who will like you for who you are.

Thankfully, I was also able to recognise myself in Sherry’s other description, that of the ‘Healthy writer.’ This is the one who writes, like a child, for the simple unself-conscious pleasure of writing.


Ted Hughes and the River

There is an interesting piece in Granta magazine on a previously unpublished letter from Ted Hughes. You can read the whole article if you click here. The letter is introduced by Simon Armitage who suggests that the instructive tone of the letter is similar to that Hughes used in his book  for teachers ‘Poetry in the Making’. Here is a quote from which I found particularly interesting as it contains Hughes thought on the need to nurture the potential of creative writers.  I was also interested in this as Hughes poem ‘Pike’ was one of the few poems I enjoyed  at school,  if ‘enjoyed’
is indeed is the right word, as I remember being somewhat chilled by the menace of the poem.

‘  At one point in the book, he suggests that without the right techniques for accessing ideas the imagination will languish like a fish in the pond of someone who doesn’t know how to fish.  In fact if the word ‘fish’ in this letter is substituted for the word ‘poem’, we have a rather interesting extended metaphor on the nature of poetic composition.  Given the number of poems Hughes wrote in his life and the number of days he evidently spent fishing, there must presumably be some correlation between the two, and a picture emerges of Hughes reeling in as many poems from those Devon rivers as he did salmon or trout.’