This week, after a number of random conversations about how difficult it is to lose weight I had written a post about how easy it is to lose weight. Then I heard that Sally Brampton had died.
Sally Brampton was an editor, columnist, author and, most notably for me, writer of a book called “Shoot The Damn Dog” which traces her path through a battle with depression, a battle she lost this week after walking straight out into the sea near her home in Sussex.
When I heard the news my mind was immediately drawn to a passage in the book where she talks about how “killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer”. “We are simply defeated by the long hard struggle to stay alive”.
If depression is characterised by one aspect more than any other, more than the obvious presence of deep sadness and emotional paralysis, it is the dislocating weight of disconnection. Depression breaks us away from the world, from our friends, from those we love, those who would love us (if we were able to let them), and from ourselves. The loneliness experienced in the depth of depression is brutal and impossible to imagine for anyone who hasn’t felt its terrible dead weight.
In mitigation of this emotional separation there are things which sometimes seem temporarily to heal the fracture. Groups of like minded strugglers where no futile explanation is needed, a fleeting and unexpected ability to see the beauty in a spring flower when life is mostly experienced in monochrome, and a reminder that sometimes other people have felt just like you do. Books can do this, they can provide a thin, tentative rope, something to grasp rather than loop around a neck, in the murkiest of waters. In my own darkest days “Shoot The Damn Dog” gave me such succour. It would be an overestimate to suggest that it saved my life but it certainly gave me hope that life could feel worthwhile again.
In a group therapy session once many years ago someone was asked what they wanted and replied “I just want to be happy”. In that moment, what appeared on the surface to be a simple and reasonable request, struck me as a desire so gargantuan as to be no easier than asking to fly to the moon using the power of only ones own wings. Happy? All the time? How is that possible?
Our lives have a baseline of contentment. For some of us, due to the lives we have led, the way we see ourselves and the world we live in, that line is lower than we would like. It flirts with the ground and, should our mood take us below ground, we feel the earth cover us and darkness descends. This is depression. An inability to breathe but an almost total lack of concern that we can’t. In therapy and recovery generally we hope to move that baseline up, so that, like a hot air balloon losing altitude, we can always jettison some weight to avoid a damaging impact with the dirt. But even when this is achieved, a fall which others might see as a difficult period in their lives, bears such strong resemblance to depression that it is felt as such and the hole becomes very deep quite suddenly.
Any addict will tell you that every time they falter the recovery becomes more difficult. Every time we tumble into the space there seems less energy to clamber out and the climb itself is so much harder, steeper and longer than the one before. In itself this creates an anxiety to avoid relapse. We become so desperate to stay above ground that we make the expectation almost too hard to achieve.
The loneliness of depression is alleviated not by some pragmatic and interventionist approach from a well meaning friend because depressions descent comes from within and is only soothed from within. Understanding and a willingness to emotionally be held in that still place by those who have the resilience to watch someone sinking and know that there is no life ring which can be thrown is like water in a land made entirely of scorching heat and sand. Emergence is rarely swift and almost always terribly hard work. Brampton writes, “This is why therapy is so difficult. Or, at least, good therapy. Good therapy is incredibly hard work. In order to truly engage with it, you first have to truly engage with yourself. But why bother? Only because, at some point in our lives, unresolved pain is likely to kneecap us and at times in ways that we least expect”.
To be closed in our thinking, to be disparaging of any chance of recovery is the worst possible space for someone suffering with depression to occupy. It is only in the belief in possibility, however faint, that a return to some semblance of balance will come that it does so. When we speak to, hear from or read about the arduous and painstakingly slow steps of others who have trodden the path before we give ourselves that hope, we are momentarily released from the pointlessness and it is through the courage of those that share their stories that we are given the opportunity to walk through our own and become able to speak of it.
At the end of “Shoot The Damn Dog” Brampton writes about the strategies she has developed which have helped her to move through. They are often nebulous and do not in any way fit with the ideal of a pragmatic step by step plan which can be followed until we stand blinking in the brilliant sunlight. She talks of “letting go” which is really just allowing things to be as they are without striving to alter them. She talks of finding meaning and solace in Buddhist writing, and she talks of the value in gratitude, of noticing that which we truly cherish in our lives however difficult they might be to spot. It was something which resonated deeply with me at the time and still does. There is nothing theoretical or idealist about gratitude because, if we are willing to look at the tiniest details of our lives, there is always beauty, somewhere there is beauty. Sally Brampton alerted me to something which grew, something planted which I have tended carefully even in those early days when I had no idea I was doing so.
On the final page of the book she notes that “Every story deserves a happy ending” and goes on to tell about how her relationship with “Tom”, which had broken up leaving her in pieces some three years earlier, had been rekindled. That after such a long time with no contact they had found their way back to one another and married. At the time it was such an uplift to a story which had been so harrowing a ride. It felt perfect.
In the years which followed I often watched to see what was happening in her life through the columns she wrote and her work as an agony aunt. When sometime later I read that she and Tom had separated I felt a deep sadness. It was as if the promise of recovery and the building of something positive and durable might have been a lie after all. But then I realised that other people’s tales are just that. We are not comforted and sustained because we feel we can replicate what we see others do, we are given the belief that we can do it ourselves, write our own story and that we have more control over how it might play out than we think.
So to hear about her death felt enormously poignant. It was as if someone who had once lit a torch for me had decided to blow it out when she most needed it to guide her own way. When we come across people in our lives who have made an impact but then decide that they have had enough it is easy to feel additionally burdened by the struggles and losses we inevitably experience as part of our lives. But perhaps the way in which we honour them most deeply and resonantly is to rise up and determine that we will live with greater gusto than we did before so that, at least, their struggle and their humility and generosity in sharing their stories, can never be considered in vain.