I once had the privilege of meeting Sally Brampton. Our conversation was brief, just a few
minutes, but I spoke to her more openly about my experiences with depression
and alcohol than I have been able to with many of my closest family and friends. Although we had never met before, we weren’t
strangers; our shared demons gave us a deep sense of knowing.
Her work profoundly affected me from the first encounter. ‘The
walls that we build to protect ourselves become our prisons’, she wrote in a
letter to her younger self that appeared in the August 2007 issue of Psychologies magazine – a statement
which made me weep inconsolably even though at the time I didn’t understand
why. Whilst I was trapped in the world
inside my head, Sally’s words dropped a plumb line into my soul and retrieved a
precious gemstone from a long forgotten world.
I carried a cutting of the letter in my wallet for at least a year.
A nervous breakdown followed not many months later. During those dark days, I devoured the sage
(and sometimes stinging) advice that she dispensed in her The Sunday Times Aunt Sally column.
Lost and uncertain, each week I would snip the page out and file it away,
reassured that however bad things got, I had my own collection of Brampton
wisdom to turn to.
Around the same time, she published Shoot the Damn Dog, combining a memoir of her depression with
advice for fellow sufferers. I added my
well-thumbed copy to the burgeoning Brampton archive under my bed. Once back at work and resuming my research on
women’s magazines, professional references to Brampton as an iconic editor and
journalist joined the collection. In
contrast to the great sorrow that characterised my initial encounter with Sally’s
work, acquiring (at some expense) my own copy of Elle’s first UK issue, edited by her, was a joyous moment.
In recent years, I’ve often bought publications purely to
read her words. Whilst I’ve let go of my
file of Aunt Sally columns, the scrap of paper from Psychologies remains always close at hand, one of my most treasured
possessions. And when I heard yapping at
my heels again back in February, I straightaway turned to Shoot the Damn Dog. Sally’s
discussion of medication and its uses persuaded me to accept
anti-depressants. No less significant
was the comfort I drew from her passionate insistence that mental health
problems are an illness, not a moral failing or a character flaw – a point that
she long struggled to come to terms with, as have I and as do many others.
The misunderstandings surrounding mental health issues often
keep those of us who struggle with depression and other illnesses quiet. There also remains stigma, shame, embarrassment,
confusion. I fear being labelled as
weak, a failure, self-indulgent and, at a time when a close relative is also
battling with similar issues, a scene stealer or attention seeker.
Despite building a career based upon writing, I cannot find the words to articulate what depression is like or how it
makes me feel. Even finding the right
words for that sentence involved minutes of nail-picking and a detour to coffee
making. It is particularly hard to explain
when one rationally and mentally understands that things aren’t all bad – or even
bad at all. I don’t need other people to
tell me that. I get it. My life is hashtag blessed in a myriad of
ways. However reminding me of that doesn’t
help, it just adds a layer of guilt on top of everything else. I’m not ungrateful, I’m ill.
Although suicide ideation is a concept that I’ve become all too familiar with again lately, my current depressive episode is
relatively mild thus I’ve been able to feel moments of enjoyment
and contentment amidst it all. The last
few months have contained some of the bleakest times of my whole life but some
of the happiest too. Imagine you broke
your leg just before the holiday of a lifetime and had to spend the trip with a
plaster cast and crutches. It is
possible to still enjoy yourself, have a great time even, whilst knowing that
it would be better – much better – if you didn’t have a broken leg.
The dark cloud always casts a shadow, however small. The black dog can always bite, however much
you try to exert discipline. The void
always threatens to swallow you up, just as the sea has now taken Sally.
When you’re living with depression, it touches everything –
yet it can be remarkably easy to hide from others. As I’ve said, my current episode is fairly
mild, but even so I’ve been shocked at my ability to change faces in front of
others. Those who follow A Life Of One’s Own or my Instagram feed
may have wondered where I’ve disappeared to, but otherwise I’ve strived to keep
up the shiny, capable, confident front. Business as usual.
Indeed some business has continued as usual. I seem to have become adept at doing what I
need to do to avoid having to reveal what’s going on underneath it all. Elusive phrases have become common
parlance. The unassuming ‘I’d best be
going’ uttered when I can feel a plummet approaching and need to get out before
the tears begin. The classic ‘I’m fine’
when I’m anything but, or ‘Okay’ when I’m just relieved to have got through the
Saddest of all is my use of ‘not great’. These two words have been most frequently
deployed to cancel social plans I don’t feel I can’t cope with. ‘It’s not been a great week’ or ‘I’m not
feeling great’ are deliberately ambiguous, neither lies nor too revealing. By suggesting I’m physically unwell or have
overdone it a bit, this pair of phrases excuse me without arousing too many further
I regard ‘not great’ as the saddest of these elusive phrases
because these are the words that I turn to when I most long to reach out. They are the ones that I use when I really
wish I could tell the truth about what’s going on: I’m struggling with
depression. But I can’t say it. The darkness of how I feel, the complexity of
it all, gets stuck in my throat and ‘not great’ comes out instead.
‘Not great’ is a protection mechanism, shielding me from the
vulnerability that would come with reaching out and sharing my truth honestly
and openly. Yet in doing so, it stops me
from connecting at a time when connection is what I need most.
‘The walls that we build to protect ourselves become our
Sally Brampton’s words have played such a critical role in
dismantling the walls I’d erected around myself. Now with her death, it feels like it’s time
for me to finally step out of the prison – not breaking a sentence but my