I picked up Sally Brampton’s memoir of depression, Shoot the Damn Dog, primarily because I had heard of her from reading her agony aunt column in the Sunday Times, not realizing that she had been the founding editor of Elle magazine, and a novelist, too. But given how much dross fills the column inches these days, I had always liked her advice, which was emotionally acute, insightful and pulled no punches. I could easily believe that she had suffered from a severe clinical depression that took four years of her life, because it seems to me you have to have been through the mill to have that kind of insight into the human condition, alas. General living doesn’t educate people any more in the starker truths of existence, drugged up as it is on achievement, success and the parade of happiness. And so I read Shoot the Damn Dog and found it to be a beautiful, distressing, honest and intelligent book that seeks to help remove the social stigma from depression, to educate people who have only a superficial idea of what it means, and to offer comfort and information to those suffering from the condition. But I think it’s more than the sum of its parts; ultimately it’s a moving testimony to a terrible ordeal and a brave confrontation with mortality that absolutely refuses sensationalism.
So, Sally Brampton might have been considered to be one of the lucky people, a successful, well-paid writer and editor, someone who had reached the top of her profession and who had all the finery of life, a lovely home, a husband, a beautiful, healthy daughter. When depression struck it was precipitated, as is frequently but not always the case, by a combination of life events. Her second marriage failed, she began an affair with a married man she loved intensely, and she lost her job as editor of Red magazine, mostly because she was not interested in the glitzy trivia it was supposed to contain. Quickly, symptoms started to kick in; early morning insomnia with recurrent waking at 3.20 am, endless crying, feelings of worthlessness, stupor, fatigue, and loss of interest and pleasure in daily life. In no time at all they had congealed into a deep dissociation from reality, an inability to perform even the most mundane of tasks. Getting dressed, preparing a meal, making a phone call all became immense obstacles, and her days were spent backed up against the wall, shaking and sobbing.
Depression, Brampton is quick to point out, is an illness, as physical as heart disease (of which it can perhaps be considered a variant) and as such it must inevitably run its course. What you do for it depends on its severity and, to a large extent, on the requirements of the individual because it is so poorly understood. But it is also the case that some people have a proclivity towards depression, partly through their innate hardwiring, partly because of the poor or ill-advised coping strategies that they develop in life. Brampton spent her childhood moving between foreign countries until she was eventually sent to boarding school, situations that inculcated an early sense of isolation. Her father suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, and as much as Brampton always knew he loved her, she never felt (and quite rightly) that he understood her. Her mother suffered through a dissatisfactory marriage, often unloading the burden of her unhappiness onto her daughter’s shoulders. This was not a two-way street. When Brampton once dared to write to her mother about the barbaric conditions in her boarding school, her mother returned an angry letter, telling her off for upsetting her father and forbidding her to mention it again. In later years, she denied ever having written that way. This suggests a classic combination of unfortunate factors that can leave someone feeling unrecognized, isolated and without a safe haven for their fears and anxieties. Oddly enough it’s the kind of upbringing that used to make the British Empire great for it creates strong characters; but it’s the kind of strength that can implode spectacularly, as indeed Brampton did. Weaker characters are far better at looking after themselves.
And so, Sally Brampton sets off on a long, painful journey towards finding some help and some answers. She writes tremendously well about her times in various hospitals and rehabilitation units, for her depression becomes complicated by alcohol addiction, as is the case with a large proportion of depressives. One of the most difficult problems she encounters is drug resistancy; her case is particularly bad, but it’s a little known fact that only thirty percent of people respond well to their anti-depressants, the next thirty or so percent have to steel themselves for a barrage of side-effect hellfire whilst trying to find that kind that do the trick, and for the last thirty percent, nothing works. This doesn’t prevent her psychiatrist from being an ‘optimist’ and weighing her down with such a huge chemical cocktail that she can barely walk from dizziness, barely pick up a teacup with the shaking and even water tastes foul. Medication becomes part of Brampton’s problems, not a solution to them. But she is equally critical on the various therapies and therapists on offer, finding much that is ill thought out and insufficient about them. And she also has words of wisdom and derision about the responses of the brutally healthy who exclaim ‘But you used to be so calm! So competent!’ or who treat her with embarrassment, as if she had made the most dreadful social faux-pas.
If all this sounds depressing, I can assure you it isn’t. Despite the depth and severity of her depression, Brampton makes a full recovery, and the story of her journey back to health is profoundly uplifting. Her turning point comes with a suicide attempt in which she swallows every pill available to her, only to wake up at her usual hour of 3.20am. Acknowledging that even an appeal to death can’t alter her situation, she finally accepts it. And in that acceptance of powerlessness lies the seeds of a healthier state of mind. ‘Nobody likes to admit that they are powerless,’ she writes. ‘We live in a culture of control and success. The most money, the best job, the biggest car, the fanciest handbag. Powerlessness is weakness, failure is pathetic and surrender is giving up. […] Admitting to being powerless is not an admission of defeat, but one of liberation. You begin to understand that we are powerless over so much, even though we like to believe otherwise. We cannot, for example, change other people; we can only change our responses to them. People rarely behave in the way that we wish. We cannot make them love us. We cannot stop them leaving us. We cannot live our children’s lives for them. We cannot change life either; cannot undo the past or predict the future. Life rarely turns out in the way that we would wish it to, or that we have dreamed it would. We are powerless to do anything about that except to make the best or the worst of it. […] I accept that I am powerless. It is a rare sort of freedom.’
Altering her mind set is only one of a number of changes she implements; she takes up yoga, which turns out to be deeply soothing, as is meditation whilst she is recovering; she finds that omega-3 and vitamin B12 have a marked effect on her mood, and acupuncture manages to cure her throat seizures where ‘one psychiatrist, five therapists, three psychiatric units, two tons of antidepressants, Xanax, valium, and five vats of pure alcohol had failed.’ There are, she readily admits, no magic cures. Instead it is simply a question of trying everything, possibly twice, to find out what works for you. Change, in human beings, is a frustratingly slow process and one that is dogged by relapses, false dawns and broken promises. But sensible persistence helps, and sympathetic understanding helps and the recognition that there is no one but yourself who can take on the work of rescue is an anchor on an otherwise shifting sea of trouble. It always seems odd but undeniably true to me that we find it hard to continue to do the things that are good for us, whilst we will readily fall back into old self-defeating, damaging and masochistic patterns of behaviour. To be healthy, Brampton insists, one must make a commitment to the discipline of good self care, and recommit to it on a daily basis, until it becomes a habit in itself. If anyone reading this feels that such a commitment is too great a demand or impossible to sustain, if they feel that the gates of hell are padlocked behind them, or if there is simply a persistence of gloom and despair, of ‘stinking thinking’ as the depressives call it, then reading this book is a fine place to begin. But it’s also for anyone who is interested in the pitfalls of the human condition, or who knows loved ones who suffer. Or in fact for anyone at all who dislikes the stigma attached to mental illness or who mistrusts the easy insistence on ostentatious well being and glittering prizes in our modern society. The reality of vibrant, meaningful life, as this wonderful book clearly suggests, is always lived elsewhere.