Stinking Thinking

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.

11 thoughts on “Stinking Thinking

  1. This sounds like a great book and I hope it finds a wide audience. We’ve come a long way in lessening the stigma of mental illness but it is still there and hanging on strong for serious conditions. ‘the recognition that there is no one but yourself who can take on the work of rescue’ is so true. I think in the US, however, mental illness has become so medicalized that many think that if you’re depressed all you need is Prozac and everything will be fixed. When Prozac doesn’t fix everything then the person who is ill gets blamed because it must be her fault somehow. But the one suffering from the mental illness is just as much a victim of the culture and drug adverts as everyone else. I think the pendulum is starting to swing from drugs will fix everything. Hopefully there will come a time when a more holistic approach is the norm.

  2. Yeah I know what you mean about those anti depressant drugs. Sometimes the side effects are worse than the illness.

    Oh I redesigned my site. A number of people had problems loading pages. This far everyone has seen an improvement in accessing the pages. I think it may have taken care of the comment issue as well.

  3. I think this sounds fascinating, for both the reasons you mention–being interested in the human condition, and knowing loved ones who suffer. I’m putting this on my list, and I’m going to read it after I finish Allen Shawn’s memoir of his agoraphobic life, called Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, which is also proving to be very interesting, and much less of a downer than I imagined. I think self care is so important for all of us, but sadly isn’t as valued as it should be in our modern society–though I believe that is changing for the better.

  4. What an excellent review and piece in itself. Will have to seek this out. I’m sure as you suggest the whole bias of our society is a major handicap to the best living of life for most people. We create an illusion around a group of star/fantasy people, whose lives often turn out to be nothing like that creation and full of fraught suffering, when they come crashing down, then we torture ourselves trying to copy them, either in some watered-down material way or in our expectations of our ability to cope with the burdens we invite or create for ourselves. Glad to see you are well and thanks for this.

  5. Well, this sounds like a wonderful book. I can only imagine the amount of struggle that went into the author’s regained health, and it’s great that she was able to come through the experience so well and then help other people out by telling her story.

  6. I have read many of the stream of depression, manic-depression, and alcoholism chronicles over the last few years as it has been a profound interest of mine from both sides of the the fence. You mentioned the effectiveness of treatment by meds in thirds, but in recent years, electroshock therapy has become more and more accepted, as a long-term outpatient solution, to drug-resistant depression and has saved many lives, as repulsive as it sounds. These books, like all, vary greatly in quality, but their writing by successful individuals does much to remove the stigma of mental illness. Unfortunately, the highly successful tend to be given, still, more of a pass than the less successful whose illness has just taken too much a toll, or who started off with fewer social and financial resources to slog through to success. I’ve been “off” depression chronicles lately, but this may be an exception. I especially like the emphasis on self-care.

    Irrelevent question: on my blog today I posted a question to solicit titles of great literature for adults that have child protagonists, though I then bent the rules and added a few for kids that adults will forever love. As litlove, I suspect you would have much to add to my list. Could you?

  7. What a lovely, empathetic review, litlove. While I have suffered from some anxiety in the past, which is probably an offspring of depression, I have so far been very lucky that my mood very naturally and regularly returns to some level of happiness. My husband, though, has struggled with depression through much of his life and I believe that only through discussion of this kind of struggle can we remove the stigma. This book, as ever, is going into the tbr pile.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful review. I loved hearing about her path to recovery and I’m so glad the book pays attention to the many different ways, some quite small but very effective, depression can be addressed.

  9. Having lived through depressive episodes, I know the sense of powerlessness which accompanies them, and the societal stigma which, in turn, becomes attached to anyone who is “powerless” to control their lives or emotions.

    I like the idea of “sensible persistence” and “sympathetic understanding” in terms of coping with this condition, and I like even more the author’s willingness to try alternative treatments, e.g. yoga, meditation, mineral supplements. There is no all-in-one cure all for this (or any other) medical condition, and it’s good to see people open their minds to trying other treatments.

    Wonderful review – I would definitely be interested in reading this book.

  10. I’m very interested to read this now as I’m always looking for writers who can write empathically and insightfully about depression. I don’t much like the title though and also the term “stinking thinking” as it implies that some of our thinking is bad and should be discarded. Maybe that’s true – and I know that I get into unhelpful thought-spirals – but I think that acceptance of all those less good parts of ourseves is essential to the self-care that she mentions. Definitely one for the TBR list. Thanks.

  11. Stefanie – I agree so much with everything you say there. Brampton quotes some doctor saying about Prozac that it doesn’t cure anything, except to the extent that paracetamol makes you feel more cheerful because you don’t have a headache. Long-term solutions, I do firmly believe, have to be non drug-related. I distrust the clout of the drug companies, too. But I also agree that the situation is improving all round, and that books like this can only help keep up the momentum. Bluestocking – I will most certainly be over to visit you – I’m just sorry I couldn’t get there last week! And I loathe side effects – never have been able to consider them part of the deal! Gentle Reader – what a wonderful title for Alan Shawn’s memoir! I shall have to see whether that’s available in the UK, too. I do wonder whether those who’ve managed to overcome their phobias and neuroses end up with the kind of insight and sense of humour that means they can produce a uplifting account of their troubles? I, too, hope that self-care for everyone, at all stages of their lives, becomes a guiding principle, rather than self achievement or self-sacrifice. Bookboxed – hello! Yes, I do wonder all the time at the modern fascination with celebrity which seems to me the most awful Faustian pact. The general public looks to criticize, not to admire, and fame is (to my mind) the equivalent of the public stocks in medieval times! And yet the pull of that illusion is ferocious. Dorothy – when you read how low she went, it’s incredible, and inspiring, to watch her turn it around. And just by day to day persistence, nothing miraculous or spectacular. Querulous – ECT is a tricky one, I think, as it’s interesting to hear you say (and I know you have professional authority to say it with) that it does help. Brampton mentions it as she’s offered it; but having seen patients go through it in her hospital she vigorously rejects ECT as a solution. But then again, what people suffer in the depths of depression is so terrible that I imagine no treatment can or should be excluded, if it can bring positive results. Also, I hear what you’re saying about the unfair system. Brampton has the savings to help herself when many others don’t (although she is forced to leave hospital because her insurance runs out), and I can see how that could be an insurmountable problem. I’ve thought of a few more titles, btw, so will return to add them to the list! Courtney – So, so many people struggle with depression – I think we hardly know the extent of the problem. But this is such a powerful and uplifting book, and so honest about life in the worst emotional climates that it does bring hope. If Brampton can find her solutions, then so can anyone, you might be encouraged to think. Bloglily – how nice to see you back! I think that’s what struck me most about the book – the fact that although Brampton’s depression warranted hospitalisation with much medication and therapy, the answers to it turned out to be a lot about yoga, meditation, vitamin supplements, answers that are open to anyone, in other words. I liked that, too. Becca – I think you might find this book very interesting. Brampton stresses that everyone must find the combination of factors that suits them, and that the only way to do so is to try and try and try, without prejudice or pessimism or undue expectation. The one thing I didn’t emphasise enough in my review is the spirituality she thinks is essential to healing. This doesn’t mean God, for her, but instead her faith in a community of sympathetic people to bring about profound and lasting change. I liked that a lot, too. Pete – how interesting what you say about exluding parts of the self. I can quite see what you mean, but maybe it’s possible to keep hold of what lies underneath negative thinking – a sense of worthlessness, or despair or anger, and find better ways of manifesting it than in a pattern of thinking that only deepens the suffering? I’m not entirely sure about the title, though, either, and Brampton doesn’t really mention it once she gets going. I’d be very interested to hear what you thought of this book as she is critical of both drugs and therapy as solutions, and I found that most intriguing.

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