The sky is very grey and I’m feeling very low. I’m suffering from depression and am taking some time off work. What do you recommend I read to help me understand my situation, start getting well again, and also escape thinking too much when I feel overwhelmed?
There are many ways that reading can help you. You can read books to make you laugh, take you out of your current mindset and act as pure escapism, and there are books out there too which will address depression and help you to tackle it. One of the best recent books describing depression, is "Mr Chartwell" by Rebecca Hunt. You would not expect a book about depression to be funny, but it is. Hunt describes Churchill’s Black Dog as a real, fully three dimensional being, known as Black Pat to his intimates – a “strikingly hideous” version of a black Labrador, but six foot three and intensely malodorous. Black Pat is keen to make the acquaintance of Esther, who works at the House of Commons Library, and becomes her tenant. As a physical embodiment of the depression that Churchill famously battled with, Hunt uses the dog as a means of tackling this debilitating illness. It is her first novel, and it does not delve as deeply into the innermost recesses of the malady as one might hope, but it is definitely a book to help you look at your own ways of coping with depression in a different light.
A non- fiction approach to the same subject is Sally Brompton’s "Shoot the Damn Dog". This memoir by the ex editor of Elle Magazine describes a glamorous life, in which Brompton had no outward reason to be in any way discontent. With a brilliant job as editor first of Elle, then Red Magazine, constantly socializing with the rich and famous, she seemed to have everything. But nonetheless she became epically, clinically depressed, crying for hours on end to the point where she writes “ if I was an animal they would shoot me to put me out of my misery”. She was one of the thirty per cent of people who are resistant to medication, and nothing the doctors gave her worked. The talking cures were similarly hopeless, though spent months in various kinds of therapy. In the end, it was her second failed suicide attempt that set her on the path to regaining an even keel. Realising that death was not that easy to attain made her find ways of living with her depression, until she found an admittedly precarious happiness. This is a book that brilliantly describes what it feels like to be depressed, so you might then want to read something entirely for escapism. At times like this, I strongly recommend you read favorite books from childhood, ‘comfort reads’, such asTerry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which are hilarious, gripping, and set in another world. This can be very helpful, though of course Pratchett satirizes our own world brilliantly.
Another great way for books to help you at this time, is to listen to an audio book while you do something relaxing, such as cooking, knitting, gardening, or having a bath. The stories of Sherlock Holmes have always been brilliant to listen to, and the new Sherlock story by Anthony Horowitz “House of Silk”, read by Derek Jacobi, is just as compelling an experience as the original Conan Doyles. You will be soothed by listening to a great actor reading you a story that fits in perfectly with the originals. Alternatively, listen to the brilliant Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson, which is one of the most inspiring memoirs written in the last twenty years. Describing his near fatal climb of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, Simpson looks deep within his soul, confronting what he believes to be his imminent death, recounting his experiences fearlessly, and living to tell the tale.
Finally, make sure you have a copy of Nature Cure by Richard Mabey by your bed. Read a few pages of it every morning, before you get up. Mabey’s own depression led him to a nervous breakdown, and this book is the cure that helped him back to life. His descriptions of the natural world beyond his window are irresistibly fascinating, and his endless curiosity will rub off on you and get you looking outside, yourself.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist for The School of Life. To find out more about the service click here.