The Recovering Greenness of a Shrivelled Heart: Thoughts on Rachel Kelly’s Black Rainbow
Rachel Kelly is spot on: “But in the end, depression doesn’t follow rules: it is a devil that comes in many guises.” (Black Rainbow, p231) So there is a sense in which her experiences of depression (two highly debilitating and bewildering attacks and the subsequent need to manage it) will inevitably be unique. But her new Black Rainbow is remarkable: for it is no misery memoir but an act of generosity. In making herself vulnerable through talking so openly about facing and working through deeply personal pains, she has offered nothing less than a gift of grace. For in the midst of the bleak, black, barrenness of depression, she has found a path through. For those of us perhaps further back along the road, this is a germ of hope.
I’ve read quite a few books on the subject, inevitably. It is also a subject to which I’ve returned on this blog more than once. Of the books by those who have been through it, this will now be my first lending book alongside William Styron’s Darkness Visible. For the secret of her path to recovery, or perhaps equilibrium is a better word, has been words. Or more specific, the weighty words of others who understand. Or at least others who can articulate a moment, a sense, a fear.
Having wrestled the black dog for perhaps almost 10 years now, one of the biggest stresses for me (especially in the first few years) was the absence of words. I simply could not articulate what was happening to me. And because words are my life at so many levels, this was particularly terrifying. When I started counselling, I was naturally asked what I hoped to get out of it. I had no illusions about talking therapies bringing cures – I simply needed words. Not so much for others’ sake but for my own.
The Words of Kindreds
One of the toughest things about this affliction is its invisibility. Some actually appear not even to believe in its reality. There are no slings, crutches or scars that prove it.
Depression offers no such measurable proofs. Even its victim may wonder if they really do have an illness. (p133)
There are only the withdrawals, the monosyllables, the distant eyes. Others’ scepticism merely serves to deepen the self-doubt of the depressive. So kindred spirits who don’t question the validity or reality of the pain are crucial. Kelly describes how she deepened her “bonds with the tribe who understood what a depressive illness was, some of whom I had known for years without realising that they had struggled in this way.” (p137) But sometimes, the company of friends is even too much – but thankfully, solitude need not bring isolation. For here the printed word comes into its own.
A history grad who became a journalist with The Times, Rachel had been brought with a deep affection for poetry, and this stood her in good stead. The book’s subtitle is “How words healed me: my journey through depression”. And so as she retells her story with agonising candour, she intersperses it with poems or even just snippets of verse which helped her or captured a moment.
So poetry’s brevity was a blessing. I wasn’t alone, others had suffered and made something of their suffering. They had re-ordered the seemingly random cruelty of the illness into some kind of sense. (p73)
One of her favourites was George Herbert – and coincidentally I had just finished John Drury’s simply wonderful book on Herbert’s life and poetry, Music at Midnight. Herbert had himself asked for his manuscript of poems to be printed posthumously (by his old friend Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding) in the hope that they would bring some “consolation of any dejected poor soul.” (Drury, p19) This hope was clearly realised for Rachel, and through her consolation, for me too. The sublime perfection of Herbert’s “Love (III)” is a case in point. But as she says:
I would also repeat endlessly certain phrases and images from ‘The Flower’, another Herbert poem. One of my favourites was ‘Grief melting away/like snow in May’: I wrote it out on a Post-it note and stuck it on the bathroom mirror, as I had done with key facts when revising for my history finals a decade previously at Oxford. It felt equally urgent. Two other favourite lines were ‘Who would have thought my shrivelled heart / could have recovered greenness?’ (p78)
The therapeutic power of others’ words goes further, though. As she begins to read more, including novels, she describes a kind of victorious circle that follows:
Being able to read is not just a sign of returning concentration and that you are getting better. It can actually help your recovery: reading triggers that part of the brain that governs empathy and liberates you from your own personality by connecting you to others. While I was absorbed in the dramas of Cassandra, Rose and Topaz, I was rescued from thinking only about myself. The more connected I felt to others, the more stable I felt in turn. (p101)
I have long loved fiction particularly for this precise reason.
But there were many other reasons why I valued this book so much. Here are two:
The Pains of Depression
I loathe the word depression. When Rachel started sinking, it would never have occurred to her to call it depression. So her psychiatrist needed to unpick the vocabulary.
On his next visit, Dr Fischer explained that depression is an umbrella term covering many different types of emotional or mood disorders. The term itself is misleading, as it has become commonplace to say ‘I feel depressed’ as a proxy for feeling briefly gloomy. ‘It may be easier to use the phrase ‘depressive illness’ as a way to distinguish depression from ordinary sadness,’ he said. (p59)
This is exactly what Styron was on to. One of the most perplexing aspects, though, was its physicality. There was nothing to see, and yet…
Nor had a realised the intensely physical nature of depression. As I told Dr Fischer, I had thought it was a case of lying around in a vaguely disconsolate mood and had absolutely idea that it could make you feel physically ill. Yes, he agreed, it was a common misconception. But mind and body are indissolubly linked. No human activity can be said to be wholly physical or wholly mental; all human activity, in whatever sphere, is psycho-physical. So the depression causes bodily symptoms – what doctors call somatic symptoms. (p63)
I can totally relate. At bad times, my heart races, I can’t bear to be touched, sudden noises cause panic, and I crave an undisturbed stillness to prevent exacerbating the agony. It is as if one is on hyper-alert. For far too long.
I still hurt all over, all the time. ‘But where does it hurt?’ my mother would keep asking, perplexed. I couldn’t explain. Everywhere. Even my fingernails hurt. (p46)
This is not an aspect that never gets talked about – and yet it is one of the most inexplicable and perplexing. Bear that in mind if you have friends in the pit…
The Glimmers of Hope
The real heroes of the book are Rachel’s mother and husband Sebastian, as well as other unnamed friends. But it just reinforces the need for others in the recovery process, others who can both offer practical help, but also empathy. Sympathy is not enough. It needs the kind of patent love, safety and grace that Herbert described so wonderfully in “Love (III).” To top this, is the unique hope that comes from faith, faith in the God of Love (III) – for while depression cruelly corrodes the confidences that faith offers, God is paradoxically the truest reality outside of ourselves. So her mother quotes Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9:
‘My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness,’ my mother repeated. I clung to those few paradoxical words. Words were what I knew. (p29)
So Rachel finds herself praying.
Sometimes prayers helped. There were moments when I was soothed by the act of repeating certain phrases. I am still unsure whether it was the healing power of great words that helped me, or faith itself. They say there were no atheists in the trenches and I too believed I was facing death. (p49)
In our obsessively secularised age in which medics can lose jobs for offering prayer, it is so refreshing to find someone not afraid to talk of it. Of course professional carers have a duty to be sensitive and should never impose or frighten the suffering with the spiritual. But surely, if we are integrated beings, it stands to reason that the spiritual nature of life MUST be incorporated in the healing process.
In fact, the anguish of this book is how common many of the experiences described are. Surely this alerts us to a deeper malaise, especially in the pressure on women?
My generation had been raised on a culture of self-empowerment, that with know how, medicine, and technology, problems could be solved. I could solve this problem. Why, I could write articles at high speed and edit feature pages on all matters to do with housing, homelessness and architecture and then come home and rustle up supper. I had gone back to work after Edward’s birth without trouble. I would do it all again. Surely I would. (p23)
No wonder she found it hard to become so debilitated.
At first, this dependence seemed a horrid, passive thing. I was beholden to others, relying on their charity, burdening them. The whole point of my life had hitherto been to become independent. It was the mantra of my generation: women could and did multitask, both at home and at work. (p203)
This is not so much about gender politics, I suspect, as the modernist drive for autonomy. We are wired for mutuality and inter-dependence, but we strive against it so much. Is it any wonder we get ill?
But as she recovers, she rediscovers the value of others: friends, and especially her family, and God. And the glimmers of hope are to be found on every page of Black Rainbow. And that is the best thing about it. Depression need not define nor incarcerate. But what of those who don’t know such grace, such empathetic love? What for them…?
Never has Emily Dickinson’s perfect miniature seemed more urgent:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.