Shoot the Damn Dog
Sally Brampton inspired me to begin writing, however my writing was detached from my experience, an escapism of sorts. Now, once again she has inspired me to write but this time, from the heart.
Like many others scrolling down their social media feed, a headshot of a celebrated person results in what I imagine to be a collective stomach tighten as the well known figures of 2016 death toll rises more and more with what feels like each passing day.
With Prince, Bowie, Wood, Daniels and Rickman in amongst too many, many, more, my heart temporarily suspended a beat or two. I exhaled a painful breath of sadness that the greats of my childhood and my parents and their parents were dying, wave upon wave of exceptional irreplaceable super talent.
When I saw the headshot of one of if not the most inspirational poster-women for mental health in since perhaps Sylvia Plath, pop up on my newsfeed, it wasn’t with disbelief and momentary shock, but with a thudding heaviness of inevitability of what I would read next. I knew instantly what had happened, I knew she had taken her life.
Sally Brampton wasn’t on my radar for the high profile editorial positions and Journalism accomplishments she is famed for. I just wandered into Waterstones on a drizzly November afternoon with glassy eyes and a stooped, tired- of -this -life gait looking for a mindfulness CD because I heard it might cure me.
When depression struck me like Zeus directing his trident through the clouds, seemingly out of the blue, I wondered if anyone ever made it out the other side alive. The sudden onslaught of pain was very real to me and sent me into a spiral of fear-casting, caught somewhere between the past and a future unknown. Physically, mentally, emotionally, depression tripped my circuit by what felt like a plume of black smog enveloping my mind, gripping my chest as though i’d snorted ten shots of espresso in the Starbucks toilets.
For me personally, I felt Sally on a spiritual level, really got me, or rather, I got her.
The book became my crutch because in amongst those pages was a friend who understood. I gripped it tight, with white knuckles as I buckled beneath the pain of simply taking a breath in. Gazing up at the muddy sky in the smoking garden of Ward 9, chain smoking and praying to a God I didn’t even know for sure existed let alone was listening, self flagellating, my inner voice was in full on bitch mode, I repeated 'Please show me a sign, please help me' again and again mantra style. Strangely, I felt sure I wouldn't be defeated - after all Sally had gripped walls, complained of the ‘throat monster’ and mourned the demise of her former self yet bounced back, albeit with a formidable inner strength or at least that’s what she told both herself and us. Perhaps at times she did?
I devoured each page, through tears, through a poker face, through a brain immersed in fog, through whatever my anxious brain threw at me, and I felt connected to her - something so difficult for those suffering with depression to achieve. Sometimes, I even felt like it would be OK. I might be normal again (whatever that is!) And of course, it was. Like Sally knew though, depression can and does come back. And the merry go round of treatments, allopathic and alternative ensues.
But then with depression, there’s fifty shades of grey. One shade intolerable by one, forty three shades down and another is surviving. Meds work wonders for some and make others ten times worse - sometimes either or ends a life or brings one back to life - trial and error can make or break a person and oh! What a trial to endure!
My breakdown saw me bleak, afraid and wracked with anxiety. I was 25 years old living in London, about to lose my job in the crippling recession. I ate credit crunch for breakfast. A relationship dear to me had failed in the atypical fashion preferred in our post modern detached way - via a text message on route to aforementioned job, the morning of my redundancy.
The GP prescribed pills and I had a very rare but potentially fatal reaction that resulted in being hospitalised (voluntarily I may add, ‘would you like a little rest?’) and a fortnight later I left.
Depression is still shrouded in shame, jokes are still made about nutters, nut jobs, loony bins, crazies and the standard response to an ex partners behaviour is often a defamatory ‘she’s crazy.’ Certainly, it is one of the only illnesses that can be used against you by those who used to love you, in order to degrade, dehumanise and humiliate, quite simply because it still has the kind of effect that is divisive in terms of how people view it and more importantly you.
We have such a long way to go before people stop comparing depression and its systemic obliteration of who we are, that perception of this illness could garner acceptance and support without prejudice. We still make sweeping judgements about a person based on their mental health struggles. This needs to stop.
Sally Brampton inspired me to write. She gave me a glimmer of hope when I lost that job followed hours later by my relationship. She made me feel somewhat human and hopeful, even when i had to leave the room in my shared house due to not finances, but because the atmosphere was intolerable. It was as though I had the bubonic plague and might very well infect everyone in my orbit, or at least the shared kitchen, and so I left for a hostel in Whitechapel.
Ironically it was my turning point because when I got to the end of my rope, I tied a knot and hung onto it.
Cleaning my teeth in the sink at work because there were ten people to one bathroom in a pokey high rise hostel, six girls to a room, and trying to keep myself from de-fragmenting in my new temp job, I put on my happy face and got on with it. People experiencing a depressive phase in their life can be super high functioning too.
I read ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’ and I cried with Sally, I cheered her on, and afterwards, throughout the last eight years, I followed her career, feeling that familiar tug at my heartstrings for the journey she unknowingly took with me in an East London psychiatric hospital.
I had always written stories, blogs, poetry and music. But my episodical experience of the black dog capped my potential. I felt ashamed to have been in hospital, to have not coped, and I was too afraid to talk to anyone because of my housemates horrendous reaction. So on went the mask. But also, her book captivated me to the point that I thought to hell with it. The eponymous snow day in London, a time when our transport system ground to a halt uncharacteristically as even though out the Blitz we still had access to transport apparently, those of us who could, trudged in the snow to work and I used this as an opportunity to pitch that book, for which I must thank that odious ex because the opening paragraph of my comedy fiction novel begins with the main protagonist being dumped via a text message.
I printed off copies of my novel and sent them to agents. Three responded. One took me on and by Easter, only six months post breakdown I had a publishing deal with Penguin on only twenty pages.
I have always thought of Sally, and how despite her demons, she was a wildly successful, charismatic and talented writer who achieved so much more than I can ever dream of. But I know that she helped me to achieve mine too. From Twitter and other social media platforms, I know I’m not alone in holding Sally close and probably not alone in feeling an acute sense of ‘it could have been me.’
In the last eight years I have walked the black dog for short periods and longer runs, occasionally he has bedded down with me for a little longer than I would have liked. The black dog can push me further on to defy his rambunctiousness and boundless enthusiasm for wearing me out. In a macabre twist he can prove fruitful - great songs, poetry, music and love affairs have ebbed and flowed under its edgy influence, and at times has been a comfortable ill, a familiar old friend. Still, I hope that throughout my life, when rather than if I experience its wrath again, I can find a way to accept its presence knowing that it’s temporary - mainly because I've never really liked dogs.