Back in the days when I had regular visits from the Black Dog – the phrase Churchill used to describe his occasional bouts of depression – what really pigged me off was the lack of any objective reason for it all. If I had been in chronic pain, or unjustly imprisoned, you could understand it, but I faced nothing like that. In fact one of the worst bouts came when, on any rational basis, I appeared to have everything I had ever wanted. It is called, I am told, ‘endogenous depression’. Depression without any apparent cause.
Alan Garner, in a brilliant essay on the subject, describes how he was overcome one day by ‘the blankness of me and the blankness of the world’ and then spent two years, twelve hours a day, lying curled up on the settle in his kitchen, unable to do… anything. I remember my sense of guilty relief on reading that. How reassuring it was to know that others had been through something even worse than my own experience, and yet survived.
A lot of people go through life without ever meeting the Black Dog, but many of us get to know him all too well. It can start at an early age and is, I am told, affecting an increasing number of children in today’s pressured society. Not that I’d want to use it as a topic in any of my books of course, any more than Alan Garner did. I mean… who’d want to read a book about being depressed?
And then, to my considerable surprise, this was exactly what turned out to be a theme in Jessica’s Ghost. I hope that doesn’t put anyone off, because it’s not as grim as it sounds. If all I had done was express the thought that life can be a bit of a bugger at times, my story would not have been one I wanted to read myself. But, fortunately, my characters were smart enough to find a way out of the abyss and the book is mostly about how they did it.
You don’t have to be an expert on mental health to know there are no slick and easy answers to the problem of depression, but there do seem to be a few consistent signposts to the rescue ladder. One of them is the power of loving friendship. Alan Garner describes how his children would gently stroke the back of his neck as they passed through the kitchen. In my case, the rock on which I rested was my wife. With the young people in my story it’s the support they give each other because they’ve all been to the same dark places and know what it’s like.
It also helps to know that the clouds will not last forever. This may be difficult to believe at the time, but moods are like the weather and the sunshine will one day return. As it did for me. And as it did for Alan Garner, who woke one day to find his depression had vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived. And that is what he reminds himself, when he hears the ‘tinkle of ice bergs’ heralding its possible return. That the mood will pass.
It’s important to remember that.
It will pass.
Andrew Norriss is the author of Jessica’s Ghost, which is published by David Fickling Books and is out now