Susan Calman – Cheer Up Love

If you like your memoirs about depression lightly done, without lots of heavy anguish, and laced with a few jokes and funny stories, then Cheer Up Love is for you. Which is not to say that it skirts the problems of depression – far from it. For Susan Calman has had a history of depression since childhood, including periods of self-harming. Her memoir is particularly useful for anyone who knows a depressed child or adolescent.

Inevitably this memoir deals with Calman’s childhood and the interaction of inheritance, up-bringing and school experiences, but this is not a learned discussion of the … Read more...

Matthew Johnstone – I Had a Black Dog

In 33 illustrations, and minimal text, Matthew Johnstone communicates the sense of what it is to have depression. This is a narrative with few words, but it gives a profound insight – one that resonates with those who have had depression, and can help hugely those living with someone who is suffering its blackness.
How does it do it? Using Winston Churchill’s metaphor of the black dog, Johnstone powerfully represents the physical presence that is depression. He captures the facial expressions, postures, and inertia that are the essence of the hopeless loneliness in a depressive dead-end. Apart from those aging, … Read more...

Sally Brampton – Shoot the damn dog

Shoot the Damn Dog is a detailed and graphic memoir of Sally Brampton’s experience of depression in 2000-3, made all the more painful for her regular readers by the fact of her subsequent suicide in 2016. She was quite some writer. I used to enjoy her responses to reader’s letters for the Sunday Times. Later, when I felt low, I read this memoir, and even in my unfeeling state was moved terribly by her description of her own wretchedness, of her struggles with alcohol, of her suicide attempts, and her divided mind which commented cruelly on her own ‘weakness’.

Sally’s … Read more...

Richard Mabey – Nature Cure

Recovery from a depressive episode is a personal journey, and all such recoveries will vary in both pace and particulars. Often the recovery will require a separation from the threat that was exhausting the mind-body prior to the depression, a separation that enables recovery and recharging of batteries – Sacks’ ‘vegetative retreat’. Richard Mabey’s memoir, Nature Cure, lingers very little on what depression felt like to him, and focusses instead on his first year of living in East Anglia, and the way that engagement with the natural world helped him to recover a sense of self, and of belonging to … Read more...

Matt Haig – Reasons to Stay Alive

Matt Haig’s book about his experience of depression is the one I would recommend to any younger person with a depressive illness. (Depressive-suicide is the biggest killer of young men in this age-group.) There are a number of reasons for my opinion. It is constructed in a short chapter format, in approachable prose that makes it easy to read, to put down and to pick up again. It uses vivid metaphors and images that communicate a difficult subject clearly. For example, the image of the ‘bank of bad days’ spoke strongly to me – bad days that have been survived … Read more...

Stuart Sutherland – Breakdown

The first (shorter) half of this book is a riveting account of the author’s depressive episode, his anxiety and his manic depression, whereas the second half is a more conventional discussion (from his experience as a psychologist) of the therapies available, including the background, speaking therapies and drugs. Originally written in 1974 (about 3 years after the first episode), the account is supplemented by updates in 1987 and 1997, giving the reader a perspective which was obviously not available to Sutherland when he wrote his first account, while also giving the immediacy of the original version. Sexual jealousy of his … Read more...

Guy Wint – The Third Killer: Meditations on a Stroke

Although somewhat of a period piece Guy Wint’s Meditations on a Stroke are well worth a read. This collection of musings are beautifully written, as befits the journalist author, but perhaps surprising in one who had severe aphasia following his CVA. They were written some time after the events they describe, like so many memoirs, but there is an air of truth, for example in Wint’s description of his weariness and aversion to effort in the stroke’s aftermath. Not all of this book will be relevant to some readers and can be omitted: the chapter on Indian diplomat K.M.Pannikar, and … Read more...

William Styron – Darkness Visible

This slim text, only 84 pages in the paperback Picador edition, is an eloquent description by an American novelist of his experience of depression in 1985-6, and his subsequent gradual emergence from the darkness. The account of the ‘storm’ that brought William Styron into an acute psychiatric ward in December 1985 was first published in 1989, first as a lecture and then as an article in Vanity Fair. In part he seems to be responding to recent public reactions to suicides, among others that of Primo Levi, novelist and survivor of Auschwitz, in 1987. As someone who got to … Read more...

Stephen Fry – The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive

This documentary is part-confessional, and part-documentary, including filming of Stephen Fry at places associated with critical moments of his life – his school, the theatre where he had his breakdown, the garage where he attempted to commit suicide, a recreation of his flight overseas afterwards, and the story of his treatment. In between these filmed confessionals there are important sections about the nature of manic depression and interviews with researchers at Cardiff and Aberdeen Universities, and visits to an acute psychiatric unit and interviews with other people with bipolar ‘disorder’.

There is a very important discussion on the merits and … Read more...

Gwyneth Lewis – Sunbathing In The Rain

Gwyneth Lewis’ book about her experience of depression is in sharp contrast to those of William Styron or Stuart Sutherland. It is longer than both of the others but in smaller bite-sized chunks of reminiscence or description, or suggested rules for the depressed, or guidelines for carers, all interspersed with bizarre newspaper stories, and quotations from authors ranging from Kirkegaard to Lewis Carroll. Running through it all is a positive thought that may not be shared by all who have experienced depression. This thought is that her depression came out of an internal contradiction within her original way of life, … Read more...