Sometimes the pages of a particular book seem to morph into hands that take hold of your lungs and squeeze so hard it feels like you can barely breathe. “The Devil Within,” by Stephanie Merritt, holds just that much longer, so that by the end you are gasping for metaphorical air.
“Depressed people are hard to love and require extraordinary patience, just as sometimes it seems impossible to love and be loved from inside the darkest heart of depression. Depression is the loneliest place on earth; no one can reach you there, when you most need to be reached, and even the most steadfast, unswerving love of family and friends must remain an abstract knowledge until you emerge enough to feel again. To believe that life – your life – matters, that what you have to offer is worthwhile, when you are least able to feel it, requires nothing less than faith.”
For anyone that has the lingering friend of depression (in any of its forms), this is a book you will want to read if you have ever felt like nobody understands what you are going through. Stephanie has experienced the full spectrum of bipolar disorder and all its co-morbidities – depression, mania, substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide ideation.
“Once, in a lecture on Sylvia Plath, I heard Germaine Greer use a phrase that burned like neon: Plath, Greer said, ‘carried suicide with her like a coin in her pocket she was waiting to spend.”
Stephanie, like so many of us, carries that coin in her pocket too. She shares details of her life which further added to her dark experiences – a childhood marked with bullying, a heavily religious upbringing that insisted that her illness was of demonic origin, post-natal depression after the birth of her son, and numerous relationship difficulties.
In many ways it was like reading my own biography. It also had the uncanny ability to smile and wink at me, saying “Yeah, I know what you’re going through, girl.”
“I was capable of a fury that could catch light in an instant; this was a reflex reaction that bypassed sense, humility or the dues of friendship. People didn’t know what to do with you then; you have crossed over from being lively, spirited, wild, all those words people use to suggest someone who is fun to be around at parties, to being frightening, inappropriate, disturbing. I went on hurtling through my life at this pace for a year or so, somehow effecting a plausible contribution to my job, though nights often ended with just enough time to make it home, shower and scramble into the office again; often I managed weeks on hardly any sleep, and then when I nosedived, as I always did, I would squirrel myself away in the dark of my room and become invisible, and so since I was only ever seen by others when I was out and flying, everyone thought that this was who I always was.”
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending, but more an acceptance of the lifelong struggle with depression. One that you can never say you are “free” of, even if you have had no symptoms for years. Perhaps that is the toughest hurdle for us to jump over – accepting our diagnosis instead of shying away from it, and learning to see the silver lining to our sometimes exceptionally black cloud.
“Fry himself, despite confessions of suicidal urges and terrible desolation, ends the film by saying, “I wouldn’t have a normal life for all the tea in China.” – referring to Stephen Fry and the documentary, ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.’
There is a strong thread of hope that is sewn through the text, just like there will always be a lifeline of that same hope for anyone who seeks help. Stephanie speaks of various types of therapy she tried, some with remarkable success such as CBT. She also talks about nutritional therapy in conjunction with medication. This is of particular interest to me as I have personally found that adding just a few supplements to my diet has had a drastic effect on my moods. There will always be something else to try, someone else who can support you, one more website to visit, another book to read. Just like Stephanie chose over and over again to not take her life, we need to believe that between the storms we will have occasional beautiful and happy days, and for these alone we can go on too.
“You can never know the ripple effect of your own life. If there is one thing I wish I could have said to my friend Henry, had I been given the chance, it is this: believe that it matters. The smallest thing, whether for yourself or someone else. When you least feel able to make the effort, do it anyway: walk to the shop and buy some flowers for your kitchen table, even if you feel that every step is going to finish you. Write a letter for Amnesty. Send an email to a friend just to see how they are. Rent a film you love. Remind yourself that there is beauty in the world. Keep bothering. Keep going as if it matters, and trust that one day it will begin to feel like it again.”
About the author:
Stephanie Merritt was born in 1974 and in addition to this memoir has penned six novels, four of which are under the pseudonym, S.J. Parris. As most writers also need a day job, she is currently a journalist for the Observer and the Guardian.
Published in 2008 by Vermilion (Ebury Publishing – Random House)
Format: Hard cover
Cost: Approx R300 (depending on retailer)
Blog post by Stephanie Merritt – How I battled to love my son through post-natal depression