Rosalie Warren a pen name. The writer behind (or beside) Rosalie took early retirement from an academic career in cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence and hasn’t looked back. She writes for all ages and is a member of the Authors Electric online Collective.
Depression, books and me
I’ve suffered most of my life from chronic, recurrent depression. Although I now consider myself something of an expert in my own treatment, an attack can still sometimes take me by surprise and lay me low. And, once slain by the monster, there’s little I can do other than take my prescribed medication and wait. Thankfully, I know the tablets will work, and for me they normally work within a few days or even hours (the placebo effect, most likely, but who cares?)
I also have a favourite book I turn to, every time it strikes. (I’m very lucky that, when depressed, I can still read). It’s by the American novelist William Styron, himself a sufferer from depression, and it’s called Darkness Visible. He wrote it as a memoir of his first experience of depression. It’s powerful stuff. It’s beautifully written, as you might expect if you know his novels, which include Sophie’s Choice and Lie Down in Darkness. But what I love about it, and why I find it such a lifeline, is the fact that Styron is open, honest and articulate about what being depressed feels like and how it makes him behave. His experience is similar to mine in some ways, different in others – but that doesn’t matter. There’s enough there to give me that ‘I’m not the only one’ feeling, which is what I need most urgently when depressed.
Of course, my loved ones help me, too, especially my beloved partner, Paul. But there’s something about that book that makes me grab it like a comfort blanket when I start to go down. I hug it, I trace the raised lettering on its cover. I have a first edition hardback in my collection, but it’s the battered paperback that offers me shelter from the storm of my mental illness, whenever it assails me.
I’m fascinated by the human brain in all its aspects. I studied Cognitive Science (the science of thinking, believing and reasoning) but, given my time again, I think I would try to be a neuroscientist. I would love to know what’s happening inside my brain when I get depressed (or when I recover) and how similar or different it is to what happens in the brains of others. I would also love to know (in detail) what happens in our brains when we write – when we create characters and enter their worlds.
I haven’t yet written a novel that is, strictly speaking, ‘about’ depression. My first book, Charity’s Child, is about the relationship between two teenage girls who are finding life tough for a number of reasons. It addresses self-harm, as well as other rather harrowing issues I don’t want to mention because of giving away the plot. My novel for younger readers, Coping with Chloe, is the tale of Anna, who has lost her twin sister yet persists in believing she is still around. It’s really a story about grief. And my latest to be published, Alexa’s Song, is narrated by Jake, who has bipolar disorder. I think I felt able to tackle this condition because it’s distinct from, although related to, depression. The fact that Jake is male also helped me to distance myself. None of the ‘major’ experiences of my characters are based on my own life. Some of the feelings, yes – but what happens to these people is entirely made up. I’ve also written a novella, not yet published, about an elderly woman who has Alzheimer’s disease.
So why do I feel hesitant about tackling the subject of depression head on, and writing about someone whose experiences are close to mine? Maybe it’s fear. Perhaps I’m afraid of triggering off a depressive episode, though as far as I know, my writing has never done this.
To be honest, I think the main reason is shame. Yes, I know. A shameful admission, because I know that depression is an illness and nothing more to be ashamed than having backache or asthma. That’s one reason I admire William Styron so much, for being so honest about his own mental state.
Why, then, shame? Why would anyone feel ashamed of being depressed? Society, of course – the culture in which many of us live, where mental illness is still, in 2012, associated with stigma. I hope the stigma will die out with my generation, but I fear it will not. The reasons are too complex to try to analyse here. But if we, the sufferers (or some of us) feel ashamed of our condition, what hope is there that the rest of society will treat us with respect?
I tried hard to hide my depression from my parents, especially from my father, who I believed would not ‘understand’. I told myself I didn’t want to worry him. Now he’s dead and I have no excuse, if I ever had one.
I’m not ashamed of my bad back – given the opportunity I will happily bore people with it for hours. And, true enough, I’m usually willing to talk about my depression to close friends or anyone I think it might help. However, to come out to the world at large and admit to being sufferer from depression is a bit different.
But here goes. It’s what I am and, for whatever reason, it’s part of me. I have a suspicion that the ‘bit’ of me that writes and the bit of me that gets depressed are closely related, if not identical twins. So, let me say right here that I’m proud of who I am, including my disability.
My novels aren’t morbid accounts of suffering. I believe that there’s humour to be found in mental health conditions, as well as suffering and pain. There’s also exasperation, inspiration and a deep sense of solidarity in being frail humans who evolved to suit conditions very different from the ones we face today.
I hope you like my books.
NEW REVIEW: ALEXA’S SONG By Rosalie Warren
Told from the first person narrative stance of Jake a thirty something man whose life is defined by his bipolar disorder (that’s manic depression in old money), this novel at first seems a fairly ‘light’ and familiar love triangle story. But it lulls you into a false sense of security. Largely told through dialogue the story develops and retains an immediacy which is sometimes extreme, sometimes exhausting and sometimes just plain moving.
Through Jake’s narrative stance we get into the guts of the extreme moods and mindsets of depression and mania. The strength of the writing is that we see both of these states clearly and distinctly. When Jake is ‘depressed’ the prose is lifeless and dull (not in a bad way) and one feels the boredom and lack of engagement with the world around him. The onset of paranoia and the fact that he is riddled with guilt and self-loathing is quite palpable and at times ‘depressing’ in the commonly understood parlance of the word.
When Jake is manic the prose is exhausting as we race with him through his burgeoning creativity, forging hyper-connections with the world around him and revealing the mismatch of pacing between his inner self and the world around him. It seems that in his mania he comes most truly ‘alive’ but there is no internal self regulating mechanism which allows him to set a boundary of emotion. He is torn, turn and turn about, between emotional extremes and the strength of the novel is that the reader is pulled along with him on his journey.
Such a life is truly exhausting. And of course it’s possible to ‘contain’ the extremes through medication. Jake has repeated stays in hospital and struggles through the entire novel to ‘balance’ his life and the drugs. This novel is a very good explanation of why people with bipolar might decide to reduce and ‘give up’ their medication. The ‘reasoning’ behind the decisions and the staged ‘withdrawal’ and its consequences from within the mind are fascinating and compelling.
Jake believes that his creativity is impaired by the ‘meds.’ He believes he works better when he’s not on the medication and that fundamentally the drugs he takes work to bring him not just in line with the rest of the world’s vision of ‘normality’ but to remove something of his individual spirit and core personality. He believes his painting is better without the drugs. Some other characters disagree, but some agree with him. His paintings are unique expressions and at times cannot be understood by everyone – especially those without personal experience of, for example, depression or mania. But drugs don’t provide all the answers. This novel shows that Jake is not the only messed up person in the world and that love and friendship are at least as important as drugs and ‘managing’ of conditions.
Through the novel we witness, first hand, Jake hurtling through manic episodes, featuring promiscuity, risky behaviour, wild spending and the feeling of being super human. We know he will ‘crash and burn.’ He knows it too, but sometimes, sometimes he just doesn’t care. He has to be his creative self. And all too soon he’s reduced again to the guilt ridden, paranoid and depressed person who cannot see the point of existence. It’s impossible to think that one state is ‘better’ than the other and to have to contend with both of these states as a regular part of one’s personality must be absolutely devastating. The novel doesn’t presume at answers, it’s just showing and telling in its purest form.
The other characters in the novel, both those termed ‘normal’ and those ‘afflicted’ by mental ill health all have their own demons to battle. Everyone is touched by trauma of one kind or another and this trauma leads to mental battles. There are no quick fix solutions in this poignant story but it allows the reader to gain insight into the mind of someone who might otherwise be dismissed as ‘ill’ and considered ‘scary’. There is vulnerability in spades here and it’s Jake who is the most vulnerable character of all. That’s worth remembering. And drugs don’t treat vulnerability. This is a brave story. Bravely told.
You can buy the ebook of Alexa’s Song from Amazon
Other work by Rosalie Warren is also available.
Coping with Chloe Amazon UK How do you stop your twin stealing your life? Told through the eyes and mind of 12-year-old Anna, this is a powerful novel exploring teenage life and the grieving process.
Charity’s Child Age: 14+ (including adult) Amazon UK A Virgin Birth? It’s 1984 and Charity Baker, aged 16, is pregnant. Who is the father of her child?