TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 October 2017
Like Sally Brampton - whose 'Shoot the Damn Dog' has some similarities to this memoir - Rachel Kelly always thought she was one of the last people likely to suffer depression. True, she'd been a sensitive and sometimes anxious child - but she'd gone on to be a successful pupil at St Paul's Girls School, to read History at Oxford, to marry a charming and wealthy banker (who I believe was a friend of David Cameron and a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, where he and Kelly met), to become a property journalist for The Times and have two beautiful sons. So when, during her second maternity leave, Kelly began one night to suddenly experience a racing heart, insomnia and feelings of panic, she wondered if it was some sort of heart trouble. It soon proved otherwise, as during the course of 24 hours Kelly found herself transformed from a happy working mother into a desperately frightened woman, unable to concentrate, weeping and in terrible physical and mental pain. She remained very ill for several months until - with the help of an excellent psychiatrist and her husband and mother's extensive caring, she appeared to gradually return to normal, to be able to care for her children again and even to return to work, and have a third child with no ill effects two years later. But, some months after the difficult birth of her fourth and fifth children (twins), Kelly began again to experience the old feelings of panic, and this time fell still deeper (in part it seems due to a course of medication which failed to work). This time, she knew she had to try to find a longer time solution to depression than medication. Could her love of poetry - coupled with counselling sessions - help her?
This is a well written book which will be very useful to readers for various reasons. First, Kelly (like Brampton) makes it absolutely clear from her courageous recounting of her own experiences that depression is not just 'feeling sad' - it's a physical illness, and often needs treating as such. Reading the book will give you a better understanding of what it is actually like to be in this horrific situation. Second, Kelly asks some interesting questions about why depression is hitting middle-class, well-educated women so hard, particularly mothers, and makes some good points about the way that women increasingly feel they must be a success in all things. Third, she offers some good tips about exercise, drinking enough water (hugely important) and diet (though if you're a depressive who likes a glass of wine with food, I might not take Kelly's suggestion about cutting out alcohol too seriously!!). Fourth, she is calm and sensible about how depression might affect the sufferer's children, showing that while it obviously does affect them, parents suffering from this disease should not feel their children are being traumatized for life. And fifth and finally, using poetry as a healing device was a great idea, and there's some lovely poems included. I think in many ways this is a useful, sensitive and well-written memoir, and I hope Rachel Kelly goes on to write more.
At the same time, I would be lying if I didn't admit that there were things in the book that did irritate me at times. Kelly is quite right that wealth doesn't exempt one from depression or even necessarily make one happier. But (like Sally Brampton in her book) I found it odd that Kelly never once mentioned how unusual her situation was in certain ways - financially if not emotionally. As the wife of a partner at Goldman Sachs Kelly didn't have any worries about getting to see a psychoanalyst, getting private hospital treatment, taking extra time off work, or managing to care for her children (like most upper-middle-class/upper-class working families, she and her husband had nannies and au pairs). Nor - unlike most parents these days - did she ever seem to have worries about the cost of rearing five children, going on holiday, hosting parties or anything else of the kind. While one wouldn't want to read a book in which the author was constantly beating themselves up at being rich, it did seem odd that Kelly didn't once acknowledge that her situation was very different in certain respects to that of most women, who if they were laid low with depression would be paralysed with terror about managing to care for their children, pay the mortgage, hold on to their jobs etc etc. Most depressives, too, don't have parents who can put everything on hold to care for them as Kelly's mother did - usually because the parents are either working too or busy with other concerns. And it is significant that, when listing her many worries (many of which those with anxiety share) Kelly never mentions worrying about money. I also slightly mischievously wonder how, as a reasonably devout Catholic, she felt about working on the property pages of a metropolitan newspaper (writing largely about houses for the super-rich, I imagine) and about having a husband who worked at the cutting edge of high finance! Kelly and her husband do seem to live (have lived) to a certain degree in a rather sheltered metropolitan bubble.
My other quibble in the end was with the use of poetry. I really enjoyed some of the poems, Kelly's obviously a sensitive and thoughtful reader, and it's made me want to revisit some old favourites and read some new authors. But the book didn't really examine reading as therapy in any depth. With a few exceptions (the wonderful use of the Auden poem, for example, and the lovely George Herbert 'Love Bade Me Welcome') there was not all that much about how exactly the poems healed Kelly, and how literature helps her now, in her calmer state of mind. A lot of the poetry writing was more along the lines of - 'I felt sad and I remembered this poem', 'I felt better and I likened my state to this poem'. I didn't feel that - for me - there was enough here about the power of literature (and not only poetry, but other literature too) to help people come to a greater understanding of life and emotion. I was also interested that Kelly didn't really draw parallels between her own state and the depression suffered by great writers (including poets) of the past. As someone who suffers periodically from extreme anxiety, I've always found it reassuring that many writers I admire have felt the same. In this book, however, I got the feeling that Kelly was more interested in how the poems could heal her (there is, at times, a sense in the book, as with Sally Brampton's but not, interestingly enough, with Joanne Limburg and Stephanie Merritt's books on the depressive condition, of the author asking with a certain amount of annoyance 'why me, it isn't fair') than in what prompted the poets to write the poems in the first place or in more general ideas about what they were expressing. But then, in a book partly about personal responses to poetry this is inevitable, I guess, so I'm probably being unfair. (Incidentally, I'm interested that so few depressives ever talk about the healing power of classical music in these sort of memoirs - it's one of the things that's really kept me going in difficult times.)
Mixed feelings then - and even more mixed feelings about the fact that the author's written a '52 steps to happiness book' (is it really that simple?) but on the whole there's a lot to admire here, and I hope Rachel Kelly continues to write and to recover.