Rachel Kelly, a respected former journalist on the Times, might seem the most blessed of women: five children, marriage to the banker Sebastian Grigg and a large house in Notting Hill. However, soon after her second child was born she suffered a breakdown of a most acute kind.
Terrified, and in such distress that all she could keep saying over and over was ‘I’m going to crash,’ her account of her illness is harrowing to read. It follows the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s recent description of her post-natal depression, Black Milk, Stephanie Merritt’s 2008 memoir The Devil Within and Andrew Solomon’s masterly The Noonday Demon. All follow a particular pattern, of an outwardly successful individual who sinks through the surface tension of the ordinary world into a sea of monsters.
Kelly’s description of her body’s responses bring home how dreadful depression is. ‘Like any other organ in your body, your brain can go wrong,’ she puts it. She went into the flight or fight response previously experienced during an ill-fated plane journey to Dubai (hence her screams that she was ‘going to crash’), only the response went on, unremittingly and exhaustingly, day after day. Paralysed by terror, she was lucky insofar as she had the best kind of backup in the form of a remarkable husband and mother, a nanny and a family doctor whom she trusted. Prozac and Seroxat were prescribed, unsuccessfully. Burning with ‘an agony more powerful than love’, she was hospitalised as a serious suicide risk.
Kelly writes with honesty, lucidity and directness about an experience which her heroic husband, in the afterword, describes as a ‘car crash’. What makes her memoir unusual is that she not only went on to have three more children but that she found succour and healing through poetry. It would have been good to have had more analysis of especially helpful poems, but many who have been through dark times have discovered the almost magical power of repeating certain words.
New drugs were prescribed, and over the summer of 1997 she began to notice colour again. Music, religion and art allowed her to feel emotions which the struggle to survive had almost obliterated, but it was poetry above all which led her back. The author had often sent friends in distress poems which had helped her; now it was her own turn to seek poetic consolation. Michael Gove might hand out this memoir to angry teachers, for it confirms what we always suspected: the right poem can penetrate a ‘heart that seemed as unfeeling as stone’.
The discovery eventually led to co-editing the excellent If: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility (Canongate), and to training as a counsellor. She resigned aged 33 from the Times and said goodbye to her nanny, only to find herself pregnant again, with twins. The dark shadow returned, at the height of the family’s famous annual Christmas party. This time, the pills did not work, devouring all that was good in her life for many weary years.
There are no biological tests for depression, although any major life change makes you vulnerable, especially if you have had the ‘stiff upper lip’ kind of upbringing typical of parents who themselves grew up in the postwar years. Her poignant book ends with much good, practical advice and all proceeds from the book go to the charities United Response and Sane. Clinical depression is excruciating, and no amount of privilege can protect you. How those without exceptional levels ofsupport survive, or not, is dreadful to contemplate.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Amanda Craig is the author of A Vicious Circle, In a Dark Wood and Hearts and Minds.