Warning: this is a typical example of a depressed review.
Yesterday The Guardian UK newspaper site had an article The truth about depression: six people speak out. It promotes Underneath the Lemon Tree, a book Guardian editor Mark Rice-Oxley wrote about his own depression and recovery. I haven’t read the book: this is merely a reaction to the newspaper article that announced it.
Quote: depression “is an illness that can affect anyone, and prescriptions for antidepressants are soaring, yet depression is still badly misunderstood. Here, people talk candidly about how it changed their lives”. […] “After my own epic tussle with depression, I wanted to describe what it is really like and demonstrate that it is so much more than just feeling a bit blue on Monday mornings”.
For his book, Rice-Oxley also interviewed other people struggling with depression. The newspaper article presents six of those portraits. They are certainly touching and in many respects representative. If you are (or have been) seriously depressed yourself, you may recognize a lot in these six depression stories. But for myself, I also have to say I recognized nothing new here.
The number of published depression life stories – in magazines, books, blogs, media interviews, websites – keeps growing and growing. I’ve never felt the urge to publish my own full “depression autobiography” here in this blog, but clearly ever more people think that publishing their own depression life story will be useful. There must be tens of thousands (maybe a million) personal depression stories printed or online by now. Why? Useful to who?
The Why #1: Healing self-expression. Here, the “depression autobiography” serves mainly the author herself. Writing-down-it-all can indeed be a useful part (or final conclusion) of one’s individual healing process. Documenting and writing down your epic battle can help to gain a new self-understanding. Publishing it can help to regain some of the self-respect that had been lost in depression.
The Why #2: Supportive recognition. Here, the “depression autobiography” aims at supporting other depressed people and their family members. It wants to offer an account of recognizable events, feelings, experiences. This recognition may help others to feel they’re not alone in their depression plight, may give them hope: the hope they’ll find their way out again, just like the author did.
The Why #3: Public elucidation. Here, the “depression autobiography” aims at a wider non-depressed audience. It wants to illustrate and to bring home to them that depression is not some kind of simple mood problem or character weakness, but that it really is a serious illness that in the author’s life had devastating effects. An illness that calls for serious attention and treatment.
In The Guardian‘s presentation of Rice-Oxley’s book, the last Why is emphasized most. He wrote down his personal depression story to tell people The Truth About Depression – the Truth being that depression is worse than you might think, and should be taken more seriously as an illness.
As said before, there are thousands of books already trying to do the same thing. So let’s hope that this one will add something new, something original to the huge stack of depression autobiographies.
My own view is that people, with the best and most honorable intentions, keep trying to do something here that’s next to impossible. Maybe I’m just being in a somber, negative mood today. But I see several reasons why books like this won’t fundamentally change the public perceptions and prejudices regarding depression.
A first reason is that a very large majority of people just are not interested in depression. It will begin to interest them only after they’ve personally been confronted with it, for example after a close relative has been afflicted with a deep depression. Most people who will buy a book about depression, already know that depression is a serious thing. Most of the rest won’t be interested in the topic anyway.
A second reason is that it is very difficult to make clear to others what it actually means to be severely depressed: even for the most gifted writers, this is often hard to put into words. In my ward talks with fellow depression patients I’ve often heard people say that whatever depression books or movies they knew before, they never really understood what depression is until it happened to themselves.
A third problem is that “depression autobiographies” are by necessity nearly always written after the author has to some extent overcome her depression. As long as you’re on the verge of suicide, you won’t have the focus and energy to write about it. Put bluntly, “depression autobiographies” are not a hot-from-the-spot war report, but more distant, retrospective, perhaps less negative war memoirs. And of course such memoirs are written by the survivors among us – not by those who lost their battle.
All this means I’m pessimistic about how “depression autobiographies” can ever contribute to a more realistic view of what depression actually is – for a more general public. I think their importance will always remain limited to the authors themselves, and to a public that already is aware of the nature of depression. For them, such books may be useful, even when sometimes it looks like we keep getting more of the same.
I don’t think I’ll ever want to write a “depression autobiography” myself. But much of what I said above – about motives, use, and limited effect – evidently not just applies to autobiographical books. It applies to many, many more depression-related writings. Including a blog such as this.
• tip: Mark Rice-Oxley’s Underneath the Lemon Tree can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.