I've been out of hospital for six months, and I'm sat in my office. The day is gloomy, overcast and drab. Surveying my bookshelves, one book stands out, Sally Brampton's Shoot the Damn Dog. Curious as to what she'd gotten up to, I googled her. The first search suggestion was "Sally Brampton death" and my heart sank. I hoped that it would be a case of a misreported death, that she wasn't truly dead. The first search results proved my hope false. She had taken her own life in May, 2016. She was sixty. The date of death stared out at me, cold and unforgiving - May 10th 2016.
I slammed my fist into the desk. I screamed expletives into the empty space. Immediately my mind was awash with egocentric questions - is my condition chronic? Will I, too, die by my own hand? How many good years of life am I going to get? Will I ever truly escape depression's grasp? Of course, these questions are all about me. But her book's an important one to me, as much a part of me as my depression has proven to be, and to see why her death prompted such a personal reaction, we must see how her book came to be so important to me.
I walked into the counselling session in my dressing gown. Dressing appropriately, if at all, had become a thing of the past. I could no longer muster the energy to shower, dress or look after myself in any meaningful way. My universities counselling services held crisis hours, and when I could get out of bed, I was a regular attendee. A mere half an hour earlier, a psychiatrist had deemed my case incurable. He declared that I was beyond help, that no NHS service could help me. I was distraught. And so I ran to the counselling session, in my dressing gown.
I assured the therapist that I used to be able to get dressed, that I wasn't playing a joke on her. She nodded ruefully. I couldn't convey the amount of pain I was in, but I told her that I studied English Literature. She recommended Brampton's book. I nodded and smirked at the futility of the suggestion. Reading, like all the other essential and quotidian rhythms of my life, was a thing of the past. I couldn't read a word. Each time I tried to read the words swam away from me, escaping the confines of the page. Reading became a futile task, each attempt at reading was like trying to decipher an alien language. I could no longer grasp the language of these people for whom joy didn't exist in the abstract. They actually enjoyed it, languished in it. They could remember what it felt like. I couldn't. Usually I would throw the book I was trying to read across the room in frustration. Despite this, I made a mental note of Brampton's book. If I survive this, I'll read it, I remember thinking to myself.
Weeks later, I was in the hospital. At the hospital I found myself unmoored. I felt scared by my surroundings. It was as though I had been dropped into a foreign country without my consent. I was confused, dejected and I was still suicidally depressed. My doctors changed my medication so many times that I lost count. Weeks passed and my mood state showed no signs of lifting. Eventually, in a reprieve from the hospitals schedule, I logged onto the hospital's computer. I quickly jumped to Amazon and ordered a copy of Sally Brampton's book, Shoot the Damn Dog.
Soon, the inconspicuous package arrived. I opened it frantically, and I set it aside on my bedside table. That night, I opened the book with some trepidation. I feared that my concentration would still prove wily, nowhere to be found. To my surprise, I could read. The words stuck, at least temporarily. I often couldn't remember what I had read the next day, but I could read. Her book proved to be one of the very few books I read from cover to cover during my admission. In retrospect I can see that Brampton's book, and my ability to read it at all, was the first indication that I might survive, that I may one day reclaim my life.
Her book performed a rare feat. It penetrated the unfathomably isolating pain of mental illness. Her writing assured me that I wasn't alone. Her writing was unblinking in its honesty and it showed a complete lack of self-pity. It lacked the jocular cheerfulness that writing on depression is often mired with. It didn't provide a false comfort. It confronted depression truthfully, in all its horror. She never looks away, and I loved that about her writing. In her writing Brampton wore her scars like a coat of arms, with a rare grace and tact. Brampton's voice was blackly comedic, poignant and above all, loud. She spoke loudly and unapologetically for those who often felt that they lacked a voice.
I didn't know Brampton personally. And yet I feel bereft. I suspect that Brampton's death has had such a seismic effect on me personally because of the manner of her death. She walked into the sea, and I too, have tried to kill myself in this way. I feel a kind of phantom grief. It's as though we're connected by a ghostly tether, by the act that we both tried. I failed in my attempts. She succeeded in hers. Brampton's death, for me, has served as a painful and stark reminder of the cruelty of depression as an illness. Depression is something that should never be underestimated. Her death has driven home the fact that depression can leap out of the bushes, and kill me at any time. Her death reminds me to be vigilant, and to appreciate the severity of depression at all times.
Her death should not overshadow the meaning of her life, and it shouldn't affect the lessons we can learn from both her life and her writing. Brampton confronted mental illness with a verve, humour and an unremitting honesty that I've scarcely seen since. Raymond Carver once said that "all we have, finally, [are] the words, and they had better be the right ones." Sally Brampton chose the right words, the important words. Her words fought against what she called the "damaging ignorance" that did, and still does, surround depression. Her writing inspires us to use the right words. By using the right words, we can continue the conversation on mental illness that Sally Brampton so urgently started.