THE BLOG

How Depression Forced Me to Seek a Balanced Life

24/04/2014 17:04 | Updated 24 June 2014

16 years ago I was a working mother and Times journalist. In three days, I went from feeling mildly anxious to being completely unable to function in a foetal curl on the floor.

I was married with two young children. My husband worked at Goldman Sachs and had just stood for parliament in the May 1997 election. We were young, professional, hard-working, prosperous, ambitious and happy - if permanently exhausted. I didn't know that this kind of depression could happen so swiftly, least of all to someone who seemed to have no right to an illness associated with unhappiness. I went from supposedly 'having it all' to 'having a breakdown'. It took me six hard months to climb back from being hospitalised to health. Drugs, prayer, my family's love, and the healing power of poetry all played their part.

I seemed to be fully recovered. I returned to the Times and the life I knew of tailored suits and the pursuit of a corner office, until I became pregnant with our third child and quit the paper. Now as aspirational in the domestic sphere as I had once been in an office, we had two more children. I pushed myself hard to be the best mother-of-five I could, as well as supportive wife and homemaker, friend, fund-raiser and hostess - and to fit into my skinny jeans and still write on occasion.

Once again my relentless pursuit of conventional measures of success led to disaster. I succumbed to a second breakdown even worse than the first as I became overwhelmed by all the different roles and challenges I had set myself: this time I was bed-ridden for more than a year.

But this time I realised I had to change.

Two breakdowns and an ongoing battle with depression and anxiety meant that the time had come to radically reassess what I understood by success. I had to face the uncomfortable truth that my own anxious, striving nature and the pressure cooker of modern life had left me seriously ill. Depression had grown deep tap roots and it was no longer obvious that I would ever be able to dislodge its insidious hold.

The last 10 years have seen me travel from the person I was to someone I believe - on good days - is very different. I've challenged my own expectations and those of society about what it means to lead a good life. I embraced therapy to try and understand my perfectionism, and have developed a more compassionate inner voice, less judging of myself and others. I practise mindfulness, support the charities SANE and United Response for all they do for those who struggle with mental health, have become an unapologetic nap-taker, and try to no longer look to others or society to approve of me. Oh, and I take time to stare at stars, smell the orange blossom in our front garden, talk to strangers and practise random acts of kindness. On one measure at least I've succeed: I rarely take antidepressants to control my anxiety. I seem finally to have the Black Dog on a tight leash.

One great satisfaction now comes from the small poetry workshops I run in prisons and churches near our home. I am passionate about sharing the healing power of poetry which over the years has proved a salve. Poets such as George Herbert and Emily Dickinson have reinvigorated my tired powers of expression and proved friends in times of need with their poems of hope and compassion. By requiring me to concentrate and unpick meaning and metaphor, they force me into the moment, stopping me from worrying about the future or regretting the past. The most rewarding moment came at a workshop last year when a Wormwood Scrubs inmate told me he had stayed up all night with the poetry anthology I co-edited for Canongate.

I hope I am facing the future as a new, good-enough person. I've learnt that pursuing worldly values of what seems to be 'success' may have devastating health consequences, at the very least bestowing a sapping permanent exhaustion. When did anyone tell you recently how rested and calm they felt?

On the good days, it seems I've learnt a lot. On others, I feel I've learnt nothing and am still the approval-seeking, driven perfectionist of old. Then I am daunted by the reality that many never recover from the devastating illness of depression. We know that it proves harder to recover from successive episodes, like the layers of paint on a watercolour which darken slightly with each successive wash.

But I cling to the words of George Herbert, the 17 century poet who wrote about his own struggles with darkness, but who in the end talked of how his 'shrivelled heart' had 'recovered greenness.' Poetry has provided many answers, not least the words when I cannot.

'Life is mostly froth and bubble
Two things stand alone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in one's own'

Such a mantra may not lead to being a newspaper editor. But I hope it will lead to a full church when, in the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, 'all our strivings cease.'

Rachel Kelly's memoir Black Rainbow: How words healed me - my journey through depression is published by Hodder & Stoughton today. Its accompanying app, also called Black Rainbow, is available for download on the Apple App Store for £1.49. All author proceeds of the book and app are being given to the charities SANE and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or go to www.black-rainbow.co.uk

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