I decided to write a memoir about my own experience of debilitating depression because I felt that I had something to say that might help someone. Although I was desperately ill, had suffered two major depressive episodes and been hospitalised, I did recover. I now consider myself well, and wanted to share what I had learnt about keeping my Black Dog, as Winston Churchill famously called his depression, on a tight leash.
I’ve always loved writing – as a child I wrote endless letters and diaries and as an adult I became a journalist at The Times. It was natural then, that when I suffered severe depression I should try to process and make sense of the experience by writing about it.
At first this took the form of emails to friends. I love consoling poems so I would send a friend a poem that might lift their spirits in dark moments. I would also share what I myself was going through.
The idea of writing a memoir grew from there. Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in April 2014. Based on diary entries, letters and emails that I wrote at the time, it describes the experience of being terribly ill.
In many ways, this desire to create, this urge to produce art from pain, seems to be one of the sanest and most understandable of human impulses. For me, writing about my experiences was therapeutic.
I also was hugely cheered by the reaction to the book. After Black Rainbow came out, it seemed as if I had given permission for others like me to come forward and talk about their own experiences of depression. Seeing the stigma that existed surrounding mental illness and wanting to break it down encouraged me to start campaigning for change. I became an Ambassador for the mental health charity SANE, and vice-president of United Response.
In the course of talking about my experiences, the same question kept coming up. Yes, you’ve been very ill, but you now seem fine. How did you manage to recover? The result has been my second book. Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness was published by Short Books in November 2015 and concentrates on ways to stay well.
This book is based on a diary of my year and is a compilation of fifty-two sanity-saving tools that I have come to use in my own day-to-day life. They are little bits of wisdom, strategies for both body and mind which help keep me well. All of them are do-able and evidence based.
Some of my ideas come from giving talks and running workshops for mental health charities, schools, universities and businesses on how to stay resilient and cheerful. I would like to thank all those who shared their own recipes for good mental health.
Writing this second book was joyful. While writing Black Rainbow I had to summon the courage to return to a very dark time in my life and overcome my fear that writing about the reality of depression might in some way trigger a relapse. Walking on Sunshine, however, focused on positive practises I had gathered together using a weekly diary of my year. This time I didn’t need to interview my family to remind myself about what had happened, as I had done with Black Rainbow, nor revisit memories that were often painful.
Throughout the process I was invigorated by the sense that some of the ideas I was sharing could be of value to my readers. So exciting was this thought that I felt I needed to manage my expectations. But every now and then my hope popped out like sun from behind a cloud, and I would secretly smile to myself.
I truly believe that everyone needs to put together a toolbox of strategies that works specifically for them; that compliments their preferences and temperament. As I said, I tend to cherry-pick from a variety of approaches – many of them highly personal – and I would encourage my readers to do the same. I think it’s important, in the pursuit of happiness and calm, to connect more deeply with ourselves, rather than attempting to be like anyone else.
Take my love of poetry, for example. I am consoled and calmed by verse, but I’m very aware that the healing power of words isn’t for everyone. Others may find the visual arts more appealing, or music. However eccentric your own path to contentment may seem to others, it doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.
I’m keen to write more books, always with the idea that they might be of use to others. Even if just one reader writes to tell me that I’ve shared something helpful, I will continue to walk on sunshine.
Educated at Oxford University, Rachel Kelly began her career at Vogue and went on to spend ten years as a journalist at The Times. She is the co-editor of iF: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility (Canongate, 2012) and the creator of two poetry apps. Rachel gives talks and runs workshops across the country on the therapeutic value of the arts.
Her memoir Black Rainbow (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) on the healing power of the written word was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Best First Book prize at the Spear’s Book Awards. All author proceeds from the book were donated to mental health charities – Rachel is an ambassador for SANE and Vice President of United Response and campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon.
For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net