In I Was Here, those people are Cody, a young woman drowning in the undertow of grief, anger and guilt following the suicide of her best friend, and Meg, that best friend, who is already gone by the time you open the book. If you’d asked me what the book was about when I was writing it, I’d have said resilience, power, and most of all, forgiveness.
It is also a book that starts with a suicide, and that automatically makes it a book about depression. It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of people who take their own lives suffered from a mental health disorder at the time of their deaths, with depression being the most common. Suicide is so final that we often diagnose it as the end stop, but really it’s a side-effect of another illness that has gone untreated.
And far too often depression goes untreated. If you come down with pneumonia, you take antibiotics. But with depression, nothing is quite so straightforward. We’ve come a long way in shedding the stigma attached to mental illness, but the idea that depression is made up, that it’s a sign of mental weakness and that if sufferers were determined enough they’d get over it still lingers.
You can’t cure pneumonia with good thoughts. The same holds for depression, which is classified as a mental disorder, although it is actually a physiological illness. It’s caused by an imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters and, researchers now suspect, inflammation elsewhere in the body. Its symptoms – exhaustion, insomnia, headaches – are physical, real and often severe. Thankfully, like pneumonia, depression is very treatable, through a combination of mood-stabilizing drugs and therapy, but treatment only works if you give it a go.
That’s what makes depression such a nasty disease. There are treatments out there, but often the shame of having depression keeps you from getting help. Or kneecaps the help you do get.
I’ve never suffered from clinical depression – nonstop anxiety is more my jam – but while I was writing I Was Here, I witnessed two of my closest friends go through Major Depressions. (I’m adding major and using upper-case letters to differentiate between the sadness and blues we all feel and call depression, and the major clinical episodes these friends went through. This linguistic confusion further minimises the seriousness of Major Depression.) I watched my friends fight a war on two fronts: forcing themselves out of bed each day to see therapists, exercise, or get their drug dosages tweaked, while at the same time beating themselves up for being depressed in the first place.
This shame, which was a part of their disease, whispered lies in their ears. It told them how weak they were, how unworthy, how inferior, how damaged, how if they were made of better stuff, they wouldn’t be like this, how they were letting everyone down. This shame made them beat themselves bloody with one hand, and tenderly clean up the mess with the other.
My friends did all the right things – drugs, therapy, exercise – but it wasn’t until they took on the shame that their darkness began to lift. Each of them opened up in very public ways about what they were going through. (You can read about that here and here.) When they did, they were both greeted with overwhelming compassion and support, and perhaps most importantly, a huge chorus of Me, too. I suffer from this. They weren’t alone. They had millions of people on their side. And by telling their stories, they offered comfort and aid to so many people.
Since I Was Here first came out, I’ve met some of those millions. On tour, via email and on social media, I’ve been hearing a chorus of Me, too. I also suffer from this. I also hide it. Suicide will always be mysterious; the victim and the perpetrator go down together. But we can remove some of the shroud around depression and mental illness by talking about it openly, by not hiding away in shame.
So perhaps in the end I did write an issues book. But if it offers some comfort to anyone who is dealing with a rough situation, and shows people that they’re not alone, well, I’m OK with that.