The darkness beyond language

A novelist's account of depression and the struggle to find words to describe it.

I had heard people use the phrase “hard to put into words” before, but it had never carried much weight with me. I knew that if you thought about something long and hard, you could always find the right words. Even as a child, I defined myself through my relationship with language. I’d been writing stories since I was very young with a kind of self-aggrandizing fervour, and liked to tell people I was going to be a writer one day. Ostentatiously, I carried a notebook with me wherever I went. If something seemed difficult to describe, well then, I enjoyed the challenge.

When I was seventeen I began to get ill. Then words failed me. I couldn’t articulate what was wrong, so I couldn’t ask for help. By the time I turned eighteen, I was very unwell, in the grip of something I couldn’t name and couldn’t explain. Depression became, for me, the darkness beyond language.

I spent years after I was better trying to get a handle on what had happened. I wanted to find a way of describing the feeling of depression, as if in apology to my teenage self who had been rendered, to all intents and purposes, speechless by the experience. It’s not something that comes easily to me, even now.

It began as a strange kind of terror, a sense of dread that followed me wherever I went. Then it mutated, became a throb of agony. Until then, I’d assumed depression was about feeling flat or listless the whole time, losing interest in the world around you. But the illness that assailed me was nothing like that, not passive, not to do with a lack of interest or energy – not to do with a lack of anything.  It was an active, shocking pain. It was as vicious and unremitting as the most intense physical pain. What made it worse was that I couldn’t point to any part of my body and say, “This – this hurts”.

Being alive was unbearable, and yet I was forced to bear it. I remember feeling a kind of wonder from time to time – sheer disbelief that it was possible to feel this bad, and that I’d had no idea until then. But how could I have known? This wasn’t a normal kind of pain. The worst I’d experienced up until then, the most miserable I’d ever been, hadn’t contained within it the smallest flicker of this.

I took to sleeping as much as I could, because being awake hurt too much. I’d always been a poor sleeper, but suddenly I could sleep almost on demand. I’m grateful I was allowed that temporary relief, especially as for many people insomnia is the mean accomplice of depression. I went to bed earlier and earlier each evening, and whenever I could, I slept through the afternoons.

My parents took me to the doctor, who prescribed me medication and referred me to a psychotherapist. Once I had begun to recognise that this was an illness rather than a reflection of reality I began to believe that I might eventually get better. I gritted my teeth and endured. I took the medication. I tried yoga (grim). I went on long walks with my mum and briefly, hideously, managed to take up running. I even saw a hypnotherapist. And eventually, whether because of these things, or because the ever-mysterious illness had run its course, I did start to recover.

The feeling of coming back to life was extraordinary, but it was a frightening process too. I felt very fragile, and each moment of normality was almost painful because I knew so clearly what the flip side was, knew that the darkness was still there somewhere, perhaps hovering just out of sight. It was like walking along a tightrope, a thousand feet above the ground.

Language helped me out of this precarious state. I’d found hope before in learning to call depression by its name, to categorise the horror as an illness. Now I wondered if a similar approach could help to take the sting of fear out of what had happened – I would make myself look it full in the face, force myself to put it into words. I began to see language as a weapon. Tying something up with words, forcing it into the shape we’ve made for it, allows us to contain what might otherwise be vast, formless and threatening.

So the year after I graduated from university, I wrote a novel. I called it The View on the Way Down, in a cheery nod to my younger self. It’s not just a novel about depression – it’s also about silence and secrets, and the cost of loyalty. But the experience of depression is at its heart, and writing the novel was both difficult and wonderful in equal measure. It felt like a way of regaining control. It felt like a way of saying to the illness, I see you. If you come back, I’m ready for you. Next time will be bad, but it will also be better.

Rebecca Wait’s novel, The View on the Way Down, is out now (Picador, £14.99)

"I took to sleeping as much as I could". Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.