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.
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder