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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.