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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser