Darkness visible. Reading Elizabeth Wurtzel has forced Charlotte Raven to confront the truth about her own struggle with depression

More, Now, Again

Elizabeth Wurtzel <em>Virago Press, 333pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 186049918X

More, Now, Again is a breathless 4am splurge of a confessional. Elizabeth Wurtzel understands her audience well enough to know that it won't want to be spared the details of the state she got herself into when trying to palliate the pain of her existence. Happily for all concerned, Wurtzel is as fascinated by the seamier side of her addictions as we are delighted to read about the evenings she spent gouging holes in her legs with tweezers, and her doctor's inability to account for the resulting sores. Wurtzel, like all the addicts I have known, fetishises her depredation to the extent that it is often hard to reconcile this with her desire to live a "normal" life. In the paltry 20-page "Redemption" section, she outlines, without much conviction, the good things about feeling OK - a sense of possibility, the ability to appreciate beauty, a desire to "fall in love with the whole world". But there is an unmistakable sense of loss.

Having spent much of the past two years in the parallel universe Wurtzel describes, I can understand why she's not clamouring to be beamed back down to earth. For all its pain and strangeness, there is something undeniably wonderful about having your life's purpose defined by your need to recover from addiction or depressive illness. It makes everything much easier - which isn't to say that you welcome it in the first instance. When I originally went into recovery, all I could do was ask how much longer it would be before I could go back to all the things I missed. At that point, I still thought that my depression was caused by a "chemical imbalance" that could be put right in a jiffy. It appeared irrelevant that one of my best friends had spent much of the preceding two years in therapy, following a psychic crash just like the one that caused me to be hospitalised. He was a disgraced spin-doctor whose on-off love affair with new Labour made him a case for committal, whereas I was, well, sane enough to see that the only thing wrong with my life was that I couldn't stop crying long enough to do any writing.

Things were improving when a nice Harley Street psychiatrist prescribed me a little pick-me-up. But while the Ritalin made me work like a maniac, it also made me edgy and disconnected. He suggested tranquillisers and, when these stopped working, anti-depressants. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I was as screwed up as anyone would be after six months of unrelenting psychic torment, and yet, despite my wraithlike appearance, the doctor who saw me first couldn't work out why I was there. The wonderful thing about Ritalin is that it acts like a barrister for your denial. When the rest of you is too worn and weary to offer another reason why you shouldn't accept how fucked up you really are, Ritalin argues persuasively that the appearance of coherence it allows you is proof that you are indeed OK.

I was taking eight pills a day. Wurtzel, at the height of her addiction, was snorting 40. It's funny to note how, in her account in this book, a great deal of my own bizarre behaviour on the drug is enlarged to the power of five. When she wasn't busy pulling off her scabs, Wurtzel was writing the book she thought would make her name as a serious feminist writer. When I wasn't playing Tomb Raider, I was working on a book proposal for which I had similar hopes. Luckily, mine never came to fruition - which didn't stop me from going on about it ad infinitum. I drove all my friends away because, when I saw them, they couldn't get a word in edgeways. One man I used to see every so often stopped ringing; when I asked why, he told me that being with me made him feel slow. It was the first time I'd ever been dropped for being "too interesting" - a crime for which Wurtzel was also indicted by the ungrateful beneficiaries of her extended disquisitions on the subject of capital punishment.

Wurtzel's willingness to look unflinchingly at exactly what it is that makes her such a pain in the arse must have served her well in recovery. I don't know if she had this skill when she started - I certainly didn't. It took me months of gently probing therapy sessions and self-interrogation before I realised that the persona I'd adopted with which to protect myself - which I had always thought rather impressive - had not only cost me my sanity, but also certainly pissed off the people I most wanted to attract. It's amazing to think that, if depression hadn't forced the issue, I would still be sitting, like Miss Havisham, jilted by my genuine intentions in some godforsaken corner of the Groucho Club, being marked out of a hundred by men with two-way-mirror eyes.

Once you begin to realise all this, it no longer seems quite such a trial to spend much of your week at 12-step meetings and group therapy sessions. And no longer does it feel incredible that, after a year of this, you're still ill enough to book yourself into this or that treatment centre. As long as you can see some progress - and you almost always can - you are happy to see recovery as the primary project of your life. It's an odd truth that, once you've stopped worrying about how long it's all going to take, the lights go on in the space you're inhabiting and you start to see colour and texture. Looking around at your fellow travellers, you begin to notice how much they've altered: a corporate headhunter has quit his job and told his wife he doesn't love her; a man who lived alone with his collection of model cars has decided to move 500 miles away from the mother who still does his housework; a Prada-clad girl who did nothing but cry for six months has learnt how to play with her daughter; a man who was abandoned by his parents and abused in foster care has enrolled on an IT course, where he has made the first real friend in his life.

These personal triumphs accumulate to the point where you can no longer question the wisdom of the process that brought them about. At first, I rather prided myself, like Wurtzel, on not engaging with the cheesy, platitudinous side of recovery. Week after week, I would sit there trying to work out how to explain my unhappiness in a way that didn't strip it of its specificity. You see, the feeling that played to me as a writer's distaste for jargon and lazy commonplaces was really a fear of discovering that I was no different from anyone else. For all the frills and bows I hung on it, my mutton-headed belief that the integrity of my emotions would be compromised by their translation into chicken-soup English was actually the height of arrogance.

Who did I think I was? I didn't have the faintest clue. So, in the end, I decided to submit to the process. Everyone who's been in recovery will understand the power of this moment of total surrender. It's the point in your journey where you stop seeing the thing as a narrative. Instead of wondering how much progress you are making, you realise that this is it. Wurtzel describes how months and months of endless Narcotics Anonymous meetings finally began to pay dividends at the point when she no longer cared whether they were "working" or not. For me, that indifference to outcome and its powerful consequences could happen only once I'd dropped any idea of the person I dreamt of becoming, and stopped checking my reflection for any hint of this transformation. The curious alchemy of recovery can work only when you're not watching out for it. If you check on it every five minutes, it will curdle unpleasantly; if you don't, it will reward you with days that unaccountably seem to fold in all the right places.

Charlotte Raven is a writer and columnist

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