From Robert Burton’s 17th-century Anatomy of Melancholy to new insights from Ed Bullmore, these are welcome guides to one of the loneliest experiences
In the autumn of 2015, I felt numb, worthless, and had thoughts of ending my life. I was 25 years old and I was experiencing my first bout of depression, an illness that has ebbed and flowed ever since. At first, I was hesitant to take medication and opted for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. I worried that medication would dampen my brain, dull my experience of the world and my ability to describe it. Only later did I find that the right drug is a key tool for my career. When I’m stable I can write. When I’m depressed, I can barely walk or talk.
There are many writers who have struggled with depression and still had successful careers: William Styron, JK Rowling, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Samuel Johnson, to name just a few. While the link between mental illness and creative writing has become a stereotype – a ruminating mind that skirts the extremes of mood and suffering can make for bold and creative books – there is also the possibility that the life of a writer is a seedbed for depression. With variable income, social isolation, disturbed sleep, and constant critical judgment from readers and peers, is it any wonder that writers are particularly prone to this illness?
A Cure for Darkness: The Story of Depression and How We Treat It by Alex Riley is published by Ebury Press. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.