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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Review of Rachel Kelly's 'Black Rainbow'

Black rainbow is the heart-breaking story of a woman who seemed to have everything until she was hit by two severe depressive episodes. In her memoir, Rachel Kelly talks of her experience of depression and the mechanisms she used to cope through her illness. In particular she emphasises the healing words of poetry.

Rachel Kelly clearly and honestly describes what depression feels like. She talks of the extreme anxiety, the negative thoughts that whirl round the mind and the complete loss of will to do anything other than lie in bed. She rather beautifully describes depression as a black rainbow; all the colour becomes drained from your existence. I really felt for her when I read her account. I have had depressive episodes before but manage to block out the memories of them quite effectively. Reading the book reminded me of the struggle I have been through. 

Importantly, Rachel Kelly emphasises the sheer physicality of depression. Depression can make you feel like your body is falling apart. You can’t move, sleep or eat properly. You may have all sorts of aches and pains. Every small task such as showering, dressing and even going to the toilet is hugely challenging. Rachel Kelly describes this physical agony of depression perfectly. She correctly points out that the mind and the body are linked: that all human activity is psycho-physical. When you are depressed, the body suffers too. People who haven’t experienced depression should be interested to learn about the way the body suffers along with the mind.

Many people who have had depression will relate to the experiences she had with other people during her illness. She relied heavily on others during her depressive episodes, particularly on her husband and mother who were incredibly supportive. However, not everyone was as tolerant. The negative reaction that some people had to her depression was heartbreakingly familiar. Some people mistakenly believed that because she was usually a cheerful person she couldn’t possibly suffer with depression. Others didn’t believe that depression was a real illness and thought it was something she should just pull herself out of. Sufferers of depression will be all too familiar with these kinds of comments.

These negative reactions to depression feed in to the feelings of guilt and shame which many of those with mental illness suffer from. Rachel Kelly talks movingly about her own struggles with these kinds of feelings. At several places in the book she expresses her guilt at being depressed when she has such loving parents, husband and children. She feels like she should be able to control her depression. These are common kinds of thoughts among those who have suffered with mental illness. Of course depression can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do and where you are from. 

Rachel Kelly describes in detail her journey through a bumpy recovery; every time she would get a little better from each depressive episode, she would then have another bad day. Nonetheless there were shafts of optimism and things gradually improved. She vividly describes the feelings of coming out of depression where the black clouds covering the rainbow gradually disperse. Suddenly colour comes back to your life and you start appreciating everything again. I really enjoyed her use of this metaphor and thought it provided a nice description of both illness and recovery.

Something that some readers won’t feel like they can relate to are her experiences with mental health professionals. Rachel Kelly received a lot of help from her psychiatrist and from therapists, which sounds like they were seen privately. Due to constraints on the NHS, many people will not have received such frequent intervention. This is not to dismiss the wonderful job that many mental health professionals do. It’s just that there isn’t enough funding to provide the kind of care required.  Like many others, I have been on long waiting lists to see people and don’t always get as much attention as I need.

Rachel Kelly’s main solace during her two severe depressive episodes was poetry. The book title ‘Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression’ is a bit misleading as it may suggest that poetry cured her depression. In fact, in the book she doesn’t push poetry as a miracle cure. Rather poetry provides words you can cling on to when at your lowest point. She includes in the book many of the poems which provided her with much needed comfort. These may prove useful to many who can’t find the words to express their pain but feel like they relate to the words in the poems. Of course some people won’t find poetry comforting in their times of need.  Personally, I don’t usually find poetry particularly helpful. Like others, I may find solace in, say, music and art rather than poetry: something that Rachel Kelly herself acknowledges. 

She suggests a large number of other techniques you can use to try and protect yourself from getting ill again. For example, breathing exercises, good diet, supplements, physical activity and therapy.  All of these should hopefully prove useful to readers who wish to maintain good mental health. However, it is difficult to say which technique will work for which person. Rachel Kelly is careful not to outrightly reject any one method of treating mental health like, say, medication. She sensibly leaves the options open and gives advice on the many diverse ways you can try to control your illness. I would have perhaps liked to hear more about her journey through different medications.

There were so many things in Rachel Kelly’s book that I could relate to: the descriptions of what depression feels like, the guilt sufferers experience, the way you have to become selfish to survive, the weariness of battling the illness every day, the heavy reliance on family and the pressure to not appear ill in front of certain people. Rachel Kelly has produced a beautifully and eloquently written memoir full of honest and relatable experiences. This book will be helpful to both those who relate to her experiences and those who want to understand more about how depression feels. She offers plenty of advice on how to cope with such a devastating illness which both sufferers and carers will find useful. Rachel Kelly should be commended on sharing her very personal story. 

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