“We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’ ”
~ John Steinbeck
For those in the depths of mental illness, there is no lonelier place. It is an incredibly isolating experience; it convinces us that no one could have ever felt this way before. And it is the power of mental illness to make us think it is impossible to ever feel better again.
Layered onto this is the associated shame and denial as we try to hide the condition from friends, loved ones, colleagues at work, the world at large. It can be a very dark place.
In Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder, mental health advocate and depression survivor Graeme Cowan works to shine a light. For those with depression and bipolar disorder as well as their friends and family, this book can provide both inspiration and practical advice.
Cowan’s book includes an overview of depression and its treatments, extensive interviews with those who have successfully managed their illness, and results from the author’s own survey of more than 4,000 individuals with mood disorders about what has worked for them.
Cowan begins with a review of different types of depression and available treatments, but it is his interviews with public figures that comprise the heart of the book. He includes Q&As with former US Representative Patrick Kennedy (who is also son of the late US Senator Ted Kennedy); Trisha Goddard, a British television talk-show host; Bob Boorstin, the director of public policy at Google; Alastair Campbell, former chief advisor to Tony Blair; and former professional athletes, among others.
What struck me most about those interviewed was their bravery and resilience. When so much of mental illness is shrouded in shame and secrecy, these individuals have chosen to be public about their struggles. This is illustrated clearly, as each chapter begins with a photograph of the person sharing his or her story. They are not hiding. These are people who have struggled tremendously, who now speak candidly about everything from psychosis to suicide attempts — and who have still created for themselves fulfilling and successful lives.
Cowan’s questions cover their childhood, illness, and recovery, as well as how they maintain their wellness now. The diversity of voices enriches the book, each providing a unique perspective for the reader to hear.
Certain themes emerge, including the importance of helping others with their struggles. Patrick Kennedy notes, “I realize I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all of those life experiences. I also realize that in serving others I can be freed from the bondage of self to live a life beyond my wildest dreams.”
Cowan’s own story reflects this as well. He has survived four suicide attempts and five episodes of major depression. He has crawled “back from the brink” many times, and now devotes much of his efforts to mental health advocacy.
In fact, frustrated by the limits of evidence surrounding treatment for mood disorders, Cowan took it upon himself to conduct a survey of over 4,000 “fellow travelers” to try to get a sense of what worked for them. His results emphasize the importance of finding allies among family and friends as well as in a trusted mental health professional. Cowan also gives tips for moving forward, writing, “What I learned after five episodes of major depression…is that taking action is essential to recovery.”
The book provides a fairly balanced perspective as it emphasizes the importance of self-care, overcoming personal inertia, and teaming up with clinicians.
Personally, I found the interviews a bit choppily written — the question-and-answer format could have been better. That said, I was drawn in by the honesty of each person’s responses. Often their answers left me wanting to hear more about their experience.
If you have dealt with depression or bipolar disorder, you’ll likely relate to the stories in this book. You may even find yourself thinking, Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.
After all, none of us is as alone as we thought.
Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder
New Harbinger Publications, January, 2014
Paperback, 232 pages