Every so often gifted writers are willing to share their own struggles with depression. The powerful combination of skilled wordsmith and insightful patient often results in a book that not only informs the reader about depression, but pulls us in. Written by journalist Tracy Thompson, The Beast is such a book.
The book, which details Thompson’s lifelong struggle with depression and was recently re-released, follows the author’s symptoms as they appear in childhood, become obvious during adolescence, and eventually envelop her adult life. Thompson’s childhood included a strict religious upbringing in the South, a devastating, almost deadly car accident, and a family history of mental illness — as evidenced by Thompson’s paternal grandmother, who lived with the family in a depressed, almost helpless state, having been abandoned by her husband during the Great Depression.
A high achiever, Thompson pursues a career in journalism, working locally in Atlanta during her college years and subsequently landing a job at the Washington Post. But while in D.C., Thompson tells us, she experiences a severe mental breakdown.
After a brief hospitalization, Thompson is finally able to steel herself to fight against “the beast,” as she refers to her illness. With small steps and a network of support, she works her way out of its grip. Acknowledging that her recovery and success depend on her approach to handling it, Thompson pushes forward, determined to manage her illness rather than hide from it. And indeed, she tells us, part of the problem was that she had spent so many years hiding.
While this nonfiction account reads almost like a novel, the book also makes great, useful points for readers seeking help. Medication does work for depression, Thompson writes, and no one should feel ashamed for needing it. And one of the most frustrating symptoms patients of depression face is the inability to see outside of themselves; breaking negative thought patterns ultimately requires them to change the way they view themselves.
And so, instead of seeing herself through the lens of her illness, Thompson resolves to see herself through the eyes of those who love and care about her. She also addresses the abusive relationship she had with the man who ultimately helped her get treatment. Rather than blaming him for her depression, Thompson asserts that the devastating effects of depression often leave people (particularly women) vulnerable to such destructive relationships.
As I was drawn in by The Beast, I was reminded of that classic tale of depression, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both books provide honest details about what it’s like to struggle through depression and treatment. Both books also give unique historical insights as to what depression sufferers experienced in the last half of the 20th century. Thompson’s unique position as a Washington Post writer, covering trials that made national news, also adds an interesting backdrop as she goes through treatment and recovery. Her journalistic style conveys a clear picture of her experience, and her vantage point as an insightful person who has managed to come out on the other side of the depression tunnel lends a motivating quality to the text.
Although written twenty years ago, the book is still a useful resource for readers interested in the experiences of those who have suffered from lifelong depression. However, as much as I enjoyed reading this new edition, I felt that I’d made a mistake in reading the foreword Thompson wrote for the re-release. In it, she talks about the effects of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, on her symptoms and on her ability to remember important things, and she speaks of the devasting symptoms of depression — the ones that we’re about to read in the main part of her book — as problems that are now mostly gone. Learning all this, and then reading the original text, left me with the feeling that I was getting only half of the author’s story. I even read the foreword again after finishing the book, hoping for a little more closure, but still it seemed that I wasn’t hearing enough about Thompson, now that twenty more years had elapsed. I also struggled with the frequent typos (namely, words smashed together because someone neglected to put spaces between them in this edition).
Other than that, however, I found this an engaging, enjoyable read, and one that thankfully ends on a positive note. Although each person struggling with mental illness has to find his or her own way out, Thompson offers hope for all of those who fall into the trap of depression — as long as they are willing to get back up and fight each time they’re knocked down.
The Beast: A Journey Through Depression
Diversion Books, October 2014
Paperback, 248 pages