CW: depression, suicide
No-one’s experience with “the black dog” can be a carbon copy of someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from or find comfort in hearing other people’s stories. Today, I want to talk about Sally Brampton’s experience that she beautifully details in her eye-opening and brutal memoir, Shoot the Damn Dog.
Sally Brampton, founding editor of Elle magazine, is by no means an expert on mental illness. But she is an expert on her own journey with depression, and in the beginning she didn’t really understand what that meant. Back then, and even today, the idea that depression is an illness can be hard to understand for some, especially for those who’ve never experienced it. This is the perfect starting point, allowing the reader to learn just as Brampton does as she walks us through her long long road to recovery. On this road she will try every antidepressant at their highest dosages, check in to psychiatric wards and AA meetings, and open up to us about her two suicide attempts.
Just as Brampton cannot speak for anyone else’s unique experience of mental illness, I cannot speak for anyone else’s reading experience but my own. There’s no holding back in this book and this can understandably be distressing for those who may have had similar experiences, and some may learn nothing new.
I, however, found her story helped me better understand myself. For example, one section describes the dangers of abandoning oneself: “If somebody hurts you and you pretend that you are fine, you abandon yourself.” She goes on to list several other scenarios where someone with depression might abandon themselves, as described to her by a therapist. I could relate to almost every single one , and it reminded me of my own counselling. The familiarity was comforting, only for an epiphany to then follow with a passage on the next page. She goes on to describe a state of detachment defined as being “wantless and needless”:
If you adopt the position of not wanting or needing anything emotionally, you are unlikely to get hurt. To sustain that entirely, you withdraw emotionally and even physically from others, although you may show a perfectly sociable exterior when you are out in the world. It is the interior that is fiercely defended. Some people (as I did) adopt this as a solution to emotional pain, forgetting that we are communal animals, biologically and genetically determined to interact with others. The solution then becomes the problem.
I recognised myself in Brampton’s words, and I genuinely believe it’s had an impact on how I think about myself in relation to the world around me. I can be quite an apathetic person, and I had never considered it might be a coping mechanism. It was precisely this revelation that made me want to recommend this book. I truly believe you can learn a lot about depression from her memoir. It’s informative whilst also telling an honest and compelling story.
Sadly, in 2016, Sally Brampton died by suicide. But without hope and recovery, she might never have found a stage in her life when she could have written this book. The fact this memoir exists shows that recovery is possible. Her daughter’s afterword is a heartfelt message that emphasises that Brampton’s suicide does not rob the book of its power.