Sally Brampton: Depression and its Deathtrap

The actress Hayden Panettiere (TV show Nashville and Heros) has checked herself back into treatment for the second time for severe postpartum depression. She has a 17 month old daughter with her fiance, the heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko. She is only twenty-six years old. She has bravely taken the preemptive step of getting treatment in the full glare of the media and hopefully helping other young moms before her mental health issues compound. She has chosen to reveal her treatments and progress publicly to hopefully remove the shame and stigma of mental illness, especially severe postpartum depression, which is still very misunderstood. Many women still prefer to suffer in silence than to face judgment about why they can’t bond with their babies in a healthy manner. This silence can have disastrous even deadly outcomes.

The Irish singer Sinead O’Connor went missing after another harrowing Facebook post in Chicago (not the first time), but has since been found alive and safe (presumably). Sinead O’Connor has a long history with mental illness which include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. She has lost custody of her children, one of whom is only 12 years old (she has four sons) in her home country of Ireland. She’s alone here in the United States, perhaps touring or trying to earn money. Sinead O’Connor has struggled, very publicly with mental illness, and she has been quite open about it. She’s been open about how she was ignored, belittled, dismissed when she went to doctors about her mental health issues until it was almost too late. She was prescribed heavy dosages of medication, it stopped her from killing herself but she was never the same. Over the past few years, the scars of her battle with mental illness have manifested physically. Her once flawless face now appears haggard, weary and tired, no doubt from untreated trauma and abuse she received as a child, from her parents and from the repressive and often abusive Catholic Irish upbringing (she was a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland – her parents sent her there when she was 14 to be rehabilitated because she was shoplifting) and her battles with mental illness as an adult.

Sally Brampton, novelist, writer, journalist and founding editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine British Elle, after a 20 year battle with severe clinical depression, has committed suicide on May 10. She is presumed to have drowned in the sea, after someone saw her walk into the sea near her home in St Leonards-on-Sea, England. Brampton had been suffering with severe clinical depression and was not responsive to hospitalizations, therapy or medications. She leaves behind a twenty-four year old daughter and two brothers. She was recently separated from her third husband. She was sixty years old. In 2008, she published the book ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’, a memoir about an unflinching look at depression. It’s considered one of the most explicit and raw memoirs on what it’s like to live with and suffer from depression. In it she writes:

“Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive.”

When she was struck by severe depression in her forties, far from being a sudden onslaught of blackness that descended upon her at once, she realized that she always suffered from this blackness, this hollowness in small fits and starts since her youth. She described even while in crowds of people, in a glitzy party with a champagne glass in hand chatting to people, she felt disconnected from humanity. But when she was younger, she was busy with career, with travel and also drank a lot to keep the black dog at bay. When she was forty, after she became a freelance writer, the black dog came barking.

In 2003, she wrote a searing piece about battling depression for The Telegraph, I told myself – ‘Get over yourself. Stop snivelling. Stop whining…’ What the title of article suggests is usually what depression sufferers tell themselves, especially for those with the stiff upper lip: ‘just get over yourself, there are real problems in the world, don’t be so self-indulgent and whining’ and ultimately, ‘no one cares what you feel.’ Sally writes:

For me, depression was a place – is still a place with which I now have (mercifully brief) encounters. The landscape is cold and black and empty. It is more terrifying and more horrible than anywhere I have ever been, even in my nightmares.

It is an abyss, a black hole, a place where nothing thrives, where sound is muffled so as to be unintelligible, where vision is dimmed until it is like seeing through clouded glass.

The more I tried to escape, the harder it held me. I could not understand it. I could not recognise myself. People asked: how are you? I did not know. Who is me? I did not have a self to be. I felt nothing.

And eventually, I became nothing.

Depression is indiscriminate of its victims. It crosses geographical and class boundaries. Hayden Panettiere is a peppy American, a young mother only in her twenties. She has a whole life ahead of her, her daughter needs her. Sinead O’Connor, an Irish woman of forty-nine, one of the most iconic singers in the 80s, mother to four sons, has battled mental illness for the last twenty years or so. Sally Brampton, an upper-class woman who attended Oxford and later Saint Martin’s School of Art, had jobs as a glossy magazine editor, novelist, memoirist and journalist, she was also a mother. When she dramatically took her final journey into the sea, many of her closest friends were sad but not surprised. She’s attempted suicide before. She, unlike so many others, had access to the best care she could afford. When the NHS (National Health Service) of UK cut the budget for mental health services, she spoke out strongly against it, ultimately those most economically vulnerable will be harmed. But sadly Brampton is in the very small percentage of people who are not responsive to treatment. Meaning there is no protocol of medications or therapies she can utilize to keep her depression at bay. Even if she took all of the prescriptions available to her, she can still suffer from symptoms.

I got so bad that, at one time, we seriously considered electro-convulsive therapy. I said that it seemed to me that we weren’t much further along than Bedlam and leeches. My psychiatrist said that at least we knew what leeches did.

Sally Brampton spoke openly and honestly about what depression did to her. She even addressed the taboo subject of committing suicide whilst you have a young child. She addressed it matter-of-factly, it was “hard struggle to stay alive”. It’s not that she doesn’t love her child, she did, more than anything. But having depression cancels everything out, everything which is good in your life is colorless, joyless, black. This doesn’t mean she loves her daughter any less than the next person. She, perhaps controversially, didn’t keep her daughter in the dark about her depression. Her daughter had full knowledge of her struggles, and was perhaps told over and over again that it wasn’t her fault or anything she did should the worst ever happen. When her daughter was younger, she would leave lots of little notes around the house to cheer her mother up.

Many who suffer from depression, especially true of  mothers, feel that they need to explain why they feel depressed. Especially those on the outside look like they’ve got nothing to be depressed about, which the contributes to the stigma and silence of depression. The causes for depression are many. It can be a chemical imbalance of the brain, some can be more predisposed than others due to genetic factors, sometimes it’s the situation one finds themselves in. People who are long term unemployed are prone to depression, doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Young mothers can suffer from depression (different from postpartum depression) because of the demands required of her, especially if she doesn’t have a strong support system. People who feel like they’ve failed at their lives or didn’t achieve what they set out to do and fear they never will may become depressed. For most people, there is help, provided there is easy access and we reach for it. The single greatest barrier for those that need help and don’t ask for it is the shame and stigma attached to it. The ignorant throw away comments made by well meaning (or not so well meaning) people: ‘get out in the sun more’, ‘but everything is going so well for you’, ‘you just became a mother (or grandmother)’; they do more harm than good. It leads the sufferer to feel that they are not justified in their feelings of depression.

It is time to end the conspiracy of silence for mental health sufferers. If Sally Brampton has a legacy, it would be to shed light on what it’s like for those that suffer depression and the urgent need to keep mental health services available for everyone.

9 thoughts on “Sally Brampton: Depression and its Deathtrap

      1. I did know about her childhood abuse. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about clinical depression to determine how much that could be a factor. But I guess I have my answer.

        ” The causes for depression are many.”

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        1. Yes, when everyone was making fun of her saying she was ‘acting crazy’ and her rants about the Church, in particular the Irish Catholic branch of the church. It was real. Her mother was sadistic, her dad was too weak willed and followed along.

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          1. Interesting that the 2015 Best Picture Winner (Spotlight) dramatizes an investigation that proved her right but she’s rarely mentioned in connection with it.

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            1. She has been written off as a wingnut. Anti-Catholic, anti-Pope nut case, which incidentally she isn’t, she’s still a catholic in the spiritual sense after all that. When I see her on television, I feel sad. That is years of abuse, trauma, and poorly handled pharmaceutical use rearing its head on a such beautiful person – and not just her face. What other woman can rock a shaved head and look absolutely feminine and stunning?

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  1. Extremely well-written piece on a tough subject.. Thank you for handling it with grace and poise, as these women and men who suffer from the disease of depression, deserve.

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    1. Thank you. The only way to alleviate the effects of mental illnesses is to remove the stigma by openly talking about it and allow all points of view to flourish and access to care for those that need it.

      Liked by 1 person

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