herald

Saturday 22 November 2014

Anne's struggle helps others beat dep ression

I WAS outside an RTE radio studio once, gathering my thoughts to discuss a new book. Sitting across the way was a sombre-faced man, who rebuffed my attempts at chitchat. When he was summoned into the studio, I realised I had once lukewarmly reviewed his book on TV. But this is part of the job and a reviewer's objectivity is often proportionate to how much an author will hate you if you thrash their book.

On the same television show, about 18 months ago, I reviewed another book by an Irish writer. The next morning I opened my email ... to find an email from said writer. I half choked on my tea, and figured I was about to receive my first author takedown. I'd had a good innings, now I'd have to take their grievances on the chin.



PRAISE

The email was from Anne Enright, whom I had interviewed when her novel The Gathering was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (she won) in 2007.

"It was your bad fortune ... " the email began. Yikes, I really liked the book! I had been full of praise!

Oh wait. I realised she was not berating me for dissing her characters in The Forgotten Waltz -- she had a proposal. Would I like to edit a book of short stories in aid of a charity called Console?

I barely thought about it, or my already flabby workload, or my small children, or my untidy house.

Console is a national organisation supporting people in suicidal crisis and those bereaved by suicide. Paul Kelly set up the charity after his sister Sharon ended her life at just 21. Anne's motivation is from the heart, and she has written unflinchingly in her foreword for the resulting short story collection about her struggles with depression as a young woman.

"I also remember how much and how often I wanted to die -- many times a day, and all night, I wanted to die more often than I wanted a cigarette, and with violent intensity."

Twenty years ago the award-winning author sought help in hospital. "Love helped, I have to say: love really does help, but what kept me alive, back in the day -- what kept me functioning and breathing -- was a really basic six months of high-dose antidepressants; a major chemical cosh that made me feel I had lost access to a part of my brain -- a very important part which, as the years went by, became less important."

Four years ago, in this newspaper, I wrote a column about the devastating suicide of a friend, Derrick Dalton, and the effect on the people he left behind.

In fact, the scale of the problem of suicide is touching so many of us, and in ways, often seemingly small, we try to help. Anne's idea for a short story collection, which we've called Silver Threads of Hope, in aid of Console's valuable support service and bereavement counselling, tries to do just that.

Anne writes of life after depression. "I haven't taken antidepressants since, though I would not hesitate to do so if things got bad again. I still muddle along with various strategies: fresh air, sunlight, giving myself a break.



PLATFORM

"I like the cognitive behavioural techniques of testing your worst thought against reality, I like the mindfulness of yoga. And though I know this doesn't work for everybody, I have great kids, and they make me very happy. I am so grateful to be here, when I remember where I was. Which I do remember, now and then."

Finding a publisher with no writers was a Catch 22 situation. Who publishes a book with no writers? And what writer wants to hand over a new work that has no platform?

The initial ask was met with a gratifying amount of yeses. One or two writers said no because, understandably they don't write short stories.

The first publisher I thought of, New Island Books, said yes to the project without hesitation, and they have been supportive and encouraging all the way along. In the end, 28 of our best writers -- including Colum McCann, Emma Donoghue, Colm Keegan, Kevin Barry and Christine Dwyer Hickey -- gave of their time unhesitatingly to write stories for a collection in aid of Console.

Yet what to call it? I rummaged through favourite writer quotes, song lyrics and snatches of film dialogue and came up blank. My husband, in a fit of genius, suggested a line from a song by a mutual friend, Irish songwriter Adrian Crowley. His song Bless Our Tiny Hearts opens with the lines: Bless our tiny hearts/We braved it to the sea/On the restless determination/We're bound together/By the silver threads of hope.

It's full of optimism and 'threads' linked these wonderful stories together. The song also speaks of guidance, "searching for a beacon" and of how "just one fickle heart" can be the undoing of a person -- all of which relates to the work that Console does.

As Anne writes, it's about understanding. "It is sometimes tempting to say to a depressive 'it's not all about you, you know.'

"It is doubly important to say to those who care for, work with, or love someone in mental distress that they do not have to give more than they are able, because it isn't -- in the best sense -- 'about' them. It is not their fault."

There isn't a family in Ireland unaffected by suicide, and the work Console does resonated with all of us involved in making this book happen.

Silver Threads of Hope, edited by Sinead Gleeson (€14.99), is out now, published by New Island. www.newisland.ie

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