So, today we have something a little bit different on If only I could read faster. It isn’t often that I review a non-fiction book, but I have always supported Sarah Rayner’s non-fiction books and so when she released a new one I wanted to help her let more people know about her books.
I sort of feel like this is a bit of a ‘coming out’ post for me, I am not someone who is open about their mental health struggles, I’ve always been a private person and I guess aware of the stigma around mental health. But I do think that that stigma is not the same as it used to be, I certainly hope not anyway, and I don’t think that keeping mental health struggles quiet is helpful to the person who has the struggles, or those that are close to them. So I have been thinking for a while that it would be good to be more open about my experiences, I was just unsure how to go about that.
So reviewing Making Friends with Depression and doing a Q&A with Sarah Rayner is my way of ‘coming out’ about my own mental health struggles. I have been a member of the Facebook group, Making Friends with Anxiety (now Making Friends with Anxiety and Depression), for a couple of years now, and although not a very active member the group has at times been very helpful, although for me anxiety is not my main struggle. My battle is with depression, severe and debilitating depression. It is something that I struggle with in some way or other pretty much every single day, although thankfully with the right support and treatment I am able to function in the sometimes scary world.
My 4* review:
Having read Sarah Rayner’s previous non-fiction books focusing on anxiety I was keen to read her latest book about depression. Rayner has a great way of talking to her audience, it really does feel like you are chatting with her in person when you read. Her style is light and certainly not preachy.
The book is broken down into chapters that spell the word Depression. So chapter one talks about diagnosis, where the book talks about what depression is and the various symptoms, two about expert support including guidance on talking to your doctor and medication and so on.
This means that reading the book is broken down into simple, easy to read topics. In this book Sarah is also joined by another author who has struggled with depression, helping to give different viewpoints and experiences, and by a GP who gives his professional experience too. Although Rayner is the main narrator the book does benefit from the other contributors.
Perhaps the most important contribution comes from people who struggle with depression. In researching this book Rayner carried out a number of online questionnaires in order to get as a wide an experience as possible as no one with depression has the same experience as another. There are regular quotes in the book from these responses (including one from me) and I found these to be helpful and I think would definitely help someone in the middle of a depressive episode to feel less alone.
One of the chapters does focus on crisis care, where they advise on what to do and where to get help in an emergency situation, but the rest of the book is aimed at people who are struggling with depression but not, in my experience, a severe episode.
I know from my own experience that if I was at a really low point then this book would be of very limited help to me, but if I was at the start of a depression and if you like, caught it early enough, then this book would be a great help and reminder of things that I can do to help get myself out of it before I go too far.
I think that this book would be particularly useful for someone who is new to depression, and perfect for someone who is just starting to accept that they have depression as this book will educate them in a non-judgemental, easy to follow way. It would also be very helpful for a friend or family member of someone with depression.
This is a light and easy to read book, and I’ve no doubt that many will gain a lot from reading it. I do feel that if someone is struggling with severe depression then this book would have limited use.
The final thing to note about this book are the many wonderful illustrations. Rayner, it turns out, is something of an artist and she has drawn lots of pictures for the book. Although in Kindle format these illustrations are often not fully legible, especially small writing, which is unfortunate, although I believe this is only the case with e-readers and not if you use a kindle app on tablet or phone. I think that this is one book that would be better to read in hard copy so that you can make notes, perhaps highlight parts, and enjoy the illustrations.
Q&A with Sarah Rayner:
You started off writing fiction. What made you change to writing non-fiction books?
I didn’t deliberately set out to change from one to the other – in fact I’ve always written non-fiction, just not in book form, as for twenty years my ‘day job’ was advertising copywriting. So you may have read my work in magazines or on the tube, but not been aware I was the author! Some people might say that advertising is a form of fiction, but I found that composing letters, brochures and advertorials good training when it came to writing my non-fiction titles, as I learned how to sift through information and pare it down so I could write about complex subjects in an accessible way.
Then, when I was launching my novel Another Night, Another Day, which focuses on three people who meet in a psychiatric clinic, I was invited to write a series of blogs for Moodscope, a website which allows you to track your moods on a daily basis. I decided to focus on panic and worry as I’d personal experience of anxiety, and each day for a week explored a different area related to subject, starting with ‘A’ for ‘Adrenaline’ and finishing with ‘Y’ for ‘You’, so that after seven days I’d spelt out the word ANXIETY. I researched each subject carefully – not least as I stood to benefit myself! – and had the content checked by a GP to make sure the advice I gave was responsible. The reaction to those blogs was so heartfelt – it seemed there were a lot of people out there who were as desperate as I had been – that it led me to believe there was an opportunity to offer anxiety sufferers something more permanent that they could turn to whenever the need arose. So I set my hand to penning Making Friends with Anxiety, a little self-help book where I drew upon my own experiences and learnings in order to help others help themselves. Because I’d experience of marketing, I decided to publish the book myself, curious to see what ‘independent publishing’ was really like, and discover I could make it work financially and aesthetically as well as reaching out to a new readership.
2. Have you always been open about your mental health struggles or did you make a conscious decision to tell people about it when you wrote Making Friends with Anxiety?
My father, Eric Rayner, was a psychoanalyst, so an interest in mental health is in my blood. He recently passed away but his intellectual influence on me was always strong, and I remember asking him to direct me to books on people with multiple personality disorder when I was 17 as there was a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees – remember them? – called Christine, which focused on a woman with the condition. However it took several decades before I was ready to write about mental illness myself – maybe because he was so erudite! So whilst I touched on it in my other novels, it wasn’t until my fifth book, Another Night, Another Day, that I made it the focus of the story. When launching Another Night, Another Day it seemed relevant – and important in terms of overcoming stigma – to speak of my own experiences – and since then I’ve been much more open. I would encourage others to talk if they feel up to it, too, as whilst I still have dark days, I believe bottling up emotions or trying to cope on our own often makes us feel much worse.
3. You began with Making Friends with Anxiety, followed by colouring and craft books, and a book on the menopause. Why did you decide to focus on anxiety and the menopause before writing your latest book on depression?
Depression is arguably the obvious successor to a book on anxiety as both are frequently diagnosed together, but my anxiety had escalated enormously in the run up to the menopause, and I became interested in the link between hormonal changes and panic so for me the subject of menopause was the natural follow-up. I was also wary about dealing with the sensitive subject of depression on my own; using my experiences as the sole basis for extrapolating advice aimed at a wide audience, many of whom would be in a highly distressed state, seemed unwise and potentially dangerous. But when my fellow author Kate Harrison and doctor friend Patrick Fitzgerald expressed an interest in collaborating, I became inspired by the prospect of what we might do together. And when the team of wonderful volunteers who help run the ‘Making Friends with Anxiety’ group on Facebook offered to expand the group to include sufferers of depression too, I finally felt we had a ‘net’ so to speak, capable of supporting people in a way that I could never offer alone. Once I had sorted those elements, I felt able to embark on the project and I’m thrilled with how the book has turned out.
4. You asked people to fill in online questionnaires when you were researching Making Friends with Depression, did you learn anything surprising from doing that?
The survey was Kate’s suggestion: she uses a similar technique to help research her 5:2 diet books. I was astonished by the huge number of responses we got, and the honesty of the replies. I think perhaps because they could remain anonymous, people felt more able to express themselves. We asked all sorts of questions (readers can see the survey here, and it helped us understand not only how differently individuals experience depression, but also the commonalities. I was interested to learn how many people had had some form of therapy through the NHS – that’s a big and positive change and one that has happened in the last five years. What is less good is that a great number of respondents felt the therapy had stopped too soon. It’s my hope that our book will enable those who feel bereft of support either begin or continue to help themselves – because recovery is possible.
5. Why did you decide to start the Making Friends with Anxiety Facebook page?
One important distinction is that it’s a group not a page, which means that members have to ask to join. This means they can discuss their issues with others in confidence, and I know from my own experience of being in groups that talking to others with similar experiences can go a long way towards helping us feel more connected to others and confident. To explain the benefits more fully, I asked the members. Here are a few responses:
“Making Friends with Anxiety means I’m not alone anymore, like-minded people are always available on my mobile. People that I now consider friends.”
“🙂It’s somewhere I can be myself, where I’m understood, nobody will judge me or call me a nutter or tell me I’m being stupid. People are so warm and caring – it’s like a big fluffy comfort blanket!”
“This group makes me feel not so insular. Never have I spoken completely honestly about my anxiety or what it has caused me to do or feel. I have a voice, I am not alone and everyone on this site is so supportive and kind which is exactly what you need when you feel low. It is like a little supportive family when you don’t have your own to turn to.”
6. You have drawn a lot of drawings for Making Friends with Depression, and you’ve released two books on creativity and mental illness. How do you think that being creative helps your mental health?
I’ve noticed that when my brain is tired of writing that I still have energy to draw; this may be because they involve different neural pathways. In any case, I feel we can often say a lot more with a drawing than with words, and illustrations were a way of ‘lightening up’ the book without being flip. I found myself smiling as I drew, feeling empathy for the characters I was creating. So there are two examples of how being creative helps lift my spirits, and others who suffer with anxiety or depression have said similar. Kate writes about cooking in the book for instance, and how it enables her to combine self-care and creativity. Patrick is a musician as well as a GP – my guess is that it helps him unwind from listening to patients’ problems to thrash about on a guitar!
7. You’ve become a champion with all the work that you do around mental health; writing books, an active role on the Facebook page and your regular feature in Psychology Today.
Yes! Here’s a link:
8. Was this something that you wanted to do when you set out to write Making Friends with Anxiety?
When my father was a young man, he was a naval officer and he visited Japan in the aftermath of Hiroshima. He was horrified by what he saw there, and it was this experience that led him to work in mental health – he wanted to understand why people could be so destructive, when he believed that basically humans are social and good. He spent over 50 years campaigning for better mental healthcare. My motivations are not the same, but I do appreciate where he was coming from in trying to build bridges between people. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all ‘cure’ for depression or anxiety or grief, but I do I believe understanding ourselves can give us greater freedom from mental illness, and the support of others can help us through dark times.
9. Do you have plans to write more books on mental health or will you return to fiction?
Hopefully both! I’ve just relaunched my first novel, The Other Half, as an ebook with illustrations – it’s probably the furthest from Making Friends with Depression that it’s possible to be. This link should allow you to look inside, and you’ll see what I mean!
It tells the story of an affair from the alternating perspectives of the wife and the mistress and is half price to download between Friday 16 and Sunday 18 December as a present to all my readers – and yours – so they can treat themselves to an illicit affair via my novel over Christmas should they fancy it.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Becca. It’s been really interesting to get this chance to talk about all my books, and keep up the great work!
Thank you so much for answering all the questions Sarah, and for the half price download of The Other Half! It has been great to have you on If only I could read faster and I wish you lots of luck with future books.