In her new book, The Best You contributor Rachel Kelly shares her approach to keeping her depression at bay, post-recovery
Last year, I published a memoir entitled Black Rainbow about recovering from two periods of severe depression. Since then, people have often asked what I have since learnt about how to stay well.
Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is my answer.
The book contains fifty-two sanity-saving tools that I have come to use in my own day-to-day life. Thanks to these strategies I now consider myself blessed to have my own ‘Black Dog’, as Winston Churchill so memorably described depression, on a tight leash.
I find that when I adopt these strategies, I can avoid feeling overwhelmed and anxious, which for me were the foothills in which depression took hold. Nowadays I feel calm and happy, and on especially good days, as if I’m walking on sunshine.
It took six painful years to write Black Rainbow. I had to summon the courage to return to a very dark time in my life and overcome my fear that writing about the reality of depression might in some way trigger a relapse.
The experience of writing Walking on Sunshine has been very different. In many ways, the book wrote itself. Ever since I was a journalist at The Times over fifteen years ago, I’ve always written things down, be it in diaries, letters or more abstract jottings.
It occurred to me therefore to keep a note of the helpful practices I was using each week, which eventually took shape in a diary of my year. I didn’t need to interview my family, as I had done with my memoir to remind myself as to what had happened, nor revisit memories that were often painful.
Rather, writing this new book felt joyful. Throughout the process I was invigorated by the sense that some of the ideas I was sharing could be of value to a reader. So exciting was this thought that I felt I needed to manage my expectations. But every now and then my hope popped out like sun from behind a cloud, and I would secretly smile to myself.
The format of a diary I think works especially well because like all of us, I find my state of mind is affected by changes in weather and light throughout the year, as well as by the stresses of specific annual events such as Christmas. Also, as a mother with three children at school, there is a particular set of pressures associated with the rhythm of the school year.
I’m also grateful that many of the tips in Walking on Sunshine are tried and trusted by others, not just me. Throughout the twelve months in which I wrote Walking on Sunshine, I was lucky enough to run poetry workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, Mind, Cooltan Arts, and SMART.
Each week I would meet my group of a dozen or so people who were finding life hard. As well as sharing the poems that might help us through life’s challenges, we inevitably shared other tactics that we were currently finding useful. I always left such gatherings fired up with enthusiasm to try a new approach. I also felt emboldened when some of my own ideas helped those around me.
Over time I became more aware of the way in which I rely on a merry mix of tips to keep me going, rather than focusing my attention in just one area. In the book therefore, there are some bits about mindfulness, a handful of breathing techniques, a scattering of philosophical nuggets, a sprinkling of ideas about diet, and a few pockets of poetry.
I truly believe that everyone needs to put together a toolbox of strategies that works specifically for them; that compliments their preferences and temperament. As I said, I tend to cherry-pick from a variety of approaches – many of them highly personal – and I would encourage my readers to do the same. I think it’s important, in the pursuit of happiness and calm, to connect more deeply with ourselves, rather than attempting to be like anybody else.
Take my love of poetry, for example. I am consoled and calmed by verse, but I’m very aware that the healing power of words isn’t for everyone. Others may find the visual arts more appealing, or music. However eccentric your own path to contentment may seem to others, it doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.