Into the light: tried and tested steps to happiness
Rachel Kelly has written of her battle with depression. Now her second book, she tells Emily Hourican, is an aid to stay well and calm
'Happiness. It comes on unexpectedly.' Rachel Kelly is quoting a Raymond Carver poem, one that appears in her new book Walking on Sunshine, sandwiched between eclectic, heartfelt suggestions for a host of different things, including decluttering, baking, exercising, other poems, prayers and reflections, that can lead to better mental health.
The book is subtitled '52 Small Steps To Happiness', and is a beautifully-produced collection of tried and tested techniques for greater serenity and joy. "There is nothing in the book that isn't do-able, and isn't evidence-based," says Rachel, adding "I think if I had taken more charge of my mental health, if I had even known that was something you could do, maybe I would never have got into the mess that led to Black Rainbow."
Black Rainbow was Rachel's first book, an account of her debilitating and horribly sudden descent into a depression that kept her bed-bound for six months, suffering physical pain so bad that her family initially thought she was having a heart-attack.
That was after the birth of her second child. At the time, Rachel, who lives in London but spent many summers with her grandparents in Wexford as a child, was working as a feature writer and columnist at The Times.
Married to banker Sebastian Grigg, who appears in the famous Bullingdon Club photograph with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and with friends including Dominic West and Antonia Fraser, Rachel apparently had it all - and not just the successful career and fabulous social life, but also the truer blessings - a loving family, including five young children, and a strong Catholic faith - and yet six years after that first depression, she suffered a second bout, even more extreme. This time, she remained in bed for a year. "The pattern with depression," she told me, "is, it's like a watercolour. Each successive episode is deeper and darker."
Recovery was slow, with many setbacks, which gradually taught Rachel that, rather than do what she had done before - simply brush an 'unfortunate' episode under the carpet, she needed something different. "I knew I had to find strategies to get better."
These strategies are what make up Walking On Sunshine, along with ideas and suggestions from some of the workshops Rachel has done around mental health. These days, she is an ambassador for SANE and vice president of mental health charity United Response. "This book is about how, having recovered, you stay calm and well. We need to prioritise our mental health."
The book, she says, is "aimed at what Freud called 'ordinary human unhappiness,' rather than someone in the throes of a clinical depression, because that's a serious illness." It is for those who have, perhaps, recovered from clinical depression, or the many who feel unhappy, uneasy, without exactly knowing why. "This is aimed at all of us; we're doing OK, we're managing, but life can be stressful and anxious-making."
Too much emphasis, she believes, is currently put on the moment of crisis, "and once the crisis passes, there isn't enough long-term support. It's a little bit like the way when you have a baby, everyone gathers around for the week of the birth, and then off they go and you're left with this tiny baby. I think we need a new approach - it should be around prevention and not just cure."
A big part of Rachel's journey - "dread word," she laughs - has been simply learning to let go a little.
"I've found that anxiety often manifests itself in trying to grip others and wanting them to behave how I want them to behave; it's one of the ironies that, the less you try to control others, the easier life becomes. I think I was a great control freak. What I've tried to cultivate is a sense of acceptance. The more we fight those difficult feelings, try to shut them down, control them, that's the least effective way of dealing with them."
Of the techniques in the book, the practical one that resonates most with Rachel is also the simplest: breathing. "One of the characteristics of negative and anxious thinking, is that you worry about the future and regret the past. You're not in the moment. You can't breathe in the past, or the future, you can only breathe now. It's so easy, and so effective."
And of the more fundamental, philosophical approaches? "Rephrasing how I look at failure, or what we think of as failure. When I look at my own story - in theory I was quite successful, but actually, my life blew up. Feeling that what we think of as stumbling blocks can be stepping stones, has really made me much calmer.
"We measure ourselves by our worldly success but there's a lot of evidence around to say that connecting with others and relationships are really at the heart of our wellbeing."
The book is a deliberately busy and eclectic selection - a recommendation to check vitamin D levels sits alongside a favourite prayer by St Teresa, on the basis that different things work for different people. "What tends to happen in terms of treatment," Rachel says, "is that we go through waves of people feeling they have found the magic bullet. So in the 1980s, it was all about medication, anti-depressants. Then there was excitement around talking therapies and CBT.
"The latest wave has been mindfulness, and there's a wave coming through now around gratitude. Each new thing is greeted with great excitement, because there is a great need, but unfortunately the truth is, none of these things work for everybody.
"Everybody is individual, people find bits that help and then there are bits that they don't find helpful. I have people I work with who get incredibly stressed if they try and meditate. It doesn't work for them at all. For me, although gratitude is a very interesting approach, I find its not enough for me. I'm not going to get through my day just with gratitude.
"So one of the ideas of the book is - here are a few approaches. My own view is, you need a very personalised, very holistic approach. You need to create a core strategy from lots of different areas; let people create their own tool box of what works for them. This works for me."
For Rachel, change is something best attempted on a modest scale. "I'm not a believer in wholesale, hundred per cent change," she says. "I'm more of the five per cent view - let's try a little change here and there. Over-promising isn't going to help anyone. Bring the expectations down and you might be happily surprised."
So what now does she feel when she looks to the future? "I do feel more calm and optimism. I'm not in any way perfect, but I do feel stronger. I do feel that I've been blessed.
"If you take the image of the black dog, I feel he's on a tight leash. And that's good enough."
Pay careful attention to the words you use. Be wary of 'never' and 'always'. I find it helpful to say 'I feel sad' rather than 'I am sad'.
Spend time in nature and ideally close to running water in order to connect with a more primal part of your being.
When you're feeling overwhelmed - slow down and take life second by second, minute by minute.
Adopt assertive body language. Stand tall. This will increase the levels of testosterone in your body in a good way and lower the levels of cortisol - making you feel confident and calm.
What you resist persists, so express your feelings: everything from sadness to disappointment to rage.
Don't be afraid to lean on others. There is a lot to be said for how much we can accomplish as a group versus how much we can accomplish alone.
Follow the 60pc rule. If a friendship, work project or relationships is 60pc right, then I feel I'm doing well. Perfectionism is an illusion, but its pursuit is real and damaging.
Quit diets in favour of happy foods like green leafy vegetables, lean protein, dark chocolate and cinnamon.
It's good to watch boxsets. They can be an unlikely source of calm: I feel thankful I don't have to run a crystal meth empire and that I'm not being hunted down by a madman.
A POEM can ground you in the moment and tell you a different story. Learning one is even better.
Walking on Sunshine by Rachel Kelly is out now, published by Short Books, €13.50