It’s not often that I leave a book with a lump in my throat but that’s the case with Horatio Clare’s recent journal The Light in the Dark. Brutally honest and emotionally harrowing Clare cuts to the heart of what it means to live with a mental health condition but also shows how the natural world continues to be a source to inspire and carry us through. The book is structured as a winter diary, plotting the course of the author’s thoughts and experiences during the winter of 2017/2018, as the days darken from October, through the period of the ‘Beast from the East’ until the prospect of spring as he leaves us in late March.
Clare lives with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that affects people across the northern hemisphere as daylight hours reduce. Depression isn’t a constant phenomenon. It is lilting. It seems to turn on and off unexpectedly. On occasion it apparently disappears, but then cuts back with a vengeance. As the author puts it:
…depression brings fear, entrapment, fault and failure wherever you look. The book I was writing seemed awful, and I could see no hope: if I cannot write, I cannot support my family, cannot be the father my son deserves – so the narrative goes.
The condition takes hold and at times everything seems impossible, rolling anxiety and fears for the future, which, however irrational they may be, seem wholly truthful at the time.
What is more, this book is successful in broaching something that isn’t discussed enough in the increasingly open and honest national conversation about mental health in the UK: the impact on those who live with and around people with mental health conditions. Clare’s family, especially Rebecca and Aubrey, are wholly exposed to the condition on a second hand basis. It is a fear and feeling of letting them down that grips Clare and seems to spiral his condition into a worse state.
The symptoms of seasonal depression are all there and I cannot shake them. I catch Rebecca’s assessing eye, and I can feel her strength, as if she spreads her shoulders, taking on more of the burden of lightening the house and making us all happy, as I retreat into obsessive washing-up and hear my voice starting sentences with ‘No’ and ‘Don’t’. The negative is taking up residence in me, like mould, like rot, like decay.
Clare effectively describes how the most ‘normal’ of everyday tasks can seem impossible at times. He also presents how behaviours and agendas that you might previously have found easy or enjoyable become the most difficult thing in the world. One particularly poignant section for me is the manner that he describes a day at work, approaching a lecture hall of students in Liverpool:
Facing a lecture theatre full of students, I cannot entertain, digress and make them laugh, as I hope to normally. The words and the lightness will not come. Instead I write everything down first, and work through it carefully and slowly, so that I will not be left gulping in silence. The working, connecting, creating brain seems to shut down completely, leaving a dirge on an inner monologue that will not shut up about failure and mediocrity and guilt.
He also openly embraces the social and political issues of the day, with Brexit mentioned several times, as well as the looming crisis of identity and uncertainty of future for the current generation of young people. For a time millennials were ridiculed for the being the ‘me, me, me’ generation, expecting everything for nothing, being lazy, ignorant and demanding, but now the truth is coming out and their future is not rosy. Young people today face immense uncertainty in all manner of ways and so it is little wonder there are a rising number of young people with mental health issues.
There is a despairing feeling among my students, caught between anxiety in the present and fear for their futures. You can hold it all off and ‘crack on’, as Rebecca puts it, but to think about it at all is to confront an ominous gathering of bad signs.
…Thank goodness for my students. They seem to sense my vulnerability, and my anxiety on their behalf…Many suffer anxiety and depression and self-doubt…They write with restraint and clarity and no self-pity at all about absent fathers, eating disorders, periods of homelessness, and about shame – shame produced by a belief that they will never make the money their parents did, and are therefore guilty of failing to justify the privileges of happy homes and good schools. Their writing is often heartbreaking to read…The girls record sexual harassment, leering, groping. Some students, halfway or two-thirds of the way through their degrees, hugely in debt, seeing no future as writers or anything else, suffer breakdowns, withdrawals, depressions, relentless anxiety and sleep disorders.
The sad reality.
There are glimmerings of the beauty of nature throughout the book, and geographically we are transported to Italy as well as Yorkshire, Wales and the city of Liverpool. Spring is envisioned in hopeful terms. In one section snowdrops are presented as a marker of optimism for the near future. Time and time again, Clare reflects on the light of the day, perhaps a subconscious reflection on his seasonal affective disorder:
‘The light was astonishing today, the air whitening the sunlight, the cold hardening the blue, the light like the absence of smell in the air, both bright and bleaching.’
‘Winter colours came suddenly, in slightly slanted light.’
‘Now the colours were pure winter. Grey as glumness. Kerb-coloured sky, and about the buildings a hard pallor.’
‘In the blue dark of the morning the sky is a luminous dim indigo.’
This is also a story of the darker side of the countryside, with descriptions and visions of criminal acts; murder fields as badger baiters have their way with his mother’s sheep in the Welsh hills, a tale of silence and darkness, evil acts and grief of a different nature.
Some reviewers have presented the work as being somewhat ‘tangled…jump(ing) around between themes and places’, but I believe it is all the better for it. It is, after all, a journal of disparate entries, not a meaningfully coherent book of prose. For me, it gives readers a closer impression of the way the writer thinks.
The Light in the Dark is a book of shadows and rather than fleeting around the subject of depression it engages with it directly. Horatio Clare’s prose provides an insight into the darker thoughts and feelings of people who live with the condition of seasonal affective disorder, as well as showing how the struggle can be disparate and without order or regularity. It might be a melancholic read and as a reader you might be put off by this, but I hope you will delve into its pages, if only to reflect on the palpability of mental health once a degree of understanding is achieved.
Many thanks to Elliott & Thompson for sending me a copy of this book to review. It was published on 1st November and I urge you to buy a copy.