Gritty, honest, lump-in-throat-inducing, sobering. The Wild Remedy is one of the most powerful personal accounts of a struggle with depression that I have read, and a signal to all of us of the power and importance of the natural world in alleviating times of great personal struggle. Emma Mitchell’s words strike a chord that induces reflection on our relationship with our very selves as well as with nature as a whole. The subtitle to the book ‘How Nature Mends Us’ suggests a handbook, with tips of how to survive ‘the grey slug’ as Emma refers to depression. However, the book is more than this. It is a personal diary, reflective space and creative means of dealing with one of the greatest issues of our time: how we all grow to understand and live with our darkest thoughts and struggles, for no matter who we are or whatever age we are, we all face situations or moments that push us to crisis point.
For many people who suffer from depression, reduction of sunlight in winter can be a significant issue, as well as the poor weather generally, and this impacts on mood and the way that we feel about ourselves. The outdoors can alleviate these symptoms to some extent, and a wildlife experience can distract and lift the struggle, even if momentarily. Spring promises new life and new hope, which can also lift prospects and the way that we feel about ourselves. However, such an anticipation can result in even greater difficulty, as Emma explains in a tantalising and brutally honest manner within her ‘March’ chapter. The book is structured chronologically, starting in October, moving through the winter months and ending in late summer. This is effective in that depression seems to be at its peak in late winter, although this of course fluctuates through the year and from person to person. Occasionally, it can bite in with little rhyme or reason and it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint why mood is as it is. However, you can but accept that the feeling will not last forever, and battle through it until it improves.
If you have suffered from depression or anxiety yourself you will have your own ways of describing it and identifying when it begins to show its teeth. You will probably have generated strategies to deal with it as a whole, prevent mood from slumping to a point of no return and getting through those particularly difficult moments or panic attacks when they set in. Emma’s way of describing her condition brings a lump to my throat:
When this disease eats my mind like an insatiable grey slug, it feels as though the responses of my entire body and every sense become dormant. My brain’s pleasure centres are not functioning properly and this induces more melancholy.
It can impact on the apparently smallest parts of your life that most of us take for granted:
My world narrows. I stay in the cottage and move slowly between its rooms. My thoughts become sluggish and jumbled and ideas for drawings, photographs and writing vanish. I avoid friends and turn down invitations to socialize. I can manage only the simplest tasks each day, and the guilt I feel about my inability to contribute to the household, fulfil work commitments and be an engaged parent is overwhelming. Self-reproach brings my mind lower still.
This inability to cope with seemingly the smallest, mundane tasks is something that I can completely empathise with on a personal basis. It is a subject that I have usually shied away from writing about explicitly, at least on this blog, but as I have now come to terms with it and it is something that I am able to deal with and have strategies for, I feel I can be more open about it. Indeed, I feel it is important to be open about it. Some time ago I suffered a series of knock backs that had an immense impact on my way of thinking and this led to depression and anxiety. For months on end I felt utterly useless and pointless, unable to do the things I had previously pushed myself to achieve. Washing the dishes was about as much as I could do on some days, and even that was a struggle at times, my mind tricking me to believing that even that small task was beyond my ability. Learning to deal with this and get through this period was the most difficult thing I have had to do in my life. Loved ones and the natural world helped me through it, and I have come through all the stronger for it. It has made me empathise more with others who struggle (and my goodness there are a lot of people who do) and I’ve learnt far more about myself and where I want to be in the future.
Tomorrow (20th March) is the first official day of Spring and plant-life seems to be jumping back to life with buds beginning to show themselves. It is always an exciting time of year that draws a smile. Seemingly automatically I find myself breathing more deeply, belly breathing in the smells of early spring. I sit on the grass and feel the warm rays of sunshine touch my skin, that is tired and damaged after endless late nights in the lambing shed and the general stresses that come over the winter period. Spring represents optimism and beauty. A new festival of light lies ahead.
Emma’s April chapter suggests a more optimistic tone than her feelings in March. Come the end of the month her situation had drawn to such crisis point, with suicidal thoughts amongst the mix, that she saw a doctor, a helping hand at a critical moment. Starling murmurations, whilst beautiful and distracting, helping to lift the mood temporarily are sometimes not quite enough. We need to be lifted out of the pit before we can move on and sustain a steadier line.
Watching birds from a kitchen window or taking part in the paternalistic/maternalistic ritual of feeding the birds can be therapeutic by itself. Emma’s observations of blackbirds, long-tailed tits and jays in her garden are joyous in the simplicity of their escapism. As I write this now a female blackbird taps away at the still yet uncultivated vegetable patch in my garden. She is intrigued, busy, purposeful, the prospect of Spring drawing her on perhaps.
The other avian delight raised by Emma is that of the arrival of the swallows, which she describes at length as a miracle of the natural world. The journey of these migrants helps to provide perspective for us all, and an emblem of strength at times when we need it.
It might be the cusp of winter and spring, and occasionally winter might bite back, rather like mood, but getting outside to observe nature at this point can be a true delight. It is an honour to take part in this ‘Blog Tour’ for #TheWildRemedy and I am enjoying reading the reflections from other writers and bloggers. Check out Paul Cheney’s piece here and Hazel Newhouse’s here. As part of the tour I was encouraged to go out and observe what I could see at the moment, as we enter Spring, and I urge you to do the same. Blossom of the blackthorn appeared not so long ago here in Essex and primroses and bulbs began to peek their way through the grasses. Squirrels run through the still naked branches of trees but there is the prospect of buds beginning to break. In not so long the canopy will be a wonderful new green, reawakened after the winter sleep.
It’s not often in a review that you thank the author but I want to make an exception here, for Emma has really moved me with her account in this book. It will sit with pride on my book shelf and I will no doubt return to its pages in future.
A brief mention must be made of the hardback book itself. It is as beautifully crafted as the words set within its pages. Amongst Emma’s text are photographs and illustrations which complement the overall narrative and showcase her immense broader creative talent. No matter where you read this book, some of nature’s wonder and healing power will lift itself off the pages into your mind.
The Wild Remedy is published by Michael O’Mara Books. Pick up a copy at your local independent bookshop.
Many thanks to Alara and Bethany at Michael O’Mara books for a copy of the Wild Remedy.