A Review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015.)

 A short review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015)

This is a marvellous collection of letters to imaginary people (or not). I think it is a book to keep at hand, for encouragement and,  if you are laid low, there is much consolation in this book. I would like to write about all the letters, but, constrained by time, I have just picked a few of my favourites. Please forgive the odd bit of wandering slightly off topic: on mental health I have much to say for much have I been through!

So, I have taken the following text from Penguin’s own website, which you can find at http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/dear-stranger/9781405922128/

Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and Mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, Dear Stranger is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become and achievable goal.

No one should face a mental health problem alone. Whether it’s on a doorstep, on the end of a telephone or online, Mind is there for everyone who is experiencing a mental health problem.

All profits from the sale of this book (at least £3 for every copy sold) will be donated to Mind, a registered charity number 219830.

****

‘Dear Stranger is an inspiration’
Stylist

‘An inspirational book’
Sunday Express S Magazine

‘This collection cuts right to the heart of what it means to be happy – and human. . . . Dear Stranger is a thoughtful exploration of happiness, in all its wonderful, often elusive complexity, that all of us can learn something from’
Red Magazine Online

‘An incredibly thought-provoking read’
Sun

‘Beautifully written letters from the heart’
Lady Magazine

Full list of contributors: Fiona Phillips; Martha Roberts; Francesca Martinez; Rachel Joyce; Donal Ryan; Matt Haig; Philippa Rice; Naomi Alderman; Yuval Noah Harari; Ilona Burton; Rowan Coleman; Ellen White; Abbie Ross; Giles Andreae; Conn Iggulden; Seaneen Molloy-Vaughan; Genevieve Taylor; Thomas Harding; Jez Alborough; Caitlin Moran; Blake Morrison; Nicci French; Jo Elworthy; John Lewis-Stempel; Chris Riddell; Tessa Watt; Helen Dunmore; Alain de Botton; Deborah Levy; Kevin Bridges; Marian Keyes; Nicholas Allan; Nick Harkaway; Edward Stourton; Eoin Colfer; Shirley Hughes; Santham Sanghera; Alexandra Fuller; Daniel Levitin; Claire Greaves; Arianna Huffington; Richard Branson; Molly Pearce; Nicholas Pinnock; Tim Smit; Tony Parsons; Dave Chawner; @Sectioned__; Professor Lord Richard Layard;

Now THIS bit is mine.

I found out about this book through some of the people I follow on twitter, particularly Mind and the excellent journalist, Martha Roberts, who also maintains a website http://www.mentalhealthwise.com – a deeply compassionate and compendious source of information, encouragement and solace. I had, in my many periods of illness, found Mind a support. I liked the breadth of contributors to the anthology and relished the notion that this was a book I could keep near me for emergencies, or just feeling flat – or for those times when I have given an unsettling or disturbing feeling, say, ninety seconds to run its physiological course – and it’s still there. Finally, I was editing my debut novel, a synopsis of which you can find at the top of this site: it’s billed as fiction, but oh my, I have drawn heavily on my own experiences and adventures in mental health. I  knew that, to be well-informed in the subject area of my book – and to be able to talk about it – I needed to keep abreast of titles which looked at mental health or mental illness.

So, Matt Haig writes in his letter, ‘Dear twenty-four-year-old me’, that depression draws a line – between what you were before and what you are now; that,

‘It separates lives into eras. It gives you a BC and an AD of your own life.’

I have found this to be true, but also that I have had many eras, since I have been falling into (Matt Haig’s word, here) ravines since childhood. I can summon up that feeling now, of being a kid – a dark and visceral experience: it was a big lump of sadness and I don’t remember being without it, although I do remember times, from late childhood and early adolescence when the sadness altered everything and I felt separate from my contemporaries. There wasn’t anyone I could tell. I don’t say that to sound self-indulgent or tragic; I am being factual. There is a reason that the central character in my debut novel has many imaginary friends into whom the protagonist of the story breathes life.

This is, at first, rather a digression, but his letter prompted me to think about being younger and feeling alone; in the BC period.  Well I know  – because the eldest of my three boys is fourteen and  because I teach teenagers – that parents worry about their offsprings’ access to social media – the films they may see or make on YouTube, what goes on Tumblr and so on. There are, most definitely, some troubling things out there – perhaps most of all the ‘pro’ communities: pro self-harming, mental illness, pro-Ana (anorexia) – and if you looked about you would find a lot of younger people writing about being in such online communities and also about getting away from them. But this is not my main point. As a kid and a teenager, when I was at school, then university, I either didn’t have anyone to tell or, later on, didn’t know who to tell. But those who are alone or FEEL alone, may find lively interchange and friendship through social media. There are twitter groups who hold open MH chats for younger people. Take a look at the tweets of one of my favourites,@Nursewithglasses for information about things; @YoungMindsUK is great for threads to follow and  – whatever your age – @MHChat has a session – which is like a wonderful conversation – on Wednesday night at eight. When I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh. BC/AD’ that is where I head.

I am looking at twitter now and can see that some younger mental illness sufferers are tweeting from hospital. Some of these people contributed to the book. Ok: now I am crying. I am also writing back to them, sending a DM or tweet saying, ‘Hello – I am thinking of you. I am sending a hug.’ It isn’t my place to say anything else but you see, I was there. I lay down on the floor to die twice – once when I was fourteen and again when I was nineteen. I’m bearing those scars; I know that no-one came, I scraped myself off the floor –  and I’m damned if others should feel so alone. Should I hide any of that? Should I hide what happened in the ‘ravine’; in the ‘BC’?The sort of admission that still, in this day and age, has people avoiding you as if you and what you connote are in some way contagious? No: I should not hide it, because to do so is to do a disservice to those who have yet to recover. No again, because those who have avoided me or told me I was a weakling were, I could say, operating from a place of fear. They saw or could see me as a contaminant. But at least one in four of us may suffer from mental illness at any one time and so I say things to those who are going through the fire – and I mean those people whom I don’t know, but who are reaching out through social media, so I say,

‘I hear you and I understand. You can do this. You can, you can. I am still here. I went to university, I teach, I run a business, I write – my debut novel is out next March – I have three boys. I am doing the mummy stuff and I can dig it. This morning I did something funny and had a custard slice for breakfast.’

And Dear Stranger in its individual letters and as a whole, says something so very comforting and pertinent. It sets the darkness echoing and tells people that they are not alone and that people of all ages and all backgrounds have been affected by mental illness OR that the writers are understanding and sympathetic and want to pass on, in a spirit of generosity, what they know. For me, every day can provide significant challenge and so this book is of great personal support. It reminds me that I am not alone. Or, as Martha Roberts writes in her letter, ‘Dear Woman in Pink’,

‘I want to turn back and say ‘Hi’. I want to talk to you about illness and desperation and to explain that you’re not alone in your sadness. I want to chat to you about humour, and how, even in those bleakest of  bleak times, it’s possible to reawaken a hibernated joy that can serve as a lifeline and a vehicle for recovery.’

What I enjoyed about this book was its breadth, humour and kindness. I loved Martha Roberts’s letter to a person observed near her, drawn through the prism of Martha’s own experience and concluding, ‘This too shall pass.’ Caitlin Moran’s  description of the ‘dark place’ was poignant: it’s a place I know well – where you lie down. When I lay down, first when I was a child, then on the cusp of my adult life, I wished hard to expire; to not be; to never have been. But you see, there was a voice in my head while that wish rattled around and echoed out into the room and the voice said, ‘You should never have been; you are wrong; a waste; an abject failure.’ But that voice was not really my voice: it was a compound of parents – or rather my mother with a acquiescent father – a sibling, teachers who humilated me for being a let down to my publicly-lauded parents, later a partner with whom a relationship went wrong – so it had to be me, didn’t it? How could the others have been wrong? It was me, aberrant, in the face of normal, up and doing other people.

Caitlin Moran’s letter reminds us to question whether the voice is impolite and speaks in a way we would not stand if it spoke thus to a loved one. No? You wouldn’t be so harsh, so damining to another? You wouldn’t try to diminish or even annihilate them? No? Quite. We should learn not to speak thus to ourselves. Moreover, she suggests a pet – making yourself into one – that you enjoy looking after, hence the dachshund called Eric who has been hers for some time. He is well looked after, likes watching musicals and has a jaunty bobble hat and duffle coat. And importantly, she gives you a reminder: depression takes a layer of skin off so that you ‘feel more of the world.’ Flip that: if you feel more of the world, it could be argued that this is a gift. Feeling more; arguably experiencing more, And, yes, I cry straight away when David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ comes on.

‘WE FEEL MORE OF THE WORLD THAN MOST PEOPLE. That’s amazing. That is why we cry with joy when we listen to David Bowie, and are obsessed with the moon, and can stare at the redness of cherry-juice on our finger and imagine a whole world that is cherry-juice-red — with stained glass trees and frosted crimson glass, and tiny bright birds that fly out of scarlet oyster shells. Every day is a fight — the highs are high, and the lows are low. You are rarely lukewarm.’

I remember asking, during one period of support with MHRS (which is the community health rescue service, although I like to think of them as a squad – sort of superheroes) if I could be medicated for lability of mood, because my moods and responses are changeable and dramatic and always have been. The psychologist’s answer was pretty much that I did not, in their opinion, have a mood disorder but also that to medicate would take me away from the highs – to place me somewhere that was ‘lukewarm’ and that this would, ultimately, do me a disservice. That would not be the advice for everyone, but for me, it was just so. I tolerate the lows and I am thinking about an imaginary pet of some sort.

And in our darker moments, when we are ill or, in fact, just contemplating how we might be happy – and Dear Stranger is not just about depression and mental illness it is more broadly about what happiness is and how we might attain it – we could keep this book to hand. I liked Alain de Botton’s reflections on calm and absolutely agreed with what he wrote as, for me, removing agitation is important for happiness and, frankly, so that I stay well. This bit I found most compelling,

One: Panic about Panic.

‘A lot of agitation is caused by an unrealistic sense of how unusual difficulty is. We are oppressed by unhelpful images of how easy it is to achieve and how normal it is to succeed. The stories that officially circulate about what relationships and careers are like tend fatally to downplay the darker realities, leaving many of us not only upset, but upset that we are upset, feeling persecuted as well as miserable.’

He is, like me, a fan of the philosopher, Pascal and thus explains why we should be grateful to Pascal and also to ‘the long line of pessimistic philosophers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of life.’

I can see that this may be at odds with what modern life is selling us, but, in my experience, to accept difficulty as normal and to let go of seeming perfection and the rush – the pressure – to try to achieve it, is very liberating. It is not the same as giving up; not a prescription for inaction, but more a prompt to a calmer life because of what falls away. I loathe, as I have written before, the shlock-philosophy and psychobabble of The Secret and the literature from which it stems – that of New Thought. If you desire something good, think of it coming to you and it will, through the laws of attraction. become yours. The same book posits the idea that bad in your life happened because you attracted it and that, if you believe, the bountiful universe will bring its cornucopia to you. This is why otherwise perfectly intelligent people stick a mock-up of a million bucks on their ceilings – because it is an affirmation of their intention. To be rich and therefore to be happy, gestating expectations that are bound to be disappointed and which are often, frankly, mercenary and without a shred of intellectual or spiritual vigour behind them. It seems to me that books such as The Secret play into people’s fears; that those who are dissatisfied or unhappy or want more, just need to think positively and the rewards will come. But one cannot shift everything into a positive (because some things are terrible and to negate that is to diminish our humanity and our experience). Far better to read a prompt to accepting difficulty, even pessimism – and being a right laugh anyway.

Finally, I found Sathnam Sanghera’s letter, which begins, ‘Dear Wolverhampton Asian Goth’, a wonderfully encouraging piece of writing. In fact, this morning I am lending the book to a mum whose son tells her he feels acutely aware of his difference vis-a-vis his school-age peers. Ah, I thought, and turned to this, for her:

‘So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. Whether it is hiding their sexuality, or hanging out socially with people they don’t even like, or going along with stuff just because of social and family pressure to do so. But you’re already there. It is almost certain that you will not remain as you are, but you already have the courage to be different. You’re decades, and in some cases, a lifetime, ahead of most people.’

All my life I have been troubled by the sense that I am different. I wish I’d had this essay! I am convinced that this fed I into a sense of self-loathing which toppled me deeper into depression. And for years. These days, my attitude is perkier; I’m not afraid of a mighty, ‘Fuck off!’ (albeit in my head) to those who call me quirky, mad, really eccentric, bonkers – because those monikers have not been – and are not always given –  with a knowing and inclusive smile. They are said with a tone or a look that is vaguely derogatory – and, I might say, by those who are terrified of their own sense of difference. And we are back to what Sathnam Sanghera wrote about the misery caused by that. He’s a wise fellow and I’ve loved everything he’s written.

So, do get a copy of the book. As you can see at the top, it is published in aid of Mind. When you read it, may you be reminded of glimpses of happiness: perhaps happiness was fleeting, or maybe it stayed a little longer. May you ‘lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag bone shop of  the heart ‘ (as W.B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’) and find hope and remember that you do have ladders.  If you are ill now, or unhappy, may you find the strength to transfigure that experience into something that makes you stronger, more imaginative – better able to be kind to yourself. And I hope, as I was kindly allowed to quote from Kavanagh’s ‘Prelude’ as an epigraph for my first novel. Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), that ‘The millstone has become a star.’

Anna x

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