Cathy Rentzenbrink lost her brother when she was a teenager in a tragic accident. In her first book, The Last Act of Love, she recounts the experience of his death.
In her second book, A Manual for Heartache, which was published in June last year, she offers a practical guide to anyone who has suffered loss, but that also provides helpful tips, as well as solidarity, to those who struggle with depression.
As she reminds us, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year. Indeed 1 in 10 women are affected by postnatal depression.
It is very normal and very common. In her letter to herself, which we have been given permission to include below, she gives comprehensive, no-nonsense instructions to help herself manage the inevitable lows.
It is excellent self-help and I, for one, will be keeping it handy for when the going gets tough.
My dear, my dear,
Somewhere in the future you are in a bit of a pickle. Please accept lots of love. Perhaps something horrible has happened to you or the world or perhaps you are just tired out. It doesn’t matter. The main thing is that you are in a muddle and all of your usual skills and abilities have deserted you. I am here to help.
The first thing I want you to remember is that this is a temporary state of affairs. I know it’s horrible but it won’t last.
You’ve been here before and you will survive it this time, like all the others. I promise you that in your future you are glad to be alive.
Now, we are going to reboot.
Here’s what I want you to do:
— Stop drinking alcohol. Don’t waste any time worrying about whether you have to stop drinking forever, just stop drinking now.
— If you have anxiety symptoms, you need to stop drinking caffeine too.
— Stop watching and reading the news and take the Twitter and Facebook apps off your mobile. Turn your laptop and phone off by 7 p.m. and don’t look at them again until morning. No matter what is happening in the world, you won’t serve it by spinning out of control.
— If you are on any kind of diet, stop. The only dietary rule you are allowed to follow is a general aim to drink lots of water, eat lots of vegetables and not have too much sugar. Please try to stop giving yourself a hard time about being lazy or fat or ugly. You’re not.
— Cry. If you don’t want to dwell on events in your own life then read sad books. Give in to tears. Think of it like bleeding a radiator.
— Every morning, first thing, write from your deepest, darkest, most shameful place. Get the things you are most worried about or frightened of down on paper and tell yourself it’s better off out than in.
— Then remember Nancy Mitford, who said that life was often dull and sometimes sad, but there are currants in the cake. Look for the currants. Every day, write down five things you feel grateful for. You won’t want to do this because you won’t feel grateful for anything, but it’s important. It can be simple things like being warm, having clean air to breathe and water to drink, or being able to afford vitamin pills. You could list your friends, or times when people have been kind.
— Read gentle, comforting, funny things.
— Try to be curious and interested in how you feel.
— I know you won’t think you have enough energy to do any of this, but if you can, try to get outside and walk, swim, look up at the sky, do some yoga. That will all help and is especially important in winter.
— Cook. Roast an organic chicken and make stock.
— Be as honest as you can with the people around you.
— Ask for help. Who can help you?
— Try to laugh or, if you can’t do that, feel amused. Watch Blackadder and Fawlty Towers. Don’t watch anything scary or disturbing until you feel better.
— Hold on.
If you do all the above, I’d expect you to feel a tiny bit better after a couple of days and significantly better after ten.
Mark the date. If you experience two weeks of full-on despair then go to the doctor.
Other than the above, don’t try to change anything.
Don’t make any decisions. Your entire world view is bleak at the moment so there is no point in trying to apply logic to life. Keep up with your commitments if you can, but otherwise just hold on.
Future you – future us, I guess – will be glad you didn’t do anything but take care of yourself and wait for the wind to change.
Future you will be so pleased and proud that there is less mopping-up to do these days.
Future you is really impressed with your management skills. We both send you lots of love and the absolute knowledge that things will be OK.
Remember, my darling, you are not particularly unusual – you are simply one in four.
A Manual for Heartache is published by Picador in paperback and ebook format; RRP £7.99.