Out of the darkness in battle against depression

Fourteen years after her debut, novel, Tara West tells Margaret Jennings about her second outing, Happy Dark, an insight into her battle and recovery from depression

Tara West, author of Happy Dark, an honest insight, which reveals the writer's battle with depression.

TARA West seemed to have the perfect life. Her newly published first novel had been critically acclaimed, she had a well-paid job in advertising, a supportive husband, and a lovely home. Yet she was “beyond unhappy” and had fantasies about slicing open her own flesh.

“I wanted to peel myself to death. I couldn’t bear myself, inside or out,” she reveals in her soon to be released, searingly honest yet uplifting memoir, Happy Dark.

The Belfast-based 46-year-old suffered a major depressive crash 14 years ago after the launch of her book, Fodder, which established her reputation as a fresh and original new Irish writer.

“When I was writing it I put myself under huge pressure because I didn’t want anybody in my job to think I was slacking off. I wanted to do a brilliant job — well, I wanted to be brilliant at EVERYTHING!” she says.

But that drive that inspired her creativity and desire to excel — when it went into overdrive, caused a prolonged release of stress hormones creating a “blowout”, which led to her breakdown.

“Signals and hormones weren’t getting though my brain the way they should have. I had just completely run myself into the ground. And then it became a vicious cycle, because when I became depressed I made assumptions about other people and what they were thinking about me, so I drove myself further and harder,” she says.

Tara knew nothing about depression and it was through using appropriate medication and undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that, years later, she finally got an understanding of her own story.

That journey, which she shares so candidly, laced with black humour, in her book, spans her life as a teenager and young adult in Rathcoole, her relationship with her mother and her husband Dave, her work as an advertising executive and the birth of her daughter Farha, now aged 11.

She chose the title, Happy Dark, to “give people a clue as to what was in the book; that there is a lot of darkness, but that there were happy and uplifting times as well”. A journal she kept, from which she gives extracts in the book, poignantly portrays that relentless inner self-hating critic that drove her to the depths and contrasts beautifully with the warmer and lighter narrative voice she uses otherwise throughout.

“I think it helps to show the difference between somebody who has depression and somebody who doesn’t because my voice is different. I hope it shows people that you do actually undergo a personality change. You do change, but you do come back, come back to normal again.”

Her recovery was largely influenced by the combination of finding appropriate medication and going to CBT therapy, which didn’t occur until about seven years after “that first crash”. It was her therapist who suggested she write the book.

“Having done CBT and lived with the knowledge of how it works, I think I now recognise and know the triggers that are likely to make me vulnerable. What I learnt through CBT was that my view of myself was formed at a very young age. I formed assumptions of myself and throughout my life lived through those assumptions and even though I was constantly trying to disprove them, I would always come back to the fact that ‘you know I really am ugly and smelly and fickle’ and all those kinds of things. It was so deeply embedded that there was no getting around it, until I did the CBT and saw that from where I was living, from inside my head, I was about aged nine or 10, still living to those irrelevant beliefs.” Tara hopes the book helps people who have loved ones who are depressed, so that they can get some insight.

“It’s difficult for people to imagine what you mean by mental or emotional pain. The closest I would say depression feels like, is that frantic fretful grief you feel at the loss of a loved one. But it’s directed at nothing in particular — this awful pain you carry with you all the time. And as well as all that, your perspective is all wrong and you’re suspecting other people are plotting against you; it’s such a strange place to be in, but it’s so dangerous we don’t talk about it normally, like a normal thing.”

And depression is normal — as the author discovered when researching the book.

“I think people do hide depression and hide from it, and I think that, to an extent, it is a habit because if you look back in history, depression wasn’t always hidden. For example the Greeks used to say your physiology was made up of four parts — phlegm and yellow bile and blood and black bile. Basically a quarter of our physiology was made up of this thing that could potentially floor you; it was quite accepted then.”

Her theory is that we have been socialised into denial: “I’m guessing that in the second half of the 19th century and the 20th century in the context of world wars, revolution and rebellion, and people dying horribly, people were told to stay calm and carry on — you know, stiff upper lip. So I think it’s a habit now that we don’t talk about this because we talk about everything else; nothing is ruled out. I find it weird that something so normal and so human, is so hidden.” That startling description of slicing open her flesh was one that she visited regularly in the depths of her despair. It’s a memory that “is really visceral and still there, very clear.”

“When I felt really really bad I would think things like that, but I’m very lucky in that recently I have been feeling good and haven’t had those thoughts at all.”

Happy Dark, A Memoir of Depression and Recovery, will be published by Liberties Press in 2017.

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