Female friends who had read about Sally Brampton’s death after she walked into the sea to drown herself mentioned it in quiet tones. All said more or less the same thing.
“It’s so sad.”
Those words are true and undeniable. A vibrant and intelligent woman who exuded beauty and vitality at 60, she was known as someone who had openly spoken and written about battling depression.
Sally Brampton made her mark as the launch editor of UK Elle at the age of 29, having previously written for Vogue. She turned Elle into a touchstone of the 80s, fashion with an edge for women who knew their own minds. After Elle, she edited Red and wrote a number of novels. But most notably she helped us understand and see inside the mind of a clinically depressed person. Herself. She wrote a ground-breaking, honest and very moving account of her struggle with clinical depression in 2003 before publishing a highly acclaimed book on the subject, Shoot The Damn Dog, in 2008.
As The Sunday Times agony aunt she strove – informed by her experience as a woman who had lived a full life with all its pains and pleasures – to give guidance and advice to other people.
I think it is that full-life still being lived cut short by suicide that is poignant to middle-aged women such as me and my friends.
Suicide is a devastating and desperate act, plain and simple. It is a desperate act for anybody to take their own life and it is an act that devastates the bereaved family and friends.
There is not a middle-aged woman I know who has not had real and crushing difficulties to contend with. These difficulties have a knack of multiplying as you get older – the problems of teenage children, bad relationships, worries about elderly parents, your own health scares, stretched finances. Who amongst my mates hasn’t thought “It’s hard just keeping going.”
But if Sally Brampton could keep going and come through the darkness into the sunlit years of her 60s, we could too.
But clinical depression isn’t just about getting through the tough patches of life. In Sally Brampton’s own words it’s not about getting through it and getting on with life. It’s about being swamped by a blankness beyond your control: Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive.
Sally Brampton did a great deal to open up discussion about depression as an illness that needed to be treated as such and the difficulties of finding and maintaining the right treatment.
For me, Sally Brampton’s death is tragic because of the life already lived and the life still ahead ended by a cruel illness. After all the personal and professional ups and downs which any person who reaches 60 will have been through, with the added agony of clinical depression, the story seemed to be one of a much-deserved quiet after the storm. I think we all wanted to believe that Sally Brampton had reached a place that exemplified a peace and certainty that comes after a life lived to the full, a battle won against the debilitating illness of depression, with years left to write and think and create.
But where depression is concerned what looks like peace from the outside can mask the bleak paralysis of depression, something which Sally Brampton wrote so clearly and movingly about in her 2003 Daily Telegraph article
“In my world, there is no colour. The sky is not blue, the trees are not green, the brick of the buildings is not red. Instead, everything is in shades of grey, a flat dull monotone. I exist in a parallel universe. In despair, I turn away, draw the curtains, climb back into my crumpled bed and cry.”
The irony is that despite – perhaps even because of – the inner turmoil of her life, for woman over 40 Sally Brampton remains an inspiration. She achieved great things as the famed editor who launched Elle at 29. But she went on in her 40s and 50s, after going through a trough of depression and despair, to achieve things that were different but equally great – wonderful writing and journalism including the insightful, moving writing about the illness that would kill her. Speaking and writing with and from experience can be a wonderful, strong thing and Sally Brampton was a mistress in the art. We will miss her. I hope her legacy will be more understanding and more support for those struggling with the burden of depression.
Do you feel depressed? There is help.
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