Photo by author, Shanghai 2008


Call and Response / Bark and Byte: The Writer on Mental Health

Here I record thoughts about my increasing interest in creative responses to mental health and the fragmented WWII poem that brought them to bitter-sweet discord in my head. Calling on epiphanies with William Styron and Keith Douglas, my writing timeline can claim moot expertise over only one of the three authors I discuss below.

I have suffered depressive episodes as long as I can remember. By episodes, I mean certain chunks of time when a canvas bag has been thrown over my head from behind. It is wet, pitch black and immobilising. Summer’s a bummer. By ‘as long as I can remember’, we could be talking yesterday. By ‘depressive’, I mean irrationally numb, overcome, there are many adjectives to employ and varied stresses to endure. Let me be clear at the beginning that I can only speak for my own.

In the mid 90’s, the time I began to write, I was diagnosed with depression and handed pills which sent me round the bend in straight-line-obsessed New York City. In truth, the symptoms had been in place for 40 years, though it took a move to NYC to see the pros in action and to understand, very publicly, that help was there if I wanted it. Prozac was its name and everyone was taking it. Everyone. You’ll never seen more serenity downtown on a Monday morning when the entire street’s popped an SSRI an hour before. Trouble is, as with every panacean myth, Prozac didn’t work across the board. I dropped it after two years but immediately began having panic attacks. Long story short, after the gamut of pharma-false-starts, I have become a Daniel I would not have recognised 20 years ago; “a Daniel, a second Daniel!” has emerged, systematised and progressive; a devilish trade off, no?

My focus in this piece, however, is not with the gilded profiteers in the outer ring of existence; may they dissolve painfully into their own capsules of toxic powder. Rather, having cited myself, it is to answer how a given mind responds, creatively, to the enforced, arbitrary distortions depression assures. To this extent, I’ll call upon William Styron’s experience of total instant breakdown, follow up with my own observations of affliction, conflict and resolution, and conclude with the poem from 1944 that brought everything together in my head (which is always necessary if everything is to fall apart.)

* * * * *

In 1985, the author of Sophie’s Choice, William Styron, visited Paris to receive the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca. The night before the glittering presentation, Styron, recently dry after years of alcohol abuse, soothed by Halcion, had a depressive breakdown. An avalanche of self-loathing and worthlessness inundated a writer whose world inverted somewhere between awake and asleep, turning, in Milton’s words, Darkness Visible; in Styron’s “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.” This, remember, the night before he was due to receive the highest of French esteem; menus were set, toasts were compulsory, speeches practised.

It is an old writer’s trick to describe something as being beyond description, then describing it with searing precision and irreducible scope. Virgil and Dante are masters. In Styron’s case, though, there is much to be said for his mental carve up. He is not a writer of legendary tragedies, nor accountable to the manipulation required in myth creation. Styron’s subsequent Darkness Visible is an incisive memoir of a public persona’s greatest fear, as presented publicly. An instant loss of vitality, a temporal disconnect, an abdication of personality triggered by a mystery trauma of severe magnitude; most damning of all, he bore the dark stigma that never reveals itself, that denies outright the possibility of normative associations and actions. Styron’s eloquent response presents the inherent absurdities of living a double-life:

“…in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”

The sense of separation from the self is palpable, the dualities required in daily contact, the indignation of being ‘abnormal’, beyond the call of medical duty. 30 years on we have come some way to addressing the destructive vagaries of the mind, but any trained psychologist will still tell you we know next to nothing about how it all clicks. Styron’s powerful archaeology of breakdown became a powerful stimulant to my awareness of mental diversities and creativity. ‘You never know what meds people are on,’ I always remind myself when dealing with a tricky customer. More to the point, Styron legitimised the seeming self-absorption of the mentalist Daniel, growing accustomed to the world as a site of plenitude, absence, hatred and comic absurdity.

* * * * *

As a writer, I have recently won a couple of prizes, read at a couple of cracking festivals, been published by better-known print magazines and have lots up and down the Web. 20 years of rejection then BOOM. I don’t really know how to name what I do, I leave categories to others. ‘Poetry’ is the most common word. But the problem with poetry is the word ‘Poetry.’ At heart, I feel like a lyricist whose rhythm precedes everything, a complex set-up no doubt engrained by too many ‘sit-still-and-listen to this boys, Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, with the 2nd form at posh Cambridge public schools,

“He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin; / He’d a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.”

I’d wear that.

one morning in May, I stepped into the shower a balanced man. 10 minutes later, not “walking wounded” but on my knees, I was cracked and weeping on the rubber mat. I cannot account for this on a second-by-second basis, the screen’s too fuzzy. There was simply a short-circuiting of neurons; a mass walk-out by the call centre staff. In their place came the sudden realisation that the world is only as horrific as those who populate it; ample for me to have an outage, it seems. I can’t say how much time I spent on the bathroom mat, nor what happened next. There was no time.

Only when, in a matter of hours, reality became tangible, could I spend the following day writing about it, in an intense trance, to get the poison out. Call and response. Bark and byte. The urgency to reach for the screen – my St Bernard with a nip keeping the inner chill at bay – exists to record with as much honestly the panoply of malefactions that have rolled through, not only the previous day for some continue to lag behind, obstinately, for years.

In this act, of recording, my low becomes my high. But if low cannot be trusted for obvious reasons, what makes high more honest? There is of course a fix at work here, a sleight-of-hand, because though I am finally writing of my own immobilising nemesis, rationality inevitably rises to bring order and reanimation. If I want to turn experience into a poem, that is. The writing speaks of hallucination where its setting on the page is anything but. There is a kind of fraudulence at work. Nothing genuine can be replicated; words destroy the masked actors.

My writing that increasingly incorporates mental health is, then, like all others, an attempt to explain the workings of a mind bound to arbitrary traumas. The pain is not permanent, but, when present, it is abundant. Like Rome records more annual rainfall than London. Because when it rains in Rome, the entire city sinks.

* * * * *

There is an ample lineage for depression and poetry. Type ‘famous poets who were depressed’ and Google takes 0.18 of a second to throw up Plath, Clare, Blake, Roethke, Poe, Sexton, Dickinson. (Note to self: dinner-party poem in there.) My discovery of Keith Douglas, however, was a game-changer. I knew of Churchill’s Black Dog, assumed it was all those cigars and all that brandy talking. 15 years ago on a rainy Scottish afternoon, I leafed through a British 2nd world war poet of immense talent, vision, empathy; an instant relief from what felt like the formalist Great War lamentations I’d been used to reading and would again come to teach. The final stanza of Douglas’ ‘Desert Flowers’ (1943) caught my eye and brings me closer to my purpose:

I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.

These are the external realities of war – Douglas described his work as extraspective – here there is death and confusion as spoken by the depressed observer and Truth-to-Power posthumous bard. A year on, close to death but clueless as to when, Douglas wrote Bête Noire – Black Dog – a work of incomplete fragments that shows, counter-culturally, in a fraught burst of unforeseen introspection, Douglas revealing his own manic depression. He famously called Bête Noire “the poem I can’t write; a protracted failure”; it remains in fragment form I reprint below. “My failure,” he went on, “is that I know so little about him, beyond his existence and the infinite patience and extent of his malignity.” Failure continued to bark at me too; like Douglas, I could not make tangible – could not even grasp – the debilitating shadows that at times engulfed me.

Having recently abandoned and then restored medication, I instantly engaged with a poet speaking of power-failure, speaking to me, powerfully. I record below what I read once and once alone (that afternoon) in St Andrews library. I won’t say it shattered me – that hands over victory to the darkness – but rather that it induced in me an empathy I have felt with no other single poem. The admission of an invasive, unknowable force coming unbidden to pervert the senses, to encircle the voice, and to lay its brute palimpsest over my shoulders and back; I might just as well have been sat next to a Keith in a bomb shelter, gas masks on, chatting about our condition.

Bête Noire, fragments (1944)

A (i)

Yes, I too have a particular monster
a toad or worm curled in the belly
stirring, eating at times I cannot foretell, he
is the thing I can admit only once to
anyone, never to those who have not their own.
Never to those who are happy, whose easy language
I speak well, though with a stranger’s accent.

A (ii)

This is my particular monster. I know him;
he walks about inside me. I’m his house
and his landlord. He’s my evacuee
taking a respite from hell in me
he decorates his room of course
to remind him of home. He often talks of going –

such a persuasive gentleman he is
I believe him, I go out quite sure
that I’ll come back and find him gone
but does he go? Not him. No, he’s a one
who likes his joke, he won’t sit waiting for
me to come home, but comes


The Beast is a jailer
allows me out on parole.
brings me back by telepathy
is inside my mind
breaks into conversation with his own words,
speaking out of my mouth
can overthrow me in a moment
writes what I write, or edits it (censors it)
takes a dislike to my friends and sets me against them
can take away pleasure
is absent for long periods, is never expected when he
has several forms and disguises
makes enemies for me
can be overthrown by me, if I have help.
I have been trying to get help for about eleven years.
Three times I got help.
If this is a game, it’s past half time and the beast is


The trumpet man to take it away
Blows a hot break in a beautiful way
Ought to snap my fingers and tap my toes
But I sit at my table and nobody knows
I’ve got a beast on my back.

A medieval animal with a dog’s face
Notre Dames or Chartres is his proper place
But here he is in the Piccadilly
sneering at the hot musicians’ skill. He
is the beast on my back.

Suppose we dance, suppose we run away
into the street, or the underground
he’d come with us. It’s his day.
Don’t kiss me. Don’t put your arm round
and touch the beast on my back…


If at times my eyes are lenses
through which the brain explores
constellations of feeling
my ears yielding like swinging doors
admit princes to the corridors
into the mind, do not envy me.
I have a beast on my back                                             [February-March 1944]

I don’t believe in unicorns or happy-ever-afters or gold from tiny redheads at the end of rainbows. I don’t believe in whatever it looks like it’s meant to be. I do believe in a poet under massive duress sent to die in a war he loathed. And I do believe in beasts that win. I relished in the strength of the man, his raw openness, the means of challenging omniscient, distortive voices in his head. “I have been trying to get help for about eleven years.” This in 1944. Imagine the stigma of mental health today and multiply by 71 years. Here was a poem to teach, I thought, no stranger to the notion of a mind kidnapped by itself; crucially, one whose auto-maleficence can be defeated, ‘if I have help’.

Douglas, however, refused to speak through me in any manner conducive to learning. Though I’d practised a couple of times, I could not publicly recite the poem the poet could not write. Not even half-hidden by a lectern. I was, after all, unleashing to a roomful of note-taking strangers my entire mental make-up. It was, in Styron’s words, “a storm of murk”. Epic fail, Virgil would say. Bête Noire didn’t – and has still not – come out again in public. But it’s everywhere in private; another epiphany, and not of sorts. I struggled for days over why I could only falter, blamed a lack of concentration and ability, joked about fragments, and stuck a dagger in my mind’s thigh, having after years finally held the mirror the right way up. Douglas didn’t have any similar opportunity to self-harm. He was blown to pieces during the Allied invasion of Normandy, aged 24, his remains originally buried in a rural hedge.

Even if not a formal didactic success, I have come to conclude Bête Noire is the poem that unlocked in me a means of communication hitherto inaccessible. Douglas helped me recognise, order and challenge my own mental health so as to let good people know there are black dogs everywhere that require constant monitoring. (Should it be “black dogs…who”?) For Styron’s part, he showed me the furthest-flung possibility of a writer’s despair, one that fortunately remains on the edge of my radar. In the last months I have become increasingly confident in public about my own hidden endurances, feeling the need to assure people that the professor they seem to like can also be afflicted by the things that may afflict them; that the guy up front can also find coping strategies and ways of making it through the day.

In response, I have had both friends and strangers share with me the hangovers misfortune guarantees; and I feel strong, not weak, as a result, as, is my wish, do those to whom I’ve spoken. I am not out to evangelise, to be known for ‘this and this alone’. Students and colleagues know well that is not the case. I seek instead to be comfortable and biographically instructive when talking in the classroom about invisible demons, such as suffered, for example, by my beloved Hamlet.

* * * * *

One morning in May my shower mat felt the full force of tragedy by way of a wet, leaping dog; so were Styron’s vulnerabilities set aflame in Paris. Douglas’ beast is not a common occurrence and, crucially, with great injustice, it never disappears with the same magic instantaneity by which it makes itself known. That pisses me off. My depression is mostly manageable on a daily basis. It only ever happens when I’m alone, which makes creative re-telling an even more fractious exercise. Indeed, the need to be with people, up front or otherwise, is integral to my self-esteem. Friends and colleagues see both a happy Daniel alongside the obvious consequences of my distress, but the cause is secure as the Buddha’s Tooth, mostly out of reach even to the sole guy charged with guarding it with his life. Like him, I can only do this stuff alone.

The artistic world continues to respond but response, never call, is the most the artistic world can do. Styron eloquently named and shamed his nemesis; Douglas too; post facto. As Auden knew, poetry changes nothing. Well, Master WH, here’s where I flip you 180 degrees. Had I not read Douglas and inferred an identical diagnosis, I might have remained a cipher unto myself. His poetry pushed me to align my mental states with my writing; he consecrated their co-existence. Poetry changed something. Not bombings or forced disappearances or tyrants puffing their cheeks. Against this madness, as individuals, we are powerless, mostly distant, definitely absent, even though the horror can be instantly localised and sneak into the shower. In service of the unique subjective mind, I celebrate the opportunities to submit to the flourishment of top quality journals turning their attention to the connection between mental health and creativity; just as I celebrate the small, community-based websites who for no profit have writers try to answer the same questions but on less glossy paper.

I do not know whether the true me is the one who performs daily or who comes home alone to exfoliate that same day onto the screen. I think about people who wear t-shirts with writing on them and it fills me with despair. The absurdity of it all. But then comes the nightly response. Creativity. The Shadow. The recognition that black dog, there he is, panting in the corner, can be overthrown, if I have help. Polarising imagery comes as automatic writing, rhythm and urgency and push are always in place in the orchestra pit of my stomach, the energy I have in my trance is unremitting. Just as time kills writing so writing kills time. As with Styron, my vulnerabilities become crudely exposed to no-one but me, the most terrifying moment of my life now spent alone. In this sense, the act of writing becomes death defying, an act of necessary re-animation, a summoning of the finest spirit to give the dog a biscuit or to remove the canvas bag.