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The Exhausting Elephant

Susan Calman’s book, Cheer up, Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate, is an excellent book on so many levels, not least because it is written from the ‘inside’. As someone who is still trying to live moderately well with depression in its various guises, I tend to indulge in bibliotherapy every six months or so. That usually entails reading yet another self-help book about perfectionism, imposter syndrome or the various medical and therapeutic interventions now on the market. I am a sucker for a bit of of self-improvement, maybe because I still struggle to really and truly like what I see in the mirror. Susan Calman’s often hilarious descriptions of the ‘madness within’ helped me hugely to begin to see things a little differently.

Not only did the honesty and vividness of the description help me - so did the star supporting role of Susan’s wife. Lee. All I knew before about this outstanding human being was her smiling face in the audience of Strictly last year where she put up with a ‘third person in the marriage’ (Kevin Clifton) in a way the royals can only dream about. The obvious support, understanding, love, patience, and resilience of this person reveals something of what partners of depressed people have to be able to exhibit. I know I have often deeply worried about (and therefore exacerbated my negative feelings) inflicting my bizarre and inexplicable moods, feelings and behaviour on those closest to me. All that secrecy, of course, adds to the illusion that it’s not really real and therefore can be wished away. If only …

I loved too the Crab of Hate, that cruel crustacean that plagues Susan from time to time, but now wears a top hat. She makes mention Churchill’s black dog too, as a way to describe the presence of depression when it hits. The idea of an animal metaphor intrigued me and so I thought hard about how best to describe my own experiences and came up with two: a boa constrictor or a baby elephant.

I thought of the boa first, as it seemed to fit well with the feelings of being winded and lacking energy, as if I was being squeezed and restricted. Hissing Sid from Disney’s Robin Hood came to mind, hypnotising and whispering falsities into my ear.

But then the baby elephant came to mind, and I remembered my visits to the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. I remembered trying to feed babies that were the same height as me but four times the weight, how they guzzled litres of milk in seconds and prodded for more. I absolutely love elephants, but having a baby elephant in the room spells chaos. It will not be ignored, will demand attention and create distraction, take up lots of energy and, when it lies against me, squeezes the life out of me. Elephants cause immense destruction of farmland and livelihoods and can easily kill. Is there something here about learning to be a skillful mahoot of my boisterous, potentially destructive depression elephant so that it doesn’t crush me or destroy all around me?

If you are trying to live better with your baby elephant/black dog/crab of hate, this book will make you laugh out loud and give your confidence a bog boost. If you are forced to live next to someone like that, this book will make some sense of, what remains, a weird and wonderful world of invisible pachyderms and top-hatted crustacea. And all for £8.99!

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