Anne Brian reviews Rachel Kelly's Black Rainbow
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13th May 2014

I have to declare at the outset that it is going to be difficult for me to write an objective review of this book. Rachel Kelly comes from a world that I do not inhabit. I can't imagine what it must be like to be able to afford a full-time Nanny, or to have my house cleaned by somebody else. Neither has my experience of Psychiatry and mental hospitals been remotely similar to the experience of somebody whose kindly, bearded Psychiatrist has his office in Harley Street and is happy to provide his home number for middle of the night consultations. A private Psychiatrist is able to offer that precious comodity - time - in abundance, while my own experience of NHS Psychiatrists is that, though they may be just as competent, a quick review of your medication regime every 3 months is all they can have time for when you are an out-patient.

My care has been largely down to first my parents and then my partner, who because of his carer role has been unable to have a career or a job of any sort. When I read that Rachel Kelly's husband was a prospective parliamentary candidate, I assumed it was for the Tory party although she does not say. It matters not really, as New Labour is two right-wing for my taste, and the LibDems are Tories now. The point is that mental health services for the majority have been severely affected by swingeing Tory cuts, from Margaret Thatcher onwards, and I could not help but see the irony in a book being written about mental illness by someone from that social class which has largely ignored the plight of ordinary mentally ill folk for decades.

Having said that, I don't think a book has ever moved me to tears before, and this book did that. It was the part where her mother is holding Rachel's hand and reciting the words of Oscar Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone". It made me think of the devotion of my own mother, who would not move from her seat by the telephone when I was in a mental hospital for 3 months, and once I was home, would also sit by my bed and hold my hand, and say, "my strength, from me to you". I suppose I can say I am as lucky as Rachel in that my parents never stopped standing by me and helping me in whatever way they could, from looking after my baby son to bringing "meals on wheels". I have less fortunate friends whose parents disowned them for ever the moment they first stepped into a mental hospital.

The tears continued to flow as I read the poetry quoted in the book by the 17th century poet George Herbert. Rachel said that she "held hands with Herbert", and I felt as though Rachel were holding hands with me, as she gently explained the meaning of the poems. Gradually, as I read, I began to warm to this person, as she described in astonishing detail the unrelenting misery of a major depressive episode, and how poetry and prayer became her refuge and her solace. The whole book is laced with poetry and poetic quotes in a very satisfying and interesting way.

Rachel's own writing style is very poetic. She speaks of the illness choking her like creepers growing on a ruined building. I think less eloquent sufferers who read this book will enjoy seeing their own feelings mirrored on the page. So often it is hard to put mental illness into words, but this writer does it with ease, describing the "fizzy head, butterfly guts and racing heart" that so many will instantly identify with. Rachel also gives self-help ideas from her own experience, detailing how yoga breathing exercises helped along with gardening and swimming. She also religiously takes her medication, something which is crucial to recovery, and readers who have taken medication for depression will empathise with the side effects, including weight gain, although to me 11 stone is not "fat"!

I was really surprised when Rachel's Psychiatrist Dr Fischer rushed her to go back to work, at a high-powered job as a journalist on The Times. I had always been advised by Psychiatrists that I should find low-stress employment or not be employed at all. I was even discouraged from completing the degree course which had been interrupted by a breakdown. I read that she was going back to work and I thought "Nooooo!" How much better would it have been to keep up with the gardening and swimming and take over sole charge of the children, I thought. I wanted them to sack the awful Nanny who did not "believe in depression". She actually says to Rachel, "Well, if I laid in bed all day I'd be depressed". How typical of people who just do not understand! Then Rachel falls pregnant and does give up work. "Thank goodness", I thought. When this baby is two, Rachel falls pregnant with twins, and I thought how brave she was to have gone on to have two more pregnancies when her second pregnancy had contributed to the major depressive episode.

Rachel's children light up the page whenever she writes about them. And the steady presence of her husband Sebastian makes me marvel at the healing power of love. Then comes a second breakdown even more painful and longer in duration than the first, after the birth of the twins. Again, Rachel's mother steps in, and they have the help of a new Nanny, Lucy, who is an absolute angel.

The final chapters of the book will be very useful to anyone who has suffered from depression, detailing as they do the many strategies Rachel employs during her road to recovery. For example, she does CBT from a book and forms a group called the Self Help Book Group. She emphasises the importance of finding the right therapist, and describes in great detail the way her own therapy sessions worked. The importance of diet and exercise in maintaining good mental health, is also explained.

Now that I have read the book I am sure that I will go back and read the poems and quotes therein over and over. In some ways I found it a difficult book to read because of my emotional response to the suffering of the writer. But it is beautifully written and I admire Rachel's courage in not only recovering from depression, but in wanting to share her experiences with the world.

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