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The Daily Mail
By NATASHA COURTENAY-SMITH
Last updated at 10:47 30 January 2008
As editor of Elle, Sally Brampton’s life was impossibly glamorous. Yet here she tells for the first time how depression wiped out three years of her life in a haze of drink, pills and repeated suicide bids.
As launch editor of Elle magazine in 1985, Sally Brampton led a gilded existence.
She was close friends with the likes of Paula Yates, Simon and Yasmin Le Bon, and designers Jasper Conran and John Galliano.
Most evenings, she was to be found at her private table in London’s exclusive Groucho club, entertaining a host of models, writers and photographers.
Indeed, one journalist interviewing Sally about the success of Elle magazine at the time wrote that “confidence beams off Sally Brampton like light off a laser”.
Sally’s marriage to then BBC1 controller Jonathan Powell in 1990, and subsequent birth of her daughter Molly, now 16, seemed to seal her status as one of Britain’s media elite.
By 1999, then a highly respected freelance writer and novelist, Sally lived in a large house in Maida Vale, received invitations to every party in town and had enough money to indulge her every whim.
Yet behind this enviable facade, Sally was already experiencing the beginnings of what was to be a bleak depression that was to see her hospitalised twice, attempt to take her own life on two separate occasions, develop alcoholism and spend two years able to do little but cry.
“Everyone saw me as this hugely successful, hugely independent, vivacious woman in total control of everything in her life,” says Sally, now 52 and living in Queen’s Park, London, with her daughter and third husband, Tom, who is 49 and runs an ethical marketing company.
“And in many ways, I was. I had all the boxes ticked – the career, the husband, money and a lovely daughter – and I was very happy with my life. But if I look back now, there were signs all along that something wasn’t right.
“As long ago as when I was launching Elle, I would find myself crying for days on end. I put it down to the stress of producing a magazine and having to be constantly “on show”, which is part of being an editor of a big title.
“Now, though, I think it was a warning sign of the depression that was to come.
“Then, in the late 1990s, despite the wonderful life I appeared to be living, I felt a constant sense of inarticulate grief and sadness. It was something I didn’t want to admit to because I felt so guilty.
“How could I admit to feeling sad when my life was so “great”?
“If you are successful and confident, and outwardly leading an enviable existence, it is almost impossible to admit that anything is wrong.
“What I didn’t understand at the time was that admitting to feeling the way I did would not have been an admission of failure, or that anything was drastically wrong with my life.
“It would have been admitting – and realising – that there was something wrong with me. I wish
“I had understood depression; recognised that it is an illness with definite, clear symptoms, and had sought help sooner.”
By the beginning of 2000, and aged 43, Sally – who had turned freelance following the birth of her daughter in 1992 – was editing women’s magazine Red.
“It was a job that propelled her back into the centre of the media world, yet this time her heart wasn’t in it.
“I found the obsession with celebrities and products vacuous, and I started to feel very disheartened by it all,” she says.
At the same time, her ten-year marriage to Jonathan (she had previously been married briefly in her 20s) came to an end because, she says, they had grown apart. Even in retrospect, she doesn’t feel her depression had anything to do with the break-up.
The couple agreed to share custody of their daughter, but it was decided that Sally would be the one to move out of the family home and into a flat nearby. Almost immediately, she found herself unable to sleep properly.
‘Every day at exactly 3.20am, I’d wake up with what I call “washing machine head” – a load of thoughts going round and round in my mind,’ says Sally. ‘I also started losing weight, for no apparent reason.
‘I now know these are common symptoms of depression – but, as usual, I hid behind my veil of success and capability, and refused to admit that anything was wrong.
‘In fact, I actually received compliments on my weight loss. I worked in magazines, and in that world thin was good. I couldn’t bring myself to admit to anyone that I couldn’t eat because I felt as though I had a huge lump at the back of my throat, and that I was on the verge of crying all the time.’
In April that year, Sally went to her GP about her inability to sleep properly. He raised the possibility of depression, and prescribed her a mild dose of anti-depressants.
‘I was furious with the diagnosis and the treatment,’ recalls Sally. ‘I said to my GP that I was not the sort of person depression happens to.
‘The pills had absolutely no effect either. I kept taking them, but the fact they didn’t work only strengthened my view that I wasn’t – and could not be – depressed.’
In fact, with each passing week, Sally’s mood worsened. She says: ‘I managed to keep it together at work, or when my daughter was staying with me. But whenever I was home alone, I’d cry for hours and hours, without reason.
‘I put it down to my divorce and moving house. I’d cry from the moment I got home until I went to bed; I’d wake up in the night crying. And I’d cry from the moment I got up, until I left for work.
‘In the summer of 2000, I took a week’s holiday and spent it walking around London, crying behind my dark glasses. I was trying to walk away my tears and my sadness.
‘After that, I went to therapy. The irony was that I wasn’t the sort of person who did therapy, or believed in
therapy, but I went in the hope that if I expressed my misery, it would go away. But it didn’t.’
Sally’s depression was compounded by a relationship with a newly single man, who was unable to commit to her properly because of a recent marital break-up and responsibilities to his young children.
While she struggled to make a go of their romance, that September the sudden death of her close friend and confidante Paula Yates came as another grievous blow.
‘Paula was one of the few people I’d shared my misery with, because she was so unhappy, too,’ says Sally. ‘I’d spoken to her a few days earlier and had dinner booked in with her a few days later. I couldn’t believe she’d died. I was devastated.’
The final straw for Sally came in October when, as a result of declining sales, she was sacked from Red magazine. Even though this series of events would be enough to leave even the strongest of women feeling low, Sally struggled to accept, or admit, that she might be depressed.
‘I felt as though I still had a place to live, money from a redundancy payout, a child I adored, friends I love, and work if I wanted it,’ she says. ‘I knew I was unhappy and I was finding it hard to cope, but I didn’t think I had a “right” to depression.’
But in January 2001, after telling her by now ex-husband how she felt, he arranged for her to be assessed by a psychiatrist. As a result, she was admitted to hospital with severe clinical depression and put on 24-hour suicide watch.
‘I spent two weeks in hospital, and I thought they would make me better,’ she says. ‘If I’d known then that for the next two years I would feel only black despair, I don’t think I’d have made it through. I would have killed myself there and then.’
For the next year, Sally showed no signs of improvement, despite a second two-week stay in a psychiatric hospital. She was told by her psychiatrist that she was one of just 30 per cent of depression patients who are resistant to all forms of medication.
‘Throughout that year, I felt totally separated from life,’ says Sally. ‘I remember standing at my window, watching people getting on with their lives, and feeling completely excluded from life. I couldn’t even imagine what I would do if I was outside.
‘I was unable to work and had to rely on savings, and I thought about suicide constantly.
‘The woman I’d once recognised as myself – who had flown across world at a moment’s notice, and had been described as “fierce” by colleagues for having the guts to stand up and argue with Rupert Murdoch when I worked in newspapers – had totally gone.
‘Now, the simplest of tasks, even getting up in the morning, felt impossible. I barely left the house, stopped washing, wearing make-up or cleaning my teeth, and ate virtually nothing. When, at some point that year, my hot water stopped working, it was simply beyond me to get it fixed.
‘The only time I even vaguely resembled my old self was when my daughter was with me. Molly moved between her father’s house and mine every five days. When she was with me, I’d force myself to get up, get dressed and get her ready to go to school, and I tried not to cry in front of her.
‘None of the medication I was prescribed worked, so I started to drink heavily. I could easily get through two bottles of a good French burgundy (my drug of choice) a day. I reached a point where I liked to be mildly but consistently drunk all day, every day.
‘It was really hard on Molly, who was about ten at the time, and she saw some things that no child should have to see. But she has always seemed older than her years. She used to come and visit me in hospital, and she was very mature in her outlook. She seemed to understand that I was ill, and coped admirably.’
In November 2001, shortly after leaving hospital for the second time, Sally attempted to kill herself by taking an overdose of pills.
“It always frustrates me,” she says, “that when someone dies after a long illness, such as cancer, people say things like: “He fought so hard.”
“Yet when they commit suicide, they are said to be “selfish”. This is quite wrong.
“I’d fought so hard, and I couldn’t go on pretending I had any semblance of a normal life left.
“So one night, when my daughter was with her father, I simply gathered together all the pills that were close at hand and took them.
“I didn’t count them. I did not even look to see what they were. I just swallowed them. But, much to my annoyance, I woke up again.”
“In January 2002, by now drinking increasingly heavily and at her lowest ebb, Sally attempted suicide again.
“This time, to be sure it worked, she used the internet to look up what would constitute a fatal dose of her medication – and trebled it.
“As I took the pills, I thought to myself, “Thank God it’s over”. I had tried very hard for two years to stay alive, and I couldn’t do it any more.
“I smiled as I took the pills, thinking that at last I was going to be free.
“When I woke up, all I felt was horror that my body had let me down by insisting on staying alive. I’ve since been told that I have the constitution of an ox.
“Despite everything I’ve put my body through, my liver function, for instance, has never been compromised.”
This second suicide attempt, though, was to prove a turning point for Sally.
After failing to find peace in death, or respite in therapy, drugs or hospitalisation, she decided she had to do whatever she could to bring her illness to an end.
Sally started walking for half an hour a day, and took up yoga. She called on supportive friends to take her out for a cup of tea. Most important of all, she says, she accepted she had an illness and stopped feeling ashamed.
“I realised that you wouldn’t say to someone with a broken leg: “Get up and walk.” So why should that be the attitude towards depression?
“I knew then I had to take time, and put effort and energy into getting better.
“My recovery was very slow, and not easy. It was almost impossible for me to find meaning in life again. I had to start with the smallest of things.
“For instance, there was meaning in doing the washing up, as it meant I had plates and cutlery to eat from. There was meaning to walking up the road, as it meant I could buy food for my child.
“I also took up gardening again, which had once been a passion of mine. Slowly, I stopped crying and I no longer wanted myself dead.”
However, Sally’s recovery stalled later that year when her elderly parents fell ill.
Once again, she turned to alcohol – but instead of wine, this time she drank neat vodka straight from the bottle.
“I quickly reached a point where I’d lie in bed in the afternoons drinking straight from the bottle, then spend the evenings alone on the sofa doing the same,” she says.
In all, it would take three years and, in 2003, a 28-day spell in rehab for alcoholism, as well as attendance at AA meetings, for Sally to recover completely.
She has since discovered that depression runs in her family, and both her mother and her brothers have suffered from depressive episodes, though not as severe as Sally’s.
Today, she once again appears a woman in total control of her life, although there is an unmistakable sadness to her eyes, a slight nervousness to her hands.
Nonetheless, she has completed a book about her depression, in which she lays bare the depths to which she has sunk in recent years.
In her personal life, she has recently married Tom – the divorcÈ she had been seeing at the time her depression began.
The couple live in a large, airy house in Queen’s Park, which they have recently renovated.
“Although my relationship with Tom didn’t cause my depression, not being able to be together properly because of my illness and his family situation certainly broke my heart time and time again,” says Sally.
“At my lowest point, I hit him.
“I’d wanted him to take away my pain, and I didn’t know back then that nobody can take away another person’s pain.
“It was three years before we saw each other again, even though during that time Tom was never far from my mind.
“By the time we finally met up again, I was well into my recovery and able to say that I had truly helped myself.”
Sally says she would not consider herself completely clear of depression; but, as a result of yoga, vitamins, meditation, exercise, acupuncture and staying away from alcohol, she is able to control the illness and take measures to prevent recurrences before they become all-consuming.
She says: “If there is one thing I’ve realised, it’s that depression does not strike one sort of person because of one particular reason.
“In hospital, I met everyone from high-flying businessmen to single mothers.
“Some had been through terrible abuse: others, like me, had no obvious reason.
“But the result was that we all, for whatever reason, felt utterly lost and bereft. And we all faced a momentous struggle to find ourselves again.”
Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression, by Sally Brampton, is published by Bloomsbury at £15.99. To order a copy at £14.40 (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.
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My friend Sally Brampton, and why we need to talk about mental health — (The Telegraph)
14 May 2016 3:16pm
Writer and agony aunt Sally Brampton, who died this week Credit: Andrew Crowley
The death of writer, agony aunt and former editor of Elle magazine Sally Brampton on Tuesday was shocking and tragic news for her family and friends. Visiting my mother thousands of miles away in New Zealand, I first heard word of it via a social media alert asking if it could be true – it took my breath away.
But it was also a blow for the tens of thousands of people whose lives were touched by her writing. Her unflinchingly honest account of her mental breakdown which appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2003, was widely shared as the news spread – many citing it as the most accurate description of living with depression that they had ever read.
Sadly her wise counsel for others – especially in her acclaimed depression memoir, Shoot the Damn Dog which came out five years later – did not seem to work for her. She took her own life on Tuesday, walking into the sea at St Leonards where she had lived for the past six years.
I met Sally 30 years ago. After a raucous Covent Garden wine bar interview, she hired me as her deputy at the revolutionary new fashion and women’s magazine Elle. An editor-in-chief at only 29, after already gaining a degree from St Martins College of Art, winning the prestigious Vogue Talent Contest and becoming fashion editor of The Observer, she was the warmest, funniest, coolest, most stylish person most of us had ever encountered. Her staff were all a bit in love with her; hugely influenced by her opinions (and wardrobe choices).
Louise Chunn at her London home Credit: Martin Pope
A renowned fashion expert, she brought together a stellar team who created genre-shattering fashion pages. But she also cared about great writing, commissioning attention-grabbing features like sending ex-NME journalist Tony Parsons out with the vice squad in Soho, or launching a campaign for women’s safety following the murder of Suzy Lamplugh. She was so much more than the caricature of a fluffy fashion magazine editor.
But beneath the fabulous black leather jackets and lycra dresses, and away from the Groucho Club, there was a vulnerability. Brought up in exotic countries as her father was a Shell oil executive, even in her 30s she admitted to me that, in spite of outward appearances, she sometimes felt overwhelmed by sadness and emptiness while in the middle of a crowd of people. Her mother had a long, unacknowledged history of depression and Sally started to feel that this too was her genetic inheritance.
Sally left Elle after four years as editor and for the next 10 years wrote novels and worked as a freelance writer. In her mid-30s, she married Jonathan Powell, controller of BBC1, and they lived an apparently glamorous media life in a large stylish house in Maida Vale. She had a daughter, Molly, whom she adored. But when, around 2000, a new magazine editorship went badly wrong and her marriage ended, she went down. Fast.
She was so much more than the caricature of a fluffy fashion magazine editorLouise Chunn
I can well remember reading her Telegraph piece, where she described her depression as “more terrifying and more horrible than anywhere I have ever been, even in my nightmares. It is an abyss, a black hole, a place where vision is dimmed until it is like seeing through clouded glass. The more I tried to escape, the harder it held me.” While I knew that she had stepped away from her ordered married life, I had no idea that she was suffering in this way.
At that time, for a “glamorous, successful woman” like Sally to write so openly and publicly about suffering from depression was virtually unheard of. Most of us who knew her had no idea that her mental state was so fragile and the light it shone on her illness was painful and shocking for us to see. But, of course, for readers who had been anywhere near the same experience it was fantastically helpful and supportive. She revealed how she had been so low that she had barely survived a cack-handed suicide attempt, but a year later, she was coping and that things really had “looked up”. She seemed well; designing her exquisite London garden, turning an ordinary Kilburn flat into a stylish home for herself and Molly, coming up with fiction ideas, getting into yoga.
Shoot the Damn Dog, Sally Brampton’s account of her depression, was published in 2008 Credit: Martin Pope
Following that breakdown she had sought professional help. She was prescribed various types of drugs, had therapy, spent time in a psychiatric hospital, but this was the beginning of the long journey which ended last week. She could and did go months feeling pretty robust, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, depression would descend again. Some of her oldest friends became used to being on“Sally-watch”, answering phone calls into the night, always ready to drop by.
Shoot the Damn Dog, an account of her depression published in 2008, was widely praised and has sold very well. But it did not tell the whole story. Readers believed it ended with Sally married and teetotal, but neither stuck. She moved to St Leonards on the East Sussex coast, where she had many friends from our old magazine days, and made lots more.
She wanted a new start and many of us felt this was a good first step to a new life, but by now she had been diagnosed as bipolar, trailed by that damned dog. At the time I was editing Psychologies magazine and gave her a regular column. Her copy was largely upbeat and inspiring (and hugely popular with readers who often wrote to her) but privately she would share how low she was feeling and how little she could find to help her. She has written sceptically about various therapists, doctors and psychiatrists; she never seemed to find the treatment that she needed.
When I left Psychologies, I started welldoing.org , a site which matches people with the therapists most suited to their needs. Sally was typically supportive, helping me make connections and taking me to the mental health charity Mind Media Awards on which she had been a judge. People were always turning to her for help, but – whatever the elegant, articulate exterior – her friends could see that she was someone in pain on the inside.
Most of us who knew her had no idea that her mental state was so fragileLouise Chunn
Since her death on Tuesday, I’ve heard many wonder how she, as a mother could have taken this final, brutal step. Sally was enormously proud of her daughter Molly, now 24, who read English at Oxford and had recently graduated with a first class Masters Degree in twentieth century literature. As Sally noted on Facebook a couple of months ago, she was “brimming with mother’s pride”.
Sally Brampton interviewing Monty Don in 2005 Credit: Martin Pope
Sadly, Sally is the third female friend of mine who has taken her own life, and a unifying aspect is that each of them was a parent, the others of much younger children. The fact that many of these women took their own lives leaving them behind just goes to show how vicious and cruel this disease really is. Commonly suicidal people genuinely believe that their children will be “better off” without them. We don’t look at it that way, but it makes perfect sense to someone who no longer feels they can go on with life.
And it is this understanding of depression which is so crucial. Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week created by the Mental Health Foundation which was launched to encourage us all to talk more openly about the issues that surround mental health. Sally did talk openly – in fact, she roared on behalf of others – but felt worn out by the length of her struggle. As she wrote in Shoot the Damn Dog, “Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive.”
Sally’s friends knew that she had made previous attempts on her life – she talked about suicide quite openly with them – so we feared that one day the bad news would come. As one of her oldest friends, who had known her since school, told me her death was “shocking but somehow inevitable. I think the misery of being inside her head was really intolerable”.
And this is a misery afflicting more and more of us. Mental health is a major problem in the UK and throughout the world, and yet we barely acknowledge the many ways in which it affects our lives. It’s the major cause of sickness absence from work for example, resulting in 70 million sick days in the UK. Work is often a trigger for depression or anxiety, yet most people would not tell their bosses that they are having problems. And no wonder. According to Mind one in five of those who have taken their employer into their confidence about their problems with mental health is soon fired or pushed out of their jobs.
70 million sick days are taken in the UK each year due to mental health issues
There are people who are trying to change this, such as Geoff McDonald, formerly head of HR at Unilever, whom I met recently. Eight years ago this high-flying senior executive had a breakdown that took him away from his corporate world for three months. When he returned he made it his mission to bring mental health out of the shadows and, with his movement Minds At Work (which you can find on Facebook) is now a passionate campaigner within the corporate world for honesty and communication about mental health and recently took part in a roundtable on mental health at Downing Street.
Mental health charities and campaigners constantly remind us how key mental health is to a strong society. Slipping away from the safe moorings of mental wellbeing affects physical health, the ability to function, earn a living, look after yourself or your family, connect with friends, everything. Sally was an articulate, intelligent woman who was lucky to have access to services via the NHS and privately, but it wasn’t enough to keep her safe. Many are far less well-served, waiting months for treatment and often only once their conditions are acute and critical.
We need mental health services to be widespread, well staffed and properly funded And we need to believe that keeping people mentally healthy is as important as keeping them physically healthy, without making any judgments about the difference.
Sally Brampton was, as one of the many people who knew her commented, a “bright star”. In fact, remembering her extraordinary talents, kindness and warmth in order to, with some difficulty, write this tribute makes it even sadder to think she no longer shines. But she would be so pleased to see the column inches about mental health and depression that her death has produced.
Louise Chunn is the founder of find a therapist website welldoing.org.
‘To see someone in such pain, is indescribably sad’
By Jasper Conran
We met at a party, under a table or on a table. I gazed upon this pixie face, head to toe in black, sparkling eyes, cropped blonde hair, a big smile and a cigarette. She was at Vogue then, and I was starting out as a designer. Instantly we became friends.
We travelled a lot, often just the two of us. In 1985 we went all around India, staying in beach huts in Goa and houseboats in Kashmir. It was a blessed time. There were no signs of her illness back then, although she was always tough – too tough – on herself.
Depression crept into her life gradually. I don’t believe any one thing was a trigger; what she had was ingrained and genetic.
Sally Brampton with Jasper Conran at her wedding to Jonathan Powell in 1990
She felt alienated from the rest of the world. She couldn’t join the party. All the time, she was desperately trying to pull herself out of it, to present herself in a different way. I watched as the illness took over and treated her abominably. To see somebody you love in such terrible pain, and to be completely powerless, is indescribably sad. There was nothing I could do that helped; all I could do was be there, listen and talk to her. Worst of all was how she tried to compensate for the fact we, her friends, were trying to comfort her and ended up trying to comfort us instead. She moved to the seaside, where she had a circle of amazing girlfriends, and sometimes she would call saying “it’s amazing, I’m feeling OK again”. But last year, when she came and stayed with me for a week, it was desperate, truly shocking, and there was nothing she could do to mask what she was going through.
She was always still Sally and a lot of fun – it would be dreadful if this part of her was forgotten. Even when she seemed to be at her lowest, we’d have dinner together and we’d make each other laugh. She always found gallows humour.
Of course it was particularly sad for her when her marriages came to an end, but she had her daughter Molly, whom she adored.
Jasper Conran at his studio in 2010 Credit: Clara Molden
Molly, my goddaughter, is a strong, bright, intelligent girl; she’s her mother’s daughter. I expect some will be reflecting on the kind of state that Sally must have been in to leave her, but they must remember that this was not completely unexpected. It’s something that Sally talked about openly. Still, all of us are in shock and I expect the real grief will come later.
For Sally to deal with what she dealt with for so many years was torture, but through her writing, she turned that horror into something extraordinary. Her therapy was finding out about depression, and writing about it, and if comfort could be drawn it was from helping people with her books and advice columns. She knew that there were people out there who identified with her suffering, and were soothed by her words.
More than anything, she would love to see a day when people didn’t have to go through this terrible illness. If we can keep talking and writing about “the damn dog” until that day perhaps we’re starting to win. That is the way we should honour her.
The Telegraph is running a week-long series of features to mark Mental Health Awareness Week