By Rachel Kelly
My new book – Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness – was prompted by my own experience of being seriously unwell with depression. I am recovered now, but it hasn’t always been like this. In my thirties, I suffered two major depressive episodes, an experience I wrote about in my first book Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression, published in 2014. My descent into depressive illness is a cautionary tale for all of us trying to juggle the multiple demands of work, family and our need for status and approval above our own emotional wellbeing and health. We need to tread warily amid the demands of modern life and the pressures we put on ourselves.
So I began to collect a toolkit of ideas for good mental health to make a third depressive episode less likely. It is a bit like breaking your arm. After a couple of breaks, you feel more vulnerable to a third. Aside from the main approaches prescribed by doctors for anxiety and depression – chiefly medication and therapy – I had every incentive to see if I could find other strategies for myself. This ultimately has led to Singing in the Rain, my first workbook for people looking for a way out of depression and anxiety.
I am not against medication, and I myself have in the past taken antidepressants. But in an ideal world, I would rather have avoided the side effects of antidepressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medication and the feeling that I had to rely on drug taking over a long period. I would also rather have avoided the scary process of coming off the drugs.
In addition to medication, the second established treatment for depression is a course of cognitive behaviourial therapy. Over the years, I have felt warmly towards various counsellors who have tried to help me, talking sympathetically and listening to my problems. And I have undoubtedly been helped.
So conventional treatments have been of benefit, and my lesson is not to dismiss either drugs or therapy. But I do increasingly feel there is a third element to my own current sense of calm and wellbeing, and that is a belief in my own agency.
A sense of self-empowerment is at times neglected in the mental health world. It is all too easy to become dependent on others, whether psychiatrist or therapist, especially once you have received a diagnosis of a mental health condition, which can feel like a life sentence from which you will never recover.
It’s impossible to disentangle all the different elements in my own recovery. But what I do know is that feeling passive and powerless to do anything about my condition was part of being depressed. The more I discovered my own ability to take action, the better I felt.
This insight is the basis for my current approach to managing my own mental health – and the thinking behind my workbook. Every day I remind myself that I can make a difference. This begins as soon as I wake up.
The first thing I do is to make my bed, the white duvet perfectly aligned and my pillows plumped. A small gesture to be sure, but one that reminds me that if I take control of small decisions in this way I will feel my own power to affect larger decisions.
As my day progresses, I can take care about what I eat, be mindful of my stress levels, ditch my inner critic and dismiss my impostor-syndrome. I have to believe I can make a difference – because I can!
This perspective has also been shaped by my experience running wellbeing workshops for various mental health charities and in schools and universities. In them I share the kind of lifestyle changes that research has found can help those with anxiety and depression. My experience is that you can tell fairly quickly those who will benefit: it’s the people who believe in their own agency. The best way to give people a sense of hope, I found, was to create my first workbook for people looking for a practical way out of depression and anxiety.
Why Singing in the Rain is different
While my earlier books have been more about the ideas I have found helpful, Singing in the Rain reflects more practical steps. It is a workbook full of things you can actually do for your wellbeing, be it writing a letter, drawing a picture, or making some origami. Thinking often makes me sad, but doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy and agency was essential to getting better. There’s an easily won satisfaction in being active and occupied. As Confucius said: “I hear and I forget, I see and might remember, I do and I understand.”
So there are lots of invitations to cut, colour, and handle this book, and particularly to write stuff down. Picking up a pen might sound old-fashioned, but this is deliberate and has a basis in science. Research has found that writing about emotional experiences can boost our wellbeing, and can even make people’s wounds heal more quickly. (You can find details of the studies I refer to throughout the text on my website.) Noting things down has this magical ability to clarify my thoughts, and galvanise me into action.
Writing is also an obvious way to have a tangible record of your thoughts and ideas. Memory, at least my own, is often unreliable, and the book may prove useful to see which aspects of your wellbeing you might be struggling with – and how they change. If you really do work through the book, you will be left with something solid which feels real, rather than something lost to the ether of the Internet on your screen.
Finally, in a world that’s speeding up thanks to social media, email and twenty-four-hour news, and one in which instant gratification is central to our culture, the requirement to write Slows. Us. Down. I know I have had many more happy moments since I slackened my pace.
I learnt about the practical steps in the book from fellow sufferers and those who helped me recover. For the last few years I have run workshops on wellbeing for mental health charities as well as in schools and for companies. Others have shared their thoughts online through my website and blog. I discovered that many thought and worried like I do. I road-tested the ideas in Singing in the Rain with subscribers from my mailing list and volunteers who have come to my workshops, as well as other volunteers from various mental health charities including SANE and Depression Alliance. The book reflects all these different conversations, meetings and practical steps that helped others and me most on the road to being calm and well.
How is the book structured?
The book contains my top 52 suggestions: one for each week of the year. Ideally spend a week on each one, but read the book as the fancy takes you. Dip in and out, and feel free to ignore any exercises or take more or less time, depending on what works for you. But I do not advise reading the book at a sitting. No-one could possibly absorb or appreciate quite so much advice all at once.
The activities are divided into four sections for you to build your own toolbox. Think of it like learning to sing – a natural choice, given the book’s title. So stage one is to warm up your voice; stage two is to start reaching for higher and lower notes; stage three is to keep going; and stage four is to sing in the rain.
At the start are my basics. Many of these are steps for physical wellbeing, like breathing exercises, given the intrinsic link between mental and physical health. Adopt these activities, and you will build a solid foundation from which you can progress through to the more nuanced and skilful practices later on in the book, which are often of a more psychological nature. Some of these may require more time and reflection, and for some they will prove harder. Other activities can be completed in a spare moment and are relatively quick fixes. These are marked in the index with the symbol of a smiley emoji. The number of exercises should mean you can select from a wide range to suit you.
After each section, there’s a moment to pause and appreciate how far you have come. Here I am not asking you to do anything, just to draw a gentle breath and enjoy a pleasant thought. I prefer to feel ‘appreciative’ rather than ‘grateful’. Being appreciative feels like something I can manage, even on rather down days, whereas being grateful sounds more demanding and not always within my capabilities.
The nice news is that as you adopt new practical steps and strategies, and change your thoughts and behaviour, your brain will change too. What we focus on expands, and we become what we pay attention to. In a story thought to be of Native American origin about two wolves, a grandfather tells his grandson: ‘There are two wolves struggling inside each of us. One wolf is vengeful, angry, resentful, self-pitying and scared. The other wolf is kind, faithful, hopeful and caring.’ The grandson then asks: ‘Which wolf wins, Grandfather?’ His grandfather replies, ‘The one you feed.’
I know I’m using the right wellbeing strategies for me when I am able to sing in the rain, or in other words, when I can see the positives within the negatives each day. I remember in particular one wet journey back from the Tube. I was soaked by the kind of horizontal rain that manages to get inside a zipped jacket and trickles down the back of your neck; the sort of rain that left a handwritten letter sodden and illegible, and my shoes squelching like mini paddling pools. Yet as I rounded the corner to our house, I saw our shaggy, golden-haired dog, Sammy, equally drenched, turning circles in delight on our doorstep at my return. Despite the darkening clouds, I spotted a tiny patch of cornflower blue. And I really did find myself humming doo-doo-doo-doo, even if I never will dance like Gene Kelly.
Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. Her latest book Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books, £12.99, and is available in Waterstones and Amazon