Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The dark night of the soul

WARNING: written after low-grade virus and disturbed sleep patterns. Very real danger that it makes NO SENSE AT ALL.


I have spent two days lying crossly in bed whilst a low-level virus rampaged around my battered body. Apparently, there are at least four bugs at large in the village – a vomiting bug, a bog-standard cold, a sort of heady, achy flu-like virus, and a more general stomach/head/everything thing. I had the nausea with a general feeling of having walked into a heavy brick wall, whilst being kicked by the familiar, furious Shetland pony.

I slept for pretty much thirty-six hours straight, and then, after all that sleeping had messed about with my internal clock, last night found myself wide awake at four am, cataloguing every single thing that was wrong with me and my life.

I never quite know why the black hours of the night bring about this melancholy inventory. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, in The Crack-Up, ‘in a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning’, and he should know. Perhaps it is the sense of isolation, as one lies wakeful and restless whilst the rest of the world seems asleep and oblivious. The smallest things loom large, the tiniest glitch sputters into crazed unmanageability, and all the ghastly flaws troop out like some twisted Rocky Horror Show tribute act.

By four-thirty am, I had decided that:

My new book would be a catastrophic failure and everyone would laugh and scoff and point and I should have to go back to the wilderness years where I belonged.

I was no good at riding, nor ever should be.

My HorseBack work was shoddy and pathetic.

My inability to keep my office tidy or to open my post in a timely manner or to reply to outstanding emails was shocking and derelict and beyond belief in a female of advancing years.

And that, of course, I should die alone, unmourned and unmissed, and good riddance.

So that was a jolly half hour.

Then I read myself a lecture on not being so self-indulgent and stupid and went to sleep.

When I woke, rather jet-lagged, but with the viral load miraculously gone, the world seemed possible and ordinary again.

Yes, I would die, as everyone shall, but there’s no point dwelling on it. My office is a bit of a muddle and I am rather dilatory at admin, but this does not mean I am going out and conning old ladies out of their savings or writing cruel leader articles in The Daily Mail. (Leave poor old Mr Mili Senior alone, I cry.) The riding is fine. Red the Mare is happy as a nut and welcomed me back to the field after two days away with intense sweetness. Everyone at HorseBack seemed pleased to see me. It’s not the best Facebook page anyone ever wrote, and the numbers go up as well as down, but it’s something for a cause in which I believe and I shall get better at it.

The book is, as all books are, a crap shoot, and I can only do my word counts and think hard and bend my will to the task and do my best. If it fails, it fails. It won’t kill me. I’ve failed before. I’m still bruised from a career setback which was beyond my control. This is part of the human zoo; it is not the dear old Whig view of history, where the lovely curve of progress soars upwards in an irrepressible arc of glory. It is what happens. It is not the End of Everything.

What I did get a sense of, in that umbrous, searching half hour, was what real depression must feel like. In my ordinary weeks and months, I get intense sorrow, flashes of profound melancholy, sometimes a feeling of hanging on by my fingertips. I suspect this is standard issue. I do not barrel through life, unheeding and impervious, as I fondly imagine some sanguine people do, although I wonder if they only exist in my imagination. I think too much and fret too much and am too much struck by the sorrow and the pity, the unfairnesses and griefs to which so many of the six billion souls on this blue planet are heir.

The way I think of it is that you are doing all right if there are joys to match the melancholies. If you can watch the turning of the leaves or feel your heart flip when a certain red mare whickers in low delight or go crazy when a dear old familiar wins the 3.30 at Newmarket or laugh like a drain because a canine does nutty things with his ears: then, then – you are all right.

The true depressive loses joy. I know a few. I know someone who, on occasion, cannot physically leave her room for up to two weeks at a time. I know someone who once stared blindly at one of the most majestic glens in the whole of Scotland and turned to me with blank eyes and said: ‘I cannot see the beauty.’ I think: that is when the real dark night of the soul becomes immovable, when you cannot see the beauty. As long as the beauty can be seen, there is hope.

As I write this, I feel the usual frisson of terror that I have admitted weakness. There is a huge part of me which wants to do unicycle tricks for you. Bugger mortality and fear of failure and moments of crushing shame – surely what you really should have is trees and love and Stanley the Dog doing amusing things with sticks. (And today, he really did do very amusing things with sticks indeed.) But when I am at my most poncy, I like to think that the Human Condition is my special subject, and this is human condition, with bells and knobs and all manner of things on.

I write it partly because I like authenticity, and I like admission. I write it partly because I hope someone out there might sigh and sigh and say: me too. (The soothing balm of shared experience is one of the things I love most on the internet.) I write it to remind myself how lucky I am, because I get these crushers once in a while, in the night, when I am ill and assailed with weakness, but I do not have to drag through that black curtain every day, as some people do.

I write it because it is true.

And also – and this really is my final thought – I write it because this blog is a small place. When I started, I wanted to go viral. I wanted love and acclaim and applause and numbers. I never got them. At first, I was hurt and affronted by this. I made the huge mistake of taking it personally. Now, paradoxically, it is what saves me. Because this is a place of a few, select Dear Readers, I may feel safe, and admit all the absurdities, almost sure that nobody will laugh and point.

Oh, oh, and one more final final point, because I’m still feeling a bit peculiar and I clearly have no control over my fingers. I suddenly think: I’ve got it wrong about the laughing and pointing. People may easily laugh and point; they always have and they always shall. They may mock and raise their eyebrows and judge. It’s almost impossible not to judge. I try not to do it; I try to remember that line at the beginning of Gatsby; but judging is as human as gossip or bad jokes.

The secret is, I think, to get it into its correct category. (You know how I hate a category error.) And the correct category is that the pointing is almost always about the pointer, and not the pointee. Or, in more technical terms: it’s their stuff.

And now I really am going to stop.


Some quick pictures for you before I collapse in a heap:

2 Oct 1

2 Oct 2

2 Oct 3

Comical things with sticks:

2 Oct 5

These are not very good photographs. Stan the Man was moving too fast for efficient focus. But I wanted you to get a sense of the comedy, and the joy, and the beauty, and, even through the blurriness, I think you can:

2 Oct 6

2 Oct 8

2 Oct 9

2 Oct 9-001

2 Oct 10

2 Oct 11

Most beautiful and beloved face, taken a few days ago:

2 Oct 15

2 Oct 16

Where the hill should be. This was taken before lunchtime today, so you can see the autumn days are growing dark and dramatic:

2 Oct 20


  1. Thank goodness for you and for all the red and white animals in your life. If your blog were all about sheer perfection your readers would not be able to relate. As it is, we can say in all sincerity "I hear you... me too, me too.." And marvel at the beauty and the joy of your surroundings.

  2. I know exactly of what you write. I think I told you my epitaph should read, she thought too much. I read a blog last night about a lady's depression and it was funny ("instead of over-thinking, she just gives it a cursory think and moves on from it"). Sometimes, I feel if I see another flower... well you know what I mean. I like to find out more about a blogger's life. This is off topic, but I found a youtube series that I thought was so funny, posted it, yet no one has commented, so perhaps it's just funny to me. If you can find the time, it is Pride and Prejudice, Thug Notes.He reviews all the classics. When he called Hamlet a player, I died laughing.

  3. With me, it's that moment before actually getting out of bed. I can lie there for an hour while everything just looks bleaker and bleaker, and then once I've done my morning rituals and I'm settled with a cup of coffee and a book, everything brightens. I tell myself I shouldn't let the black thoughts linger, just bounce out of bed and get going. But somehow I think they need their moment of expression. My therapist used to say - in days when the blues didn't just take to their heels at the first scent of coffee - when you are sad, ask yourself 'what am I neglecting?' . I think we would be less than human if we didn't have a capacity for gloom with the joy. I don't like it at all, but I think it's probably necessary. Hope that makes sense, lovely writing as usual, Rachel

  4. We are all human. We have good days and bad days, highs and lows, successes and crashing failures, laughter and tears. To judge another person for those is ridiculous. We would be judging them for being a human being. We all have our 3am "dark nights of the soul". Isn't it better to support and encourage each other? Hope the rest of your week weighs in on the successes and laughter end of the scale! All the by! :-)

  5. You have a knack for packing a thousand words of despair into a small suitcase and throwing it off the train.

    Good job. See you tomorrow.

  6. Several thoughts (in no particular order):
    That virus really ran riot in your brain!
    Red is breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful (especially in that second photo).
    It's amazing the amount of joy a creature can have/ find with something as "simple" as a stick! (Stanley's pure pleasure gives me a lot of "food for thought".)
    When I told my marvelous doctor that someone had said I was melancholic (NOT how I would describe myself!), she (who is also a fabulous artist -- abstract, colorful acrylic paintings to be precise) said, "All artists are melancholic; otherwise we wouldn't be creative."

  7. I love your writing. Isn't it funny how we think about and measure our own success and failure? I came to your blog following a magazine article. The article talked about 2 blogs, yours and MIss Whistles. I then bought your book, which I also love, recommended to friends and have on show on my living room book case. I am one small person and you may not have met the definition of viral but you have definitely reached and touched more than 1 person.

  8. Tania, you bring so much pleasure with your writing and pictures, and your Horseback work (and just look at how Stanley has changed since he came to you). I find hills a good antidote to black thoughts, the bleaker the better. I hope the virus has gone and the week improved.

    On a separate point, could you recommend any books on natural horsemanship? I have just started riding again properly and am keen to know more, but don't have a Horse Talker to ask! I'm reading Monty Roberts at the moment. Thank you.

  9. beautiful blog, beautiful photos. always a pleasure to visit. you are my perspective police and for that i thank you.

  10. Flu can make you depressed, and the trouble is that at the time you don't realise it's because of flu - you think the depression is going to be permanent! Such a relief when it goes. Very glad you feel better.


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