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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: How I have learned to deal with my demons

Fiona Millar (L) and Alastair Campbell attend the launch of new book "Ctrl Alt Delete" by Tom Baldwin at Ink 84 on July 12, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images) - Credit: Dave Benett/Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on his brand new book based on how he learned to deal with depression and his demons.

Well, that was a nice surprise … reading through Charlie Connolly’s as ever terrific books pages in last week’s New European, and seeing that he had chosen my latest tome as one of his ‘five great books this autumn’. Given there were six hundred hardbacks published last week alone, many of them, like mine, Covid-postponed from spring and summer, I was very pleased to be included.

I had been toying with writing about the book for my own column this week, but thought, no, it might be seen as a bit self-indulgent, so stick to Brexit (no-deal prospects rising), Johnson (uselessness and impact of said uselessness rising), and Trump. (How grim was that Republican Convention last week, saved only by Melania’s friendly smile followed by hateful grimace as Ivanka Trump walked past her, which in turn prompted the tweet of the weekend, from former tennis star Chris Evert: ‘That’s how I looked shaking hands with Martina [Navratilova] the 13 times in a row I lost to her.’)

So then I thought, well if Charlie Connolly is saying it is one of the five great books this autumn, maybe it is OK to write about it after all, safe in the knowledge that no-deal Brexit, no-use Johnson and no-morals Trump will be featured elsewhere in the paper.

Lest anyone think I used a bit of ‘editor-at-large’ influence to get Charlie to include my book, I don’t know him personally, and I was unaware the publisher had sent him the book. I suppose there might have been a bit of subliminal influence at work, but reading his stuff over the years, he does not strike me as a subliminally-influenced, favour-currying sort of guy.

No, he is the sort who can, as he has done over the last two issues, unilaterally decide on the 20 most significant European fictional creations, and state that this was a definitive list, over which there could be no debate.

So thanks, Charlie, both for including my book, and for prompting me to think, you know what, there aren’t many perks attached to this ‘editor-at-large’ title they gave me, so I am going to take one, and be less embarrassed to write about my own book in my own column. Hell, yes. If you can’t do such a thing in publication week, then when can you?

It is called Living Better, and the sub-title, ‘how I learned to survive depression’ tells you what it is about. It is split into two parts, ‘Me, My Life, My Depression’, and ‘The Search for a Cure’. And for those who prefer me to be writing about politics not mental health, fear not, there is a fair bit of politics amid the psychological and psychiatric auto-biography, not least my admission that when I was arrested and hospitalised while having a psychotic breakdown while on the road with Neil Kinnock in 1986, I thought amidst my paranoia that the hospital was a Thatcherite re-education camp, in which I was not supposed to say the word ‘left’ or like the colour red.

My psychiatrist, David Sturgeon, who features a fair bit, has long defined my ‘demon’ as an inability to resist getting drawn into politics and political campaigns and difficult situations, even when I know it will be bad for my health.

One of the worst periods for me, mentally, was in the couple of years after I left Downing Street in 2003. I had been working ridiculous hours under phenomenal pressure, and though there was a certain relief at getting out, it was followed by a literal decompression, and then a sense that I had lost all purpose. I recall an evening when David Blunkett came for dinner, and my daughter Grace was playing with his dog as we chatted. I had to get up to answer a phone call, and I heard David ask Grace what I did with my time, now I was home more.

‘Well, when I go to school in the morning,’ she replied, ‘he sits where you are on the sofa having a cup of coffee. And when I come back at the end of the day he is lying on the sofa fast asleep.’

Not long after, out walking with my partner Fiona, I had an explosion on Hampstead Heath, and began punching myself in the face repeatedly, as she looked on, shocked and scared. It was then that I realised, I really did need help now, I couldn’t keep trying to deal with this on my own. Enter David Sturgeon.

At one point, only half in jest, David asked me if I could get Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to come to one of our sessions, so often did we talk about the difficulties between them, and the different pressures both were putting me under to stay involved, and get more involved. They were playing, David felt, to what I like to call a sense of duty, and he prefers to call my ‘demon’. Duty/demon won, in that I did get sucked back in, at certain stages virtually full time again, not least as a kind of middle-man as they worked towards a transition. And David was right, it wasn’t great for my mental health, but it is quite hard to resist, demon or not, when you have a prime minister, and a future prime minister, wanting you to help them.

To those, and there may be some of you, who prefer when I don’t write about politics, there is a lot of non-politics in the book too, as I try to work out where my depression comes from, and try to describe what it feels like. There is a lot about childhood, about family, about grief, about friendship and love, and Fiona has written an afterword on what it is like living with someone’s depression when it is not your own.

In case you didn’t read every single word of last week’s paper – I did once get a complaint from a reader that, although she loved The New European, ‘there are just too many words to get through some weeks’ – I will remind you what Charlie Connolly said. ‘Our mental health has rarely laboured under such an intense threat as it has this year. People have long advocated conversations about depression and mental health in an effort to remove the stigma that remains for many. This honest account of a life with depression …. will be a valuable and, who knows, possibly even lifesaving contribution to the dismantling of a social taboo.’

I certainly hope so.

I hope that depressives find something in it, very specifically, large or small, that helps them; some of the exercises I have done with David maybe, some of the insights I have developed or gathered from others. I hope non-depressives who read it get a better understanding of what depression is. I hope it helps play a part in the campaign to change the way we think, talk and act about mental health, so that one day we feel we can be as open about our mental health as we are about our physical health.

I hope it shows that, though we rightly – if currently in vain – look to government to deliver the services we need, and to employers to take seriously the mental well-being of their staff, especially now, there is also an awful lot we can do for ourselves. I hope the book helps people do some of those things sooner in their lives than I did in mine.

I still get crippling depression from time to time, and indeed did so for a few weeks during lockdown, but I have learned so much that has made me better at staving it off, and better at dealing with it when I fail to do so.

OK, long plug over. For all of the above reasons, I want as many people to read it as possible. And be assured – I have just looked in the index (proper non-fiction books have indexes, whatever the subject) – and Brexit gets two mentions. So does One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Living Better is published by John Murray Books, hardback £16.99, also available as e-book and on Audible

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