Written by Debi Gliori

Arts

Here be dragons

Debi Gliori experienced her first terrifying bout of depression in 1984. Three decades on, and through many more years spent in the grip of depressive illness, her beautiful book Night Shift has emerged.

Debi at workI’ve been asking myself why I chose 2017 to publish a book about my first experience of depression in 1984. Surely I was over it by now? Clearly not. Could I really remember what it was like? Vividly. Shouldn’t I just pull myself together and stop dwelling on such gloomy things?

Yeah, right. That’s reason enough. We still have a long way to go before society as a whole really understands fully what depressive illness is about.

The first drawings I made for Night Shift were drawn with no plan to turn them into a book. Initially, I had no words to wrap my pictures round. What I was attempting to capture on paper was the exact feeling of what it’s like to live through a depressive episode.

Normally, as a children’s illustrator, I base my books on a rough text, if not a complete story, using the words as a framework to guide what I’m drawing. By complete contrast, Night Shift began on an easel, with no planning, no rough drafts, just a desire to see if I could find a way to convey what depression felt like.

The territory of depressive illness is wearily familiar to me. Starting with that first and terrifying bout of full-blown clinical depression, through two dismal periods of postnatal depression which sucked the joy out of early babyhood and then, just as I hoped I would never enter the fog again, several passages of reactive depression, brought on by very difficult external circumstances.

I suspect the sole reason I’ve survived is due to the love and support I’ve had from my other half. However, surviving is not the same as living; I hardly dare count the years erased by this illness, so much time spent in grey nothingness.

“That first bout of depressive illness lasted nine months. It was so unredeemingly awful that recalling it for the purposes of turning it into images seemed akin to dancing on the rim of a volcano.”

I’ve been asked several times whether I found a form of catharsis in drawing; whether revisiting this illness via the medium of art was a way back to wellness. At times, there was a weird kind of satisfaction in showing a state of mind which struggles to be put into words (I don’t go with Churchill’s ‘Black dog of depression’ – I like black dogs), but at other times, I had to put down my charcoal and get the hell out of the studio. Nietzsche had it right – we have to be very careful about spending too long staring into the abyss.

And using dragons to represent depression? In fiction, they turn fertile realms into smoking ruins. Down the centuries, we’ve portrayed them as mythical beasts, imaginary terrors; the archetypes that stalk our human nightmares. I’ve even used them as the vectors for climate change in a children’s book; their heedless flying and scorching making them the perfect candidate for paragons of carbon criminality.

All illustrations taken from Night Shift by Debi Gliori.

All illustrations taken from Night Shift by Debi Gliori.

But the dragons I drew to represent depressive illness are a whole different order. Like the illness, their exact form is invisible to others; in trying to explain how she feels to a health professional, my little human character can only choke out mouthfuls of feathers – she has no words to describe the vast beast that leans, smirking on her shoulder.

In truth, I didn’t think about why I was drawing about depression 32 years after my first encounter with it. I didn’t think about why I was using dragons when I drew the images. I didn’t think about catharsis. I felt. Making Night Shift, I found myself revisiting exactly how I felt when I first fell ill.

Back then, I was utterly terrified, 100 per cent sure that I was going mad, beset by aural hallucinations, sleepless with panic attacks, verging on psychotic and finally, after seeking professional help, found myself being medicated into a form of silence which felt 10 times worse than the terror.

night shift images
That first bout of depressive illness lasted nine months. It was so unredeemingly awful that recalling it recently for the purposes of turning it into images seemed akin to dancing on the rim of a volcano.

But on I drew. As the drawings took shape, I began to see that they might become a book; perhaps one that might help other people with depressive illness. Or their families. Anything to throw some light into this particular dark corner.

I wondered if the drawings could be used to point out how we felt as we progressed through an episode of illness. As in ‘today I feel like this’ but ‘tomorrow I hope to feel like that’. Or as a resource for families and loved ones to really be able to understand what we’re going through when we say that we have depressive illness.

I know that my experience of depression isn’t the same as anyone else’s. I also appreciate that right now, there isn’t a cure. Night Shift proposes neither. I hope that the book will enable us to communicate from that place where words falter. And that somehow we will find a way to accommodate the darkness alongside the light and find beauty in both.

Night Shift is out now, published by Hot Key Books.

@debigliori

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Written by Debi Gliori

Debi Gliori lives in Scotland. Well known for her picture books and novels for children, she has been shortlisted for all the major prizes, including the Kate Greenaway Award and Scottish Arts Council Award. Debi was the Shetland Islands’ first Children's Writer-in-Residence.