Language is our greatest communication tool, but sometimes even words can fail to express how we are feeling inside.
The shimmer of a new romance, the despair at a loved one’s death: not all feelings can be summed up with words.
And this was the problem that writer and illustrator Debi Gliori found herself up against when attempting to turn her experiences of depression into the building blocks for a book.
“When you try to put those feelings into words it gets a bit mangled in translation,” the 58-year-old told Stylist.co.uk.
So instead of using words, the author turned to illustrations for her newest book, Night Shift.
As an instantly relatable adult picture book, Night Shift chronicles Gliori’s struggle with her mental health through the eyes of a pyjama-clad protagonist who finds her life plagued by depression, characterised as a dragon.
In scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has ever experienced depression, the dragon drifts into the girl’s subconscious like a fog night after night, until she feels completely hollowed out and lost.
And while the presence of such a mythical beast gives the book a fairytale-like quality, it is also an apt symbol of the internal struggle that can characterise depression.
“One of the reasons I used dragons for depression is because most people don’t think they exist,” Gliori said. “With depression, you don’t come out in lumps and bumps, and no one really knows that you have it. It doesn’t have any obvious physical symptoms, but that doesn’t make it any less of an illness.
“But for a lot of people depression is still a myth, and they think if you just pulled yourself together you would be fine.”
She has hit the nail on the head. Despite depression affecting some 4-10% of people in England, and being one of the most common mental health disorders in the country, there is still a huge stigma surrounding it, and sufferers are often told “it’s all in your head”.
But the discussion around mental health is now growing gradually louder, with Theresa May recently pledging to overhaul our entire mental health service and re-focus efforts on young people who are disproportionately affected by issues such as depression, anxiety and OCD.
And Gliori hopes those who reach out for help today get a better reaction than she did some 30 years ago.
“The first time I became ill I didn’t know what was happening to me. But my GP almost laughed in my face and said, take these pills and you’ll feel much better,” she said. “There was no offer of counselling or anything else. I sincerely hope people are treated with a bit more understanding now.”
Now, looking back over her episodes of depression that inspired Night Shift, the illustrator remembers this first time as the worst.
“It was beyond terrifying and all-consumingly awful,” she said.
“Then when you venture into it again you think, this is all too familiar territory. I just need to hang in there. I’ll get out the other side.”
Describing the book as a “composite” of all the times she has fallen into a depressed state, Gliori was careful to depict the kaleidoscope of emotions the disease can represent, from denial to acceptance. The girl’s relationship with the dragon is therefore a complex one that changes as the pages turn, with her alternately carrying it on her shoulders, or lying passively in its grasp, or cowering from its burst of red-orange flames.
But the main message the illustrator wants readers to take away from the book is one of hope.
“You are not alone. You might feel like the most alone person on the planet and that nobody understands you, but it really won’t last forever,” she said. “It is a horrible illness but it is no more a part of you than a cloud is part of the sky. It’s there but it isn’t you, it is an illness.”
This message of hope is illustrated rather beautifully in the book with a feather, which both the protagonist and Gliori herself see as a symbol of brighter days to come.
The idea to include a feather in the book came from a walk that Gliori took with her husband, Michael, in the days after he was hospitalised due to heart problems. The illustrator describes walking slowly down a beach near their home in East Lothian, which is also illustrated in the book, and panicking that her husband would never be the same again.
“He was bent over walking like a 90-year-old and I thought, this is it, Michael’s going to be ill forever. We will always be like this. But on the path, there was a feather.
“I picked it up and I thought, hang on to this, it tells you everything you need to know. Today is definitely a black stripe day but there will be other days that will be white, and they wouldn’t be as obviously white if it wasn’t for the black days.”
Gliori, who still has the feather in her studio, hopes the message will resonate with her readers as much as it did for her.
“The most important thing to get across to people in the depths of depression is that what is going on in your head is a lie. One of the symptoms of the illness is to get a horrendous feedback loop in your head that tells you you’re worthless,” she said.
“That is simply not true.”