Book Review: Heavy Light by Horatio Clare

Book: Heavy Light by Horatio ClareI first heard about this book when Horatio Clare was interviewed at one of the online Hay Festival events. It describes the author’s experience of hypomania and mental breakdown. This led to him being sectioned in a psychiatric ward, followed by a long period of recovery. It is clear from the first few pages that this book is more than just a book. It is, on the one hand, a somewhat surreal but honest portrayal of how one writer experienced a mental breakdown. On the other hand, it is an investigation into the current ‘mental health crisis’ in the western world, highlighting the inadequacies of a system that relies on long term drug treatment, even though scientists still don’t understand exactly how they work.    

The first section of the book goes into great detail over a period of several months, as the author recalls his response to the thrill and exhaustion of successive book tours and promotional events. He relied on cannabis and alcohol to sustain a frantic lifestyle, becoming a liability to his exasperated family, while keeping his increasingly surreal thought-life hidden. He never openly revealed his delusions, but soon became convinced that he was part of some complex spy-ring:

“The barman is a member of the Italian intelligence services. The receptionist from Moldova is a Russian. The hotel next door, where many Russians are staying, is the base of our competitors, whom we must make our friends… In the heights around us, unseen between black pine trees… elite soldiers move unseen, training their cross hairs on us, on each other, war gaming, overseeing, awaiting orders, protecting and menacing… My role is exhausting but I am full of vim for it.”

These depictions of delusion are exhausting to read, but they are contrasted with recollections from others, such as Horatio’s partner, Rebecca. These alternative versions of the narrative give a rare glimpse into what it must be like to watch your partner spiral towards hypomania. Confused and appalled by his behaviour, she had to continually apologise on his behalf, resolving all sorts of bizarre problems, while trying to keep him away from their young son.

There were times, reading the first part of the book, when it felt like the author was almost relishing the pleasure of re-living those surreal moments. The thrill of being part of something big and significant is clear. ‘Madness of this kind,’ he says, ‘is like a sunrise of the self, a flood of light banishing the shadows of the relative, of perspective.’ But his eventual realisation of what had happened, and the slow process of healing, leaves him with a strong desire to analyse the entire experience, in order to do everything possible to prevent it from happening again.

In the second half of the book, the author goes back through all of his experiences, aiming to discover what caused this hypomania, why it took so long for his state of mind to become apparent to anyone other than those closest to him, and why the only solution on offer was long term drug treatment. In the process of investigating these things, he learns more about the UK’s mental health services, the pressures they are under, the problems experienced by those who do not have a loved-one to speak up on their behalf, and his own need for alternative treatment.

A type of talking therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and re-processing) turns out to be extremely helpful for Horatio, as he is forced to confront some of his early traumas, becoming aware that these things may well have led to a splitting of the self between appearance and reality, which may in turn have led to the habits of cannabis and alcohol use, sleeplessness and exhaustion, and, eventually, hypomania. I’m trying to summarise a large section of the book, and there is actually a lot more to it than that. However, the basic conclusion that we come to, as author and reader, is that long term drug treatment may not be the right response for everyone, and that talking therapy, which was never offered, but which he paid for privately, can be extremely effective.

This is an intriguing book, painful to read at times. It brings to light the immense difficulty of considering how we, as a society, respond to those who act in a way that is not perceived as ‘normal’. It is helpful, as Horatio Clare concludes towards the end of the book, to view ourselves not as being either sane or insane, but to see that the human mind is far more complex than we can comprehend, and to understand that circumstances may sometimes push us beyond the bounds of what our minds and bodies can cope with. And, at such times, we may need help.

It is good to hear the author admit his own flaws and mistakes along the way. Even towards the end of the book, we’re left wondering what might happen next. This is a very human story, unresolved, as all lives are, and it advocates for so many things that are important. More than anything else, it shows us how vital it is to treat people as individuals, and how important it is to communicate, especially with those we love.

Buy a copy of Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare

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