Unholy Ghost: Storytelling and Depression

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Here at Subconscious, we decided to read a book together on to help us better understand how to write about what it feels like to fight mental illness. Our goal is to create a platform where people can share their real stories for everyone to read, so it is mission critical for us to learn how what makes a good story that people would want to read and share. We looked for a book authored by patients who experienced mental illness first-hand and found Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, a collection of essays compiled by Nell Casey.

Snuggled up in bed in LA shortly after the NAMI Pathways Conference, I began to read, unsure what to expect. By the end of the first page, I was hooked. The language was raw and the feelings of uncertainty, confusion, instability jumped out of the page. Without using any of those adjectives, the author was able to convey exactly what she was going through. And thus, the first lesson I took home was: show, not tell.

For many people, depression is an abrupt change in an otherwise full and happy life. It emerges suddenly and devastates by its very strangeness and pathology.

Next, because the authors come from a wide range of backgrounds, including poets, psychologists, sociologists, and novelists, each contributes yet another perspective. Each essay incorporated different elements of the writer’s past – excerpts from poems, academic journal articles – giving each story a special flavor of its own. From these diverging styles, we learned that there is no standard format that trumps all others. Instead, using one’s background to add color to the voice makes for a truly memorable piece.

Nell Casey, author of Unholy Ghost

Nell Casey, author of Unholy Ghost

In her own essay, Nell Casey describes her helplessness as her sister, Maud, is hospitalized once again. Her story, in addition to Donald Hall’s account of his wife’s battle with bipolar disorder, show yet another face of mental health: its profound impact on everyone else. Their struggles with understanding and figuring out how to support their loved ones are something that we all face. From their stories, we learn that the second-hand account is often just as compelling, and critical, as the primary.

One thing people always say about depression is that stubborn, consistent support helps even when it seems like it doesn’t.

We are truly inspired by Casey’s bravery in sharing her own story and compiling so many others. We hope that Subconscious can one day offer a similar intersection of voices for the technology-first generation.


This post was written by Cathy Liu. Please contact cathy@subconscious.org with any questions.