Out of the Woods: An illustrated account of overcoming mental illness

by Catherine Woulfe / 13 December, 2017
ArticleGalleryModule - Out of the Woods depression
In these enlightened times, memoirs of anxiety, depression and mental illness abound. Usually either the author is extraordinary, or their story is: see Sir John Kirwan’s chronicles of depression; the bowel-churning anxieties of Atlantic editor Scott Stossel; and Alice Sebold’s revelation of rape and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this case, the “me” of the memoir is an everyman. Wellington community lawyer Brent Williams’s only brush with celebrity is that his abusive father happened to be the late property developer and philanthropist Sir Arthur Williams.

Without intending to diminish what the family went through, Williams’s story is unremarkable, too – a child living in fear becomes an adult driven by fear, undone by depression and panic, then laboriously put together again by extensive self-care, counselling and medication.

Yet there is magic here, and it’s all in the telling. Well, the drawing: 700 panels by Turkish illustrator Korkut Öztekin give Williams’s awful, ordinary narrative a redemptive cut-through and emotional impact.

What colour is depression? The colour of mud, the colour of murk. While Williams is at rock bottom, and as he scrabbles up the long scree slopes to wellness, Öztekin’s brush drips with browns and greys, khakis and charcoal black. Here is Williams curled naked in a bed of ferns; here he is hunched at his kitchen table in the dark.

The odd dollop of colour breaks through the murk. A light flicks on, shockingly bright. A sunny yellow Go Wellington bus trundles past a traffic light. A red balloon at a park, a bunch of red roses at a bus stop: finally, you think, Öztekin’s used up all those gloomy greys and browns.

Nope. Depression is a persistent bugger. Evidently, Williams is, too – and he’s not inclined to take shortcuts for the sake of a snappier story.

His depiction of the long grind of recovery, and his nimble wrapping-in of neuroscience and self-care strategies, has won the book high praise from experts at Oxford and Stanford, as well as New Zealand universities.

They see Out of the Woods as a powerful tool for those enduring mental illness, for professionals, and for friends and families struggling to understand. I see a teaching tool, too: as a text, it’s a sitter for NCEA English, as well as a close-to-home lesson in the basics of mental illness and recovery.

OUT OF THE WOODS: A JOURNEY THROUGH DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY, by Brent Williams and Korkut Öztekin (Educational Resources, $39.99)

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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