A review of A Way Out by Michelle Balge

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

A Way Out
A Memoir of Conquering Depression and Social Anxiety
by Michelle Balge
15 Feb 2018, ISBN 9781775094210

As Michelle Balge acknowledges in her epilogue to A Way Out, the trouble with mental illness is that so much of it is ‘about me, me, me and how I’m insecure, but this is what these illnesses do to you.’ It follows that A Way Out does not hesitate to divulge its author’s most intimate secrets in her long battle with depression and social anxiety. Such honesty and candour lays bare an individual life in ways that illuminate our own experiences of mental illness: in speaking of herself, she speaks of us all.

Of course, each of us is different, and mental illnesses such as depression and social anxiety strike us in highly specific ways, targeting our individual fragilities and fears with pinpoint accuracy. Yet there are always commonalities – there would have to be, otherwise how could these dreadful conditions be identified, diagnosed and treated in the first place?

One such commonality is the paradoxical feeling that one is simply unworthy to be afflicted. After describing her happy childhood with loving parents and sisters, Michelle asks:

You may be wondering what this middle-class, straight, white girl in an intact nuclear family has to complain about? The truth is I don’t have anything to complain about.

‘I was just a depressed girl with no real problems.’ What did she (I, we) know of poverty, lovelessness, violence and oppression? So many of us with mental illness simply don’t deserve it because we have never truly suffered as others suffer, day in, day out. What have we got to complain about? And thus we go round and round, accusing ourselves of self-indulgence and self-pity, making ourselves depressed about being depressed, anxious about being anxious.

Yet Michelle’s childhood was not entirely untroubled:

It certainly didn’t help that I had severe acne with very oily skin … I also had braces, glasses, frizzy dark blonde hair and a large nose that I hated.

Adults often make light of these things, forgetting just how awful they are for young people desperate to fit in and be liked. Michelle saw her first therapist at age nine. She suspects that the acne pills she was prescribed might have had something to do with the onset of depression. Mostly, however, it appears to be her genetic inheritance that predisposed her to mental illness, just as it did her mother, her sister and her great-grandfather.

And the problems multiply with the years: arachnophobia sends her screaming from the room; an undiagnosed lactose intolerance has embarrassing social consequences; menstruation causes extraordinary mental anguish; seasonal affective disorder casts its pall over everything. Coupled with the paralysing panic attacks that render her blind and deaf (literally) to the world around her, it’s no wonder that

It’s exhausting being depressed. Every day it feels like you’ve run a marathon, but all I ever did was lie in bed or cry or stare into space. Life like that is just existing, not living.

Michelle did her best to hide what was happening to her. The thought of worrying her family and friends with the true extent of her misery was too much to bear. ‘They couldn’t find out I was hanging on by a thread.’ In the worst of her social anxiety she could not leave her room and let herself be seen by others. Self-loathing found nourishment in isolation: ‘In my head, everything was my fault.’

Then there are no words, no thoughts, to describe what is going on. ‘There are too many feelings to explain, yet I also feel nothing. I am nothing.’ To be bursting with feelings and yet to feel hollowed out, empty, is a crushing experience. As Shakespeare’s Cominius says of Coriolanus, ‘He has become a kind of nothing’, and nothing is the worst a person can become this side of death.

Yes, you’re consumed by self-hate when on that fence [between life and death], but it’s because you believe others are better off without you here.

The agonizing wait for a medication that works is passed in sleeping as much as possible in order to put an end to the day; in internet searches for the best, least painful suicide options; in succumbing to fears of humiliation and ignominy.

Thankfully, medicines, mindfulness, and familial and social support eventually helped lead Michelle out of the wilderness. Despite her illness and her interrupted studies, she graduated from Brock University with an Honours BA in sociology and a concentration in critical animal studies; at the same time, she became an impressive advocate for mental health awareness. She could, at last, know what it is to feel genuinely happy.

A Way Out is a short confession, frank and artless (not a criticism). Men and women – especially students and young women – who feel alone in a struggle with mental illness will find it a helpful book and a hopeful one. Michelle Balge is chiefly concerned with the endogenous aspects of mental illness and only hints at  social and cultural factors. This may be because she comes from a happy, close-knit family, and her illnesses seem to have had a genetic cause, among others. For those whose families were less than ideal, or for whom the world’s evils are a constant barrage of existential anguish, there may be less comfort in Michelle’s story.

Michelle is a vegetarian. She is haunted by her glimpse of a distressed piglet in a video clip about factory farming. I happen to be vegetarian myself and am similarly upset by images of animal suffering, which are horrific in themselves and – to me at least – symbolic of just about everything that is wrong with humanity. To individuals who feel they no longer belong in the world we have made, whose culture seems deliberately to exclude them, who are besieged by anger and powerlessness, it is society itself that is at fault, and their illness is simply a rational response to an intolerable condition. Our home is our sickness.

Similarly, in the modern era, when facts often seem no longer to count and truth is a perishable commodity, we are caught up in what could be called a flight from the ordinary. To be extraordinary is our common pursuit, and we forget that being ordinary is neither a sin nor a crime, and virtue is not a particular friend of the rich and powerful. Ordinary is not a synonym for worthless.

A Way Out speaks of conquering depression and social anxiety. I am unconvinced by this metaphor. It seems to me that it’s the illnesses who are the invading army and it is they who conquer. The most we can hope to do is drive them out and patrol our borders, because the enemy is implacable and inexhaustible. Perhaps taking back ownership and control of our own territory is what it means to be truly alive. The photograph of a smiling, accomplished, charming young woman at the end of A Way Out is proof that Michelle is just that.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more at https://jackmessenger.co.uk