'My soul often goes awol'
Marian Keyes is a hugely successful author but she is only now beginning to accept life's joys, writes ALISON FLOOD
Three years ago, Marian Keyes believed she would never write again. Always prone to bouts of depression – “on the spectrum of people, there’s happy at one end and Beckett at the other and I’m down at the Beckett end” – she was plunged into something she describes as “catastrophic”.
She felt frightened all the time. She couldn’t formulate sentences; her brain felt as if it had slowed right down. She spent time in a psychiatric hospital, and took every known variant, combination and dose of anti-depressant. Nothing worked.
“I don’t want to sound self-pitying, but I felt the old me had been washed away, as if there had been an avalanche, and I’d come to and found myself in a totally different landscape, so I didn’t know where anything was. I just felt the old me was gone forever,” she says.
She can pinpoint the moment when it happened: in September 2009, she had just done an eight-day residential self-help therapy course intended, she says, to “deal with your demons”, involving early starts, late nights and a giving-birth-to-yourself process.
“I thought it would be a good thing to do, because of my habitual self-loathing and the kind of unpleasantness I put myself through with my own thoughts. I thought I might find some peace from it,” says Keyes.
On a freezing cold day in her turquoise-painted house on a hill snaking up out of Dún Laoghaire, she’s as funny and warm in person as in her books. It’s just that she’s talking about a rather darker side of life than might be expected for a bestselling author often dubbed the queen of chick lit.
Keyes was an alcoholic in her 20s, and, after trying to kill herself at 30, ended up in rehab (she now divides her life into before and after drinking).
The recent depression was worse. After the course, she had about a week “of feeling really kind of elated, and then the elation began to move into shimmering, strange, manic anxiety, and then into a catastrophic fear . . . People looked different to me; people close to me, like Tony [her husband]. I used to have moments of thinking ‘I don’t know who you are’. It was horrific, like a psychotic episode that went on for a long time. Whatever they did to me in that place, it brought me face to face with my worst fears.”
She tried everything, from reiki to cognitive behavioural therapy to “vitamin supplements up the wazoo”, and even going to Mass with her mother. “That’s how bad I was. I abhor Catholicism, but I was that desperate.” In the end, it was the passage of time, plus the discovery of a new hobby/obsession of baking (which led to a book of recipes), plus the slow, painful emergence of the novel that would become The Mystery of Mercy Close, which pulled her out of the pit.