Book review: When Hope Speaks

Journalist Jessica Morris was 12 years old when she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

‘I can’t remember much about that year,’ she notes in When Hope Speaks, ‘except that I felt perpetually alone at school.’

Following her diagnosis, thanks to the help of a book about anxiety, Morris developed an imaginary friend called ‘It’, which, she says, ‘was the ever-present monster that breathed down my neck. ‘It’ was the feeling that sat in the pit of my stomach and kept me from venturing to the bottom terrace during lunchtime in case I didn’t make it to line up when the school bell rang … It was the feeling of terror that enveloped me when my friends teased me for having hair on my legs as a 10-year-old, and the moment I first picked up a razor and tried to use it.’

Anxiety sounds like a reasonably gentle word, given its scope and breadth – and how profoundly it can impact on the lives of those who are affected by it. People use it all the time, to describe the feeling you get before a first date or when you’re about to check your grades for that big assessment. There’s a similar phenomenon with depression; people often say they’re feeling depressed without necessarily suffering from the mental illness. For many, though, these emotions can be debilitating and feel completely irrational. It’s for this reason that speaking out about experiences of mental health is so necessary, to destigmatise and demystify them, and to present them accurately.

Released on World Mental Health Day this year, Morris’ memoir When Hope Speaks is a beautiful articulation of what it is like to live with depression and anxiety disorder. As she travels from Geelong, Australia to Nashville, Tennessee, she speaks, with optimism and resilience, of the moments which helped shape the woman she has become, and evocatively expresses her mental illnesses’ self-destructive absurdities and their temporary cessations as she learns to cope.

In the introduction to the novel, Morris describes herself as the girl who was ‘afraid of everything.’ However, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no longer the case, as she traverses the globe, befriending people radically different from herself and growing as a result.

Using a combination of essays, letters, and poems, Morris recounts the moments which made her braver, stronger, and helped her learn to deal with her mental illness. She harvests some of her best work in this collection, which doubles as a memoir and declaration of her faith. Throughout her journey, she writes, she struggled to find God, who ‘met [her] in these dark places.’

The most powerful chapters of the book are those which remind us to hold onto hope, even when it feels as though there is no real reason to. The first chapter begins with a vivid portrait of what hope is and what it feels like. In a political climate where many of us feel disillusioned and distressed, this provides a comforting reminder that there is hope, even when we are afraid.

Although each of the chapters are connected by the overarching theme of mental illness, the book deftly explores a wide variety of topics including feminism, travel, God and religion, and relationships.

‘Sincerely, the Girl by the Window’ moves into a territory that is no doubt familiar to most feminists, asking when we should call people out on sexist remarks, and interrupt those ‘private conversations’ that seek to diminish women. In this chapter, Morris has penned a letter to a group of men in a coffee shop who called a waitress a ‘dumb bitch’. She writes, ‘The first time you said those words, I ignored them. I had earphones in, and for a few seconds I used that as an excuse to weigh up the pros and cons … The second time, I had no option but to speak up.’

She blithely tells of her enduring battle with depression, describing the bathroom as a kind of purgatory between life and death. Candour is at the heart of ‘If I’m Honest’, in which Morris divulges her fears and insecurities, and her ongoing struggle with church. ‘After you’ve been burned by it so many times, it’s hard to go back,’ she writes. ‘And when you gain the courage to go back, you have to learn that you will still get hurt by the people inside. You will disagree with them sometimes. You will question their motives.’

‘In My Head’ juxtaposes the two worlds living inside Morris’ head. Some days, it is filled with rolling hills and an ocean full of blue and green emeralds; the others it is a ‘gorge of rocks and deep red sand, full of death and decay and never-ending heat … Maybe it is called depression. Perhaps it is suicidality. You may call it anxiety.’

I felt that this book – which can be read intermittently, as the chapters are equally as strong on their own as they are a collective – resonated with me the most when it was speaking abstractly about hope or anxiety. In parts, Morris’ voice is that of an old friend, speaking directly to the reader in a comforting and warm tone.

The final chapter ‘The Promise of Yet’ is the book’s apotheosis. In a short, final poem, Morris urges both the reader and herself to keep going in the face of adversity:

‘This is for you and I, taking one more step.

Pushing through the dust, caressing the good,

And taking the land we know we will possess.

Here’s to today, and here’s to content.

Because we will get there.

I promise.

We will get there yet.’

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IMG_9734Alyssia Tennant is currently studying a Bachelor of Journalism (Social and Digital Campaigning) at the University of Canberra. Formerly, she was the sub-editor for BMA Magazine, a breakfast radio producer with Radio Adelaide and she previously coordinated the University of South Australia’s student radio station, UniCast. Her writing has been published with Right Now Inc., Curieux, BMA and Verse Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @alyssiatennant

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