Look at my CV, and you’d think I’m well-educated. Despite a poor-performing school, I came away with a string of A*s at GCSE. I ticked off 5 As at A-level, a First in my undergraduate degree, a Distinction in my Masters, and then a doctorate. These are all things it was worth working for, and which it is worth having. Each progressively took me the step along the road to the next, and when I became seriously ill and my life fell apart, it was the benefits associated with the job I’d gained through all those qualifications that paid for the medical care that began my cure. (Now I can no longer get health insurance, it is the salary from that ‘high-flying’ job that allows me to pay my medical bills directly. The NHS does not cover long-term individual therapy; welcome to the prioritisation of the physically ill.)
Five years ago I was a stereotypical Alpha type. I worked 80-90 hour weeks in a very high stress job. On principle I worked with the people reputed to be the most demanding. I was the one who stayed up the latest, partied the hardest, drank the most, made sure everyone had a good time, was first into work the next morning.
On holidays I got up earlier than I did for work – 3 or 4 am – to climb (and sometimes ski) serious Alpine peaks. I was the sole woman on a 15-strong expedition to a technically difficult Himalayan summit. I frequently ran marathon distances off road at the weekend.
Last week was Depression Awareness Week and the Blurt Foundation started #whatyoudontsee on Twitter. Sufferers of depression were invited to express what they feel and experience as a result of their illness. By the end of the week tweets were coming through at a rate of ten or more an hour, from all sorts of people, and from all over the world. They are still coming. (Go look.)
I’m comfortable that I know pretty well what so-called mental illness is like. I’ve had many odd internal experiences, have repeatedly lost the ability to look after myself and needed to put myself into others’ care, have felt the stigma and the shame and at times have perpetuated it as well.
Even with this knowledge I was overwhelmed by what people posted.
There’s one issue I’m facing again and again as I try to become whatever sort of writer is the right writer for me to be: my first book is a coming of age novel, its central character is a young woman, and depression and recovery are writ large. Told that, people assume it is autobiographical, and I assume they will assume that and so I’m embarrassed to talk about its content at all. Here’s one for the record: it’s a novel – it’s a work of fiction.
This blog, on the other hand, is not fiction. Here I’ve been experimenting with different postures towards the writing world, sure, but I’ve been ‘honest at the time’ in the way I’ve tried each of them. The blog is autobiographical not primarily in the sense that it tells you what happened (though sometimes it does that too) but instead in its attempted true reflection of what I’m learning about myself, my writing, and where that writing might fit in. It’s an attempt to tie down my current thoughts, to translate fluctuating neural networks that are at times disabling onto the relative stability of the page. (Many of you have said that exploration has benefited you. Thank you for telling me that.)
So: blog autobiographical, if inevitably faultily so. Fiction not. Why does it matter?
Three or four years ago I went to a therapy session wearing patterned trousers that were largely navy and black with occasional small orange crescents. My therapist glanced at them, looked pleased with himself, turned back to me, and said:
‘That’s what it will be like. That’s when you’ll know you’re getting well. Very briefly at some point the sun will come out and you’ll see it, like those tiny crescents, and then it will go again. But it will be back, and over time those bursts of sunshine will each one last slightly longer than the last.’
He’s a poetic chap, my therapist. And he was also right: that has been happening for over a year now.
Initially it really was two minutes at a time that the desperation, terror and gloom seemed infinitesimally to lift. That was not a benefit; it was brutally hard. I hated the brief partings of the clouds because when the clouds closed up again the pain came back with more force.
But over time the partings came more frequently, and eventually they lasted for longer, and with them came some comfort. Slowly I became able to notice, name and remember not only the fact of the brightness, but also the emotions and sensations that began to show up. By a year or so ago I was up to a day or two a week that was mostly pretty good. In the last few months I’ve been averaging four to five days. And then yesterday I got to the end of the week and realised it had been pretty good throughout, and that that was a miracle.
So this is what a good week has been like. For me, with my particular complexities of nervous system and brain. At this stage of my recovery. In my life as it is.
The first time I ran I was 19 and a friend who seemed to have it together had told me this was what she did at seven every morning. We were undergraduates, so this was pretty weird; but in my perennial bid to clear my depression and improve my life, I set my alarm, and was out there next day in the dawn light. (Running later in the day didn’t occur to me.) I made it 200 yards down the road, could go no further, walked the rest of my planned route round the University Parks, and knew running was something I just couldn’t do.
The second time was four years later. My boyfriend had promised to teach me to ski, but only if I could guarantee to keep going when physically it got tough. Three of us went out along the river to practise this. Adam ran backwards ahead of me. I gasped and thudded along in the middle. Matthew came behind with a constant stream of encouragement. Continue reading “Up and running”
When I was sixteen I knew I could write. At nineteen, with deliberate renunciation, I closed and locked that door. I’m now thirty five, and next June I will have my first novel in my hands.
At sixteen I was depressed and gushing self-indulgent prose. At nineteen I crashed out of my English degree into a psychiatric ward. When they let me out I needed above all to get well. I had no support but my own body and brain, and I had to function in the practical world. I thought mental illness and creativity were unavoidably entwined. I sacrificed my writing self. Continue reading “Am I now a writer?”