The Life-Changing Miracle of Publication

November 2014: Holland House Books offered me a contract for The Storyteller. June 2015: I accepted that contract. Seven months of indecision over an offer that should have been a dream come true. One simple reason: I didn’t believe in the novel or myself.

There were other, smaller, reasons as well that I could use as an excuse for procrastination. Aspects of the book were too personal to share openly. I worried I would hurt someone else. I couldn’t explain it at work. Perhaps I should be completely rewriting the text as the Penguin editor so charmingly suggested. Continue reading “The Life-Changing Miracle of Publication”

What is worth learning anyway?

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.)

Continue reading “What is worth learning anyway?”

How not to write about mental health

Mental health is currently big in the news. With Mental Health Awareness Week just behind us that’s hardly a surprise. I’m in favour of reducing stigma and increasing awareness (you may have noticed); so it was odd to find myself bothered by an article I woke up to this morning.

It was in the BBC magazine, and was a feature on teenagers deliberately poisoning themselves. ‘Self poisoning’ is the term the article uses, which I imagine is what the psychiatrists write in their notes. It is decent news reporting. It is not actively sensationalist. It interviews sufferers, who themselves have been trained to talk about their behaviour in medical language. And it really upset me. Continue reading “How not to write about mental health”

Self-care: that’s for wimps, right?

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.

Continue reading “Self-care: that’s for wimps, right?”

#whatyoudontsee

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.

Continue reading “#whatyoudontsee”

The dawn is starting to break

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.

Continue reading “The dawn is starting to break”

Depression and mental illness: it’s time to talk

I hesitated before writing this one. I hate the stigma around depression and other mental illnesses. And yet I don’t like speaking openly about my experience. Call it prudence, or call it cowardice – either way I find it very awkward.

When I was at my most unwell it wasn’t an issue. Many days I wasn’t capable of speaking or moving at all. And when you are in a psychiatric hospital the people around you know the deal.

But now I’m getting better it is becoming more important to me to speak out.

Continue reading “Depression and mental illness: it’s time to talk”

Starting from here

I used to think I’d rather start from anywhere but here. I saw my life in fragments. Teenage depression and breakdown. Stop. An attempt at an academic career. Stop. Businesswoman criss-crossing the world. Stop. Breakdown and crawling recovery. Crawling on.

I propelled myself forwards, never looking back, and I took on different characters to survive. I avoided maintaining a common thread. My life felt like imitation, like pastiche. It affected my writing too: pastiche was my literary habitat. Continue reading “Starting from here”

Am I now a writer?

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?”