Anxiety & Me, part 3: The stories that make us

[this is the third in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part four]

Browsing the web after the “little bit mentally ill” incident, I found several articles by Matthew Haig describing his writing journey and struggle with depression. In an excellent piece in the Telegraph, ( he wrote that “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books, offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
I enjoyed the piece, and related strongly. During my last depressive phase, my concentration worsened: I couldn’t focus, couldn’t work much, couldn’t read much. I was unable to be interested in a book. But in April 2014, I found a copy of Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, read the first page, and was hooked.
My reading muscles were so weak that I ended up mouthing to myself as I read, painstakingly visualising the characters and highlighting as I went. But when I was done I hit the second-hand bookshops, left with an armful of novels, and became a reader again.
Yes, the stories we write and read can help us. Yes, we need them desperately.
My concern is that recovery narratives like Haig’s are framed by media in a way that doesn’t reflect a common, unspoken experience of mental illness: most people have to be at a certain level of wellness to read and write in the first place.
By the time I read Alias Grace, I was already feeling better. Only a few months before, I would have been unable to read it all the way through. Going back to the books was a sign of partial recovery, not a miracle cure.
The idea that ‘art rescues people’ can spark enormous creative guilt.
I’ve talked to young artists who can’t work, study or produce because of their illness – and who worry that they’re somehow doing it wrong. But sapped creativity doesn’t make you innately uncreative; it just means your energy is being burned up elsewhere.
The idea that mental illness necessarily fuels art – that we somehow gain a deeper connection to books and writing through the experience – is one of the most pernicious misconceptions I’ve ever come across. Perhaps it’s true for some, but certainly not for all. To be honest, mental illness is so tiring and boring that it burns us out at times. And then many of us wonder if we should be fired up to create, instead of feeling totally fed up.


The saint of the unheard

Story time!

Today is St Oran’s day. He’s my favourite saint. (Along with Lucy: legend says that a nobleman offered to marry Saint Lucy for the beauty of her eyes, so she tore them out and gave them to him, saying “Now let me live for God!” Amazing.)


It’s one way to deal with unwanted male attention.

I’m not a Catholic, but I like Oran. Arundhati Roy said “There’s no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” I believe he should be their patron saint.

Oran was a Christian missionary in Iona, (pictured in the large cover image) in the 6th century AD. There are several versions of his tale. One version says he was the son of Saint Columba.

In this version of the legend, Saint Columba was building the chapel of Saint Oran, named after his own son. But the building was not going well: no matter how well the work was done, every morning all that had been built the previous day was discovered in ruins.

At last Saint Columba heard a voice, which told him the only way to finish the chapel was to bury a man alive under its foundations. Without this, the chapel could never be finished.

Columba decided that his own son was the only one who could be put under the chapel, so he buried him at once and the building work went on with no problems.

One day, however, according to Nihil Obstat, “Oran raised his head, and pushing it through the wall, said, ‘There is no Hell as you suppose, nor Heaven that people talk about.’
“This alarmed St. Columba, and in case Oran should communicate more secrets of the other world, he had the body removed at once and buried in consecrated ground, and St. Oran never again troubled any one.”

Other versions say that Oran was dug up again after three days on Saint Columba’s orders. As soon as he had been taken back up, he declared that there was no God, no judgement and no afterlife. He whispered to Columba, “The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all.” And Columba, fearing more dramatic and inconvenient revelations, ordered his men to bury Oran again.

In Ireland and the Hebrides there is still a popular saying, brought out when someone raises an unpopular topic: “Throw mud in the mouth of St Oran”.

The patron saint of the silenced!

A recent essay by Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s opened with: “The story of Cassandra, the woman who told the truth but was not believed, is not nearly as embedded in our culture as that of the Boy Who Cried Wolf — that is, the boy who was believed the first few times he told the same lie. Perhaps it should be.”

And someday I would very much like to write a story about a female Oran.

Anxiety & Me, part 2: “You have a broken leg? Try meditation!”

[this is the second in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which are also being serialised on Bootleg Noise. Part one, part three, part four]

Imagine getting sick.

You’re confined to bed with double pneumonia, struggling to breathe.

Now some insensitive twerp visits you and declares they “used to have” pneumonia too, but overcame it through meditation and inner strength. (“And now I have stronger lungs! I’m better at writing now too! You’re just not believing in yourself enough!”)

It sounds ridiculous. But this is, more or less, the attitude that those chronic incurables amongst us have to put up with.

The fact that we haven’t recovered, or will never completely get over it, is not something people want to hear – even those who’ve previously suffered mental illness themselves. People want us to win over our demons for good, ignoring the fact that some demons have to be lived with.

Illness of any kind is a fact of life. It cannot always be overcome: sometimes we’re stuck with it. And any positives we gain from it seem largely to be due to our own strength, support networks and ingenuity, not the illness itself.

Nor is mental illness innately connected with being artsy. People from all walks of life suffer from mental health problems, including individuals who have no artistic leanings whatsoever. It’s just that the loudest, most visible mentally ill folks tend to be celebrities in creative professions, no? We don’t hear about depressed builders, or scientists. They exist, but we don’t hear abut them.

An article in Scientific American put it this way: “There are many eminent people without mental illness or harsh early life experiences, and there is very little evidence suggesting that clinical, debilitating mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation.”

Mental illness really has very little to do with being an artist, and some demons have to be lived with. The sooner that’s understood, the better.

Anxiety & Me: How mental illness nearly killed my creativity

[note: This post was originally written for Bootleg Noise, a wonderful blog for young people in London which everyone should go and follow. It takes the form of six short essays, which are being serialised here and on Bootleg.]


I started writing this just after Robin Williams died. Since his suicide, many beautiful articles have been written about his life, his legacy, and the link between creativity and mental illness.

I realised that this article – originally just a collection of short and funny essays – needed to be rewritten. Rewritten – not as reflections about Robin Williams so much, but as reflections about the stories we hear about mental illness, art and recovery. That includes the stories we tell ourselves.

Mentally ill people are surrounded by stories on TV, in books, and in newspapers about our conditions. Most of these stories are told by people without mental illnesses. These stories, often told from a position of ignorance and fear, can irrevocably shape how a mentally ill person sees other people and themselves.

For those of us who grew up without a diagnosis, these stories often teach us that having a mental illness is shameful and can only be revealed to close friends, as a sort of Tragic Backstory. The default point of view in most books, films and TV shows is that of a neurotypical person (not mentally ill) which makes us feel like side characters in our own lives.

People who have a diagnosis, such as OCD or schizophrenia, will encounter stories – fictional or allegedly true – which paint people like themselves as scary and violent. Never mind that almost everyone knows a seemingly normal person who has a mental illness (about 1 in 10 people in Britain have mixed depression and anxiety). We’re always seen as odd, in need of special attention, or not trying hard enough.

There is a strong difference between the way society sees us and the way we see ourselves. To paraphrase the novel About A Boy, “It’s different on the inside”.

In the week after Williams’ death, I heard two comments that stuck with me: “It only proves that those who act the most happy are the most sad”, and “How sad that he let his demons win.” These both just show how willing people are to look at a real person suffering a mental illness, and twist their lives into a story: The Man Who Let His Demons Win. The Great Tragic Funny-man. And so on.

That’s what we do, as people: we tell stories. But not all of them are true.

1: “A little bit mentally ill”

Last summer, the author Matthew Haig tweeted advice for writers: “Be an insomniac, eat peanut butter, have trust issues, be a little bit mentally ill, forget to moisturise, talk to cats.”

Well, I enjoy a joke, but only when it’s funny. And the words “be a little bit mentally ill” left me wanting a strong drink and a lie-down.

Instead, I calmly tweeted Mr Haig and told him I thought the joke was a lead balloon. A proper Dude, Not Funny.

Yes, the quip seems harmless on the surface – but I live below the surface. Where I talk to amazing, kind, magical young people whose natural confidence and energy has been crippled by mental illness. Twitter has incredible support networks, but you’d never know if you see a snarky quip about mental health. After a while, the jokes get exhausting.

Matthew Haig replied that his own mental illness history had “seriously… helped his writing”. To which I cried, “But it didn’t help mine! Or anyone else I know! Your story isn’t the same as my story! This isn’t true for everyone!”

Personally, I don’t believe mental illness helps my writing. Many of my friends are artists and apart from Matthew Haig I’ve not met anyone, not one person who claims to be more productive or inventive because of their bad brain chemistry.  I have no patience whatsoever for the tortured artist myth: mental illness, like any other sickness, is generally innately destructive.
When we talk about Robin Williams, to say “How sad he let his demons win” ignores the fact that he fought those demons for decades, knowing that they intended to destroy him. Mental illness is not a muse, it’s a life-sucking parasite; and the fact he lasted so long is a sign of his strength. You wouldn’t blame someone for ‘losing the battle’ to cancer, so why criticise someone for being so ill that they commit suicide?

The last thing I would advise any artist to do is to have a bad brain.

But we work with what we’ve got, right?

The Great American Freakshow Trick

[note: this article will also appear at Shade, a student platform based at the School of Oriental and African Studies]

Last week I got a text from a friend who was watching an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show, featuring a group of people with facial disfigurements.

Obviously these people had chosen the platform as a way to raise awareness, my friend said, but: “it made this big show of being sympathetic towards disabled people, but it was so patronising and just came across as if their disability was the only thing of note”.

Invasive questions were asked about the guests’ disabilities. Jeremy called the women “love” and addressed questions to their carers. All in all, it sounded like a parade of the sort of subtle, but incredibly pervasive ableism in our society, which sees disabled people as their disability rather than a fully rounded human being.

Before I watched American Horror Story: Freakshow, I prayed “Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

Opinions I’d heard on this new fourth series of AHS have been mixed: disability activist friends refused to watch it because of the title alone, while others watched and enjoyed it. Another friend said she saw “no intention to shame or mock the characters”, as all the actors had chosen to be on the show. The same friend remarked that, “Hollywood does not give much room for individuals with such severe (as well as minor) physical disabilities to showcase their talent, if anything “disability” is practically invisible in such artistic areas. I was happy to see underrepresented persons on my computer screen.”

So: exploitative freak-fest? Or a sensitive show that gives work and exposure to disabled actors, like the delightful Jyoti Amge, and puts disabled bodies on our screens?

“Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

I’m not a fan of Complaining About Shows You Don’t Watch, so I sat down to watch it with zero expectations either way. Quick summary: the first episode of the show’s new fourth series is set in 1952 and follows a pair of conjoined twins – Bette and Dot – who are taken to hospital after a milkman finds them injured in their home next to their mother’s dead body. Word spreads. A freak show runner, Elsa Mars, hears about the twins and blackmails them into joining her troupe, and the plot goes on from there. There’s a silly subplot about a killer clown who kidnaps teenagers and imprisons them in a bus, (which would probably have been scarier if Jeremy Kyle had played the clown) but most of the focus is on the twins and the freak show runner.

So… is it awful? Unfortunately, yes. I am an invisibly disabled person, and I’m unhappy to say I hated it. I watched it with my fist in my mouth. I was strongly reminded of the first part of Arundhati Roy’s essay The Great Indian Rape Trick. I quote: “If you say you found the film distasteful, you’re told – Well that’s what truth is – distasteful. Manipulative? That’s Life – manipulative.
Go on. Now you try.
Try…Exploitative. Or.. Gross. Try Gross.”

I felt for people with obvious disabilities, who will inevitably in their day-to-day lives be compared to the characters on this incredibly popular show. I felt it catered to the imaginations of nondisabled viewers, and ignored the fact that disabled viewers would be watching. But mostly, as I watched it, I had the strange feeling that I was being pulled inexorably back to the Victorian age.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiousity Shop, there is a freak show owner called Mr Guffin who speaks about his difficulties with one of his ‘freaks’ being old and unwell: “Once get a giant shaky on his legs, and the public care no more about him than they do for a dead cabbage stalk.” Victorian freak shows were very popular. Not only did they feature disabled bodies, but also Black bodies – like that of the Hottentot Venus – and the bodies of trans people, were put on display for money. This continued for a long time, in fact; in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, partly set in the late 20th century, the intersex protagonist Calliope runs away from home and ends up displaying their body to tourists for money.

Another fun fact: in the Victorian age, disabled people were frequently seen as violent, dangerous, and less than human.

this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones

This attitude is reflected in the show’s portrayal of disabled people. In American Horror Story: Freakshow, a nurse at the beginning says about the conjoined twins, “If I gave birth to something like that, I’d drown it in a bathtub.” For the real-life implications of abuse on disabled people, especially children, look no further than the Issy Stapleton case and the recent incident of a mother who killed her three disabled children and was not prosecuted.

Yet this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones: we see the twins committing a murder, and a group of the ‘freakshow’ performers commit another violent murder later in the episode as retribution for being called freaks.

In real life, disabled people are incredibly vulnerable to murder and abuse, especially by carers and relatives. We are more likely to be killed than to commit murder. Portraying us as violent is another indication that this is entertainment that doesn’t really care about disabled people; the creators care about using a combination of violence, horror, woo-woo spooky music and disabled bodies to get ratings and cause a controversial sensation.

So, I’ll come out with it: yes, it is ableist. To me the point of calling a piece of media ableist, sexist, racist or any –ist word shouldn’t be to show off how offended you can be, or how disgusted you are with The Media. Sure, that seems to be why some people do it. But to me, it’s more important than my own feelings. Media isn’t in its own little, unimpeachable bubble: it’s part of the wider world and a major influence on the way we view other people. There is often a strong correlation between media representation of minority groups, and the real-life impact on those groups.

Witness the impact of South Park: children in many countries watch South Park, and it has been linked to cases of bullying. If I tell people I have OCD, they sometimes bring up television characters like Bree in Desperate Housewives who fit the OCD stereotype.
But more positively, Laverne Cox’s starring role on Orange is the New Black has given incredible media representation to trans women, which gives cis people like myself a way to relate to and discuss trans issues.

Media representation matters. Being able to see ourselves reflected in a positive light matters.

It’s great to see disabled bodies on your computer screen, but it’s not enough to put disabled bodies in your show: you have to write them as people. What I saw was a show that features disabled bodies first and foremost, and disabled people second.

For example, I expected to hear more from the disabled characters themselves, but was disappointed that actors like Amge were only given a few lines and their characters barely fleshed out. Of course, this is the first episode – which introduces a lot of characters at once – but this doesn’t excuse the fact that most of the focus was on characters like Elsa, who appeared to be normal. The disabled actors were clearly playing bit parts.

So the question is: will this show make life more difficult for disabled people?
At the end, Elsa gives a speech which attempts to justify this circus:

“I’ll tell you who the monsters are – the people outside this tent! Housewives… stupefied with boredom… as they dream of strange erotic pleasures! They have no souls! My monsters… they are the beautiful, heroic ones! They offer their oddity to the world! Everyone is living the life they chose! But you, undoubtedly, are one of those soulless monsters.”

But why does the world have to be divided into monsters and “beautiful, heroic ones”? Why can’t we all be seen as real people? Why attack women (housewives in particular) to make a lazy, clichéd point about how The Normal People Are The Nasty Ones Really? We are all – abled and disabled – human beings, who are capable of doing both wonderful things and monstrous things.

Sad that we have so many talented disabled actors in this world, and yet the only show this autumn that features a group of them prominently has the word “Freakshow” in the title, puts its disabled actors in cages, fetishizes their bodies, and portrays them as violent people who have to be “saved” by a manipulative freakshow runner.

Personally I’m holding out for a show that portrays us in a context removed from the fantastically clichéd asylum/freakshow settings. A show that fits with the modern world where disabled people are leading normal lives, with friends, families, hobbies and jobs. An acknowledgement that we exist outside of the asylum, the freakshow or the special ed classroom. Or is that too much to ask?