[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?