On writing about mental health and exploring vulnerability

Last year I wrote a post where I declared:

“One problem with [media] presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

I’ve been writing this blog for ten months now and it’s taught me a few things: like, writing about mental health is hard. Sometimes you just have to crack on and do it.
Since writing that post I’ve definitely hit a temptation to place experiences in the past tense. “Should I write that my anxiety is flaring up? Should I be open about my intrusive thoughts? Or should I couch it in general terms?”
Sometimes this tension occurs because it’s hard to write from the centre of ongoing experience. You end up removing yourself from your writing, however autobiographical it looks. But then I find the more of myself I put in a post, the more people enjoy it, and I still don’t know why.
One thing I do know is that whilst I use my experiences to write about mental health and disability, the blog isn’t dedicated to documenting my issues. I don’t really like people using my blog to check up on me personally, because I think the content of my writing is more important than whatever it says about me.
The paradox is that I write openly, so I have to remember that my life is not public domain and I am under no obligation to share everything.
I once saw the poet Warsan Shire read, and I remember the room went quiet. There were gasps and some tears. By the end of the reading I had heard exquisite poems that explored vulnerabilities and trauma, but I knew as much about Shire herself as I had at the start.
Nor did I feel I needed to know. That’s not what her work is for.
Some people are keen on investigating the hidden autobiographical meanings in confessional poetry and this is because the poet has played a trick. They’ve confessed, but they haven’t told you everything – and why should they? Vulnerability is a precious thing which should be handled with great care.
The compulsion to overshare in public can be cathartic, but it’s also addictive. We live in a culture where women’s suffering is frequently consumed as entertainment. In that environment I know I must take responsibility for my own experiences, and take control of what I share.
And lastly, that leads me to Liz Jones.
Much as I hate the Daily Mail, I like its journalist Liz Jones: she’s a good writer, albeit highly problematic. She has written openly about topics like her anorexia and OCD, her body image issues, and her self-hatred.
Last time I looked, the comments on her pieces were a mix of vitriol and concern. Liz Jones was mad, she was ugly, she needed help and the editors should intervene. It was like seeing a crowd watching someone having a breakdown.
My thoughts:
1) How awful to see someone’s suffering packaged as a fun lifestyle column to entertain readers.
2) It was brave of this writer to share private experiences, and a shame that she was stuck with an audience of Daily Mail readers.
3) What was drawing me, as a reader? Was it a negative fascination with Ms Jones herself, or was it that I had a nagging feeling she might be playing a trick – leading readers to believe everything she said was confessional, and then possibly making things up?
4) Was I complicit in suffering as spectacle? After all, it doesn’t matter what you think about a crowd if you’re part of it.
So I stopped reading.
I have no easy answers to these questions. But I admire anyone who writes from a place of vulnerability, who writes of unpopular experiences, who opens their wounds in writing. I just hope that vulnerability can be handled with care, not exploited by other people.
Lastly my thoughts on this are summed up in Jenny’s Diski’s piece ‘In Defence of Liz Jones’ and I suggest you read it in its entirety:

“I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones… had done wrong… She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living…
In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.”

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Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “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.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here

“Most depression is just sadness”: why the faking rhetoric hurts

Hi amigos. I haven’t written in a while because of the mounting pressure of exams, dissertation and essays. Also, I’ve been lying low because this is an especially bad time to be mentally ill in Britain.
With a General Election coming up, there’s a slew of news about how benefits cuts continue to hit disabled and mentally ill people, and in the next couple of months we’ll be used as a pawn in endless political debates, whether it’s by people who hate us, or politicians who just want to score points off the opposition.
On top of that, after the tragedy in the Alps we’ve seen even more stigmatising of people with depressionShe Who Must Not Be Named wrote in a tweet: “To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”
In another tweet, she flippantly wrote: “Most depression is just genuine sadness at a social situation. Like being caught in torrential rain with a bag from Primark”.
Usually I’d shy away from quoting Katie Hopkins, but in this case I think she’s crudely expressing a view that, unfortunately many people share (including leftist Guardian columnists). It’s easy to write Hopkins off as an attention-seeking troll without realising that she sometimes represents the views of many; you forget that people come up to her in the street and thank her. “You’re saying what we’re all thinking”, they say.
She Who Must Not Be Named is not at all exceptional. Like Jeremy Clarkson, she’s an extremely privileged person who portrays herself as a sort of Everywoman. She mostly panders to sections of the British white conservative middle class, and delights in expressing their unspoken dislike of people of colour, Muslims, Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and the mentally ill and disabled. Hopkins’ audience know not to openly express their views because of this goddamn politically correct society and the risk and discomfort of being labelled bigoted, so they applaud her for ‘bravely’ speaking out.
People who hold these views are not at all unusual, nor is it just a select group of white well-off people who think these things. Like every society, British culture has its deeply unpleasant side; insular, belligerent, suspicious, selfish. It’s fed by our island mentality, and informs modern-day conservative views. And I fear that at the moment we’re only seeing more of that way of thinking.
In a lot of ways, living in an ableist society is like living in a heavily polluted town. You’re not the one causing the pollution, but you swallow the toxins every day in the air you breathe. It’s easy to internalise ableism, and it’s probably even easier if you actually have a mental illness or disability. For a lot of people take the struggles of other people more easily than their own. It’s easy to care desperately for others, but to be hard on yourself and end up thinking “Maybe I’m faking. I’m probably exaggerating. My problems aren’t that bad.”
We’re taught to hate ourselves for not fitting in with society’s expectations. Then we end up underestimating the problems we suffer from.
For me, learning about ableism was like acquiring a pollution sensor. Suddenly you can see just how foul your environment is, and are astonished. Then you realise how much of the stuff you must have swallowed without realising it.
The ‘faking mental illness’ rhetoric that Hopkins spouts is particularly dangerous, because it’s a form of gatekeeping. Many mentally ill people absorb from an early age that you can only be genuinely mentally ill if you’re extremely sick, in a hospital, or on the edge of killing yourself. That stops us from getting help at literally any stage.
And we’re told these things by people who love us, too. I’ve written before that as a 12-year old, I sat down with my father one night and said “I think I’m depressed.”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “12-year olds can’t be depressed.” He then told me about how he had to section a friend who had bipolar disorder. “My friend was really ill,” he told me. “You’re not mentally ill at all.” And obviously, he said this with the best intentions – to calm me down, to stop me from thinking that I might be sick.
So, the faking rhetoric is hurtful. Even joking about it is hurtful; for all you know, the person you’re joking around with might be secretly struggling, and might decide that you’re not safe to confide in.
For a lot of people, it’s a huge step to say to a parent, teacher, or friend, “I think I might be depressed”, or “I think I might be mentally ill”. If someone comes to you with a problem like that, listen to them. Let them speak. Let the words get out. Don’t turn them away before they’ve even had a chance to tell you the whole story.

Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
Continue reading

Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

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

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me, part 5: “Dad, I’m Scared About Aliens”

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

Over the course of my life, I’ve been told frequently that OCD and depression are a personal failure. Maybe I’m not reading enough, not writing enough, doing the wrong exercise, or eating unhealthy food. Maybe I’m just making a fuss – after all, everyone gets worried sometimes, yeah? Maybe I’m just a bit of a non-starter.
“People with mental health issues must be doing something wrong!” This message has seeped into every pore of our culture, and it’s often repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
No matter how much we explain that being unwell can actually prevent us from reading and writing – and drain the energy needed for exercise, cooking or work – it’s still assumed that the root cause of the problem is the ill person’s lifestyle and habits. We end up believing somehow that when we feel too ill to create art, it’s our own fault.
Anxiety in particular is often seen as a flaw, something you can get over if you try hard enough. As a child, I was told it wasn’t a real problem: “Twelve-year olds can’t be depressed! Just try and stop worrying!” I was vaguely aware one shouldn’t be constantly fretting, but assumed it was something I was doing wrong. Nobody around me talked about mental health, nobody I knew went to counselling; I was just “high strung”.
To me, mental illness meant being sectioned, like the vampy bipolar mother in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum. There seemed to be no fictional characters who just happened to have brain issues.
And in general, I got the impression that mental illness was a sort of scary, glamorous, soul-destroying malady that only happened to grown-ups. It seemed you couldn’t really have it unless you were sick enough to be in a hospital, and all being well you should just crack on with your day and stop worrying. If you couldn’t get over it, you weren’t trying hard enough. This wasn’t some distant faraway past either. It was inner-city Birmingham in the noughties.
These misconceptions are held by people everywhere, and I have no doubt that other young artists from vastly different backgrounds are being faced with the same prejudices. Even after I educated myself and learned that anxiety disorders and depression were not flaws or weaknesses, but illnesses, I still found myself wondering why I couldn’t just get over it.
Then I wondered why my mental illness wasn’t making me more creative: instead, it often just made me restless, irritable and unable to produce anything.
Since then, I have sometimes wondered if my imaginative wordy skills are related neurologically to mental illness. I don’t know for sure – but you know what? I don’t care, either. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to be well enough to work in the first place.
Poor mental health is not a personal failure, but neither is it some perverse superpower that drives people to create masterpieces. You make your work; your sickness doesn’t.

Anxiety & Me, part 4: Tragedy and Triumph

[this is the fourth 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 three]

Mainstream media has made great leaps in de-stigmatising mental health, with many prominent celebrities like Stephen Fry opening discussion. But somehow it often seems to be mentally healthy people who feel so very, very inspired by these stories, while those of us who are chronic, or not fully recovered, sometimes get a bit frustrated with what’s not being said. Sometimes we feel unrepresented by the people who claim to speak for us.

Success stories sell – as do stories about plucky people recovering from their Big Bad Mental Health Problem. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a Times column about her anxiety, claiming that the problem was helped not by medication or counselling, but by telling the thoughts to be quiet; now her anxiety was “not totally over” but the “spell that kills [anxiety] is simply SHUT UP”. And her pal India Knight wrote a column, also in the Times, claiming that “everybody gets depressed…You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it. Which is, by the way, what normal people do”.

One problem with these folksy presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

Our culture is full of these stories. The real problem is that young, talented people with mental health problems absorb them and suddenly feel immensely pressured to recover, to be normal, or to be a success story (“if only I could just turn my depression into art…”)

Media shows us who we can be. Women artists with mental health problems – Amy Winehouse, Plath, Woolf – are often presented by media in a way that both glamorises their illness and minimises their humanity. For an example of the kind of media we’re surrounded by, look at Vice’s tasteless 2013 photo-shoot with models re-enacting the suicides of famous women artists.

It matters.

Because young female artists with mental health problems look to culture for role models, for arcs to follow, for ways forward.

And the narratives they see about people like themselves are often tragic, glamorous, but glitteringly triumphant – like the stories about Plath. Mentally ill women artists are culturally associated with glamour, genius and death. Imagine growing up with that pressure. Imagine growing up believing that all successful, happy, creative people are secretly sad, and that being an artist means dying young and unhappy.

So, there’s work to be done. Young artists need mentally ill role models. Young people need media representation of people with ongoing mental health issues leading normal and successful lives. It’s not enough to sit back, look at media representation and think “That’s enough! People are talking about it, problem solved!”
As ever, imagination and vision are key to creating new narratives for our lives.

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, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/10758065/Suffering-from-depression-It-was-touch-and-go-but-Ididnt-jump.html) 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.
But.
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.

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.]

Intro

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?