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.”

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.