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.”

Piles of paper and island mentality: an austerity story

I finished my final university exams last week, which gives me time to write this blog again. I also started a new course of medication recently, and wanted to share a story about it.
I went to the doctor’s, the day after the election. That day as I walked through Brockley I had the distinct, uncomfortable sense of being on an island.
Physically, of course, I’m always on an island. And in the UK, the siege-like island mentality is pervasive. But the gap between rich and poor people, middle-class and working class, and the other prejudices at work in our society – well, it’s impossible to ignore that gap any more. It’s hard to imagine a developed country where rich and poor are more isolated from each other.
My flatmate and I stayed up all night on May 7th, watching as the Tories swept the board and the map of England gradually turned blue.
I saw Birmingham, where I grew up: a small oasis of scarlet in the midst of a solid expanse of blue. I remembered the chasm between the area where I grew up, with its run-down terraces and ’60s tower blocks, and the smug mansions in the suburbs.
Then there was London, my beloved adopted city, showing up as a small splash of red (‘communist island’ I heard it called) in the middle of the solidly Tory Home Counties.
To me it had been solidly proved that nobody – in the surrounding counties of either of my cities – particularly cared about the suicides of people who had been told they were fit to work or had their benefits cut, the rapidly growing number of food banks, the rent crisis, the closed-down libraries, the overloaded health services – or, indeed, any of the problems affecting people who live in poor areas and don’t have much money.
We are in a social crisis, which the Tory government has fuelled and encouraged. But it seems plenty of people are doing well enough to afford not to notice.
How much can you shrink the island mentality?
You can keep shrinking it, down and down, till it’s just you in your living room.
Earlier that day I’d written “Once upon a time there was a smug couple, spiteful and narrow-minded, envious of their neighbours and afraid of the outside world, and their house was an island; they were isolated by their fear of the world and their greed.
I left the doctor’s with a small story, one that could be added to the great web of austerity stories people have been sharing.
So: this time I get a kind sensible female doctor.
She says I seem to be coping well; well, you learn how to cope with chronic lifelong anxiety, somehow. Medicine helps, and so do books. Then I explain that I’ve had a problem with the referral.
I say, “I’ve been trying to push the referral through all year. I have phoned the IAPT service and emailed them -” and also asked the doctor about it repeatedly; his response was to ask me to phone the IAPT service myself. I’d phoned them again, several times, and got no response. The doctor looks concerned and says she will ring them. “They’re very disorganised, I’m afraid. They need a lot of nudging.”
Because she is not in a hurry, I press her on this point. It turns out exactly as I suspected.
She says, “Unfortunately most of our referrals don’t go through.” Oh, why not? “Well, they’re very short of time and they have long waiting lists. Almost all the referrals have to go to people who are severely psychotic or suicidal.” Otherwise, the referral goes on a pile of pieces of paper in an office already avalanched with dead trees.
And what of all those people? People who are struggling, but not struggling enough. People who are suicidal, but not suicidal enough. People who are ill, but not ill enough. Medical abuse of extremely sick people is an awful thing, and so is systematic neglect.
It’s not enough.
Yes, it varies by area – some services have more funding than others. Nor should it be blamed on staff, who don’t control the system they work in. But NHS mental health services have been cumulatively overstretched for years, and the system is formulated so that mental health is shuffled down on the list of priorities. It has to be that way, said someone I brought it up with; if you come into A&E with a bleeding hand they’ll put you in front of someone with no injuries. But at least in A&E, everyone gets treated in the end.
Austerity is destructive. It was designed by politicians with no compassion for the mentally ill or disabled. (The story is still fresh in my mind of the disabled ex-soldier who was found dead in his flat, near a pile of CVs.) 1 in 3 people in Britain will suffer from a mental illness at some point, so why should help be so limited?
The doctor writes a prescription. We talk about possible solutions. She says if I have the means I should look for solutions outside the NHS. I say, “It’s not looking good at the moment, is it?”
No, she says gravely, it’s not looking good at all.

#HowOCDWorks: Typical Anxious Woman

“My wife’s got O.C.D and keeps asking me to help clean the house.
Her loss though – I refuse to do it until she asks me perfectly.”
Internet proverb (Sickipedia)

Let’s start with compulsions.
So imagine there’s a woman called Rose, who’s putting clothes into her washing machine. Halfway through, she gets worried: what if the cat manages to get into the washing machine before she closes it?
It is possible. Rose’s cat is not very bright.
Rose checks the washing machine. She checks it again, just to make sure. She goes back to getting clothes out the basket. But as soon as she looks away from the machine, she starts to worry the cat might jump in and hide in it while she’s not looking.
So she looks at the washing machine, puts her hand under the clothes; no cat. She knows it’s stupid, but somehow, she still thinks the cat might be in there. Her brain is telling her that her senses are wrong.
Rose is 30 years old. She takes all the clothes out and dumps them on the floor. She is still finding it hard to believe there is no cat in her empty washing machine.
This is me trying to illustrate what it’s like living with my form of OCD. You check and check, but your brain is still telling you “This isn’t right.”
A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that people feel driven to perform as a result of anxiety, caused by their obsessions. For me, compulsions are often caused by a general anxious feeling; a sense that something is wrong, but if you check it might be OK.
Eventually, you reach a point where your thinking mind and your brain’s entrenched faulty mechanisms are battling each other. It’s like having a very concerned, persistent demon following you.
You: I’ve locked the door.
Demon: But is it locked? Check it.
You: I just locked it.
Demon: But is it actually locked?
So you go back. You check it. Just in case.

So, onto the joke I started with:
People find OCD compulsions funny. Why is that?
Here’s my take: in many people’s minds, OCD means compulsive tidying, cleaning, checking and worrying. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that this stereotype overlaps with ‘humorously’ sexist views of women. Google OCD jokes and you will see what I mean. Many of the traits we associate with OCD are also stereotypically feminine traits, which both men and women are mocked for displaying.
Why is the “cleaning the house” joke funny? Would it be as funny if it was about a man? Is it still funny to read about a woman who had to leave her family because of her compulsive cleaning*?
We’re starting to understand that people with extreme compulsions need help; but at the same time many women and girls with OCD are discouraged from getting help at all.
Why? Because they’re told in so many words that they’re “just an anxious woman”.
If they’re a mother, they are told it is natural to worry. If they’re a teenage girl, they’re told it’s school stress or hormones.
Society often associates OCD with checking up on people, being anxious, clean and tidy, overprotective of children and afraid of the outside world. People joke about tidy women being “so OCD”; or “my mother is so OCD, she’s always nagging.”
OCD is associated often with gender stereotypes like the female neat freak: the fussy, repressed, controlling woman, often a housewife, who’s “completely OCD” and would definitely check for cats in the washing machine. Bree from Desperate Housewives springs to mind:
Bree Van De Kamp is not impressed by your feeble attempt at humour.

Yeah, women like this exist. Maybe some of them have mental illnesses, others are simply tidy and fussy. But we’ll never get anywhere if we assume every woman is the same.
We need to accept that our stereotypes of people with OCD can intersect with stereotypes, often negative stereotypes, about women and girls.
The fact that real-life OCD is not always like the stereotype means that people of all genders might not even realise they have a mental illness. And conversely, many women and girls with OCD are still socialised to not realise their compulsive checking, worrying or other behaviours might be signs of a mental illness.
What we need to do is reevaluate our collective view of OCD, and look at how that view intersects with society’s view of women and girls. Because the picture is not pretty.
I am a 22-year old Woman Who Checks. I accept that I am an Anxious Woman, owing to a mental illness. But if I hadn’t been constantly told that worrying was normal and that I was just a sensitive anxious girl, I would have got help much sooner.

*The story is one of many cited in Jeff Schwartz’s Brain Lock. Highly recommend it.

Addendum

Misdiagnosis in general
NAMI:
“OCD is often misdiagnosed, and it is often underdiagnosed. Many people have dual disorders of OCD and schizophrenia, or OCD and bipolar disorder, but the OCD part of their illness is not diagnosed or treated. In children, parents (and teachers and doctors) often are aware of some anxiety or depression but not of the underlying OCD.”

Misdiagnosis in women for OCD
BJGP: “A hidden problem: consequences of the misdiagnosis of perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder”.
”Detection and help-seeking for all perinatal problems is low relative to the prevalence and this is particularly true of anxiety,4 although little evidence exists regarding OCD. In perinatal OCD, the shame of disclosing difficulties is often compounded by fears of being misunderstood by professionals and being judged a potentially harmful parent. Parents themselves may not make sense of their experiences as OCD, particularly if they have no previous history. This may be particularly true of those experiencing thoughts of deliberate harm who often fear they are ‘going mad’.”
More on OCD in parents – “It may be particularly difficult for mums first to recognise their experiences as OCD and second to seek help due to the shame and secrecy associated with the illness, especially at a time when they themselves and those around them expect them to feel happy. As there is often a lack of awareness of OCD during pregnancy and postnatally, people are rarely asked about these experiences by professionals. Despite recent breakthroughs in awareness, understanding and treatment of OCD, many GPs and mental health professionals may still not recognise the symptoms of OCD or even know how to correctly treat the disorder.”
Myths about OCD: includes the myth that OCD is a “women’s disease” which shows how feminised the OCD stereotype is. This is despite the fact that OCD affects people of all social groups and genders at the same rate.

… and for other illnesses
Essay on trauma, mental illness and misdiagnosis: “Pollett writes that individuals who have experienced violence, like others dealing with mental health problems, face mental health treatments that are primarily based on the biomedical model (focused on biological and genetic factors of mental health instead of social determinants such as poverty, housing, stigma and past experiences of violence). Women who require mental health services often receive inappropriate diagnoses and treatment or are denied services because their behaviour is misunderstood or stigmatized.”

In addition, the book Preventing Misdiagnosis of Women: A Guide to Physical Disorders that Have Psychiatric Symptoms, by Elizabeth A. Klonoff has an interesting discussion on theories about gender-specific stress being a contributing factor to anxiety disorders. (p. xxii)

Stereotyping
“Ho
w can I be just like Bree Hodge?”: (Answer: “develop an unhealthily extreme case of OCD”)
OCD jokes: Sickipedia
Woman explains her OCD:When I first went to my doctor and she gave me the diagnosis, I disregarded it: ‘I’m not washing my hands or constantly rearranging the spoons, so it can’t be OCD’.”

#HowOCDworks: Talking about OCD

Last Christmas I bought a graphic novel called The Nao of Brown. Huge, absorbing and intimate, it was the story of a young London woman of colour living with OCD. For the first time, I could see my own illness – flashes of intrusive thoughts, irrational fears, obsessions and compulsive habits – visualised in front of my eyes.
I thought about recommending the book to my family, but decided against it. One, the more you bang on about a book, the less people want to read it; two, did I really want them knowing what OCD was like?

Skip to now. I walk into the kitchen at home, and find my dad reading the book. I do a double take. Although he knows I have OCD, we’ve never spoken about it very much.
We discussed the book. Then this happened:
Him: “So is this what it’s like, having OCD?”
Me: [hesitates] “Yes, it is. But…”
Then we talked about it.
Nao of Brown is not a perfect book – it forces OCD into a cinematic narrative, along with other problems. But still! He had been given an insight, we’d had a conversation about it. I was amazed that a single book could do that.

The thing is, OCD is hard to talk about.
The problem with speaking about it in any way is that it is a very misunderstood illness, one that plays on our worst fears. For many people, it’s hard to speak about any of their OCD obsessions, fears or worries at all.
We’re developing the tools to talk about depression, self harm and eating disorders, and I’m forever thankful for it. But there’s work to be done.
It’s not always enough to hope a book ends up in the right hands; being able to talk about OCD gives you power. So does having your mental illness respected and validated.
These are some usual responses to disclosing that you have OCD:

  • “What’s OCD?”
  • “OCD? But you’re not neat”
  • “Oh, I saw a documentary about that!” [goes on to explain how OCD works]
  • “But OCD’s a SEVERE mental illness. People are COMMITTED because of OCD. You don’t have OCD. You’re just anxious. You’re an anxious person. You should try improving your diet.”
  • “Are you sure you have OCD?”
  • “So what’s it like having OCD?”
  • “I have OCD too! I’ve got these weird habits like only eating red smarties!”

I don’t blame anyone for saying things like this. It’s hard to know anything about OCD when it’s so misunderstood and there is so little information about it. It’s a vicious cycle: OCD is hard to talk about: we have very little cultural precedent for discussing OCD openly, which makes it harder to talk about. So we don’t talk about it.
But we can change that.
For people with OCD, it should be possible to verbalise the fact that you have OCD without necessarily having to:

  • explain your entire experience of living with a painful mental illness
  • talk about your actual intrusive thoughts and obsessions to a near-stranger, as though you’re speaking to a therapist
  • clarify that you’re not making it up
  • have your honesty and self-knowledge questioned
  • have your illness trivialised and compared to other people’s silly habits
  • having your life experience taken as being universal for everyone who has OCD

So for people who don’t have OCD, here are some ways you can help:

  • Don’t ask people with OCD to explain their lives to you, if they don’t want to!
    Everyone’s experiences are different. Mentally ill people are not robots who can explain their mental illness to you on command.
    You need permission, trust, and respect to have conversations like this.
    I am happy to talk about OCD if you have my permission and trust, and I know there is enough respect between us for you to take it seriously!
    Similarly, if you don’t know the person well don’t ask what kind of intrusive thoughts they have. This is an upsetting subject for the person with OCD, and it takes a lot of trust to discuss it.
  • Don’t assume people with OCD are all neat.
    Some of us are neat. Some of us are messy. Some of us have OCD rituals like cleaning, others just have intrusive thoughts. Some of us are shy, others are extroverted. Many of us have other mental illnesses, or mental or physical disabilities. Some of us have mild OCD, for other people it is so severe they have to be hospitalised.
    In short, just accept what the person is like. Accept their experiences are real. Don’t use their personal habits to question their OCD.
  • You are not an expert because you read one article or watched one documentary!
    Most documentaries and articles about OCD pick the most sensational cases. If you don’t have OCD, you are much better off assuming you don’t know much from the jump. And don’t hand out diet and lifestyle advice when it’s not asked for.
  • Don’t explain to people who have OCD what OCD is like.
    We know, dude.
  • Don’t assume the experiences of one person with OCD are universal.
    People have done this with me, which is why I try to clarify that my life experiences are not the norm. Nor am I an expert: I’m just a young white cartoonist, in South London.
    There is no such thing as a typical life experience, or a normal manifestation of OCD. Be open to the fact that people’s experiences are different.
  • Do not ask people if they’re “sure” they have OCD!
    If someone has diagnosed themselves, they are probably already questioning and feeling a huge amount of self doubt. If you’re not a doctor and don’t know much about OCD, there’s no reason for you to add to that load.
    If someone is officially diagnosed by a doctor, they’re probably already worried that no one takes their OCD seriously.
    If the person who has disclosed OCD to you is a friend or colleague, offer your support. If they’re not close, accept their word. It is OK to say you don’t understand and OK to ask questions, so long as you ask permission first.
  • Don’t trivialise. Don’t crack a joke.
    Disclosing a mental illness isn’t usually much fun: it takes trust. People disclosing will probably be nervous. It’s generally not the right time to try and lighten the mood, especially if you don’t know the person too well yet.
    Be sensitive to the tone and subject of the conversation.
    Yeah, some people cope with difficult situations with humour, and people with OCD might do that too. But there’s a time and a place for everything. The person disclosing will probably be a lot more nervous than you!

That goes for other mental illnesses, as well!

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 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?