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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