Falling through the floor – writing about mental illness and recovery. By Rosalie Warren
This is a bit of an experiment. I’ve written and published before now about my mental health, including a post on Authors Electric a few months ago about anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve mentioned my recurrent depression and I may even have summarised the effects it has on me – but I’ve never published anything I actually wrote (or tried to write) while depressed.
There are good reasons for that – one of which being that it can be bloomin’ difficult, if not impossible, to write anything at all when depressed. It’s certainly not something I’d advise anyone in that condition to try – not unless they really want to, and feel that it might help. The last thing someone with depression needs is another thing that he or she ‘should’ do. Depression is enough of a burden and a severe taskmaster without adding to its demands.
But this time, recently, I wanted to write. Perhaps I wasn’t as bad as I’ve sometimes been. Certainly I seem to be coming out of it, thanks partly to my trusty meds, more quickly than on some other occasions (early days, though). Anyway, I wrote some stuff while feeling pretty bad and thought I’d share it, so here goes. I’ve done some light editing.
There are many things I don’t feel able to do today, including some very ordinary ones. Meeting almost anyone is a big no-no. Just going into a shop and buying a loaf of bread would be a big challenge, as would leaving the house at all, unless I could be absolutely sure I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I feel as though I’ve lost my skin and I’m super-naked. Not just my body but all the worst bits of my personality on show. Anything that needs planning or organisation or decision is also out. But for some reason words are still flowing down my arm into my fingers and pen. Maybe because I know I needn’t show them to anyone.
I’m reading Darkness Visible, by William Styron, again. He’s the author of several acclaimed novels including Sophie’s Choice, but this memoir is about his experience of depression. I can only bear to read it when I’m depressed and it’s the first book I turn to. He emphasises the darkness, the nightmarish quality of depression, and his words make me feel less alone. It can make you fear for your life (I’m not quite as bad as that just now but I’ve been there). You are trapped in the hell of your own mind. Jean-Paul Sartre says that hell is other people but for me, when depressed, hell is me, myself. It’s my brain turning on itself, ripping itself open to reveal itself to me at its very worst. This is what I’m like. This is what you are like, it says to me. Anything else you think you are is sheer pretence. You are bad, unacceptable, inadmissible – you do not belong and can never belong because you do not fit. You are not and will never be one of us. I am now going to play some videos to prove it. Here is you, at various times in your life. We’ll start quite young because, let’s face it, you’ve always been like this. See yourself – being bullied in the playground at your new school. You realise, don’t you, that whenever you got bullied, it was really your own fault? And look at you here. Talk about ugly. Those spots! You know there was a very good reason no one ever told you they liked the way you looked? And talk about stupid. Here you are in yet another embarrassing misunderstanding – proving yourself incapable of mastering the social rules everyone else picks up by the age of six. How old are you now? Exactly. Ever get the feeling it’s getting a bit too late?
Every stupid, childish, ridiculous, foolish thing I’ve ever done or said. My mind is its own Facebook. I have my own internal enemy, out to get revenge (for what?) by posting all these vile videos, photos, sound clips of me at my worst. Ones from fifty years ago hurt as much as ones from yesterday (maybe more).
Depression is like having nowhere to stand. There’s a big hole in the floor, down to a frightening haunted cellar where all kinds of monsters lurk. No proper floor, no support, no safety, no security, no place to belong, no shelter, no home. Even though you know these things aren’t true. You know you’re lucky – you have all these things. But somehow that doesn’t help.
Starting to feel better… the enormous relief of solid ground under my feet again. I forget, between times, how good this feels. Rescue. Safety. Just to stand still on a solid floor and feel OK. You don’t need anything but this. Immense relief. (Yes – I think it’s important to write about recovery too. I love the bit where William Styron starts to feel better.)
OK, that’s probably enough for now. See, I’m embarrassed to be even thinking of posting this. I’m picturing my readers turning away in disgust. ‘You can’t write that sort of thing, you miserable, morbid creature. Who wants to read it? And what will they think of you?’
Well, I’m going to take the risk, because I do find it helpful when writers of all kinds break the barriers and write about their depression. As well as Styron, I’ve found enormous comfort in the words of Kay Redfield Jamison, Ruby Wax, William James, Stephen Fry, Susan Calman and Carrie Fisher. Oh and Bruce Springsteen, whose songs I love, who wrote one called Your Own Worst Enemy [Has Come to Town] (2007), which describes depression perfectly for me (he also writes about his depression in his recent autobiography, Born to Run).
Needless to say, I’m not comparing myself with these big names, but I firmly believe that there needs to be more writing about depression done by writers in general – and much more talk of it in society from day to day. Normalisation of it, in other words. Perhaps a bit like disability. Recurrent mental health problems certainly are a disability, though trying to get them recognised as such by the benefits people can be very difficult indeed.
I’ve addressed mental health in my novel Alexa’s Song. The two main characters are a young man who is bipolar and a woman who has ptsd. These conditions form part of their story but don’t by any means define the characters – there are plenty of other things going on. And in Lena’s Nest, which is science fiction, one of the things I tried to do was explore depression side-on, at a slant. Lena ends up in some pretty strange and frightening places. If you read it, I encourage you to look for some parallels with depression.
I’m beginning to think more and more, as I get older, that my depression may stem in part from my attempts to be like everyone else, and therefore ‘acceptable and worthy of inclusion’ and allowed to join in the reindeer – sorry, playground – games. I recognise now that I definitely have some autistic tendencies, though my profile is different in many ways from classic autism – interestingly, mainly developed from the study of males. (See https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00WFF7MRW, for example, if this subject interests you.) For example, I have plenty of empathy – often more than is useful for me or anyone else. My theory of mind seems to work pretty well, too. What I’m not good at is picking up on social signals, chit-chat, small talk, parties (ugh). At a conference, I can give a presentation to 200 strangers, no bother, but I hate the social interaction that goes on between the talks. Etc. No space for all that now. But I do have a sense that I’ve spent much of my life pretending to be someone else, and it takes its toll. It’s hard work and ultimately unsatisfying – and if you’re not careful you lose something of yourself along the way.
This brings me to my final point. I read a quote from the author Neil Gaiman recently where he was encouraging his fellow writers to write from our individual selves. I can’t remember his exact words, but his point was that each of us should write what only we can write... to bring our own unique perspective, experience, personality, background, experience and history to our work. Yes, even my ridiculous depression-prone brain. I’ve noticed, too, when critiquing the work of others, that their most interesting stuff often surfaces when they forget they are ‘writing’ and get completely caught up in what they are about. When they become themselves and let a bit of their real selves show. It will need editing, of course, but often those ‘lapses’ (as they can easily appear to be) are lumps of gold. It’s all too easy to edit the rough bits out, your own or other people’s. Critiquing others’ work is starting to teach me that, and it’s another reason I decided to try writing from a position of weakness, not one of strength. To write while depressed rather than wait till I’m better, strong and smart. But oh, the temptation to pretend… to write from the smooth surface rather than the rough and ugly underneath.
That’s pretty much it – but I just need to make clear that I haven’t written this to worry anyone. It's not a cry for help. I have good medical care (thanks, NHS) and very good support from family and friends. I've written it to try to connect with other readers and writers who may have mental health problems and to hear your experiences too (please share, if you feel able, in the Comments section).
There is a lot of excellent help and support available to anyone who is, or thinks they might be, depressed, or has other mental health problems. I’d especially recommend:
Tel: 116 123 (UK). 24-hour, 365 days a year. See website for additional contact details.
Contact details are on the website.
Contact details are on the website.
All best wishes,
Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren