I felt a bit loathe to talk about this because it’s very personal to me. But at the same time I wanted to share how my experience of illness has shaped my writing.
When I was 15 I suffered from a severe mental breakdown. I had been incredibly unhappy at school – it was my GCSE year (for those of you who don’t know the UK school system it’s the end of school exams we take at age 16) and I was struggling. I felt I had very few friends and those I thought I had turned out to be – well not great. Everything was too much and in the end I fell over the edge. I couldn’t have been more ill really.
I was hospitalised and spent months recovering. Fortunately I didn’t have to go back to school. I was able to take my exams at the hospital school and I managed to gain 7 of the 9 qualifications I’d been intending to obtain. Life improved for me. I was happy. I went to sixth form college to do my A levels (a bit like high school, it’s for 16-18 year olds and at the end of the two years you do more exams, but generally in 3 or 4 subjects no more) and whilst I had to stick with just 2 A levels, again I managed it.
Then unfortunately at 18 I got ill again. I won’t go in to the ins and outs, but basically it was medical error. I’d been planning to do an extra year at sixth form college but it never happened. I had to take the whole year off to recover. But. Just a year after that I was able to go to university – which happened to be down the road from the hospital I’d been treated in – and fulfil my dream of doing a degree in English. I graduated in 2003.
A year later I was ill for a third time, again because of medical errors. But having spent months in hospital, this time I recovered and although I’m still being treated for my condition and always will be, I’ve been well for 8 years now. I’m on track to have a whole 10 years straight without an episode of illness for the first time since I was 15. Yay! And I’m going from strength to strength. I’m capable of a great deal more than I used to be now.
So how have my experiences shaped my writing I hear you ask. The answer is enormously. Whilst I may not write about mental health or the lack of it directly in my stories, the experiences I have had have given me a sensitivity to mental illness or mental imbalance. My characters have struggles with their emotions and feelings as in all stories. But with me, I know first hand how far and deep that struggle can go. I try to make my characters’ struggles true to life, not sensational or unrealistic. They may not be having a severe breakdown, but I create for them tough situations that I myself would struggle to deal with.
Having said I don’t write about mental health directly in my stories, that’s actually not quite true. About 10 years ago I started to write a semiautobiographical story called ‘Fractured Mind’. It’s about a girl who’s very lonely at school and when her one friend dies, this tips her over the edge and she becomes very ill. She thinks everyone’s out to get her and in the end she’s hospitalised. It’s very close to my own experience. I got about 100 pages written but no more. Maybe I’ll return to it some day.
Overall I would say that my experiences of being ill and the consequent suffering I endured as a result – because each time I was severely ill – have made me who I am today. I’m not sure I’d say I’ve come out stronger as such, but I’m way happier now than I was at 15. Maybe everyone can say that, but I know I haven’t had the same life experience as many people. It’s definitely shaped my writing. I think my illness has given my writing an edge. So perhaps I’ll be bold and someday finish ‘Fractured Mind’. At the very least it may open people’s minds a little to what mental illness is really like. And that can only be a good thing.
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