I was asked to speak on a panel at the National Writers Conference because I had opened up about my struggles with mental health, the double demons of depression and anxiety. Even writing that phrase ‘mental health’ makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I have never been accustomed to admitting that I was having issues functioning as a human being.
The reason I had never felt I constituted someone who had mental health problems was because I had spent a large chunk of my life supporting other relatives with their mental health journeys and in comparison, I felt what was going on with me paled in comparison.
My dad had depression for much of his life and was clinically depressed (meaning severe bouts of depression: 24 hours in bed, not eating, attempted suicide, totally cutting off from the whole world). The first time I remember him being hospitalised for depression was when I was around 8 years old. He was admitted to Rubery Hill Hospital. I was too young to really understand what was going on. All I knew was that we had to get the 63 bus up the Bristol Road to visit him. The hospital was more an asylum, with white brick walls and long ominous corridors; not the modern psychiatric units named after flowers.
A familiar pattern emerged, when a family milestones was due to happen (my brother’s impending wedding, my university graduation and my mum’s untimely death) my Dad just would shut down. This meant that one of us would have to call the GP and have him sectioned for ‘his own good’. When my mum was around, she dealt with his mental health, but when she passed away in 2003 the role passed to me. It was one I didn’t want, one I resented and one I took on until he died in 2017.
What does this have to do with my own mental health and writing? Well, it meant that for many years I could not write at all. I had the time. I was living at home with my dad and not working. I totally could have written; I could have written a lot. However, my headspace and my daily struggles meant that my creative life was non-existent. Even though I was an aspiring author in my mid-20s, the mental and emotional turmoil of having to be responsible for my dad took it’s very real toll on me. However, I never thought I was depressed. I could get up, function, see friends but it was hard to hold down a job when he was in and out of hospital and I would often have to put my dreams aside to look after him ( I flew back from living in Taipei because he had been taken by the police and sectioned).
I talked about becoming a writer for two years before I wrote anything, not only from the fear that what I would write would be absolute rubbish, but because I was grieving, a carer and really too young to be dealing with being the head of the entire family at 25 years old. My eldest brother stopped coming to see my dad when our mum passed away and the other one had disappeared from our lives many years before. I think this is the legacy of being adopted children, we were damaged from birth and our coping mechanisms involved running away from problems. But how could I run away? I was the only one left to hold everything together after mum died.
The only reason I managed to begin my writing journey in 2006 was because I moved out of our council house when Dad had been diagnosed as bipolar. I moved in with a Buddhist friend who gave me space to explore who I wanted to be. It felt like a new beginning. That was one lesson I learned at that time. If you need to change something, a situation or yourself – sometimes you need to remove yourself from the negative situation. Moving out meant I could look after my dad but from a distance.
During his manic episodes he would perform for everyone, buying rounds in the pub for strangers, asking women on the street out. He was having the time of his life in his 70s. I didn’t realise at first that he was ill, I assumed he was better and the six months he had spent in a psychiatric unit being treated for clinical depression had worked.
One of the consequences of having those experiences with my dad meant that I pushed down my own feelings and emotions. I couldn’t possibly be depressed could I? I had seen depression close up in my dad and that’s not what happened to me. Yes, I cried every couple of weeks, couldn’t hold down a job, kept flying off on holidays to visit friends to get away from my situation. But I kept telling myself I wasn’t depressed. Even when occasionally I would feel what I can only describe as despair, I would never tell anyone that I was depressed or seek help.
In 2017, I turned 40, had a wedding in Spain, moved house and country; and my dad died – all within two months. There were other stresses such as sorting out nursing homes, small car accidents, driving on the wrong side of the road when I reached the new city I was going to be living in. That was on top of other situations in my personal life (partner was sectioned multiple times with psychosis which meant more psychiatric facility visits, finding and un-finding my biological parents) that had caused me pain and the daily grind of being a housewife and mother. They sent me over the edge. In 2018, I basically had a nervous breakdown. My body was shaking probably from an overload of cortisol. I couldn’t drive the car because of the anxiety of crashing (from driving on the wrong side of the road and a few small incidents I had when my dad was ill in hospital during his last few months), I had paranoia about everything – I wanted it all to stop.
Writing, for once, was my saving grace. It was the activity that could go with me anywhere. I had cultivated more regular writing by having a mentor, Leila Rasheed who chose me as one of five writers for Megaphone and also doing The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron) when I moved to Glasgow. I had secured a great agent who believed in my writing and I really wanted to make something in my life work.
When a writing friend committed suicide in January 2019 during my own mental health crisis, I out-ed myself on a writing forum that we were part of and said I was struggling. There are some writers like Matt Haig who are well known for talking about their mental health. They get book deals from it. I didn’t necessarily see myself as any kind of mental health crusader. But I am a wellbeing advocate. I realised from opening up that nearly everybody has something going on; ‘life is suffering’ as Buddha said. We hide our real selves on social media for fear of reprisals and we carry on even though we are suffering.
I am looking forward to writing more blogs about the ways I cope when I am feeling down and how being a writer is both a blessing and also an anxiety-inducing profession.