A couple of years ago, I started writing a novel called The Mirror World of Melody Black. It’s about a young woman with type II bipolar disorder whose life begins to unravel after she goes to her neighbour’s flat and finds him dead on the settee. As soon as I started writing this scenario, I knew that I’d probably have to explain it somewhere down the line. There are certain subjects in fiction that are almost guaranteed to provoke curiosity regarding the relationship between an author’s work and their life.
Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the death of a neighbour; I didn’t expect anyone to ask if that part of the story was based on personal experience (it was, though the context was different). I’m talking about mental illness. I think it’s nearly impossible to write a story about depression, or in this case manic depression, without people questioning how much of the author is in the work.
I’d like to think that the story itself offers a more detailed, nuanced and articulate reflection of my personal experience than anything I can tell you here. That said, I’ll try to give you the background, and at least some of the experience, that the novel tries to capture.
Towards the end of 2008, I was suffering from depression. I was also using drugs on a fairly regular basis, and I honestly can’t tell you which came first – only that the two things were connected and mutually reinforcing, as they often are.
Over the new year, I stayed up for the best part of three days. This was followed, inevitably, by a pretty awful comedown, and by 5 January, I felt so depressed I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the flat. I didn’t want to see anyone or do anything. Simple things like eating and washing and getting dressed stopped being simple.
And then this changed – literally overnight. At some point in the second week of January, I went to bed feeling sad and anxious, and I woke up feeling good almost beyond description. My thoughts were racing, I was inexplicably elated and I had so much energy I didn’t know what to do with it. It was as if my brain had gone into overdrive and was processing 10 times more information than usual, but with no conscious effort on my part.
On the same day, I pretty much stopped sleeping. For a week, at least, I was getting by on less than three hours a night. This was all the sleep I was capable of, and it was all I needed. My mind was constantly whirling and as time passed, my thoughts were getting ever more extravagant. At one point, I decided I was going to walk around the coast of Great Britain – 25 miles a day for seven months, starting as soon as possible. A little later, I decided I was going to get a tattoo on my bicep. I got as far as drawing the exact design I wanted on a Post-it note, before thankfully changing my mind.
You can probably tell from my photo that I’m the least likely candidate for a tattoo since David Dimbleby. It was an impulse, completely uncharacteristic, but nonetheless serious at the time. For several hours, I was obsessed with the idea that I had to get myself inked. But this was just one bizarre thought among many. My mind, throughout this period, was dancing to some very odd tunes.
Then gradually, over the course of several weeks, things started to slow down again. My mood dipped, dropped and then plummeted. I became depressed for a couple of months, then got better, then better than better, then much worse. This went on for around 18 months, at which point I went to my GP and was put on Prozac, which I’ve been taking ever since.
There are probably some doctors reading this now who are wearing a collective frown. If you have a mood disorder such as bipolar you’re not meant to take antidepressants on their own; they can exacerbate manic symptoms. I realise that. But the fact is I’ve only ever sought treatment for the depression, as this has been far more debilitating for me.
I’ve had subsequent episodes but these have been milder, in part because I’m now far more mindful of the things that can adversely affect my mood . I haven’t taken anything illegal for a long time and I rarely drink any more. I have a healthy diet and get plenty of rest.
Of course, I still have good days and bad days, but the peaks and troughs have certainly diminished over the past couple of years. This, however, is where the muddle returns, because I’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about the highs and lows I’ve experienced since 2008. More specifically, I’ve been thinking, if I could get rid of these fluctuations entirely and maintain a steady state of mental “health”, would I want to? And my conclusion is no.
Wordsworth wrote that poetry is emotion recollected in moments of tranquillity and, for me, this idea could be applied to writing more broadly. I can’t write if I’m depressed, and I can’t write if I’m so wired that I can’t sit still. But these experiences, recollected, provide a deep reservoir to draw from. This is true outside of writing too. Mental illness can be incredibly destructive in the short term but, in the longer term, it can also bring insight, understanding and compassion – strengths rather than weaknesses. Emotionally, I feel more rounded and resilient than I did six years ago.
I’ve been fortunate – I realise that. Whatever my problems, they are relatively mild in the wider context of mental illness. There are many people who have been through highs and lows far more dangerous and damaging than my own. But I’m not claiming to speak for anyone else. I’m just trying to describe my own experience as best I can and, on balance, I like my mind as it is. I would not want to “fix” it.