As someone who suffers from both physical and mental illness, my own experiences definitely influence and inform my writing.
I deal specifically with many issues, including drug and alcohol addictions, and rape and sexual abuse, in my fiction.
Not every subject that I write about is one that I have experienced personally, although I can always relate, on some level. I have never had drug addiction issues, for instance, although I have had problems with alcohol, in the past.
When it comes to mental illness – yes, definitely, I cover that too, as a writer, but not in the usual, neatly packaged way. For myself, it’s a priority to reflect realities that are not usually represented.
Most of my characters are either not diagnosed with mental illnesses, or the diagnosis is not mentioned.
It’s idealistic to suppose that everyone who has a mental illness is diagnosed – and correctly diagnosed, at that – and also, that everyone who is diagnosed with a mental illness necessarily has a mental illness at all.
I refuse to endorse the psychiatric system by going along blindly with the “this diagnosis treated by this type of medication”, textbook version.
I have also had enough of the myth that, following a suicide attempt, people are routinely admitted to psychiatric hospital.
I have never been an inpatient in psychiatric hospital. When I have taken overdoses, for the most part, no-one has actually realised at all. My parents, and others around me, have assumed that I must be sick from drinking too much.
On the few occasions when I have been treated for the physical effects – far from being admitted to psychiatric hospital afterwards, I have simply been sent straight back to full-time work, as soon as physically able. Literally. In fact, it was the same after being raped.
I have not had therapy, and any dealings with the mental health services have ended up causing more distress than if I had simply “got on with it”, and not sought help at all. And, yes, there are others in similar positions. Mine is, by no means, an isolated case.
The lack of support received is effectively then used against those of us who have been denied help, since we receive fewer “illness points” than others who have received medical attention – which, in turn, affects subsequent decisions about medical care, or lack of.
I do have a character who attempts to take her own life, and others who experience suicidal thoughts, and my characters don’t receive the “textbook” version of the NHS service, which is not the reality, for most of us.
I understand that many people have traumatic experiences within psychiatric hospitals, but this is already represented in literature. The experiences of those who are forced to “get on with it”, and offered no support whatsoever, need to be portrayed, as well.
My protagonist, Lucy, has symptoms of anxiety, which I convey in the “show don’t tell” tradition.
The subject of whether or not she has a diagnosis isn’t mentioned. She doesn’t.
Her mother, Helen, does have anxiety too, and is diagnosed – and this can be seen through the fact that she is addicted to prescription tranquillizers.
I have the benefit – the extreme privilege – of being a writer, and as such, I believe, a responsibility to speak out, on behalf of others.
I have done this, at times, through my poetry. As a writer of realistic, modern historical fiction, I hope to achieve more, in this respect. I shall certainly try.
Writing is my therapy and my passion. It has enabled me to survive. There is no greater blessing.
Believe in yourself and your dreams – always.
My post about Sylvia Plath, and my feelings regarding the term “suicide poet”, might be of interest.
Some thoughts on addressing controversial subjects in our writing