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The Beauty Of Mental Illness and Writing

The literary canon is filled with so many esteemed writers such as Stephen Fry, Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath who all battled with a mental illness of some kind. They found solace in the written word but what is it that forms the connection between depression and writing in the first place?

Article by John R.

My writing journey began in earnest in the spring of this year, though, long before that I have played around with creative pieces and short stories with varying degrees of success. Some based on my own life and experiences, others the product of my overactive and slightly odd imagination. I’ve written about what one might find if they stepped inside a rainbow and I’ve written from the perspective of a goldfish with a long-term memory who rails against the arrogance of their human owner. I’ve even got 100 or so pages of a historical novel based in late-1930’s London down on paper somewhere.

There isn’t anything unusual in this confession, many people I know write creatively after all. Some for their own benefit whilst others for the benefit and perusal of others. Looking back on my own writing now, I can see that there was a deeper reason for my wanting to get involved in these stories. I didn’t just have ideas bursting to get out of my head, but I was looking for ways to escape my own life at that time.

Quite how I’d managed to make such a mess of things in my personal life is a story for another time, but after very nearly wrecking everything I had in terms of family, security and employment through losing touch with reality I was diagnosed with clinical depression two years ago. As part of the treatment, I was encouraged to try various talking-based therapies and it was through these that I found myself writing more than I ever had before.

stacks of paper

Image by neilsphotoalbum

Initially, writing was a vehicle for me to express myself and let my emotions flow. It’s something that I’ve always struggled to do verbally. Before long I’d find myself writing pages and pages of angst in an attempt to find the root of my problem/s. Despite not managing to find said root (I’m still looking today), I found the whole process extremely therapeutic and liberating. No longer were these destructive, irrational thoughts dominating my thinking because as soon as they were in my head, I managed to get them out again and on paper.

I’ve kept everything I’ve ever written since my diagnosis, and occasionally take time out to read over it again. A lot of it is unmitigated rubbish, but there are a few passages which grab my insides and turn them upside down. I was a disturbed individual – that was obvious to anyone reading my self-loathing, self-pitying words – yet there was the occasional nugget of beauty which I had no idea I was able to come up with. It would be one of those hair-raising moments which are almost as unsettling as they are exciting because I was unable to locate where those words had come from.

As my battle with mental illness has gone on I have read a lot about how creative pursuits can help treat depression, or bipolar disorder in particular. Indeed, as part of my work here with GKBC (which, incidentally has given me and my writing a focus and confidence that I’ve not had before) I’ve researched and blogged about the effect art can have on treating depression. In conversations with others battling depression, I’d heard how much art had helped them. All of this led me to wonder whether or not I was alone in finding writing the most therapeutic pursuit imaginable?

I had seen a programme by Stephen Fry on the BBC a few years ago where he was speaking to fellow sufferers of manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it is also known, which absolutely fascinated me at the time. Upon reading his website – and in particular this piece on feeling lonely – I realised that this was a man who was writing because he needed to find a way to get something off his mind.

Image by Freedom Fry

Here is a quite brilliant man, who is not only brave enough to be open about his mental health, but writes about it (and many other subjects) from the heart with an eloquence, wit and above all beauty that the majority of us can only dream of. And he writes prolifically as well. With two volumes of his autobiography written already, he is yet to reach the halfway point of his life so far. Sometimes, there just aren’t enough words.

The more I thought about the part mental illness can play in not just good, but genuinely great literature the more examples came to mind of authors and poets over the last 250 years or so who used words as a form of therapy.

Perhaps the most obvious and well known examples came about as a result of men’s experiences on the Western Front in the Great War. Anyone reading a collection of war poetry can be left in no doubt as to the horrors these soldiers faced. Personally, I’m left with a feeling that these words – often beautiful and horrendous side by side – probably do not do the images and emotions of these poets justice, that there is so much that has been left unsaid or unwritten purely because there are no words.

Reading Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration trilogy about the more famous war poets like Sassoon and Owen gives a reader an excellent background into the treatment they were receiving at the time following their experiences on the front.

In many ways these poets were the lucky ones – writing gave them a vehicle to express their horror and emotions. Thousands of men who returned from the front, who were unable to get their thoughts onto paper, were left literally shell-shocked by their experiences. They had mentally unravelled into a shell of the man who had departed for Flanders months or years before.

black and white image of cemetary

Image by Natalie Soysa Photography

From Leo Tolstoy to Ernest Hemmingway; from Edgar Allen Poe to Sylvia Plath; from Tennessee Williams to David Foster Wallace and many more besides, the list of great literary figures who have battled mental illness is long indeed. For some the burden of their affliction was too much to bear and they tragically took their own lives. For others writing gave their life a sense of purpose and a reason to survive.

The one thing which indelibly links each and every one of these writers is the sheer majesty of their words. Words which live on through the centuries and continue to find new readers long after the minds that created them have halted the flow.

I do not, would not and cannot claim to be able to write anything even fractionally as magnificent as one of these great authors. However, I believe that as much as writing has given me the best weapon with which to battle my own mental illness, the same is likely to have been true of anyone else. No matter how fantastic those words are, no matter how large an audience they find, for millions of people worldwide, writing continues to provide a vessel to maintain their sanity.

Featured Image: Sam Hames

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  1. John Rogers

    September 9, 201310:02 am

    To Perie,

    Thank you so much for your comment. It was a very personal, almost cathartic piece to write and to know that it might have struck a chord with others (never mind somebody as eminent as yourself), is extremely humbling.

    I’m a firm believer in the power of the written word now and would urge anyone, anywhere to try it. Even if what appears is a load of nonsense in their own opinion, the likelihood is that there’s a great deal more behind the words than they can imagine.

    Thank you once again.

  2. Merlin D. DuVall

    September 7, 20133:58 pm

    I would like to add that mental illnesses often frees up that persons mind to allow a door to open giving them a better path to express their emotions and thoughts. Even in ‘normal’ people, a cluttered mind can get in the way of becoming a good sensual writer.

  3. Perie Longo

    September 5, 20134:00 pm

    To John R-Thank you for this beautiful and true article. It speaks of the power of the written word to help heal the heart and provide a vessel “to maintain sanity.” I have led a poetry for therapy group at a psychiatric center in Santa Barbara for many years which gives the participants a way to value themselves and each other. As Mary Oliver says: “Poems are…fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost…as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

    Thank you,
    Perie Longo, PhD, MFT, Registered Poetry Therapist
    National Association for Poetry Therapy

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