Mark Simmonds: The joy of mental ill-health
For World Mental Health Day, the author Of Breakdown and Repair describes how writing a book about his mental health helped him
All my life, I have suffered from anxiety and stress. Unchecked, this has occasionally led to bouts of agitated depression. In 2001, this went one step further when, finding myself at the bottom of the darkest of pits, I launched myself in front of an oncoming 10-ton truck. Many years later, we were forced to play host to an unwelcome stranger in our household, when our daughter, Emily, aged 16, developed anorexia nervosa, the most lethal of all mental health illnesses.
In 2017, I threw all of the above into a mix and decided to write a book. It was called Breakdown and Repair and it was published by Trigger in March 2019.
I loved the entire process of writing a book and this is why:
It’s your gift to other sufferers…
When I started writing, I wasn’t sure whether it should be a memoir about my life or a self-help book. I was strongly inclined towards the latter. For two reasons. Firstly, who on earth would really want to read about Jo Public, famous for nothing in particular, living in the middle of rural England? And secondly, my job as a management trainer gave me this strong urge to teach, to train, impart pearls of wisdom. My editor thought otherwise and assured me that if the story was compelling and well written, many people would be eager to read the book. One in four people across the globe will be affected by a mental disorder sometime in their lives. That’s a whole lot of folk who might be interested in a fellow sufferer’s story.
It’s wonderfully therapeutic…
When I had my Big Blip back in 2001, my coach counselled me to write about it to help with the recovery process. So, every day I would tuck myself away for a couple of hours, and over a period of several months I wrote about 15,000 words. It was very cathartic. When we decided to include Emily’s grim story in the book, the ordeal that my wife, daughter and I had been through was still very raw. Once again, it helped us open up cupboards full of harrowing memories, confront them, cry a bit, laugh a bit and then move on. It was OK to talk about suicide, self-harming, episodes of psychosis and the strangest of strange behaviours. Coming out of the mental health closet proved liberating.
It helps you paint a much clearer picture of mental ill health…
It’s hard to talk very coherently about mental ill health. But when you write a book, you can call on a whole host of sources and narrative techniques to help you explain the tricky stuff in different ways. Here are a few. Metaphors, analogies and similes. Chronic stress and anxiety are akin to Chinese Water Torture, both equally effective because the point of contact is the soft tissue of the human brain. Another one. When I experienced my mental breakdown in my home office, back in 2001, I looked at my computer screen and I froze. It resembled a man-eating lion, not letting me get anywhere near the keyboard, roaring at me to go away and not come back.
The use of scientific facts
Did you know that a nervous breakdown is the body’s defence mechanism? It is the brain’s way of telling you that enough is enough, you are in danger and it is taking things out of your hands. Referencing famous people, did you also know that J.K. Rowling suffered from severe depression….and that Robin Williams, the American actor, suffered from alcohol and drug addiction, depression and dementia before, tragically, he took his own life? Dramatic effect. Major depressive episodes often have beginnings, middles and endings, some happy, some sad. So why not leverage their dramatic qualities, tell them as gripping stories, build suspense, keep people on the edge of their seats… All of the above serve to make a difficult topic more accessible, and that must be a good thing.
It’s your chance to leave a legacy
I do not consider myself to be a writer. Far too pompous a claim to make! But to the ‘proper’ writers out there who haven’t yet written about this topic, I would strongly urge them to do so. Particularly those who have suffered from mental illness.
It’s your duty to the world….and it’s also a lot of fun!!
Mark Simmonds published his first book, Breakdown and Repair: A Father’s Tale of Stress and Success. It provides a full account of his daughter’s struggle against anorexia. It also talks candidly about his own experiences with mental ill health.
You can also follow Mark on Instagram: @mentalhealthmark
Want to read another inspirational account of an author overcoming struggles to write? Read how Valerie Blumenthal completed a novel despite being diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimers.