Writing about anxiety and depression

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Mental illness is the theme of numerous memoirs and novels. The Bell Jar, Darkness Visible and Prozac Nation are just a few well-known examples. My personal favourite is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a painfully honest, yet inspiring account of recovery from anxiety and depression.

Despite this wealth of intimate first-hand accounts, mental health problems are still widely misunderstood. All too often, sufferers are stigmatised in the media and in popular culture. There remains a tendency to see mental ill-health as a character flaw or a choice. We need to continue talking and writing about mental health in order to increase empathy and reduce shame.

With extensive experience of anxiety and depression, I can bring my own  insights to the topic. But although I find confessional writing therapeutic, what I like most is using fiction to explore possibilities for change. In my current novel, and in my previous work, the central characters struggle with their mental health. But the book is not autobiographical or based on real people and events.

My characters are faced with conflicts, challenges and opportunities, many of which I’ve never experienced. By getting to know them and telling their stories, I learn how their responses to these situations shape their futures. Fiction allows me to live in someone else’s life, and to grow as a result.

Reading and creative writing have helped me in so many ways. When I decide to publish my story, I hope it’ll resonate with someone else.

Writing about depression or anxiety is not easy. There’s the challenge of keeping it real without descending into excessive introspection or gloom, making it too unpleasant for the reader. As an author, I have a responsibility not to perpetuate misconceptions and negative stereotypes. Nor do I wish to diminish or trivialise the impact of these conditions.

I know how it feels when the dark clouds of depression close in around you, or anxiety starts to burn in your throat and chest. Left untreated, it can be toxic to the quality of your life and relationships. In its severest forms, it can be disabling, and fatal.

I also believe that having a mental health problem doesn’t define you.

My fictional characters have mental health issues which affect their lives. They also have intelligence, wit, kindness, and passion. They’re interested in art, literature, photography, and volunteering (the story is set in a charity shop). In the course of the narrative, they make friends, fall in love, have arguments, and discover new skills and goals. They have quirks and bad habits unrelated to depression or anxiety.

If there’s one attitude I could change, it would be the labelling of people with mental health problems as weak. Yes, we can be emotional and highly sensitive. We suffer pain that’s hard for others to understand, and we’re often disadvantaged in society. But none of that means we are passive or powerless. Even if that’s how the illness and its stigma sometimes make us feel.

A quick search reveals an extensive list of leaders and innovators who battle with depression. Some of the world’s most successful artists have terrible anxiety attacks before going on stage to perform in front of crowds of thousands. I have friends with long-term mental health issues and a string of impressive achievements to their name. They’re amongst the most determined individuals you can imagine.

But acts of bravery don’t have to be spectacular, or even visible. We may be fighting the monster in our head every morning in order to get dressed or leave the house. To speak to a stranger or answer the phone. The fact that we’re making an effort to cope, that we’re seeking treatment or help, that we’re even aware of our problems and want to resolve them, shows our strength.

Having a diagnosis of anxiety or depression does not mean that you’re not also brave and strong. Because courage has never been about the absence of fear. And tenacity goes much deeper than what appears on the surface.

My aim is to write an emotionally involving novel, which in some small way helps reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues. A story which authentically explores what it’s like to feel low or afraid. But one which is also about resilience, new beginnings, and ultimately, the healing power of love.

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