Wednesday 11 July 2018

How Writing a Memoir Has Helped Me Talk More about My Mental Illness

By Peter McDonnell

I’m going to dive right in and begin. I hope people with similar problems with psychosis and anxiety can relate. Since writing a memoir of my experiences with psychosis, anxiety and recovery I have found that I can talk much more easily about my mental health issues.

Before I began my memoir in 2015 I had no interest in sharing how I was feeling about my illness with my supportive team (my parents who are both qualified psychiatric nurses, my various psychiatrists, my care coordinators etc.), friends, family and work colleagues. Now, just try and shut me up!

I often have to remind myself in general conversations that though my mental health and recovery fascinates me, other people are usually not as interested in my experiences as I am (but sometimes they are!). I had my annual appointment with my psychiatrist two weeks ago. She asked how I was, and so I began.

I am doing really well. I’ve been a bit blocked up with constipation – I understand that my medication (Clozapine) can sometimes affect this. I’ve been eating lots of fruit and veg and I bought some prune juice earlier today, so I expect the prune juice to work and I should be fine by tomorrow.

My anxiety is still improving, it’s at such normal levels now that I’m not really thinking about it and I’m not sure it’s any higher than what normal people get from time to time.

But I am wary that I’ve been challenging myself less recently. My nieces and their parents lived in London until a few months ago before moving to Denver, and taking the train or driving up to see them fortnightly was a challenge that helped me keep my abilities to stay on top of anxiety I think, and I do wonder sometimes if not having this regular challenge might make me rest on my laurels a bit and get too comfortable. For the last few years I have found that remembering to keep well is sometimes very important and if I forget to, I feel a certain dip in my general mental health.

I keep well by doing a mix of little and big things. Sometimes it’s just a case of asking my brain in the morning what kind of positivity I want to feel that day, and for reasons unknown to me, it works and eight times out of ten at the end of the day, I find that I have felt exactly how I told my brain I wanted to feel!

Other times I have found it helpful to push myself a bit and do more challenging things, like spending the day looking after my nieces in London. They lived in Chiswick and I’m very close to them, they are two and four years old. I think looking after them taught me responsibility and some of how to be a mature adult, and after doing the parenting thing for a bit, whether for an afternoon, overnight or for a few days and nights I felt very in step with the world.

It’s at this point that the doctor senses that I am doing well. I sense her sensing it. I then decide that I have more to say.

My psychosis and ideas of reference are still there, but I am controlling them well. I used to feel like people in queues and waiting rooms could read my thoughts, but it’s happening less recently. When it was bad I’d be standing behind someone in a queue and my ‘Telepathic Tourette’s’ would start and if the person in front of me was very ugly, then I’d hear in my mind “fuck me aren’t you ugly” and because of my stupid and annoying telepathic abilities (that I don’t think I have anymore) I’d think they heard me.

Then in my mind I’d feel like I had to explain to them, telepathically, that I don’t really think they are ugly, even if they looked like a Hyena. I am a nice person who doesn’t insult the afflicted; I’m not a ten out of ten myself!

But then like Tourette’s syndrome all the other insulting thoughts come out and the people around me can hear them, like ‘you’re a prick with a stupid haircut’ or ‘you smell like a landfill site’. It’s annoying, but recently it hasn’t been a problem and thoughts are appearing in a softer way in my head in these situations, so that’s a good bit of progress.

My job is going well, I used to get anxiety at work a few years ago, but I don’t anymore. My mental health memoir and website is coming along, I recently had a friend with lots of Facebook friends share a link to it and I got 2000 visits in four days. I have been working with a website guru to improve my website which is going well too.

By this stage my Doctor begins indicating that she isn’t interested in a haphazardly scattered lecture and that she has other people to see. So I wind it down and she does the usual thing, checking that I am still taking my Clozapine without any problems and she says that we could do a full check on everything via blood test, a sort of annual check-up of glucose levels, lipids, Amylase, B12 and calcium etc. She says that I seem to be doing very well. She gives me a blood form to take to the phlebotomist and we say goodbye.

I throw her an accidental curve ball as I remember that I wanted to ask if she could recommend a popular online psychosis journal that I might write a paper for. She says “No, sorry – but good luck with your writing, Peter”.

So that’s how I tend to speak to my psychiatrist. I hope it shows that a person can be comfortable talking about whatever they like to them. When you are ready, open up.

I rarely opened up to people about my mental health before I started writing about it in my spare time. For me it wasn’t really stigma or the taboo factor that made it difficult to talk. It was that the words were hard to find. It’s not easy to talk about why a panic attack may have started, or the processes involved with bringing about a period of good mental health, and often it’s complicated to answer a simple question like ‘how are you’ when you are at the doctor’s office. One is supposed to elaborate when they are asked how they are by their psychiatrist. In regular daily exchanges ‘fine thanks’ is sufficient.

If you are like me and have or have had limited social conversations due to staying at home a lot, because of anxiety issues perhaps, then the power of descriptive speech can begin to fade. Lots of people get embarrassed when discussing their mental health too.

Before I wrote my memoir, talking about the finer points of my mental health often felt like a fruitless endeavour – an impossible task. I felt like I could talk if I wanted to, but that there was no way I’d find the words to be understood properly. For many years I had very little insight or understanding of my illness. It felt like there was no way my team could understand it any better by me talking about it, because I didn’t even understand it myself.

But these days I talk about it all the time and talking is helpful for mental health for hundreds of reasons. So helpful in fact that there is a phrase assigned to the action of talking about mental health – ‘talking therapies’. Talking can help you take charge of your well-being.

The thing that allows me to verbalise it all is my writing. I have been writing about my mental health and recovery for at least four years now, including a book, articles like this one, papers for online mental health journals, travel articles and my blog. Writing has instilled a sense of enthusiasm, so now I find that my mental health and mental health in general (especially how my own experiences with mental health compare with other peoples) is my favourite subject. I can also find the right words when I need them and I am keen to pick up knowledge and tips through conversation.

If you want to use talking to feel better about your mental health I would recommend writing a journal of your thoughts about your mental health at the end of each day. Then when someone asks you how you are, either a friend at work or your psychiatrist, you will remember your journal and feel like you have some thoughts to share. You will often feel more enthusiastic and the words will be ready to go on the tip of your tongue.

About the Author

To read more of Peter’s writing about his journey with mental illness and recovery visit his website which has extracts from his memoir, articles written for other websites, his blog, a guest post page and more.



  1. Just wanted to say thanks to Gum on My Shoe for publishing my article!