Blog / Booktrust

How writing saved my life

Apparently, more anti-depressants are prescribed in January than any other month. So I thought I’d write a little bit about words and mental health. In September 1999, in my early twenties, I suffered a breakdown.

After a few years of seriously heavy living, and various other life stresses, I became very ill indeed. I descended into a permanent state of dark anxiety and was diagnosed with panic disorder.

The only way I know how to describe panic disorder is as a kind of high speed depression. I would close my eyes and see literal demons. I could hardly leave the house without my girlfriend standing by my side. I was overwhelmed by something I did not understand – my own brain. For about three years my mind never came to a comma let alone a full stop.

At my lowest point, in February 2000, I stopped believing in words. Until then I hadn’t realised that the act of using language is an act of faith. (‘In the beginning there was the word…’) But it is. You have to believe there is a point of there being words, and that they can offer real meaning. Normally this belief is taken for granted, but that is because normally we are taking the world itself for granted. But when your mind crumbles to dust everything you thought you knew suddenly becomes something to question.

You have to build reality up again. And the bricks we use to shape our realities are called words.

And so I would stare at a page of a book and it made no sense. But then I went back to some books I had loved as a teenager and began to lose myself in them.

I also started to write.

The stuff I wrote was rubbish. But it helped. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Eventually I started writing short stories. By giving something a narrative shape I was beginning to believe in the shape of my life again. In beginnings and middles and endings. Pretty soon I was getting a handle on the panic attacks. I was able to beat the agrophobia I had developed too. I was understanding myself again, and what my views and perspectives on this world actually were.

‘Is there any way out of the mind?’ Sylvia Path famously asked. If there is, the exit route is through words themselves. Through reading and writing. Instigated by Professor James Pennebaker twenty years ago writing therapy is already a big thing in America.

Maybe they should start prescribing reading lists and creative writing classes on the NHS. In my case, the consumption (and creation) of words healed my mind more than the consumption of anti-depressants. I had been suicidal before I began writing. It gave me a focus for the mental energy that was consuming my mind like a forest fire.

And now, I realise I need to write. If I stopped being published tomorrow I would carry on writing, just as I would carry on reading. Hell, I would even pay to write, if that was the only way I could do it.

The idea for this blog came from a question I got asked two days ago. Actually, it was more of a statement. ‘I don’t know how you write.’ It is related to another, more frequently voiced statement. ‘I’d like to read, but I just don’t have time.’

I write and read for the same reason.

I need to.

The world is a confusing place.

Books are our maps.

Without them, I quickly find myself very lost indeed.