Metaphors for madness: the new wave of mental health memoirs

It is no accident that women are writing in ever greater numbers about their mental anguish and pain.

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I am as pleased as the next person that the appetite for victim memoirs, or “misery memoirs”, has largely abated. We’re done with redemption, empowerment and self-actualisation – that whole package of Oprah-spawned self-celebration – and are willing instead to countenance shoulder-shrugging self-acceptance. Memoirs of suffering are still with us but there has been a shift away from narratives of abuse towards narratives of personal disintegration. Suffering at the hands of others has been replaced by the unravelling of the self.

The subject of mental health is rich territory for writers mining this vein of self-dissolution, since it marries personal narratives with the wider causes of fighting for visibility and understanding, overturning stigma, battling guilt and shame and making the case for openness and acceptance. Where once we talked about ethnic or religious diversity as banners of inclusiveness, now neuro-diversity and gender diversity have become the markers of our many-hued humanity. Instead of classifying ourselves in binary terms, we talk of rainbows and spectrums.

Whether the motor of change is cultural, with publishing following suit, or the other way round, is hard to say. But I am not sure it matters. Once ideas are in circulation, they take on a life of their own – and a profile. My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes were among the flagship successes of the past couple of years. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive was another. A warm, often wry account of the author’s return from the brink of suicidal depression – largely through making lifestyle changes rather than taking a magic pill – it offered comfort where there was little to be had (Haig recalls getting more sympathy for having eczema and food poisoning) and hope for others with depression. Haig and Stossel seem to have touched a nerve, opening the door to an outpouring of first-person accounts of mental torment, helpless compulsions, anxiety disorders, body dysmorphia and more.

The question, for me, is where you go with such accounts. The three books under review – all written by women – are contrasts in ambition and achievement. Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl is a memoir of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Though commonly associated with behavioural tics such as excessive hand-washing, OCD more accurately denotes an inability to shut off inappropriate, intrusive thoughts about such things as germs, disease, contamination and dying, which build inside your head in an unending crescendo. For Gordon, her OCD was accompanied by anxiety, depression and, at one particularly awful time during her late teens, alopecia.

For a book that purports to document its author’s (oft-thwarted) life experience, much of the action here is, as she writes, “a blur”. Initially, this is because Gordon has no centre, at least no stable one, to absorb and process what happens to her; later, it is because she is too busy drowning out the noise of OCD using booze, cocaine and casual sex.

Gordon writes for the Telegraph but her style here is pure tabloid: “Fuck you OCD! Fuck you alopecia! I’m finally making something of myself! But . . . well, in life, as I’m finding out, there’s always a but, isn’t there?” I could simply say that her book is not for me and leave it there but what is so painful about reading Mad Girl is that all the breezy blather and grinning self-deprecation (“I am a complete fruitcake . . . I’m completely off my tits”) cannot disguise the author’s profound self-loathing. Many times I set the book down, wincing.

Eleanor Morgan’s Anxiety for Beginners was snapped up by Pan Macmillan after an article she wrote about her struggles with anxiety for Vice magazine attracted five million online views in four days. I do not claim to know what happened next, but the impression I get is that the publisher then felt compelled to rush the book out – presumably imagining that five million people couldn’t wait for it. Anxiety for Beginners reads as if it was written at a furious clip, in fluent journalese. There’s a galloping “and then, and then, and then” pace to it, breathless and tireless. Even the ends of chapters often feel arbitrary – a mere pausing for breath, rather than a moment of closure.

This is a pity because Morgan writes with some flair – not just about her experience of anxiety, of feeling “locked in [her] own universe” of fixations and paranoia, subject to catastrophic thinking that “works like a line of dominoes”, but also about the way that anxiety complicates sufferers’ “relationship with the passing of time; the elasticity of it, how it can snap and sting”, leading them to look back on their past as “soiled by anxiety – or half-real”.

Morgan advocates talking openly about what having an anxiety disorder feels like, how it contracts the world in a flare of alarming symptoms – nausea, palpitations, sweats, shakes, dizziness, social phobia. Over time, she has learned to manage her anxiety through a combination of medication, mindfulness, diet and exercise. She recognises that though she cannot control what triggers it, she can, to some degree, control her reactions. Cognitive behavioural therapy has helped, as has conventional therapy. But the key, she writes, is “to practise being kind to ourselves and treat it like we’re learning a new skill”.

Where Morgan builds her argument using therapeutic case studies, interviewing doctors and consulting fellow sufferers, Jay Griffiths, in Tristimania, defers above all other sources to literature: to Shakespeare, Christopher Smart and Samuel Beckett. Her book – which recounts a bruising year of being held captive by bipolar disorder, feeling alternately suicidal then high as a helium balloon, and enduring a hyperventilating, crushing, terrifying insanity – is an education in the history, mythology and poetics of madness, in all its wildness and glaring neon.

Griffiths is a high-wire writer who performs the difficult trick of taking you into the depths of her madness (“I could feel my mind on a slant, every day more off-kilter, every night sleeping less”) while managing to remain a completely reliable guide. During an episode of hypomania, for example, she began to see people’s wings, “white, plump, pillowy, deep with downy feathers” – like those of the angels in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. But then she weighs the matter, sanely: “How real did I think they were, these wings? True, but not actual. Not literally, palpably present, but still a profound truth of the mind.” It was a way, she writes elsewhere, of “literalising a . . . metaphoric experience”.

Griffiths understands enough (and trusts her wonderful GP enough) to agree to medication, overcoming her fear of becoming “a slur-mountain of shambling zombieness”, but then she frequently forgets to take her pills. She decides to commit her experience to a diary, to tether herself to reality, day by tortured day. She wonders if she is possessed. Then she wonders whether manic depression is an illness at all. She drinks too much, trying to outrun her affliction (the last time she was manic, she slept with too many men), and immerses herself in poetry to understand better the psyche’s mysterious “accents and alterations”.

Wings are a recurrent theme in Tristimania and a tranche of the book is devoted to Mercury (the winged messenger and Roman god, “carrying things across borders, living in the in-between” and raising “an electric storm in the brain”). Psyche, too, is winged and Griffiths likens mania to an airborne experience: it transports and uplifts, granting you a vision of things not given to others. It is inspired, like poetry, but ultimately evanescent. No wonder Icarus crashed and burned. No wonder mania plummets into depression.

Griffiths’s subtle point is that in madness we live inside metaphors that offer a parallel understanding of what is real that is no less valid than any other, only less tenable. And they don’t help one jot when you’re hallucinating.
Griffiths is an exciting and original thinker and her writing simply shimmers. Yet it also does sturdy duty by a certain kind of self-exposure – not the rambling, spilling, splurging of truths too long dammed up; and not the fetishised “candour” that passes for honesty and that publishers’ press releases call “heart-wrenching”, “devastating” or “searing”. This is self-exposure of a higher order.

It is no accident that women are writing in ever greater numbers about their mental anguish and pain. The link between women and suffering is as old as the hills (and the Bible) – they are expert witnesses in the dissolution of the self. In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison writes: “What’s fertile about a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity; beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by.” A shrink would insist that women’s wounds, like female hysteria, are expressions of things that cannot be said. But if those wounds bleed enough light to write by, then, potentially, they admit an alternative poetics of pain.

The question is how to unleash that potential. It can’t be done by mere truth-telling or oversharing. We live in an era of “TMI” – too much information – spilled and blathered, posing as honesty. As with a homoeopathic remedy, I find that I need very little of it to achieve an inoculating effect. It is why I found the opening 47 pages that Eleanor Morgan spends detailing her panic attacks strangely unaffecting (which is the opposite, I’m sure, of what she intended). It’s why I couldn’t care less how many times Bryony Gordon vomits 
up her food.

What’s missing here, what I long to see, is a continual engagement with other works and other kinds of thinking that lends confessional writing its refractive qualities. I want to read writing that pings and pops around my brain, probing and interrogative. I want the writer to doubt herself, voicing uncertainty and misgivings; to hold contrariness in permanent view and not always to succeed or triumph. Above all, I want the writer to upend experience – digging beneath it, peering behind it (or over her shoulder), peeling it back – and then grope towards something new, even if she comes up with nothing. It is not enough to write by the light of the bleeding wound. You also have to bend its rays.

Marina Benjamin’s The Middlepause: On Turning Fifty  is published by Scribe.

Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression by Jay Griffiths is published by Hamish Hamilton (224pp, £16.99). 

Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation by Eleanor Morgan is published by Bluebird (368pp, £16.99).

Mad Girl: a happy Life With a Mixed-Up Mind by Bryony Gordon is published by Headline (320pp, £14.99). 

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe