Hi Bryony, thanks for speaking with us! Can you introduce us to Mad Girl and why you decided to write this book?
So Mad Girl is a memoir of my experiences of mental illness, it’s not a misery memoir though, I hope it’s an upbeat book about depression. I decided to write it because I’d written this book called The Wrong Knickers which was all about my crazy twenties and about men snorting cocaine off my boobs and having affairs, and I’d written it after I’d got married and had a kid so I felt very like it was that part of my life. Then after it came out, it did quite well and it was all kind of weird, and I had a bit of breakdown. And I thought, the back-story to The Wrong Knickers clearly is someone who is not entirely with it. I thought I’d written really honestly about all this stuff – taking drugs and having sex with unsuitable men – but I couldn’t ever admit that the back-story was mental illness, that I had this crippling OCD.
So I thought, I’ve been quiet about this basically the whole of my adult life and I’m not going to give it the credence it deserves by being quiet about it. So I wrote a column about how bad I was feeling – I write for The Telegraph – and it was like the floodgates opened. It was like hundreds and hundreds of letters and emails and cards from people saying “me too” and if not OCD then a different form of mental illness. I realised then that it’s really normal to feel weird. And that wasn’t a comfort for me because it’s not a comfort to know that other people experience the misery you do, but it made me realise it’s an illness just like any other. It was almost like I got a lightbulb moment; “whoa this is totally normal”. One in four of us will experience mental illness.
My publishers had originally wanted me to write a novel next, but then they said, “well hang on, why don’t you write about this?” So it felt like the right time, everyone was talking about mental illness a bit more, so that’s it really. That’s why I sat down and wrote 80,000 words about mental illness. I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s not fun.
What do you hope the book will offer readers?
I’m very clear that it’s not a self-help book because I’m not a professional, I have no clue. I say that at the beginning. But I wanted to share my story, and I hope that by sharing my story it might give people the courage to share their own stories. I think it’s really important that we talk about mental illness and mental health, because everyone suffers in silence. What all mental illness has in common is that it lies to you and it tells you you’re alone, it tells you you’re a freak, it tells you no one else feels the same way as you. Which is BS basically. I think the more we talk about it, the more we all realise that. And for me it’s been really helpful as well because so many people have got in touch and said “oh my god, I have that too! I worry that I might have harmed my child”. I think it’s that realising that our heads are all a bit bonkers really, and it’s okay.
You’ve obviously carried out a lot of research into mental health for the book, what was the most eye-opening thing that you came across?
I think because I write about mental health a lot in my day job, you just hear lots of stories or you read lots of stories about just how poor mental health provision is in the UK, and it’s supposed to be on an equal par to physical health but clearly it isn’t. The thing I hear again and again is stories where there are no resources, even the NHS themselves have said “we need more funding”. I’m really lucky because I have resources; I have a really supportive family and when I’ve had really bad, bad, bad times people have been there to help me and pull me up, and I have private healthcare at my work, and I have very understanding employers, but I understand that I’m in the minority. What if you’re a single mum? What if you can’t afford to go and get private healthcare? You’re literally stuck on a waiting list for forty weeks or however long. If you go into A&E you have to be seen within four hours, if you have a cancer diagnosis you have to be seen within two weeks. There’s nothing like that with mental health, it’s just we’ll shove you on a waiting list. And the care isn’t that great.
That experience has led me to set up this thing called ‘Mental Health Mates’ which is like a peer support group where we go out for walks. So you can just come along, it’s about getting yourself out the house and you can talk to other people – it isn’t therapy – but you can talk to other people without fear of being judged. We had one on Sunday and nearly thirty people came and people are setting them up all around the UK. There was one in Leeds, one in Newcastle, one in Manchester, one in Brighton this weekend, one in Bristol. So I think that’s a really important thing.
What I have really learned is that people are really on their own, they’re really on their own! And it’s just heart-breaking. It makes me angry. But you’re not on your own, is what I would say.
How has humour helped you to tell your story?
I think if you’re suffering from a mental illness, you don’t want to read a really dreary book about mental illness. You don’t want to be made to feel depressed. It’s really important to be able to show that life has light sides too. And some of it is quite funny, like taking my iron to work. Obviously afterwards it’s quite funny, it’s fine. I think it’s important as a writer because people stay with you that little bit longer.
Why did you decide to call the book Mad Girl?
My husband came up with it, but also there’s Sylvia Plath, who ended up committing suicide. She wrote The Bell Jar, which is one of the first books I ever read that really described the feeling of depression when I was a teenager. And she has a poem called Mad Girl’s Lovesongs. So it was all kind of tied in. And also I wanted it to be quite fun. Everyone is kind of mad and it’s normal to be mad. I wanted to present that.
What books would you recommend to someone who’s liked Mad Girl?
Matt Haig – Reasons to Stay Alive, but you’ve probably already read that if you’re reading Mad Girl. Emma Forrest – Your Voice in my Head, which is a really great book about her relationship with her therapist, it’s a great book about depression. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, it’s a really funny – I’m never going to compare myself to Nora – but it’s a really funny take on hearbreak. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath. Oh and Lisa Owens – Not Working! It’s so good, I love it! I read it when I was really, really, really not in a good way in January after I’d finished writing Mad Girl, and it’s really difficult to read when you’re not feeling well but it made me laugh so much. It’s about a girl who’s like “what am I doing with my life?” which is the question we all think when we’re feeling a bit low. I love it. I might re-read it on holiday.
I also like to read really apocalyptic books. I love Stephen King. I’m reading this book at the moment called The Fireman by Joe Hill. It’s not going to win the Booker Prize but I don’t tend to read books that are going to win the Booker Prize because life is too short.