Over the decade I spent working in mental health I was privileged enough to listen to hundreds of stories. Some of them were unbearable, more so because they were being told by children, and by the time they came to our attention the damage had already been done. The poet Anne Sexton’s description of words as both ‘daisies and bruises’ is an apt one. I had to learn how to use language in a way that not only provided comfort and reassurance, but also elicited the information I needed to help unlock that child. Questions that began with ‘how’ or ‘what’ were the secret weapons we nurses used on a daily basis. What happened? How did that happen? What would you like to happen next time? These questions, although simple, were designed to capture the entire experience of the child, using a story-telling approach. So upon reflection, the leap from children’s mental health nurse to writer, may not be such a huge one after all.
In mental health, a lot of time is spent collating the ‘before,’ the same for writing a novel although it’s called the backstory or research. One of the most coveted skills in writing is knowing what to say and when, and perhaps even arguably more important, what should be left unsaid. The same applies in mental health. The similarities don’t end there. There are many skills I regularly apply to my new life as a writer that I learnt during my years as a mental health nurse: patience; resilience; risk-taking; problem-solving; and how to retain a sense of hope that things will work out for my characters, as I did with my patients. So it seems that writing has become my new currency, one I can trade with myself, one I’m becoming richer in every day as I meet each milestone as a novelist.
While being a writer is a new chapter in my life, it has, in many ways, re-connected me to my past, to the children I looked after. Good Me Bad Me was born out of a conversation I had with a teenage girl after she had harmed herself on a particularly fraught nightshift. As I dressed the wounds on her wrists, she asked me – ‘What if I turn out like my mum? What if I end up doing bad things like her?’ Her fears were real, the unknown inner influence of genetics. I witnessed first-hand young people taking on behaviours of parents who’d been absent from their lives for years. I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand, and to create discussion around these kinds of children, hopefully compassionate in its nature. At some level my writing will always be influenced by the years I spent as a mental health nurse. How could it not? There’s something else though. I didn’t just want to write about these children, I needed to. A delayed reaction to the often juggernaut-sized emotions I was required to hold on to on a daily basis. Little, if any, time was put aside for ‘feeling the feels’ that surrounded us every day as carers to these children. We had ringside tickets, we bore witness to the battles they were engaged in with their illnesses, the weight of the world on their little shoulders. And ours. Some of them literally fighting for their lives. Mental illness, in my opinion, might be better thought of as a cancer of the mind. Powerful, painful, often hidden, metastasizing quietly inside, and sometimes deadly. None of us should take our mental health for granted. Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted, wrote – ‘Crazy isn’t being broken, or swallowing a dark secret. It’s just you or me, amplified.’ And for me, that’s what my writing does. It reminds me, enables me, to stay connected to the people I looked after. To keep on ‘feeling the feels’ and being compassionate. It’s my way of saying, I haven’t forgotten about you, and I never will. No matter how much mental illness can, and does, change a person’s story into an often unrecognizable version of what is was before, they are still human. Our humans.
Just you or me, amplified.