In your first autobiography, The Wrong Knickers, you were admirably frank – and very funny – about your ‘crazy twenties’; all the booze, drugs and sex that defined your third decade. But no mention of OCD. Not a whisper. You must have still been very frightened of it: was it a bit like Lord Voldemort; a case of ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’?
I do think it is faintly ridiculous that I wrote a book in which I admitted to taking copious amounts of cocaine, and having silly amounts of bad sex, and yet I couldn’t once admit to having a mental illness! In my head – and there was a lot of stuff in my head – there was a sense that if I didn’t admit to it, then it wasn’t happening. I could pretend that everything was just tickety-boo. It was the mental equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and saying ‘lalala, I can’t hear you!’ I was also scared of what people would say, about whether or not they would take me seriously.
But what I have learnt in the last couple of years is that the worst thing you can do with a mental illness is keep quiet about it. Suffering in silence has never helped anyone. We know that one of the key ways to treat depression and other disorders is through talking therapies. Speaking about the way you feel is the beginning of every journey towards recovery. People often ask me: ‘what is the key to happiness?’ and the only vague answer I can ever give is that it’s the ability to acknowledge that there is unhappiness. Accepting there will be bad times is the key to having good times. I now sit for long periods with my OCD instead of trying to bury it under booze and drugs and bad sex. I say ‘I’m not feeling very well, but that’s OK. It will get better.’ A lot of the time I am telling Jareth the Goblin King to get lost, but at least I am admitting that he is there.
As you were writing Mad Girl, and particularly when you’d finished it, did you feel you were getting perspective and even control over ‘the snake in my brain’?
I didn’t feel anything while I was writing but anxious and a bit ill. Bringing it all up was quite hard. I had to sit with all my demons eight hours a day for a period of several months. I hated writing Mad Girl – absolutely hated it! – but I am glad I did it, and it is the piece of work I am most proud of in my life.
It amazed me that I hadn’t joined the dots of various things that had happened in my life until I sat down and wrote the book. I didn’t link the cocaine abuse with the OCD. It had never occurred to me that the bulimia had anything to do with my hair falling out, or that the rubbish relationships I kept having were directly related to my self-esteem and mental health. In that way, it was tremendously helpful to sketch out the history of my brain and I’d recommend others try doing it – though perhaps not quite as intensely as I did. I’ve learnt a lot about myself since I started writing the book, and I think my friends and family would agree that I’m a much better person for it.
A year or so on, how are you now?
I am really well. I still have my moments and I am still a work in progress but generally I am much more aware of the things that are going to make me feel ill. I suppose you could say I am mindful.
I get asked quite a lot how I got better, and it’s a really difficult question to answer because I think that you are always getting better, just as an alcoholic is always in recovery. Every day I have to work hard at staying well and I don’t always get it right. As a writer, you are very conscious that everything has to have a narrative, that there needs to be a beginning, middle and an end, but I don’t think there is an end to this story. It’s a never-ending one if you like!
You write so beautifully and with such clarity. Can we expect a novel next?
People keep suggesting I write a novel as it would be a break from my own head, but I’m not ready for that yet. I do have something up my sleeve, but all I can say is that it involves running a marathon. Just in case you didn’t think I was mad enough already.