So you want to write a warts-and-all account of your mental health journey? Great. Thing is, it’s rare that anyone travels along that journey alone, so you’re going to have to talk about others.
According to the Myers Briggs personality assessment tool, I score high on the extrovert scale. That doesn’t mean I’m a super confident and gregarious human being, but it does mean I’m comfortable finding inspiration and validation in the outside world and, in my case, being a massive over sharer.
Growing up, I’m not sure my mum wanted to hear all the gory details of my teenage sexual exploits and naive illegal chemistry experiments, but she did. She listened to it all and she put up with it. Along with my graphic details of embarrassing health issues that I thought were symptomatic of some sinister disease. That is what happens when you have health anxiety coupled with a tendency to extreme over sharing (to this day I still ‘WhatsApp’ pictures of ‘suspicious’ rashes to my poor GP friend, James).
Anyhoo, that’s fine. That’s my call. If exposing my vulnerabilities and pointing out my zits and dodgy skin rashes makes me feel better about myself then fair dos. But what about other people?
In my book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes – naming and shaming mental health stigmas, I was incredibly aware of how others might take it.
When you’re looking back to childhood you’re going to remember many anecdotes featuring many people. Some you are in touch with, some you are not. So how do you authentically talk about these experiences?
Past relationships always feel tricky. Whilst I name my husband and stepson – because it’s easy to ask them across the breakfast table whilst wolfing down buttery toast whether or not they mind (actually, it’s probably better to ask them after cooking a fabulous fry up and serving it directly to their bed on a tray complete with a rose, a cup of tea and the beaming smile) – it’s not so easy to do the same with people from your past.
So, my former boyfriends who feature in my memoir thanks to their presence during times of anxiety are known as:
Green hair, para boots (my first ever boyfriend had a big love of punk and hair dye)
Candy flip guy (he looked like one half of that short-lived duo from the 90s who covered Strawberry Fields Forever)
Soldier boy (I don’t need to explain that one surely?)
A quick Facebook message to ‘green hair para boots’ and an indirect message via a sibling to ‘Candy Flip guy’ provided everyone with reassurance. I also gained permission to use an old pic from millennium night – even though none of us look, well, exactly at our shining best. I’m not in touch with ‘soldier boy’ so I made sure that, even with the name removed, I simply kept those details to a ‘need to know’ basis.
And I never bitched. What’s the point? Unless you’ve been in a particularly bad one-sided relationship (I know some people have), then you probably had a role to play in the ups and downs so there’s no point getting catty.
Beyond relationships I kept everything either first name only, asked permission or just kept the name out completely. I talk of my childhood friend over the road who I ‘looked up to because of her love of Madonna and influence of a cooler older sister’.
There was the story told by Helen about playing hide and seek near, what we ignorant 90s kids used to call, and now thoroughly regret calling, the ‘nut house’ in our village. I named Helen (first name only) but only because she gave me permission via a Facebook message (thanks Helen!).
I also owned up to some of the stigma that I myself was guilty of. Just because I’m a Time to Change ambassador today doesn’t mean I was the perfect example of a mental health ambassador in the 90s. What’s the point in pretending? So I’m not going to just talk about what other people have said in a ‘shock horror’ kind of way; I’ll own up to my mistakes myself. After all, I’m probably more likely to educate if I drop the self-righteous image of perfection. Perhaps then people who don’t understand much about mental health stigma can relate to my past experiences and what I’ve learnt from them.
I can’t advise on the legalities of writing memoir and including others, so I also shared a couple of chapters with a legal advisor who I was referred to through Citizen’s Advice when I was experiencing a tough time in the workplace. I changed the setting, changed all the names, tweaked some of the language used in the anecdotes, and changed the decade (I set this experience in primary school in the 80s so nobody gets hurt). I also tried to show that there are two sides to any story – acknowledging that this was my experience and I have no idea what others were going through that may have impacted on what happened and how I perceived things.
So, in my very recent experience of memoir writing, I do feel that you can be true to yourself and tell an authentic story without compromising others. Because after all, that’s not why we write is it. It’s good to be responsible and you can have fun in finding ways around it. Just like I did with setting an experience in primary school and coming up with nicknames.
However, publication day is February 19th, so I do need to prepare for some potential backlash. After all, nothing is foolproof and if you put yourself out there for all the world to see, you’ve got to have some resilience!
– Lucy Nichol