In December I had the opportunity to join the line-up for TEDxUCL in which I shared my personal experience of writing through and out my health, and how this informed the ‘Writing Health‘ section of this website.
You can watch the talk here, and find the transcript following.
You are twenty-five years old, standing in front of some 1000 people in the Logan Hall in London’s Bloomsbury. You are a stone’s throw away from the Institute of Child Health where you are studying for a Masters in global development. You are a five-minute cycle away from the Cruciform building where you began your medical degree in 2010.
You are about to tell them what got you here. Of how an eating disorder saw you hospitalized after A-levels, and about the unwanted deferral of your much coveted entry to medical school, and the subsequent curtailment of it eighteen months later following a relapse.
You are anxious. Anxious that the audience will wonder what merit there is in your talk, whether it’s worth the ticket price, whether you are worth being heard, how it will feel to tell this many people a verbal and very personal narrative of mental disorders only your nearest know about.
You are talking to them. You are highlighting that because we cannot see mental illness, it is hard to understand, but that this talk is still relevant, because all of us in this room seek meaning through connection. This is what you call a sense of being ‘grounded’, and that every listener here will know someone with, or personally experience, mental health disorders at some point in their life.
It is true that, of the audience today, approximately 250 of you will experience some form of psychological disorder at some point in your adult lives. That’s one in four of you: one member of a nuclear family, at least one of the people sitting immediately next to you, one of a virtuouso string quartet. But I don’t want to talk about diagnoses or labels, but rather start from an awareness that every one of us has a psychological self, of which we are variously aware.
What is also true is that you all have the capacity to feel, to think, to write. And I want to share how writing is a greatly undervalued tool in appreciating our personal composition and to try and understand how that can become disordered.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that reading can be a form of escapism and writing can be therapeutic. We could look at lots of studies about how the medical humanities (i.e. the cross over between disciplines including social science and literature) are beneficial to our wellbeing, as shown here. And I want to show you tools that might help you at some stage in the way they came to help me. But more importantly, I want to consider why this might have helped.
Mental health is still commonly underrepresented and discussed at both personal and policy levels. But things are slowly changing. As humans we are programmed to try and keep ourselves well and others well. But this begs the question: what does it mean to be ‘well’ or ‘ill’, how can you tell where you sit between those and what happens if you’re not sure?
For those of you hoping for a magic bullet I’m afraid I can’t offer a simple answer, because I don’t think there is one. Instead, I want to offer up Chapter VI of Lionel Trilling’s ‘Sincerity and Authenticity’ in which he adopts Freud’s assertion that “we are all ill – neurosis is of the very nature of the mind. Its intensity varies from individual to individual”.
But one way that we can address the answers to these questions is by entering into a written dialogue with ourselves through language. Through my own process of writing out my health, I came to realize that for me, mental disorder and external modes of control are symptomatic of a version of myself that is adrift from any solid sense of history.
When I was first hospitalized I struggled through the treatment plan and managed to follow the medication and instruction regime until I had convinced myself – and everyone around me – that I was ‘well’ enough to get on with my life and start my medical degree. It was only when I found myself back in treatment again a year later that I realized I couldn’t just do what I was told which was a pretty big deal for someone who enjoyed being liked and accommodating.
When I relapsed I felt broken. I knew that following the rules had only given me an alternative system of false reality which was untenable in the realities of my actual life. More so than ever before I felt completely adrift – completely groundless – unsure how to find a state of physical and mental wellness that was sustainable and thorough. But, what was different this time around was that there were therapy classes of which one was creative writing. Now I’d always adored reading, and writing poetry (very badly I should add) but during those months and ever since words became my grounding: both those I wrote for myself, and to myself, and those of others along the way.
Writing and revising my own narrative strengthened a previously fragile self awareness, and over time I started to initiate and reinforce positive behaviour change by acting as the written me felt able to. As I entered into an understanding of the strengths and limitations of my body and mind so too my collection of journals and notebooks grew. Although they’re now stored away in my Mum’s loft, they became a tangible construct of who I was at that time, in which I expressed myself freely so discovering things I never realized I doubted or feared or hoped for.
That was perhaps the greatest thing: discovering I did actually have and wanted to hope and own a purpose. Someone once told me that the most optimistic people suffer the worst. Perhaps this is true, but just as we all sit on a spectrum of self awareness, so too do we vary in our willingness to have hope for ourselves.
So, writing to and of the self is a wonderful method for creating personal growth and mental wellbeing. Of course, this idea isn’t new. Just as I opened with a letter I’d written to my future self, many of you will have encountered Leslie Pole Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ (1953) in which letters become the substance of an alternative reality for two forbidden lovers. So too, John Clare’s letters from the asylum recount his episode spent in an institution for the mentally unstable. His letters written during this time are frequently associated with an othering Clare wrought on himself through the adoption of new personae and life narratives.
Eric Robinson, a prolific editor of John Clare, has suggested that in these letters ‘it seems as if Clare is struggling to retain his sanity by writing down each image as it floats into his mind’ which echoes true in his poem ‘Shadow of Taste’: ‘in living character and breathing word / Becomes a landscape heard and felt and seen’ (ll. 72-3). This psychological mapping of moments and territories became crucial to constituting and re-constituting the land and self for Clare.
‘Writing health’ is a process of self-development and prompted me to create a blog platform which invites multimedia contributions from all people on mental health and has produced some deeply moving and reflective pieces. Take David, a medical researcher who contributed a piece called ‘Autumn’ in which he tried to make sense of his role as clinical practitioner and facilitator on a placement in a psychiatric tertiary care unit.
This model of writing for health offers a construct through words that can either be used to create a fuller or more representative evaluation of who you are at any given moment or as labels to distance oneself from. For instance, during my treatment for disordered eating I was encouraged to write a letter to the ill me which challenged what it means to be ‘ill’ and ‘well’ forcing a degree of disassociation. This became one of the most formative steps in my recovery progress enabling me to detach myself and my physical health from mental imposters. This was followed up with a letter to my future self allowing me to engage with the parts of me that were healthy, sustainable and carried personal integrity.
There is purpose in writing a letter; there is a need to actually create something rather than just a process of expunging. I want to encourage you to create a self-portrait in letters channeling a modernist focus on the interiority of the self. Modernist writers, including Freud, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were among the first to prioritise the entangled nature of the self and a ‘turn inward’ that is increasingly relevant today.
You will see that you all have a postcard on your seat. I would like to invite you to pick it up and keep hold of it until I finish. Who has heard of Andy Warhol? Good. In 1949, the managing director of Harper’s Magazine Russell Lyne wrote to a then unknown Warhol requesting biographical information. To which the 21-year old artist replied: Hello mr lynes / thank you very much / my life couldn’t fill a penny postcard.
What you are holding now is the same size as one of those early 20th century penny postcards. I’m pretty certain we all agree that Warhol could have more than a postcard written about him these days. But it isn’t about the quality or quantity of what you write either to yourself or to others. It is about using words with integrity – by that I mean penning thoughts instinctively and without restraint – to create a verbal self that can help to reflect on, and reflect who you are, at any given point. So there’s only one thing left for me to do.
I have shared with you a biographical history, but more importantly this talk has helped write out why and how composing letters got me from feeling completely detached to being able to feel grounded. Keep hold of that postcard, and when you can, write something. Perhaps to a past you, a future self, or how you are right now, whatever feels right. Just write with abandon and you never know what you might learn or the self care you might establish.
And I want to leave you with another example from the fantastic ‘Letters of Note’ collection that is about as far away from Warhol as you could possibly get. On May 4th, 1941, the renowned American sociologist Jessie Bernard wrote a letter to her first child, a then unborn daughter. It opens: ‘my dearest, / Eleven weeks from today you will be ready for this outside world’.
You, listeners, readers, writers are already living in and through this outside world. But whether you are ready or not, writing out our experiences in it can help make a lot more sense of it as we grow-up in it right to the very end.
 Clare, The Oxford Authors, p. xxiv.
 Clare, The Oxford Authors, ‘Shadows of Taste’, p. 171.
Image Credit: Lulu Fernandez