I was inspired to write books about mental illness, because it is something I have experienced first-hand, something I have grown up with, something which came very close to destroying me. As a child I hated school and spent a lot of time writing stories when I should have been listening in class. Although I didn’t realise I was depressed back then, I found the daily routine stifling and wanted to spend more and more time on my own. By the time I reached secondary school I would lock myself in the toilets at break-time just to get away from people. I felt increasingly alienated from my friends around me and out of step with the rest of my peers. I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was and I blamed myself for not being more like the others. Finally, things reached breaking point, and I quit school completely at the age of fourteen and did my GCSEs and A levels by distance learning. It was around this time that I started to write - books about mental illness and suicide - a reflection of my deeply troubled state of mind.
I studied French Literature at King’s College London and although I found the freedom of university easier to cope with than school, I was still desperately unhappy. My depression peaked in my final year, and just after graduating with a decent degree, I found myself walking around campus, looking up at the tallest buildings, trying to work out which one would guarantee me a fatal fall. In the end, I chickened out, wrote a suicide note, and instead went to bed with several bin liners tied over my head which slipped off during the night, sparing me my life.
However it wasn’t until I was twenty that I finally made the link between the horror of my existence and the term depression. I remember wanting to die for a very long time. In fact I think that wanting to die is the wrong expression. My family are all atheists, and the prospect of death was always terrifying and final. But when you are so depressed that life is completely and utterly intolerable, you see it as the only way out. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place - you’re terrified of dying, of never seeing your family again, of destroying your family as well as yourself, of the pain, of the terrible irreversibility of it all - but you know you cannot go on living. Being alive is simply, totally and absolutely unbearable and you get to the point where you would do anything, and I mean anything to make it go away.
I finally found the courage to speak out about my depression in my twenties and went to seek help. The first doctor I saw to told me I was not depressed at all. Like most severely depressed people I had become expert at hiding my emotions and so the doctor told me that there was no way a depressed person could smile and chat and be so eloquent. Instead of offering me help, he offered me a job! Being told my depression was a figment of my imagination was like a fist in the stomach. But I went on to see other doctors and was referred to counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Over the last fifteen years I have tried many different types of therapy and more than twenty different anti-depressants, many in combination, as well as anti-psychotics and mood-stabilisers. Some I've had to quit due to intolerable side-effects, some have made my condition worse, many have had no effect whatsoever. Occasionally a drug has helped for a while before wearing off. However, my official diagnosis is 'severe refractory depression with bipolar tendencies' which is rare. Most mood disorders respond well to drug and/or therapy.
Although I continue to struggle daily with the illness, I do have some good periods and writing about my experiences through my fictional characters has proved an amazingly cathartic experience. It has also allowed me to share what I have been through with others. Even though all my books are purely fictional, I draw heavily on my own experiences and this has definitely helped me make my writing more credible. Whilst in the throes of depression, I often force myself to sit down at my computer and write down exactly what I'm feeling, the exact thoughts that are going through my mind. Later, I try to incorporate those sections into the book I'm writing. Since my very first book came out, so many people have contacted me to say ‘I went through that’ or ‘it was like reading a book about myself.’ This allows me to talk about my own struggle with clinical depression and for readers to tell me about theirs. It has been an absolute revelation to discover there are so many people who suffer or have suffered from some form of mental health problem and it has been so reassuring to realise that not only am I not alone, but I am actually in extremely good company! Mental illness is alienating by definition. Breaking out of that bubble and making contact with other sufferers is an enormous and crucial first step.
Mental illness is still a taboo subject, however it is a biologically-based brain disorder which cannot be overcome through will-power and is not related to a person's character or intelligence. The simple fact is that mental-illness is rapidly on the increase and is fast becoming a massive problem in today’s high-pressured society. A staggering one in four people suffer from some kind of mental illness, 20 per cent of all deaths by young people are by suicide, and suicide is the most common form of death in men aged under 35. In this country alone, there are estimated to be 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents each year, which is one attempt every 20 minutes.
It has been a long road, shuffled from doctor to doctor and from therapist to therapist and trying just about every medication in the book, and I only wish I had told someone about my feelings sooner. But I hold out good hope that I will eventually be free of this illness: advances in the treatment of mental health problems are being made all the time. Nowadays, the vast majority of people who seek help get better very quickly and there really is a lot of help available out there if you have the courage to speak out.