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Mental Health and Memoir

by Katerina Bryant

KaterinaBIn memoir, it is impossible to convey your full self. You are one thing: an owner of a troubled dog, a bad sister, or someone with a wonky memory. You are fragmented, shaving away pieces of yourself to share with your reader. You write consistent narrative arcs and weave connected threads together. You are your own character, and this makes it very tricky when you’re split.

 

split (noun): a tear, crack, or fissure in something especially down the middle or along the grain.

For me, there is BAD and AAD: before and after anti-depressants. Before, characterised by crying in public and nights and days passed half-awake. And after, a clear mind with a never-before-seen desire to exercise.

Mentioning medication that’s administered for mental illness is fraught with negative connotations, but also is rich territory for a memoir writer. Has medication helped me become myself? Or am I numb, unable to fully feel the joys and pitfalls of a harsh reality? What is a normal amount of crying in a single day? While these questions are worthy of explanation, they don’t fit in every essay. My latest is on my life and pigs, which doesn’t have room for a rambling side-note on SSRIs.

Mental illness doesn’t always fit into the conversation, but its absence is not quite honest either. Am I still being honest with my reader, honouring the contract of non-fiction, if I talk about my childhood without mentioning my persistent fantasies of jumping in front of cars or out of windows? I’m not sure I can answer that. All I know is it doesn’t always make for a good story. An interior life is sometimes best left inside one’s self.

At the same time, quietly letting a reader know that depression or anxiety was living in the background has its value. If it’s relevant to the piece, then it could be argued it is the memoir writer’s responsibility to include it. The best writing often comes from places of the writer’s discomfort, although this is not true of the best mental health. Only showing the good, like every Facebook page in existence, presents a false view of one’s life. But only presenting thoughts spawned from depression is equally false and dishonest.

Anna Spargo-Ryan writes for Guardian Australia:

“The anxiety disorder exists separately from my personality. Anna the Person is tough and smart and honest. None of these things about me are rendered untrue because of my anxiety, it’s just that sometimes, someone throws a heavy blanket over them. I am tough, but I can’t get to the shops today. I am smart, but I think that if I go outside I will float away into the atmosphere. I am honest, but my brain is lying to me.”

Disconnecting the illness from the person is valuable. Anna tells us, this is who I am but this is who I can be. Viewing anxiety and depression as separate to ourselves allows writers to compartmentalize their lives. We can choose to ignore a separate entity that leaks into ourselves every so often.

There has been an upwards trend of confessional memoir, of writers ‘confessing’ their mental ill-health. This is valuable in breaking down stigma, of course. Mia Freedman wrote about her anxiety for Mamamia, but in her confessional mentioned her use of Lexapro – a move which Guy Rundle criticised in a piece for Crikey. The insinuation that feelings of anxiety or depression should be medicated is dangerous territory. But so is ‘coming out’ as experiencing a mental health condition, when the stigma can affect jobs, livelihoods. Writing mental health is rich with missteps, with fear and misunderstanding. Rundle has even gone so far as to say that “depression confessional” is “part of a cultural predicament”.

To put it simply, anxiety (if you see someone today, you will humiliate yourself) and depression (you will never be anything worthwhile) are liars. They are as complex as characters in a play, and perhaps we should treat them as such. We can choose whether to give them centre stage, a one-off mention or omit them entirely from our essays. While the character might not add much more to the story than a gag, a subtle allusion in the right context to our interior selves – our depressed or anxious selves – creates a richer connection with the reader.


Katerina Bryant is a South Australian writer currently living in Oregon. She has written for Voiceworks, Overland Online, Tincture and Scum. She tweets at @katerina_bry.