In this second issue, we have poetry from Danny Steele, artwork from Sophie Victoria Rowe, and I talk openly for the first time about creative writing and mental health recovery.
every time with you matters
I wonder what it’s like for you
I say wonder as sometimes i don’t know
or can’t hear
or don’t hear
or won’t hear
I carry on, like an elephant trampling through the wild grass
time waits for noone
spending time as us has been toxic,
‘us’ has become toxic, reactionary, defensive
the kryptonite cutting through the ice, a blackened flower wilted in the heat.
in this, in this there is hope, there is potential through the pain:
There is always room for celebration, there is always room to hear what is really being said
every time with you matters
you are important, we are significant
i enjoy it most when we just be
by Danny Steele
Writing yourself well: my creative journey
It’s so easy to lose ourselves. There are always things that need to be done, relationships we need to maintain, responsibilities we just can’t escape. Not to mention, holding on to the essence of who we are is becoming harder and harder as technology develops. We create different versions of ourselves to present on social media, to our bosses, our friends, our parents. So how can we find the courage to be truly ourselves in a society that tells us who we are isn’t good enough?
I struggled with my identity for many years. I was such a perfectionist, and so desperate to be equal parts successful and likeable in whatever pursuits I chose, that I created so many personalities I couldn’t keep track. At work, I wanted to be a loveable colleague and a valuable employee. At university, I wanted to be effortlessly successful and get the highest grade I was capable of. At home, I needed to be a perfect daughter and sister, always available to help and love and support.
But I was spreading myself too thin with all of the things I wanted to be. I’m a perfectionist anyway – a risky trait that I’m still trying to work on – and maintaining the high standards I’d set for myself just wasn’t realistic. My mental and physical health was suffering, and I had to find a way to get back to myself before I forgot who I was completely.
At nineteen, I was diagnosed with depression and began to develop an eating disorder. It started subconsciously, and without any effort to lose weight, but soon began to snowball out of control. Because I’d have periods of restriction and eating normally, my weight fluctuated, and this made it hard to ever admit that I had a problem. Somewhere inside, I knew I was grasping at control by using food and exercise, but I never fully understood why. As long as I wasn’t stick thin, I didn’t have to admit to myself – or anyone else – that there was in issue at all.
Over the next year, as my University workload increased, and I pushed myself to continue getting top grades in every assignment, I became more restrictive with my eating. People began to congratulate me on my weight loss, and this only fuelled my disordered thinking – leading me to believe that this was something else I was succeeding in. Every day, my disordered behaviours were more prominent, and the illness felt more and more like a part of my identity.
I continued my cycle of revolving personalities until I couldn’t anymore. A friend convinced me to go to the doctors, where I was diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia and assigned weekly weigh-ins, blood tests and ECG’s to monitor my physical health. But there was no psychological support available, and this lack of resources only convinced me I wasn’t ‘sick enough’ to receive treatment: something that I realised, much later, was a common belief in anorexic and bulimic patients. I was put on a waiting list for a specialist treatment program. I waited eleven months and was underweight by the time I was admitted.
It’s my first time writing about any of this, and terrifying as even most of my family and friends have yet to hear my story. It’s strange writing about a time when I was so unhappy, when to the outside world, it probably didn’t seem that way at all.
The ten weeks I spent on the program at an eating disorder unit in Bristol really were beneficial. The girls I met there were incredible, and I’ll always treasure our heart-to-hearts at the end of every session. Group therapy was something I’d never done before – in fact, I’d never done any kind of therapy before – and I was surprised to find that most of the sessions involved writing of some sort.
Spoiler alert: the story is less depressing from here on out.
Almost every group therapy had us writing something. Sometimes it was letters to our future selves, to our bodies, to each other – but the biggest piece of work we produced was our Life Map. Each week, one of us would present our life to the rest of the group. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write (harder than this post, even!), but after reading my story to the rest of the girls, it was like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t even realise was there.
The treatment ended with us writing letters of encouragement and support to each other and taking home a little envelope of kind words. I still have mine now, and I hope I always cling onto it. At the end of the day, that envelope holds more than just kind words: it holds hope for the future, for all of us.
Figuring out that I could use writing as a form of therapy was an epiphany for me. The end of treatment was scary and isolating, but I had something that I could take with me and use in my recovery. This will sound like greeting-card levels of cheesiness, but I really did get back to myself through writing. Having that initial courage to explore my emotions and problematic aspects of my personality on paper was the hardest part, but once I’d started, I never stopped.
Around the time I finished the program, I had just started my Masters degree. Had it been a few months earlier, the anorexia would have been pushing me to get perfect grades, never hand in anything that would get less than a First, attend every lesson… As it happens, I started my manuscript for the course with one thing in mind: to get back to who I really was.
I started with an exercise that I now teach in my writing workshops for mental health recovery: splitting the self.
When I was starting my Masters, I was still clinging onto my eating disorder. If there was one thing I learnt in hospital, it was that eating disorders develop for a reason, and often that reason is to help you cope. They are helpful, in a twisted way, and that makes them hard to give up. Writing about my disorder was still too raw – and I knew, somewhere, that it would do me more harm than good. So, I took my writing in a different direction: not autobiography, but fiction.
Exploring yourself through fiction is great. Honestly, it’s wonderful.
I began by taking two identities I had: Beth, who, let’s be real, I was kind of losing sight of, and this disorder. I took them away from myself, separated myself completely from them, and made them into two different characters: Etta, and Violet.
My manuscript I AM ETTA was born. I began with a writing exercise that I’d encourage you to try yourself, if you’re looking to do a little soul searching.
It starts with picking an identity.
I am a daughter.
I am a writer.
Et cetera. Pick your identity, and split it.
I am a good daughter, and I am a bad daughter.
I am a motivated writer, and I am a lazy writer.
You have two different identities now, but they’re so much more than that. They are two different characters. The good and the bad. Or, as one of my students described it, “Myself, and my shadow self.”
The next thing you do is give your two identities names. They aren’t you anymore. They are completely separate. It’s important to humanise these characters, and to make them into fully independent, fictional beings – because it’s hard to examine our flaws on paper. It’s hard to admit that we might not be so great in aspects of our personalities, but when you think about these characters, you will start to realise that there is a motivation behind everyone.
Even the worst parts of yourself have joys, loves, goals. Every antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, in a way.
Once I’d given my characters names, I started to jot down some words, images, and phrases that I could associate with each of them. I made two little tables, looking something like this:
|Etta – “Well self”||Violet – “Ill self”|
| Childlike curiosity|
Stacks of well-read books
The colour of the sky
Chalky poetry on pavements
| An unexploded bomb|
Hailstones on bare skin
A cloudy sky before a storm
Flashes of manic laughter
Neon colours that hurt your eyes
Do the same for your characters. Think carefully about emotions and descriptions.
With my writing workshop groups, I usually get students to put their two characters into different scenarios. Where might they meet? How might you think about bringing them together through a narrative?
What might they learn from each other?
Writing I AM ETTA helped me to explore my own emotions and motivations through a completely separate and fictional narrative. More than that, it helped me paint a picture of recovery for myself. I walked with Etta through her darkest moments, cried as I wrote about her suffering, but then I brought her up. I watched her grow. I was right there with her as she started her first steps towards recovery.
Through writing my manuscript, I was able to write myself well again.
I brought the focus that was on my eating habits onto my writing instead. Through nourishing my body, I had more time and energy to put into honing my craft. I graduated my Master’s degree with a Distinction, and feedback that I AM ETTA was a deeply moving and publishable piece of work.
The manuscript now sits on the desk of my agent, awaiting feedback, but it won’t matter to me if a publisher doesn’t decide to pick it up. Writing that book was the therapy I needed; a piece of writing that healed me in ways I might never fully understand.
The point of this essay is not only to shed light on a story that I’ve kept in the dark for so many years, but to show others that writing might be the way to wellness for them, too. Now several months into my recovery from depression and anorexia, I’ve been running workshops in Oxford on writing for mental health recovery. I’ve received wonderful feedback from students on all the different ways they’ve found pieces of themselves in their writing, and I’ve hope for the future that I’ll find more ways to heal myself and others through the simple act of creativity.
You can read the blurb for I AM ETTA on the Bookshelf website here, and in February 2019 you’ll be able to read an extract from the first few chapters of the manuscript.
Thank you for reading my story. It took courage to write, but that’s the whole point of #FreedomFriday. If you have your own story, poetry, artwork or creative writing to share, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.