Writing and its mental health benefits
I’ve often been asked what made me want to start writing and two things instantly spring to mind.
The first was my teacher, Mrs Ramsey when I was ten years old. We were asked to write an adventure story and mine was held up in class as an example of how not to write a story. It was because in a twist I killed off the main character half way through the story. I was told this was not allowed. Not in storytelling. Which made me want to do it more. Who says your characters can’t do what you want them to?
The second was that when I sat down to write my first novel, I did it to leave a legacy more than anything else. I’d had more than a decade of suicide around me and I couldn’t take any more. It was impossible to talk to my parents and to keep to my promise that I would never cause them worry. The two actions were mutually exclusive and clashed. That left me, and what to do, stuck in the centre. And the centre is not always the safest place. My marriage had broken down and I wanted to tell my story to somebody if nothing else so people saw my perspective after I was gone. It was really for my children. I wanted them to know.
When I discovered the enjoyment that comes from writing over time my mental health slowly began to improve. I found that all the words I couldn’t say out loud could come out on the page. They didn’t need to be well written - not at first – it was just a case of getting them from my brain. My thoughts come rapidly and sometimes three or four at the same time. I have to process them quickly. I’ve always imagined that when the words are put out either written or spoken, they physically leave your possession because you’ve now put them out there. That means that they can’t stay within and thus the weight, the burden lifts. Writing did helped me hugely here.
It doesn’t mean that the dark times still don’t come. I’ve suffered many, many years with depression and found myself on motorway bridges at three or four in the morning with no recollection of why I’m there. I’ve visited therapist after therapist and don’t think I have really ever been able to tell my story. Certainly not out loud. Instead I tell my innermost feelings through writing. In some ways, it feels like each novel I write is synchronised with how my real life was going at the time. You can tell by the nature of the book that it matched to my own personal mood at the time. This of course, would be reflected in what I was doing in real life. Divorce, funeral, whatever.
Writing has also been a way to over come the crippling effects of anxiety. Anxiety is something that I’ve had as long as I remember. Something that has literally had me unable to leave my bed. Like physically, I have been unable to move my legs to leave. I don’t necessarily think it matters for what purpose people write. It could be a diary. It could be your first novel. It could be on scraps on paper.
The thing that matters is that I truly see writing the words down as a physical release from my body to whoever is listening. And if nobody is listening releasing it still benefits me. It doesn’t matter if you can spell or put clever words together, it’s all about emptying yourself of the burden. The words are no longer your responsibility; the burden is put on the page. You will also find that reflecting on your day or week or even month is a form of meditation. It makes you truly concentrate on that moment in time and bring to mind your day in detail. It helps you process and deal with how you feel about things. For me it has led to many more regular nights sleep than I can ever remember. I believe that this is because writing helps you to deal with your emotions.
Of course, you don’t have to write a diary (though I do believe that there is something personal in every novel. It is a subtle hint to the reader as to the author’s mood at that time). Instead, you can create imaginative characters and deal with how you feel by writing it.
Finally, I do want to say that I do not claim to know everything about mental health and there are far more serious cases than me, but I can only share the benefits of writing based on my own experiences. It has kept me alive. Which is good enough.
I would urge anyone to write and if they want a nudge they can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get you started.
Take care in these unprecedented times.