Depression is a way of feeling, a way of thinking and a way of being. It is all-consuming, all-encompassing. It is a way of life, the only life, an anti-life. Within it there is no without it. It is numbness, at skin level, and at muscle level, and at cell level. It is also a cold fog that envelops the body from head to toe, freezing in its grip. It is also a physical pain felt throughout the body as well as a mental pain that throbs through the mind.
The environment hurts: sounds – particularly loud noises – hurt. Lights, sounds and movement make the ache worse.
It pulses through the body, each pulse worse than the last. It keeps pulsing, and it feels as if it can’t get any worse. Then the next pulse comes, and it is worse. The pain increases with each pulse, until it reaches what must be the climax; but then with the next pulse it gets worse again. So there is the waiting, lying there, tense, waiting in dread for each pulse, pulse, pulse, which only worsens the feeling. Endless. Relentless. Unmerciful. Indifferent. Brutal.”
We live in a material world where the physical and what we can sense dominates our everyday understanding. It is little wonder then that when we cannot see or sense something, we fail to accept and struggle to understand it. This in a nutshell is what creates stigma around areas such as mental health.
In my opinion, the hard fought battle against this stigma has slowly gained some ground in recent years but it still has a long way to go. As in many other areas in our lives, we are still far too reliant on the opinions and experiences of ‘celebrities’ to form new opinions. While undoubtedly some of these news stories open up new areas of awareness with the public, they are often too far removed from normal everyday life to relate to.
What is really needed are more open, honest and authentic books like Mind On Fire. Books like this are essential not only for raising awareness amongst the public, but opening up new found levels of empathy and understanding too. Simply put, these are the stories that people can relate to on a much deeper level. Bruce Springsteen’s excellent memoir Born To Run will give you a taste of what the struggle is like, but Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind On Fire will give you the whole five-course meal.
Reading this book initially put me in mind of Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing a few years ago. The novel featured an elderly lady suffering from dementia and I remember vividly becoming disorientated and almost forgetful myself as I read on. In Arnold Thomas Fanning’s memoir Mind On Fire, the reading experience is similarly immersive.
Written over the space of ten years, in Mind On Fire Fanning uses his own memories, medical records, police records, emails and diary entries to create a picture of his life at the time. To fill in some of the gaps he also interviewed several people who knew or encountered him while he was seriously ill. Having these discussions must have been difficult so it is a credit to the author that he did so to write a fully formed and honest account.
It is his choice to write in the present tense however that truly makes this book an immersive experience. This allows the reader to enter the author’s mind and sample his experiences almost at firsthand. As I read through this book, I felt my own mind race with the fast moving prose during the periods of mania then I felt my own mood dip through the periods of depression. In theory, you could read this book in a day but to do so would be without fully feeling the hard-hitting emotions on the pages.
You could say that this memoir runs off plot lines. Sometimes these two paths align but more often than not they separate at an alarming rate seemingly never to meet again. Admirably, the author holds very little back and gives us the story warts and all. To write credibly, this is necessary and once again hats off to the author for doing so.
On one hand, we have the outer life of Fanning as he navigates his career as a writer, works odd jobs to pay the bills and deals with the important relationships in his life. This part of the story includes prestigious writing retreats, the worlds of Irish theatre & film and city life in New York.
On the other hand, we have the inner life of the author as he navigates the unexpected twists and turns that come with mental health. Here we deal with endless visits to doctors and hospitals, medications, therapy and a particularly difficult period of escape to London.
Without being cliché, hope and courage were the main characters of this book for me. Mental health, as with many other illnesses, often has no rhyme or reason to it. There is no pattern or magic potion to wash it all away. Endurance and the ability to move on are key skills in dealing with it. After each episode, Fanning must build his life once again. This put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic poem If where the poet speaks of ‘watching the things you gave your life to, broken‘ and ‘then stooping and build ’em up with worn-out tools.’ The manner in which Fanning does this repeatedly is exemplary and a message for all.
The family and friends, the kind strangers and doctors who are there to help are worthy of a mention in this book too. Some of them really do go above and beyond the average to help a friend in need and this is heart-warming to say the least.
So to conclude, the next time you hear a rallying call for mental health and feel the need to really get involved in the fight against the stigma. Look no further than this account to understand how an honest, highly functioning individual can be overcome by an illness that unfortunately in the modern age still receives not enough sympathy, empathy or support. Read this and think twice the next time you make an assumption about someone else. Really we just never know what is going on behind the scenes.
On a final note, next Saturday I will be jumping out of a plane in aid of A Lust For Life. A Lust For Life are an organisation who promote mental health awareness online and also run workshops and seminars. You can check out their website and read more about what they do here.
To read more and/or donate, you can click here. Any donation would be greatly appreciated to help this very worthy cause. So far €1,005 has been made so we are in bonus territory at this stage! Thank you.