A mere nine years after I’d first sat in front of my computer to stare hopelessly at a blank page, my novel, The Shock of the Fall, was – by some miracle – finished. In that time, I’d left frontline nursing to work in mental health research at the University of Bristol. I’d also had a baby daughter, got married, and was wondering whether I should maybe try to write another book one day. Then the emails arrived.
They were from people I’d never met but who had read my fictional account of a young man living with “schizophrenia” and had taken the time to share their own stories. Many were upsetting, others hopeful. Rarely did they have the kind of neatly conceived beginning, middle and end that as a novelist I had the luxury to craft. A truth about the strange phenomenon we call mental illness is that it’s messy and chaotic; it can be extremely difficult to make sense of, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There’s a fragility to the mental health of everyone. It serves us all to be part of the conversation.
I realised I needed to think more about such concepts as stigma (and why anti-stigma campaigns may be missing the point); psychiatric diagnosis (and why the science behind this is deeply flawed); the causes of “mental illness” (and how sometimes what needs “fixing” mightn’t reside within the individual at all); delusions and hallucinations (and how these are a part of all of our lives, all of the time); and psychiatric medication (including cracks in the evidence behind current prescribing practices).
On my first day of work in a psychiatric hospital, I spent most of my time sitting in a dreary smoking room drinking tea with the “service users”. Someone took a long drag of their cigarette and told me that before they came on to the ward they hadn’t known such places really existed. I didn’t know what to say, which by chance meant I probably did the best thing. I listened. It’s not always possible to find the right words but we can walk with people for a bit, sit with them, hear them.
— Khaliya (@Khaliya) May 14, 2019