I am writing this post in the spirit of self-examination, so I hope you will forgive me if it seems rather rambling, and please do comment.
My family is particularly preoccupied with the thorny and upsetting issue of mental health at the moment, due to a relative’s lifelong battle with anxiety and depression, which has worsened in recent years. It has led all of us concerned for the relative to examine our own lives more closely than before. It has also meant that I have sat up and paid attention whenever there has been a programme on the radio which deals with the topic, or whenever I have come across an article online or in the newspaper.
It seems to me that the news is flooded with stories about mental illness these days, many of them horrific. If one good thing can come out of these reports, it is awareness: awareness of other people’s suffering and of what we as a society can do to understand and help, but also self-awareness. What can we all do to look after our own mental health on a daily basis?
The journalist Madeleine Bunting was recently talking about the alarming rise of mental health problems in children in the western world. She used one phrase in particular which stuck with me. She said we had lost the ideal of ‘the home as a haven in a heartless world’. She had a lot to say about how we need to rediscover a haven in our lives – a place where we can be quiet and focused and not distracted by the constant stream of information and entertainment which is available to us in our homes as a result of the internet and modern technology. We used to go to work or do the shopping or go out with friends within specified hours, then come home, put the kettle on and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Now the outside world is streamed into our homes 24/7 (if we allow it), so what do we do and where do we go to find our haven now?
I thought about this long after the programme was over and reflected on what I do to ‘create a haven’ in my own busy life: read and write. Ever since I can remember, I have committed thoughts, fears, highs and lows to paper – not for anyone else to read, not even for me to re-read, but simply to get them out of my head. It calms me to scribble it all down. And if I can’t do that, or if I feel the need to get right away from my own head and lose myself somewhere, then I read. When I was a child, often the only way to feel better about life was to shut myself in my room and lose myself in a book; to live the lives of the characters I was reading about for a while, instead of living my own; to find a character who felt and thought and spoke like me, making me feel less alone in the world. Even now I can shut out most things by diving into a story.
I do not mean to simplify a huge problem here. I know only too well that mental illness is a complex, shapeshifting beast, terrifying and nigh-on impossible to control without serious professional help. It is an illness, not simply a state of mind. Indeed, things have got so bad for my relative now, that she says she cannot read any more, as she cannot concentrate. She has been advised by her therapist to write down how she feels, but is paralysed with fear and cannot do it. The very thought of being alienated in this way from the two things I love and rely on so much makes me very sad.
When I was thinking about writing this post, I asked a friend of mine who has also suffered from severe depression for many years whether my relative’s therapist was right to suggest writing as part of a ‘cure’ and whether I was justified in thinking that my approach to writing and reading was literally ‘keeping me sane’. She told me that both things are key to her keeping a hold on life when the hideous black clouds of clinical depression begin to descend, ‘But I have to recognize that the clouds are coming and jump to action before they have a chance to engulf me,’ she said. ‘Once they have got me in their power, I can’t do anything at all.’ She did say, though, that both reading and writing have become a life-line to her in the past year, as with the help of like-minded friends, she has set up a poetry reading group and a writing group. ‘It’s definitely my therapy,’ she told me. ‘My way back to the real me.’ Since committing to the group, she gets up at the same (very early!) time every day and writes for an hour before doing anything else. ‘The sense of release is amazing,’ she said. ‘As though I have had verbal constipation for years, and have finally found a cure!’
As the discussion on the radio with Madeline Bunting moved on to talk about how we can teach our children to tackle stress, and hopefully combat future mental illness, the contributors talked about how all of us would benefit from a calmer and more ‘mindful’ approach to life – one where we stop, take in the moment and focus on the here and now, rather than try to do ten things at once. This brought me back to thinking about writing and reading: both activities have always grounded me in the moment, as well as providing a space in which I can be quiet and still.
I thought about my own children’s lives in comparison with my childhood. At any given moment, my teenage son might be watching TV, texting a friend and looking something up on his laptop simultaneously. His older sister will be writing an essay, listening to music, downloading a film, Snapchatting a friend and browsing her Instagram account.
What was I doing at their age if left to my own devices? Reading. Writing. One thing at a time. (OK, sometimes I was listening to music, too . . .)
As I listened to the rest of the programme I thought about the importance of instilling in children, as early as possible, the benefits to sitting quietly; of getting away from a screen, away from other people, away from the noise and distraction from a world which clamours at us to be better, more beautiful, more successful, richer, more powerful. Surely a great way to do this is to immerse yourself in a good story? In other words, to create a space for yourself where you learn to focus, empathise, lose yourself in your imagination, ruminate on the bigger picture.
You have to be mindful to read. You cannot take in what you are reading if you are on Instagram and texting and checking out YouTube at the same time. You cannot write coherently if you are thinking about anything else other than the words on the page and how to express yourself. Books – whether writing them or reading them – expect nothing of us other than to engage our imaginations, and once we do that, we are free, soaring away from our monkey-brains, buzzing with unnecessary and unwanted thoughts.
I try to encourage my own children to read for fifteen minutes before going to sleep rather than remaining glued to laptops or mobile phones right up until lights out. I have no idea what life has in store for them, of course, and of course I know I cannot prevent the demons of mental illness from sticking their claws into my kids simply by encouraging them to read. But I hope that in learning to enjoy reading, my children will at least have found a place in their lives which is calm, quiet and a place they can be mindfully themselves. There are certainly times when it is all that will work for me.