Today is my stop on The 10PM Question by Kate de Goldi blog tour, and she's here to talk about mental illness.
I’ve always been interested in the obstacles to a straightforward life...physical disability, learning difficulties, mental illness, dementia, etc. And I suppose you could argue that extreme youth and old age are kind of obstacles in life – which is partly why I like writing about children – they’re negotiating new territory all the time, watching adults, learning how to ‘behave’; and why I often write about elderly people, who are in a very real way like children – marginalised, disempowered, fragile. People with mental heath issues or learning difficulties certainly face very trying – often tragic – lives, but they are often gifted, too, with heightened sensitivity and insight, with ways of looking at the world which are – at the very least – instructive. I don’t mean to romanticise mental illness or learning difficulties, or any kind of disability – and I’m sure most who live with these would rather not. But, I have always been interested in the way struggling people view the world. Similarly, elderly mentally diminished people, return in a way to the puzzling of childhood, and suddenly see the world without all its sophisticated shields – which the rest of us can learn a good deal from.
I have known – and know – quite a few people with mental health issues. People with bi-polar condition, schizophrenia, personality disorders, clinical depression. I myself had a bad bout of post-natal depression and have from several times been afflicted with something akin to anxiety disorder. Several friends had parents with severe depression. Some of these people went under, but most of them – and I think this is important – have learned (and been greatly helped with) how to live with their illness, how to accommodate it, or accommodate their lives to it. It takes great courage, the love and support of others, and a will to live and carry on. I wanted to convey in 10pm that Ma had – despite her earlier torments – fashioned a life that worked for her, that kept her on a relatively even keel. True, she doesn’t leave the house, but in all other ways she is a functioning, nurturing person. She has work, she looks after her family; she has found a kind of contentment. I wanted to write about someone who had faced themselves and made certain crucial decisions (and sacrifices) and soldiered on. Most of the people I know with mental illness have done that. Of course, they’ve had enormous help – pharmacological, psychological, emotional.
I wanted also to show that Frankie wasn’t - as he feels he is - ‘doomed’ to be a replica of Ma, that he wasn’t on some inevitable path to the same kind of narrowed-down life. He has help recognising that – Alma, Ma herself, the counsellor, and of course, Sydney who is a kind of catalyst in this change in Frankie’s life – but, crucially, it is Frankie himself who is brave enough to face his demons and look for help.
Secondly, I wanted to imply that while Frankie and Ma have the most extreme reactions to the deal life has them served up, in fact everyone in the family has their own (arguably dysfunctional) ways of coping...Uncle George is a kind of workaholic and perpetual buffoon. Louie is hyper active and on the make and resists all attempts to talk about serious matters. Gordana is perpetually grumpy and harsh-tongued. I wanted to suggest that we’re all on a kind of coping continuum...we all struggle in different ways with life...no one’s life is really straightforward or ‘normal’, - though some people seem to have an easier path by comparison.
It seemed to me very important to place all this – mental illness, anxiety – in the everyday swill of suburban, domestic, school life. That’s the way it is for most people with severe challenges. Those challenges must be met within this ordinary daily round. And that daily round has a good deal of chaotic humour about it, and many small pleasures. I wanted to convey that comedy, the riot and absurdity of the ordinary.
And, finally, I thought it important that while Ma is perhaps the most diminished character in the story – in terms of a straightforward life – she is also the person with the most acute insight into Frankie – she has truckloads of empathy and a beautiful way of calming him. She has a gift, in other words, not given to the other members of the family, who race around trying to keep the more difficult things about life at bay. I guess I wanted to imply that she had a level of self-knowledge that came from much contemplation and discussion and self-examination. And she has a level of serenity about her situation.
I suppose on some level this all raises questions about what is ‘normal’. I like to keep that question wide open. There are many ways of being in the world....
Thanks, Kate, for such an interesting guest post! The 10pm Question was released on 1st March, and you can buy it from Amazon UK or Amazon US.